Learning to Think(ING)

I had mixed feelings about this class after our first couple of sessions at the beginning of the semester. First, I was excited: I had not read many science-fiction books before, and thought the topic sounded fascinating and could not wait to enjoy my reading for the semester. I also really liked the idea of blogging for the class, as I have always enjoyed conversational writing, as well as the opportunity to read my peers’ work. However, I remember being confused about two things: first, the midterm paper, which “need not be an argument-driven paper.” I wondered how a person could write a paper without a central argument as its basis. However, I pushed this thought to the back of my mind and decided I’d worry about it closer to the midterm. I mainly was baffled by the final reflective essay—here it is!—and could not believe a professor could allow her students to self-assess their paper and have that grade be worth twenty percent of their final average. It is only now that I realize I had so much to learn: my mind, which is constantly concerned with grades and striving for A’s in all my classes, (as Dr. McCoy hinted at in office hours once this semester, I am a perfectionist), could not yet comprehend that self-assessing a paper in an effort to further my academic growth could be more important than Dr. McCoy handing me a letter grade to evaluate my work. Another thing I did not realize at the beginning of the semester was how beneficial the blogging process would be to my growth: I originally looked at the blog assignment as a chance to have fun with the text and converse with my peers, but did not think that I would greatly improve as a reader and writer through the task. Now, I believe it is because of the blogging process and the feedback I received all semester that I have been able to develop and improve as a reader, writer, and most importantly, as a thinker, more than I have ever done so from one class over my two and a half years at Geneseo. In an effort to reflect upon changes in my “learning and outlook over time,” as is referred to in the Geneseo Learning Outcomes for Baccalaureate Education, I am going to look through and discuss my blog posts and experience writing the midterm paper for this class. A common thread in all of my blog posts is how I applied my reading of Jemisin’s trilogy to current issues, and used it to think about and further my understanding of real world problems in my writing. I think that right about the time of the midterm paper was when I made a breakthrough in terms of greatly improving my “thinking” during the semester: after meeting with Dr. McCoy and working through my frustrations about the paper, I learned to defy writing conventions (such as always writing argument-based papers), which helped me learn more about what I actually write about. By being able to write without set conclusions and arguments, I was able to learn and explore more than ever before, and form ideas about how to further foster my academic improvement.

Not one to procrastinate, I knew I wanted to start blogging very early so I would not become overwhelmed by the assignment later in the semester. I was about two-hundred pages into The Fifth Season and was not sure where to start: there was so much in the book to discuss. I decided to write about Jemisin’s use of second person point of view in the Essun chapters. I wanted to relate my reading to the themes in the course title: “Blackness, Love, and Justice.” I wrote about Essun’s disassociation from her own body as a way of dealing with the trauma of her husband killing her son and kidnapping her daughter, as well as how the “you” functions to show her internalized self-hatred of her existence as an orogene. I also addressed the term rogga, which “immediately reminded me of ‘n***a,’ a form of the racial slur ‘n****r,’” and I wrote that “I think Syenite’s insistence on calling herself the derogatory term for her people reflects her developing self-hatred.” I remember eagerly awaiting Dr. McCoy’s comments on my post to see what I could improve in my next post. She said, “Be alert as the trilogy unfolds to the both/and—remember that with the slur you cite from (The Fifth Season) and what Jemisin clearly signals as its real-life counterpart in spelling and sound, there are both possibilities for self-hatred and for reclamation. (I think, for instance, of other symbols and slurs that members of historically targeted groups have tried to reclaim).” Upon reading this, I immediately thought of how the “n” word has become increasingly used by black people over the past fifty years in an effort to reclaim it, which I have specifically noticed in rap and hip-hop music. While I was not sure how I would notice this in my reading for the course, it would become more clear to me a little later, when I was introduced to Ykka and Castrima through my reading. Ykka is a strong leader of a society that exists outside of the Fulcrum, and she has become confident in her worth as a leader and orogene by maintaining an unorthodox society. Ykka calls herself a “rogga” out of pride, which is something I realized and addressed in my fourth blog post. To this, Dr. McCoy asked me to “look at the variety of conversations and stances about it [rogga] *within* orogene communities as well as across orogene and still communities and factions.” As I have now read the entire trilogy, I’d like to comment on these “variety of conversations” throughout the series. In The Stone Sky, Essun recognizes the difference in her use of the word rogga compared to Ykka’s. She says, “I’m not a headwoman. I’m just a rogga,” and thinks to herself, “Ykka tilts her head in ironic acknowledgement. You don’t use that word nearly as often as she does. When she says it, it’s pride. When you use it, it’s assault” (Jemisin 71). Ykka responds, “Well, I’m both… A headwoman and a rogga. I choose to be both, and more… That’s why I’ve been so pissed at you, Essie. Months in my comm, and still all you are is ‘just a rogga’” (Jemisin 71). Essun sees the word as purely derogatory, while Ykka finds empowerment in it. Hjarka is another orogene who uses the word rogga to reclaim it, and Essun’s discomfort with it is shown in The Obelisk Gate. Hjarka says, “But if every rogga could do that, people wouldn’t have a problem with roggas,” to which Essun thinks, “You really hate that rusting word, no matter what Ykka thinks” (Jemisin 136). Finally, in The Stone Sky, Essun censures Danel for using the word rogga because she is a still. She says, “Orogene… Not ‘rogga.’ You don’t get to say ‘rogga.’ You haven’t earned that” (Jemisin 220). Essun thinks, “It’s petty, maybe. Because of Ykka’s insistence on making rogga a use-caste name, all the stills are tossing the word around like it doesn’t mean anything” (Jemisin 220). I notice now that this correlates to a comment I made in my fourth blog post about the reclamation of the “n-word” or “r-word” in which I said, “It is different for an in-group to say the word in an effort to reclaim it as opposed to an out-group, and it is still unacceptable for white people to use this word even when repeating song lyrics.” Essun does not like that Ykka has made rogga an acceptable word to use when referring to orogenes, and certainly does not believe stills should be saying it even if she has learned to accept that orogenes like Hjarka and Ykka use it out of pride.

