July 9, 2009
How about a working title for this project? Something that will indicate what I’m actually planning to write about . . .
July 9, 2009
One of my favorite moments in the film Office Space is a scene that takes place in a corporate conference room. What I love about this scene isn’t what’s said or done, but what’s on the wall: a white board with satirically bureaucratic flowchart and the title “Planning to Plan.”
Cracks me up every time. During my corporate communication days I spent months in meetings planning plans, flowcharting plans for plans, composing employee manuals about flowcharting plans for plans, drinking from coffee mugs emblazoned with flowcharts of plans.
But I escaped all that and came to academe, where we’re far more efficient and much less silly.
To prove it, I’ll make a break in my blog narrative, where I’ve been musing about my rhetoric of nature project for several weeks, and get down to the business of choosing JUST ONE CONCRETE WRITING PROJECT I can start right now to ensure I actually produce something sooner rather than later.
It’s important to note that my thinking and learning and writing about this general subject will continue, and I’m hoping to continue following random trails (such as podcasts about elephant artists) for a long while yet, but I won’t wait any longer to declare a specific writing task.
And I think it would be sensible to return to that list I made a while back, of the “Research Project as a Design Problem” to see what kinds of things need clarification. Here’s that list:
- a client or audience
- stakeholders (people who care about or are affected by the outcome of the project, which includes the creative team but might also include, e.g., an endangered species of fish or the commuter population of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex or the faculty of the Pre-Med program)
- a basic goal to be achieved
- time constraints
- material constraints (which could include the budget for purchasing materials as well as many other things–marshmallows might be a great foundation for a temporary sculpture but less ideal as the foundation of a skyscraper or hardcover manuscript)
- components (the stuff you end up working with)
- relationships between the constraints and components and client and stakeholders
- a craft or method (a dominant form of expertise that’s being called upon to complete the project–so, e.g., although your deep knowledge of cake decorating and agribusiness might in some ways inform your approach to the problem in this particular case you’re being called upon for your expertise as an architect)
- technologies (systems of knowledge, materials, and processes that you’ll draw upon as you do your work; e.g., the pencil, the Internet, the English language)
OK, let’s see where I can go with that as my template:
- Audience: Who cares about this stuff I’ve been writing about? Everyone. No one. Something in between, eh? (And we’ll just assume I come up with something coherent to say eventually.) Well for sure one possible audience for my writing would be those who share my interest in preserving nature and learning to live in harmony with the natural world, learning from it, doing our best to engage it in ways that enrich our lives and hopefully inspire others to do the same. So who are those people? Locally, they’d include the people I see at the lakes and on the Oklahoma River and at the food coop or farmer’s market; some of them are members of organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Audobon Society and Sustainable OKC. How might I reach that audience? An editorial in the Gazette maybe, or commentary on a local public radio station, or how about an article for one of their newsletters or blogs?
- Stakeholders: If I get all kumayesque I’ll say EVERYONE because the natural world matters to everyone. But realistically, right at the moment, the kind of writing I’m likely to do is really just something that will at best be informative and interesting to people who already share my point of view. I’m an explorer in this subject, not an expert. I’m really just someone using writing to learn more about a subject and want to share some of what I’m learning with others who might perhaps over time respond in some way, create a dialogue perhaps, to help me (and them?) continue to learn. But to be specific for now I’ll say the stakeholders for this project are basically the same people as the audience with this exception: I am a major stakeholder of this piece of writing because this experience is really important to me. One of my personal commitments is to be more of a “public writer”: someone who writes in ways that will help me join some of the larger conversations happening in my community. Also, because I’m a teacher choosing to do this whole project as a case study for my students, I have a lot invested in it–one way or another I need to develop a text that will illustrate some of the things we’re studying in class, “warts and all.”
- A Goal: I touched on some goals above, but here are two specific goals. First, a personal goal: I’d like this text to be something short and fun to write that will help me learn about my subject and also help me see whether this kind of research and writing might be worthy of a larger project–a series of essays, perhaps. Second, for my audience I’d like the text to be something that enriches their lives in some small way, giving them information or ideas of interest. If the text is published in a newsletter or blog I’d like it to contribute a distinctive perspective or subtopic that isn’t already being covered by their other contributors. After all, if I just say things that sound like everyone else I’m not really “enriching” their conversations but simply repeating or reinforcing them.
