Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Constraint and contemplation

I thought I might mention a couple of the activities I asked my students to take part in today.

The first was a simple freewrite, with an even simpler summative exercise at the end. I asked my Oulipo students to freewrite for five minutes on the ways in which they've noticed their writing to be affected by constraint. Once they'd completed this freewrite I asked them each to identify three words which gave some indication of their freewrite's content and tone. They then shared these words on the board:

I joined the students in this exercise. I was intrigued that my three words ended up being "pattern," "unknown," and "death." The first was unsurprising but the last two were unexpected. I reasoned (if one can call analysis through freewriting "reason") roughly as follows: "we seek patterns in everything we see, including heavily constrained literature, because patterns have predictive power and allow us to extrapolate from the known present and past to the unknown future; perhaps the most compelling unknown is death...can the patterns we find in constrained poetry help us understand even this ultimate unknown?"

We'll have a chance on Friday to discuss the words above more thoroughly. So far we've only talked briefly in pairs about our ideas. I'm looking forward to these upcoming conversations.

The other activity I wanted to mention is a contemplative exercise I asked students in both classes to complete. Knowing full well that Wednesday is the longest and most stressful day for many folks in academia (students, faculty, and staff alike), I wanted to do something to help alleviate the stress. Yesterday, while sitting in the first session of my first faculty/staff learning circle since Fall 2011 (it's been too long!), I thought up the following activity, though I'm sure it's not original to me:
  1. Take out two scraps of paper.
  2. On one of them, write something that's stressing you out or bringing you down.
  3. On the other, write something that's bringing you joy or making you smile.
  4. Ball the first scrap up into a tiny origami boulder and chuck it into the recycling bin lovingly provided in the middle of the room.
  5. Fold the second scrap neatly and tuck it into your pocket, where you're likely to find it once, twice, thrice, throughout the rest of the day, a gentle reminder of something you should be happy about.
It's a simple exercise, but in both classes it elicited a great response. People in both classes gleefully threw their stressors into the recycling bin in a hail of discarded worry. ("This feels really therapeutic," said one of my Oulipo students.) I noticed smiles and nods from many folks as they put their happy thoughts away. The activity took three minutes out of class time, but I believe it went a long way to establishing a sense of community and a more relaxed state of mind in which we would all be a bit more receptive to new ideas. I might have to make this, or something like it, a regular Wednesday occurrence.

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