Sunday, April 27, 2014

Running and Writing

Today I ran my first long trail race--the Ironmaster's 25K (15.6 miles) in Pine Grove Furnace State Park, way out past Harrisburg. Last year, I ran several half-marathons, and one full marathon, but they were all relatively flat. This course was not flat. Most of the running was on hiking trails that branched off from the Appalachian Trail and went up and down mountain passes. A couple steep climbs led to spectacular vistas, but I didn't stop to take pictures. The only pic I have from the event is right before the race started (courtesy of my wife, who came along for support, despite the fact that this is not really a fun sport for spectators).

I seldom think to take pictures. Perhaps this is because moments like today, which I would like to hold onto, are also moments when I am "fully present" and "living in the moment", and therefore reluctant to step out of that present-mindedness in order to document the present for the sake of the future.

When reading Thomas Sterner's The Practicing Mind, which my students will be discussing further this week, I realized that the joy of present-minded consciousness is a huge part of why I am drawn to trail running. Unlike road running, where the mind tends to wander (thinking about one's pace or how many miles are left to run), trail running requires the mind to stay focused on the present: failure to do so means going off-course or tripping on a tree root or rock. Long trail runs require one to stay present-minded for several hours--an experience we don't often get in our day-to-day lives. I find it to be paradoxically exhilarating and calming. Who knew? Trail running might be just as good for the brain as it is for the body.

Sterner notes that we tend to be pretty good at "present-minded" thinking when it comes to recreation, but not so good when it comes to "work." He argues this is just a result of prejudices we carry with us about different activities. (There is nothing either work or play but thinking makes it so!) If that's true, would it be possible to cultivate an approach to writing that is analogous to my approach to running trails? Could I experience the same calm and exhilaration from writing as I do from running? Can my students learn to practice their writing in a way that is not stressful, but actually relaxing, fun, and inherently rewarding?

The key seems to be in viewing writing not as "work" but as "art." "Art" carries with it a sense of "play" (throwing words around, throwing paint around, jamming on one's instrument), but also a sense of slow, patient growth. No one expects college students to write like Shakespeare (or even Stephen King); the only thing professors have a right to expect is that each student's writing improves slowly and steadily. Anything else is unreasonable and counter-productive. We don't want students who are so obsessed with "the product" (a polished essay) that the process (writing itself) becomes so fraught with anxiety that they can't bring themselves to practice. The act of writing, for too many students, is reminder of what they can't-yet-do rather than an opportunity to build on what they can do. What can we do to incentivize regular, present-minded writing practice, rather than fetishize the "A" paper?

Sunday, April 20, 2014


For the remaining three weeks of the semester, my ENG 100 students and I will be reading, writing about, and discussing Thomas Sterner's book, The Practicing Mind. Although the book is quite slim, and we are taking our time with it, some students were offering some mock-groans and half-joking complaints last week when I reminded them that their final essay assignment would require reading an entire book. When students resist "longer" reading assignments, I tend to respond with snarky lines like, "It's college--you might have to read a book now and then," but my snarkiness is really a cover for a mix of anxieties surrounding the future of book-reading in our society. How often are students asked to read real books (not textbooks) for college classes? How often, when asked, do they actually read them? And does it matter? Is deep, sustained, close reading a mental exercise worth fighting for?

A significant minority of my students do enjoy reading, and thank God for that. But the vast majority of them do not consider themselves "readers", though they are quite literate. From my point of view, going to college and not reading would be like going to the gym and not working out. What's the point? You don't get fit just because you paid for your gym membership and you showed up once in awhile. You have to actually lift some weights, get on the treadmill, jump in the pool, etc. Reading--like weight-lifting, running, and swimming--can actually be fun if you do it often enough. Go for a run once a year, and you'll always be out of breath. Run every day and you'll start to enjoy it; in fact you'll feel weird whenever you don't run. The same principle applies to reading. Granted, there are other thinking-exercises at college besides reading that will improve one's intellectual fitness, but reading is one that you can practice for the rest of your life, no matter what you end up doing.

Sterner's book argues that we often fixate too much on our goals and not enough on the processes we engage in as we work towards them (our practice). Applied to reading, I feel this is the case for many students. The goal is always to be done reading, never to be doing it. Thinking this way makes the reading seem like an obstacle that one must overcome before one can pass a test or write a paper. The trick is to realize that the process of reading itself is the main thing; doing it--deliberately, thoughtfully, actively--makes you a better thinker.

To broaden the scope of the discussion, consider how many students think about college itself as the "thing in the way" of their career goal, rather than a set of inherently empowering practices. How many students want college to be done with already, even though they've barely begun? Sterner observes that this mindset provokes anxiety--we are intimidated by all we have not yet achieved. Instead, we should try to understand the usefulness of what we are currently engaged in. Reading (and other forms of study) would then become not burdens, but opportunities for intellectual exercise--acts that, each day, make us stronger where it counts the most.