- Time constraints: I need a deadline! I’d for sure like to have this thing done before the fall semester begins so I can share it with my students. So let’s make the deadline the day of matriculation: August 19, 2009. But here again I need to be more specific: what needs to be done by August 19? The text published? A first draft of the text? Publishing schedules are in the hands of the editors, so let’s say that by August 1 I’ll have completed the text and sent it to an editor. The editor might reject it, or she might ask me to revise and resubmit it for future consideration. If so, I’ll have a couple of weeks to complete a revision or maybe even write something else from scratch.
- Material constraints: If I were to compose this text as an audio commentary for the radio I’d have a number of technical issues to consider: I’ve only experimented a bit with audio editing and podcasting so I’d need more time, practice, and skill to get a high-quality recording after completing the text. Also, audio commentaries have time-limits and other requirements set by the broadcaster. Although I’d really love to try a radio commentary I think for right now I’ll choose a genre with very few material constraints: a blog article. Those can be any length acceptable by the blog editor (print newsletters tend to have more space restrictions and the additional factor of layout and design considerations), so by going with a blog I’m more likely to be able to generate something that matches the basic format of the existing contributors. Also, with a blog text I can include links to additional resources. I’ll need the contact information for the blog editor. I have lots of access to research sources and so forth. My laptop is working. My main constraint right now is probably the fact that I have family visiting me, which will take some time and concentration away from the project. Also, my dogs bark a lot and my terrier really likes to play ball so those things are interruptions I’ll need to manage.
- Components: Well I’m not building a bridge here, just a digital article of some sort. Off the top of my head the main components are: ideas, information, a computer, reference materials, someone’s weblog, maybe a cool digital image to accompany the article, and my sentences. If I create the image myself, I might need a camera and photo-editing software, or maybe some drawing software. If I borrow an image created by someone else I’ll need their permission to modify, reproduce, or publish it.
- Relationships between the constraints and components and client and stakeholder: Heh. This is one of those moments when I, as a teacher, see how I just made this harder for myself. It’s one of those critical thinking moments I’ve integrated into the project. Well, OK then, here’s at least one consideration regarding those relationships: I need to be sure that whatever I write does a proper job of representing and advancing the purpose of the organization in charge of the blog (because when you publish something as a guest editor your words are in various ways perceived by readers as “speaking for” that organization or at least communicating in ways that are respected or valued by that organization). Many organizations welcome alternative viewpoints as a way to promote open dialogue, but it’s important to understand the editorial policy of the publication as well as its mission and to be mindful of the organization’s purpose for publishing your words. The text should be worthwhile to readers and sensitive to its context. I could come up with more ways to explore the interrelatedness of audience, stakeholder, constraints, and so forth, but I think I’ll stop here so I can get to the last two items on my long list!
- Craft or method(s): I’ll use the craft of writing, in an article or essay genre that matches those used in the blog, and I’ll include and image and links to illustrate and extend the content of the text. Some behind-the-scenes methods I’ll use will include research (online and through print publications and possibly also an interview or two) and a close reading of a couple blogs in this subject area to be sure I choose the right one to submit the piece and also to understand how my text fits within the larger public/blog conversations regarding my topic.
- Technologies: Phew! We made it to the last item, which by now seems very easy: I need a computer with Web access, the English language, a Creative Commons license for my text, software for text and image work, and central air conditioning. (We could get into a Walter Ongian or Cynthia Selfeian discussion about other technological dimensions of this work but let’s not for now. Instead, let’s go feed the dogs and feel good about having a basic plan for the project 🙂
You might say it’s because rhetoric is an art and because art is rhetorical and because nature is both (to my way of thinking).
Or you might say it’s because the inescapable underlying theme of my work here is composition: the way things are made and how they appear and what they say.
Additionally, though, I believe that working with things–manipulating things (physically or digitally), spending time getting to know them in different contexts–helps us know them better. And at some level (as Emerson said) as soon as we move from interacting with something to changing it we’re doing “art.” Whether it’s “good” or “serious” art is irrelevant. We’re integrating it into our lives in a new way, making it an extension of ourselves, our curiosity, our vision, our understanding of what is and might be.
