Language & Composition

Mr. Eure | Brewster High School

Final Salvo, Part 1

The writing that follows looks a bit strange after it’s been reformatted by WordPress; you’ll find it’s difficult to read the footnotes, and some of the miscellaneous presentation is different. I trust you can manage. This is a copy of what was shared with you through Google Drive, and your job this weekend is to read it.

Your job over the next week is to read everything that starts here:

That is last year’s complicated series of posts on the final essay. You obviously have a different kind of assignment, and one divorced from the toxicity of grades; the process is not all that different, however, and there is a massive amount of help to be had in those posts. Lots of it still applies. You might even note that some of the language has, in fact, already been used on you this year.

Your job is to make your way through everything in that series of posts, including the work from your predecessors in AP Language. This is all you need to pull of the writing goal outlined below. You will receive more student models in class. We’ll also go over the final exam and all its attendant stresses next week.

On May 23, I asked my tenth graders to spend a period using Google and a couple of databases to do research. We’re working on an extended argument as a culmination of the year, but this, to a tenth grader, is not as interesting an idea as what Google had going on for Robert Moog’s birthday. So it was only a few minutes into the period that the usual classroom cacophony was broken by a student wailing on a synthesizer. It wasn’t particularly catchy, but it was loud. Just as loud: the student shouting “Damn it!” as he tried to find the volume button.

What happened next is the interesting bit. Students swear out of surprise all the time[1], and they almost always know they shouldn’t have; so it’s usually enough to say, “Don’t swear,” before moving on. This time, even though damn is just about the tamest curse I hear in this building, I got a rebuttal: “That’s not a swear!” He was absolutely convinced. It was like I’d told him that his desk was actually a dog, and that he shouldn’t bring a dog to school.

So I tried to explain how profanity works—that something is profane as long as a community decides it is profane[2], and that his personal ruling on “damn” wouldn’t really matter to the powers-that-be. (He, as you might expect, wasn’t convinced.) That got me thinking about the word “profane,” specifically its etymology: “out in front of the temple,” from pro- “before” and fanum “temple.” The people in the temple are the ones who determine what doesn’t belong, after all.

This led to the linguaphilia/logomisia unit posted online at the moment, which is a chance to celebrate language without the College Board’s exam hanging over our heads. It’s also a chance for you to see a model of the units you’ll be building for yourselves. You can start with the simplest idea—what words do we like or dislike?—and turn it into a ramiform learning opportunity. Some of my favorite words, as an example: desultory, which has its own kind of insane etymology (it involves the circus); ineluctable, which applies just as well as Sisyphean to the daily horrors of high school; umwelt, which I stumbled across here, and which is one of the framing philosophies for the end of our course—the idea that the world around us has many perspectives and realities happening all at once; and obfuscation, a term drawn from a link in those linguaphilia/logomisia posts and exemplified in Harold Miner’s “Body Rituals Among the Nacirema.” Read it here.[3] Miner is a model of declarifying language, or what not to do in effective prose writing. It’s a trick of academics:

Calvin's Academia

It’s fun to write like this. You could wile a way a few days just studying Miner and trying to emulate and update his language and satirical purpose for the 21st century. I could even obfuscate the goals for the rest of the year as follows:


Yeah, there’s definitely a line between precision and pomposity. Fortunately, the meaning is simple: You’re going to work with me to learn what you want to learn, to crystalize that learning through the best essay you’ve written this year, and to make that writing authentic by sharing it with the world (or at least Brewster’s version of it). You should see now how easily something simple—like a sophomore’s Moog-inspired profanity—can lead to a rich study of something essential. Now it’s your turn.

Goal #1—Teach Yourself a Unit

To teach yourself, you need an essential question that has depth and richness. You ought to look to challenge your beliefs, to expose yourself to new concepts, to bridge the gap between high school and your hopeful future—something vibrant and meaningful. Then you find the texts, determine the sequence, and work each day on different lessons. Model the approach on our course work throughout the year, and look to the most recent example (the linguaphilia/logomisia unit) for help.

