Senior Distinction Project Speech
Syracuse University Writing Program
13 May 2016
My project is titled “Notes” for good reason: I take really, really good ones. If you were to search for evidence to back up this claim, you might find stacks and stacks of fat notebooks in a corner of my room, saved over the four years of my undergraduate college education. If you were feeling particularly ambitious in this endeavor, you might make an effort to organize my notes. Well, good luck with that one. My notes personified into a hairstyle would be Albert Einstein’s luscious white locks after a barreling drive in a convertible down the Autobahn. So take my word for it—I take really, really good notes.
But why? My large, bubbly handwriting certainly contributes to my A+ notes: clarity is key. I listen intently, especially if the topic is interesting. My attention (usually) remains rapt. I ask questions, engage in discussion. I connect points, challenge the teacher if it’s justified and I’m feeling feisty, and generally attend class most days. But undeniably, the most important and central attribute of a star notetaker, the secret to my success, is…wait for it…a willingness to take notes. It’s the primary reason my notebooks are so thick and my grades are so—err, pretty good. I want to learn. I yearn to know. I am a passionate student seeking an endless goal: to understand.
The essays of my distinction project are my notes from the past four years. They are my constellation of ideas distilled into neat, non-comprehensive essays. The nebulous titles represent the nebulous topics. They are by no means exhaustive or conclusive. Even with my grandiose notions of all that this project should represent, I recognize the sheer impossibility of delving deep enough into the topics’ respective abysses in a 44-page booklet. And that’s not my intention. The purpose of this project was to synthesize my intellectual trajectory from the first day of freshman year to the last week of senior year. This is me making my unknown known, because only through the essential act of writing am I able to know what I think of the world and my place in it.
I chose essays for a few reasons. They are my default setting when I sit down to write. Be it simple familiarity or constant repetition, I have an intimate understanding of how an essay works. (However, there’s a difference between understanding it in theory and doing it in practice, so critique the following accordingly.) There’s a reason it’s the chosen academic form. In his foreword to the 2012 installment of the Best American Essays series, Robert Atwan writes that “at the core of the genre is an unmistakable receptivity to the ever-shifting processes of our minds and moods…the best essays are deeply personal and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process—reflecting, trying-out, essaying.”
As my ideas for this project passed through seemingly endless elaborations, the essays became too concentrated around specific issues, especially the relationships between technology and nature. I wanted this project to be more encompassing than that (as if the topics weren’t substantial enough already). I felt too limited to only complain about technology and imply that we should return to the forests to live hunter-gatherer lifestyles (unrealistic, not condoning it, but it might definitely do us some good). I wanted to talk about more: identity, culture, work, politics, economics, spirituality…because even my modest life is too big and interesting for one narrow, defined, entirely reasonable and highly advisable topic. The project quickly ballooned to impractical proportions (really, I could’ve made this a thick tome). Nevertheless, I walked briskly forward, unfazed by my own lofty expectations and perfectionist tendencies and created something I am proud of.
While this project is fairly self-indulgent, I believe the words contained in this booklet are important—and not just because I wrote them. They have value and exigence beyond these pages. Over these four years, it has become strikingly clear to me that much of the insightful, compelling, and thoughtful work that gets produced in academia stays in academia. And it is such a shame! My notes were born of knowledge from within the academy, but they needn’t remain inside the esoteric bubble of higher education. By organizing my notes into these essays, perhaps I can disseminate at least a smidgen of that bountiful knowledge to people outside of the academy.
So here they are, my notes. Notes on these past four moving, exhilarating, stressful, enlightening years of my existence. They have formed me in countless, subtle ways and they have formed me in sweeping, dramatic ways. These were the thoughts that stuck, these were the ideas worth saving.
In the first essay, “Identities,” I discuss the multiplicity of identity and how our identities vary across a range of settings and are subject to innumerable influences. I suggest that this understanding of identities carries underlying philosophies on ways of acting in the world. By nature, recognizing individuals as multidimensional and imperfect invites compassion, understanding, and empathy into daily, person-to-person interactions. Once it is understood that the face a person shows at a moment in time is by far not wholly representative of their entire being, it is easier to contextualize their actions and give them the benefit of the doubt. It allows us all to be bigger than we are in one particular moment. I believe this is liberating, both for ourselves and others.