This line of reasoning works fairly well when we think about something like landscape architecture or even gardening as arts that help us explore and experience nature. But what about other pursuits involving learning-about-nature, such as kayaking or dog-walking? I suppose there is also an art to kayaking, certainly when done by skilled athletes. But even when I’m slapping around on the river there are times when perhaps not my skill but my state of mind and context make the experience if not one of “art” then one of aesthetic engagement with and within space, time, scene.
OK, what of dog-walking. Well that one’s obvious, isn’t it?
July 9, 2009
So if Nature is a creation of the divine and Art is a human modification of Nature then what is this:
Yes, a human put a paintbrush in the trunk of [Nature/an elephant named Lucky] and used positive reinforcement to encourage the elephant to paint.
In that regard, of course, a human “altered” the elephant-as-Nature, causing the elephant-as-Nature to further alter Nature (such as the pigments, derived from plants and insect carcasses) to make Art.
But unlike some of the representational works the elephants were trained to produce through a series of brushstrokes, such as this:
some works, such as Lucky’s are (dare I say it) expressionistic.
In an interview on public radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge one of the trainers in this Asian elephant conservation-through-art program was quoted as saying something to the effect of “Yes, when elephants paint it’s a trick. But it’s also a trick when humans do it–someone at first places a brush in our hands as well, showing us how to begin.”
July 8, 2009
This lovely thing is a weed from my garden.
Is it also art?
Emerson (basically) says that art is by definition our attempt to do something to/with nature, which would classify this print as art. This definition would also classify a hot dog as art. (Something I’m not exactly disputing.)
Aesthetic educator Maxine Greene says that to be naive about art is
. . . to be unable to distinguish between a sculpture and a glacier-eroded rock, between Monet’s painted poplars and the poplars as viewed on a mistly morning along the Seine. It is in other words, to be incapable of distinguishing between those ‘privileged objects’ we have called aesthetic objects and natural things perceived aesthetically. (Notes on Aesthetic Education, 23)
Somewhere in between the weed itself and, say, a rendering of such flora by Van Gogh, lies my print: a primitively aesthetic object created by a natural thing perceived aesthetically. Is it a “privileged object” by virtue of my intentional composition of it as something I hoped would be beautiful while also giving me an experience of working with it closely, observing its form, attempting to create something aesthetically worthy of the original . . . all this despite my amateur execution of the printmaking process? Is it “naive” both as an artwork and as an artistic vision–or perhaps not naive at all but something else.
What do we get from such things that we might not get from the natural object alone? What do we learn or how do we benefit?
I think it’s all about process again. I experienced nature differently when I made the print.
First came the idea to make the print, which came from a do-it-yourself-ish art book.
Next came my choice of object. I knew I wanted to print a weed–for a number of reasons but mostly I think because I feel so conflicted about yanking them from my garden. Here’s something that chose my plot of land to make its home, and it’s thriving here, so who’s to say this plant doesn’t belong there when the plant beside it–something I purchased across town and have been attempting to keep alive all summer, and which is wasting away in comparison to the vigorous weed–seems to be putting much less energy into being here with me? (Aren’t there countless self-help books about this very subject?)
Anyhoo, selecting a weed as my subject was a way to honor and preserve at least an image of those life forms that have been sharing my space, as well as a way to record their beauty.
Next, the process of making the print. As I made it I realized I’d chosen the wrong time of day to capture a crisp image, for the process uses the sun’s light to make the image and any shadows cast during the exposure will make the print blurry. Still, because the paper is small and the exposure time is fast there’s a satisfying choreographic experience: inside, away from sunlight, you practice the proper placement of the object on the paper and your plan for moving the object and paper into the sunlight; once outside, you swiftly get into position and in my case sat for 2 minutes in the sun to keep everything steady despite the wind. After the exposure time has elapsed you place the paper in a pre-prepared bath of water and watch the image emerge on the page.
So much of this process is about sharing time with the object, about altering your day to spend time with a plant and to make it your focus. And while you work with it, the plant begins to wither. You’ve pulled it from the ground, shaken off the dirt, patted it dry, toted it around while deciding upon the composition, placed it in bright sunlight, . . . and as every minute passes the plant becomes evermore limp.