The focus you choose for this self-taught unit, of course, is going to dictate its shape and purpose. It might involve multimedia, trips to the library, or field trips (on your own time, of course); it might involve heavy reading and annotation; it might involve group debates; it might involve reading short fiction or poetry; it might involve analysis and emulation; it might involve interviews and research and our old friend, the MLA. I will work with you on the particulars, hence the use of “differentiation” above.

You can design and learn this unit alone or in groups. All you need is a mechanism for reflection and eventually metacognition: a tracking system, really, for what you do and how you do it. You can’t complete the grade abatement exercise at the end of this quarter without a very strong sense of how this autodidactic work actually went[4].

Here, presented as a mixture of topics and texts, is a partial and hastily compiled list of potential focuses[5], if you need a bit of inspiration:

  • ž   Veganism and animal rights
  • ž   Sage Francis’ “Hey Bobby” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”
  • ž   Transhumanism and the uncanny valley
  • ž   Video games and interactive morality
  • ž   Joel Stein’s “Me Me Me Generation”
  • ž   New definitions of literacy
  • ž   George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”
  • ž   Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth” with Annie Dillard’s “Death of a Moth”
  • ž   Peter Singer’s “Singer Solution to World Poverty” with Ryan Reynolds’ “Competitive Eating”
  • ž   From the 2013 AP Exam FRQ: ownership and sense of self
  • ž   From the 2013 AP Exam FRQ: memorials and monuments
  • ž   From the 2013 AP Exam FRQ:  mankind’s connection to nature

Hopefully, you’ve already seized on an idea and begun to plan with me. If not, set up an email exchange immediately. We have to get you going, because this is your second goal:

Goal #2—Write Your Best Essay

I believe what Neil Postman believed: Writing is closer to the truth than any other form of communication. By writing, we freeze our thoughts; by revisiting and refining those thoughts, we give birth to philosophy and rhetoric. Writing crystallizes learning. It makes learning permanent.

Your second goal is to take what you are studying and write a very, very good essay about it. That essay should be the best response you’ve written all year—a demonstration of everything I’ve taught you and everything you’ve learned. It should reflect a considerable process, too. You ought to read around, get inspired, ask an essential question, and synthesize whatever you need to synthesize. That’s why you’ll have to base your response around the unit you’re teaching yourself. It’s also why you’ll need to devote a lot of time to reading the student models and feedback I’ll share with you online.

That last point needs its own paragraph: You will be given feedback and student models from previous years, and you probably need to read all of it to do the best possible job on this response. It will seem intimidating, I know[6]; without studying those models and reviewing my old notes, however, you’re assuming that you need no help. Remember the dangers of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

I will work with you individually or in small groups—you are allowed to work together to produce a response, provided we talk about it first—on the particulars. You might consider a small sampling of possible essay types as you plan:

  • ž   policy papers with a distinct purpose (e.g., ending grade-based awards in high school)
  • ž   dialectical exploration of a big concept (e.g., perfection, truth)
  • ž   research-driven explication of a lesser-known topic (e.g., the history of Korean hip-hop)
  • ž   multimedia-infused argument (e.g., an evaluation of various memes)

As you plan the writing, you’ll discover more of what you want to say and how you want to say it. It will also help—it’s quite necessary, in fact—to consider your last goal: 

Goal #3—Make the Writing Matter

Your writing response, whatever form it takes, needs to be authentic. If I am the only person who reads it, it has no authenticity; you need a bigger audience and a way to speak to that audience. So you will work as a team to redesign, refine, and repopulate the Ursus Ephemeris website[7].

You’ll have to collaborate on a large scale to redesign the site, relying on the administrators and editors—or volunteering to become one—to do the actual implementation. You’ll then come together between June 3 and June 10 to fill the site with your writing responses, again relying on an editorial and layout staff to format and publish your work. Then you’ll push the articles and site out to parents, other students, administrators, and anyone else who might conceivably be interested.