In my second essay, “Political Economies,” I challenge the ideologies behind capitalism. I entertain questions such as what kind of progress does this mode of economic organization facilitate? Exactly what are we gaining from this type of progress? Does this system encourage good values? Is it fair, just? I argue that while capitalism has its benefits, such as spurring innovation as a result of competition and fostering individual responsibility, its disadvantages, such as dramatic wealth inequality and class divisions, ever-undulating boom and bust cycles due to its numerous inherent contradictions, and its disregard for the importance of public goods and services, might outweigh its benefits.
In my third essay, I discuss the issues of our behaviors around technology, specifically social media. While we have access to more information than ever before, literally at our fingertips, we squander this potential to gain knowledge. Moreover, the increasing lack of face to face conversations diminishes our chances to learn skills of self-reflection.
My fourth essay combines the conclusions from the second essay, “Political economies,” and the third essay on technology to evaluate the trends of our relationship to nature. The increasing reliance on technology has abstracted our lives to screens and distanced us from the natural world. Concurrently, the capitalist mind-state views nature as something to be exploited in the pursuit of profit. Together, these forces are destroying the human relationship to nature which parallels the destruction of our planet. In this essay, I explore ways to mend this tragedy. One such way is to rethink how we conceive of ourselves in relation to nature. It seems most people believe that the earth is different from them, that our presence here is a destructive force, and we are nothing but passive consumers of the nature’s bounty. We certainly aren’t wrong in that belief, because it is readily apparent that human actions, especially in the last couple hundred years, have dramatically altered natural systems and eliminated fellow species. But it hasn’t always been that way. Our ancestors “always operated with a sense of being in a reciprocal emotional relationship with their physical surroundings.” Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer of SUNY ESF believes that modern people have lost that sense of conversation, the “awareness of the earth communicating with us just as much as we are communicating with it.” Dr. Kimmerer warns that without a reciprocal sense of the relationship between people and nature, we are missing out on something incredibly important: “the potential to become co-creators of life.” Dr. Kimmerer says, “The exchange of love between earth and people calls for the creative gifts of both. The earth is not indifferent to us, but rather calling for our gifts in return for hers—the reciprocal nature of life and creativity.” Without this understanding of the reciprocal relationship, we continue on the destructive path and no one benefits. If we have produced the rhetoric that created our present reality, we can surely produce a new rhetoric for a better future reality. I firmly believe that if humans were gifted with the miracle of a unique consciousness, we have an obligation to do good by it. We have an obligation to be compassionate, caring members of the Earth. We must use our gift to tell our stories and honor the nature around us.
My fifth essay, “Cosmos,” furthers the notion that while we are a unique species on this Earth, we are not separate or distinct from it. This notion informs my thoughts on spirituality. Albert Einstein believed in a state of religious experience he called “cosmic religious feeling.” In this interpretation, there is no anthropomorphic conception of God, no theological doctrine and no religious dogma or institutions. Rather, cosmic religious feeling “takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.” Moreover, Einstein believed that it is the most important function of art and science [and, as I’ve argued, nature] to awaken this feeling and keep it alive.
In this collection of essays, I’ve touched on many complex issues and theories and it seems almost silly to think such enormous and varied topics fit within these 44 pages. But as I reflect on what I’ve written, one thing stands out: how truly remarkable it is that everything connects. Nothing is entirely discrete on its own. Our individual identities are situated in systems of human social organization, which are a product of our environments. We make our environments and our environments make us. We all live on this small planet together and tell our stories to connect with each other and our landscapes. Whatever our role is in the grand scheme (since all we have are speculations), at the end of the day we are still sentient animals made up of stardust, clumsily stumbling through our lives trying to make sense of it all. Happily ever onwards.
All endings are also beginnings. So what’s next?
In June, I’m embarking on a five-month, 30-state, 2-Canadian province, 22-national-park road trip with a friend from high school. We plan to live cheaply and rely on the kindness of family, friends, and strangers for lodging and support. We’ll fully enact our Kerouac fantasies, driving on the seemingly endless black ribbons of US roads, meeting eclectic new people and getting into all kinds of interesting, strange, and exhilarating situations in a mix of urban and nature settings. I am enthusiastic about the adventure that awaits.
And of course, I’ll be sure to take notes.