The process kills the plant in order to preserve it.
My relationship with this plant is different of course than with the dozens of other weeds I may have pulled that morning. I’m watching it die. I’m also appreciating its form, its robust roots; I’m noticing details I’d overlooked before.
The art, after all, is in my experience of the plant. It’s not just a matter of “doing something” to a natural object; it’s about the quality of my interaction with that object.
June 15, 2009
This is too cool. The kayaker whose flickr photo I used for my last post just told me about a marvelous little site he and his wife created to help novices like me:
I’d written him for advice because I’d really like to bring a camera out on the water but have been nervous about getting it wet! I’ll see if I can do some practice shoots before the next Redman. Primary research is a grand thing.
June 15, 2009
Last fall I volunteered as a safety kayaker for the RedMan Triathlon. As the sun rose over Lake Hefner the first group of swimmers hit the water, a hundred arms leaping from the water like eels–an image I’ll never forget and could only have glimpsed from my kayak in the center of the glassy lake. A new day was dawning for them and for me. I felt myself settling into that space, attentive to the swimmers but also attentive to my own communion with nature and with those who were sharing it with me.
The water was warm, the fish and birds quiet . . . I felt welcome and joyful. I imagine we all did.
I also felt gratitude. Grateful the universe conspired to bring me here. Somehow at the heart of this research project is a desire to articulate that gratitude and to make that sense of communion accessible to other people. I’ve lived all over the United States, in places more famously “scenic” than Oklahoma City, but it’s here that I began to live most deliberately. Although I can credit that shift to the usual factors–a caring family, a supportive employer, and my long-awaited maturity–a complete explanation would have to include the water parks (Hefner, Overholser, and the Oklahoma River) and the way those places have enabled me to experience a different dimension of everyday life, one centered on my dogs and to the wildlife they’ve introduced me to over the years. In a sense this project is an homage to all that. But I didn’t launch this blog to write an ode; I launched it to commence a researched writing project.
I think this is why I find myself struggling with my own mandate that I spend a couple of weeks simply exploring my topic rather than committing to a specific thesis or writing objective. Part of me wants to use this time to serendipitously explore various themes and images of interest; part of me feels compelled to identify a specific purpose and audience–to bring this project into focus.
Is it possible to do both? I’m not sure.
If I were a student in a writing class being asked to simply “explore for a couple of weeks” I think I’d feel frustrated, unsure how to budget my time. I’d click around and gather stuff but might not feel sufficiently purposeful until I had a specific assignment or timeline.
So I think I’ll put some things out on the table:
- This exploration phase is definitely going to lead to a piece of researched writing in a fairly standard academic format, the kind with an MLA format and a works cited page. I haven’t yet chosen an audience or venue for that paper. Maybe a scholarly journal, maybe a research presentation that uses the paper as the foundation for a powerpoint. Maybe an essay with a bibliography at the end.
- I believe deeply (as countless other educators do) that the process of writing enables us to dig more deeply into any subject, learning more and learning better. And I believe that public writing challenges us to be more thorough and careful researchers and writers. To take advantage of all that, I am going to do some additional writing along the way–not just this blog but also some writing for at least one other venue. Perhaps a couple of book reviews or essays for alternative audiences.
- I want to work visually as well as verbally, both within this sketchbook-blog and within my more formal compositions. I haven’t yet decided how I’ll integrate visual work into the book reviews, essays, or other writing. But I’ll figure out something.
So does any of the above clarify my endeavors? Yes, I think so. The book review idea seems especially helpful because it would give me a way to set a concrete writing goal for an activity I already know I want to do: read interesting stuff that others might find interesting also.
And does the above still honor my intention of doing research and writing from a place of joy and gratitude and spontaneity? Yes, I believe it still does.
Image source: Thomas and Dianne Jones
June 14, 2009
So I’m working on a research project. But pretty much any subject that genuinely intrigues me becomes a kind of research project. Whether it’s footbinding or Belgian chocolate or organic gardening I find myself compelled to read more about it, locate images or artifacts of it, visit sites of it, google it, doodle about it, discuss it with people who might have an interesting point of view.