I want you to create something that reflects your intelligence and curiosity. Start conversations with the real world—kick up dust, get people thinking, and encourage debate, if necessary. If you take nothing else away from my course, I hope it is this: Your work must have a purpose. Sometimes, you must create that purpose. Ownership and agency can make meaning out of Kafkaesque mazes and Sisyphean systems.

While this is your last goal, you’ll need to begin work on it even before you start writing. These three goals work in concert; trying to accomplish them sequentially ignores how much each step influences the others. You may discover that using a digital platform to promote your work inspires you to write a different kind of essay; you may realize that you want to explore a different topic just so you can engage your eventual audience about it; and so on.

Google-Drive[8] It

Remember that autodidacticism requires more than diligence and investment. You must also have the right tools. I will be working with each of you closely over the next three weeks, but you are not dependent on me; you have an arsenal of Google-related products built specifically for collaboration and individual learning. Use that arsenal:

  • ž   Set up a Group to coordinate ideas and learn new things, even if you’re not working together
  • ž   Definitely set up a Group as an information chain if you are working together
  • ž   Utilize Drive, Scholar, Mail, and any other app that fits

There are also tools beyond the Google Empire that you might use. Check out the Khan Academy and iTunes U, for example; they offer lessons in many subjects for free. As always, you can contact me when you need my help. Send an email or share a document, and I will get back to you as soon as I can[9].

[1] My favorite example comes from 2005: While I was passing back essays to a group of Honors students, the students were passing around a picture of the World’s Ugliest Dog. (Don’t Google it. Of course that warning will make you Google it, so just… just be prepared.) When it reached the hands of a girl named Kristen, she startled out of her seat and shouted—really shouted—“F**K!” She immediately realized what she’d just said—and what she’d said very, very loudly—and sort of threw the picture of the World’s Ugliest Dog at me by way of explanation. So I’m standing in the front of a room that has just gone stone silent, I’m holding a stack of essays, and a photo of the World’s Ugliest Dog is lazily seesawing through the air in front of me. To her credit, one glance at that photo was enough to soften the need for a referral or lecture. (You’re definitely going to Google that photo now, by the way. I’m sorry in advance.)
[2] This came up during our study of obscenity. You’ll remember that the Miller Test has as one of its criteria for obscenity “whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.”
[3] Here’s the thing: You won’t want to continue reading Miner after the first two or three sentences. Keep going. The academic language and obtuse imagery is deliberate. By the end, you ought to have figured out the twist that makes sense of the entire essay. (I’m spoiling the surprise by saying that there is a surprise, I know, but at least I’ve buried the spoiler in a footnote.)
[4] You will receive a guide to the end of the quarter, including rubrics for grade abatement and an overview of the final exam, next week. You’ve got enough information to absorb this weekend.
[5] The plural can be focuses or foci, and I’m always tempted to use the latter. Foci is on that borderline between pretentious and erudite, however, and doesn’t have the same ring as cacti or octopi or platypi. Maybe that sort of plural works best with animals.
[6] I wrote it all, so I have an idea how long it will take to read it. Trust me: It’s a lot. Your decision to invest in these guides and notes or not will go a long way toward determining how much you learn and the quality of the response you write. Rise to the challenge.
[7] This is our erstwhile newspaper, but you knew that. Remember that you are the galvanic engine that is transforming this site; this last goal is about your impact on a community as much as the culmination of our studies.
[8] This is an example of anthimeria, when we swap parts of speech around, usually turning a noun into a verb. When you say you’re going to Google something, you’re using anthimeria.
[9] The cave I live in doesn’t have WiFi yet, and my neighbors have taken to password-protecting their signals. But I emerge every so often and lumber down to an Internet cafe, where I scare away the other customers and get some work done. Sometimes the cops show up with bear mace, so you just have to be patient while I get back to you.

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