What makes the rhetoric of nature/nature of rhetoric project slightly more formal is that at some point I plan to write something about it. Some kind of text that draws upon other people’s knowledge and contributes my own, hopefully in a way that will enrich my understanding (through the writing of it) as well as those of others who might share an interest in the subject (at least enough to read what I’ve written).
But if I map this project out as a “research project”–as a sequential (albeit reflectively recursive) series of tasks–it begins to sound like a chore. Sometimes I think this is why scholars start procrastinating and even dreading their work. Even if they’ve chosen their own research topic at some point the research becomes just another deadline looming on the horizon. It happens to my students; it happens to me.
My impulse is to say, “Well then let’s just view this stage as scavenging. We’re casting about joyfully with our butterfly nets, gathering interesting stuff about the topic.” This is basically true. But a colleague of mine warned me that the “scavenging” business is kind of what novice researchers do anyway: googling here and there for keywords, uncritically grabbing whatever turns up. In contrast, an experienced researcher has a plan, and she digs deeply and methodically for material, and she carefully sifts and scrutinizes what she finds. Yep. So if this blog-o-mine is supposed to model a critically reflective research practice perhaps I should try to emulate an archaeologist rather than an amateur lepidopterist.
As early as age 4 or 5 it was my ambition to be an archaeologist, a profession that still beckons from time to time. But for now I choose the butterfly net. I want to spend a couple of weeks traipsing around, letting serendipity and personal curiosity lead me to my quarry. But I’ll make this one rule: the Internet alone cannot be my hunting ground. Also, no butterflies will be injured during this research 😉
So where to begin?
With my own head. I’d like to pour out some random thoughts that have fluttered into my mind since I began this project. Here they are:
- I’m not really interested in writing an ecology manifesto–others have done that and it’s not what’s driving me to write and read. Instead, whatever I’m doing seems to be bubbling up from the way I seem to feel more enlightened and more connected to the world as a result of the time I’m spending with my dogs, my garden, out on the lake in a kayak or walking along the banks, learning more about the sources of my own food, learning more about growing and preparing food, taking weaving lessons (which is teaching me about fibers and their origins and histories and uses).
- Emerson – the whole notion of a universe of meaning being encapsulated in any natural artifact–a seashell, a blade of grass.
- Thoreau – On Walden–doesn’t he say something about a tide pool containing or explaining or symbolizing the universe?
- Lots more Emerson – that thing about every person’s condition being a hieroglyphic for his life; also, something Dr. Erisman said about the purpose of a man-made object being self-evident in its design (he said it during a class years ago during which he brought some vintage pistols as well as his wife’s amazing quilts/fiber arts)
- Wabi sabi–a concept I’ve dipped into casually here and there but only vaguely recall; it’s about living simply, about paying attention to nature and living in harmony with nature; I think it’s also about accepting things the way they are–impermanent, always changing, perfect in its imperfections?
- My oddball decision to spend a whole month weaving dishtowels from scratch so that I’d have a functional handicraft in my house that I labored over as a kind of challenge to make myself more aware of the everyday objects in my life and maybe to train myself to be less of a “throwaway” person, a less wasteful person.
- The notion of “throwing yourself away” is something wise counselors have warned me against for many years. Is this somehow related to the nature project? Is this the insight I’m actually digging for? Will I become better at taking care of myself when I begin to take better care of the seemingly insignificant details of my everyday life? If so, is this research project more like therapy? Does that matter? Is that ok? Is maybe all research therapy?
- Peter Elbow’s “believing game” seems to be relevant here. I’m diving into a research project that seems to be a kind of digression from the things I usually teach and write about and furthermore I feel a deep need to do seemingly nutty things like weave and garden as part of my research. I’m taking a leap of faith that if I spend more time paying attention to nature it will tell me what to say. Elbow’s “believing game” isn’t, as I recollect, about what I’ve just said but more about simply choosing to approach a research project with an openness to alternative points of view. But then again isn’t that kind of what I’m doing here?
- Is part of this about meditation? Is what I’ll learn from weaving (or from staring at plants or dog-walking, for that matter) not really “content” for my research but an experience of being in a meditative state of mind as a result of hours of repetitive work and might somehow help me relax and think differently about all these aspects of nature and interconnectedness?
- Am I being an idiot to commit to a project like this at a time when I have so many other things to do?
- Stuff I should read or at least browse to give myself input: Emerson’s essays from On Nature, Thoreau’s Walden, maybe something by that guy who writes all the nature/sustainability essays (can’t remember his name but there’s at least one of his books on my shelf across the room), maybe a book on nature journaling (or someone else’s nature journaling–maybe something by Annie Dillard), maybe something by that philosopher her influenced Emerson–who was that? maybe Swedenborg?).
- Should I get back to that gardening journal I was going to keep this summer?
- I’ve got to give myself permission to just write and think anything for a few weeks and not get too academicky at first because I want this project to feel like play, joyful.
- I’ve got to figure out how to use my new camera and scanner so I can upload images as part of this project. I believe making images will help me think in interesting ways about this project and also I might want to use some images.
- I need to go look at that sustainability blog and see if that editor still might be interested in an essay from me for the blog. A little essay seems like a good goal for my nature project.
- I’m not qualified to publish on a sustainability blog, am I? It’s not like I’m an expert on this stuff? (But then again, that’s not the whole point of the blog, is it? I mean, isn’t that blog about dialogue–about having lots of people share their perspectives in some sort of meaningful way?)
- Where else have I seen or heard interesting stuff related to any of this? I feel a little overwhelmed because I know there are lots of books and articles and documentaries on ecology and sustainable living and so forth and also about rhetoric and nature (I remember some years ago a whole spate of articles and listserv postings about rhetorician Kenneth Burke and ecology) and when I think about all I don’t know I begin to feel a little panicky. So I think what I need to do is just start small and local: with me, with what I’m seeing and doing and making and reading. Whatever kind of researched writing I do over the next couple of months doesn’t have to change the world or impress my professional colleagues. Those aren’t my goals. My goal is to learn more about some things I care about. Writing will help me learn more than not-writing would. And as for right now my short-term mission is mainly to catch and release a few butterflies.
June 12, 2009
My little black terrier is sprawled over a third of my bed, napping as I type these first thoughts about the rhetoric of nature, by which I mean the purposes of nature and the ends to which we put it and the meanings emanating from it.
Emerson famously asked “to what end is nature” in the Introduction to his collection of essays On Nature and although surely he wrote (as we all do) to explore his own ideas, watching them evolve on the page, he also wrote because he already had some clear opinions about nature’s purpose in our world. That is to say, Nature’s purpose in our world, for to Emerson nature was communion with the divine. In the beginning was The Word, and the word was Nature.
To what end is my terrier? She naps beneath the ceiling fan; it ruffles her wiry hair, keeping her cool and comfortable. Today she accompanied me on a walk along the lake. She chased some mallards from their resting place along the bank, plopping herself down in the red mud, sniffing stray feathers. We returned home, she barked at the mailman, then brought me her orange football as I mowed the back lawn, keeping things in perspective.
To what end is dog?
I invite this ambassador of the natural world into my home, into my life, just as I might bring home a bouquet of flowers or an eggplant or a seashell . . . all things which, like us, are “particles of God” complete in themselves but with so much to teach and delight us.
* * *
But I didn’t create this blog solely to ruminate about my dog. (I have another blog for that, and another dog too!)
I started this blog as a digital research sketchbook to capture my evolving ideas, inspirations, resources, and writings on the relationship between rhetoric and nature. One of my goals this summer is to [finally] generate some compositions about my evolving relationship with the natural world, as well as about the connections between writing and nature.
Those are two very broad topics: the first lends itself to memoirs, to personal writing, as well as to visual compositions or artworks that might express or explain or illustrate the ways nature has enriched and informed my life so far. The second topic sounds more like an academic or scholarly research project and could evolve into an annotated bibliography or book review essay covering a set of published works on or of nature-writing, or perhaps a piece of rhetorical criticism analyzing for example the do-it-yourself movement as a way people are identifying their own sustainability with the sustainability of the planet, or perhaps I could write a research paper explaining how various thinkers have discussed nature itself is a form of material rhetoric.
I’d like to read and write about all those things. But because another important goal of this blog is to create a sample blog-as-research-sketchbook for my students, I’ll go ahead and commit, right here, to complete one text by August 15 so that this blog will illustrate a start-to-finish writing project, not just the scattered musings of a hyper-verbal, tree-hugging professor.