I believe that my fifth post was when I really began to understand the “thinkING” process that Dr. McCoy emphasizes. I began to “write to figure out something” instead of to support a point I wanted to make. I was looking for something to write about for a new post and decided to go through Dr. McCoy’s comments on my blog posts and see if I had read anything that would give me a different perspective on what I had already written about. I started with my third post, in which I questioned whether Essun was a “bad person” for killing her son, and if parental love could manifest itself in ways that do not involve affection. I concluded that “While most see maternal instinct as caring for and showering children with affection, Essun’s maternal instinct in this dire situation leads her to do the right thing for her son.” In my fifth post, I noticed the continuation of this idea: “As we have begun The Obelisk Gate, I have begun to find many places in which Essun’s actions reveal how parental love is not always about displaying affection.” Throughout this post, I wrote about what I thought—“that Nassun is too young to understand the love behind her mother’s actions”—and what I wondered—whether Essun’s murder of her child could be both inhumane, and a mark of her overwhelming love for her son. I was also able to connect my “wondering” to real world problems, noting that Essun is cruel and inhumane, but her desperate act is a representation of the toll of slavery on humanity.

After writing my fifth blog post, I began to look back to the assignment that had mystified me on the first day of class: the midterm essay. And while I had begun to practice “thinkING” in my blog posts, the idea of doing this in my paper confused me and left me very frustrated after the first time I sat down to write the paper. As I explained in my post written after I submitted it, “Midterm Paper Reflection: Reversing Personal Tendencies and Defying Conventions,” I could not grasp the idea of basing an entire paper on the intention of writing to figure something out instead of proving a specific point I wanted to make. I decided I wanted to write about node maintainers, but otherwise unsure where to start, I went through The Fifth Season and wrote pages of notes with quotes I thought pertained to my topic. However, once I actually tried to start writing the paper, I realized I was not sure how to connect my notes and ideas about node maintainers to a geologic source. I met with Dr. McCoy in office hours looking for guidance, and she asked me to step away from my tendencies towards perfectionism, and to stop looking for the “right” answers. She asked me what I found “most interesting,” and told me to use that as a basis to discover something new about what I had been reading. When I said I wanted to write about the node maintainers, she suggested I look at the seismic networks we examined in class, but as I mentioned in my blog post, “I kept wondering how I could possibly use websites with information about earthquakes and tsunamis in a paper in which I must analyze a book.” I left her office very frustrated, but I decided to sit down and write an introduction without making any final decisions about what I wanted to prove in the paper. What I did not realize at the time, was that this is exactly what Dr. McCoy was asking us to do in terms of “thinkING.” While I wrote my introduction without the intention of “proving” anything because I did not yet know what I wanted to prove, I would realize when I finished the paper that this was exactly what allowed me to make discoveries about my reading that I would not have normally been able to do. I compared and contrasted the nodes and node maintainers to the seismic sources we examined in class, and decided to see where this took me. I think the most important discovery I made writing my paper was this: “I realized that while the node maintainers are an outcome of a deeply oppressive, unequal society, they also perpetuate this same inequality through their presence in the nodes. I came to this realization when examining the GSN, and noticing that there were seismic stations all over the Earth that are spread out evenly in each area. However, the nodes are not spread evenly all over the Stillness.” I still remember how excited I was after writing this, because I felt like I had finally made a unique discovery from my thinkING process. I had not previously considered this point through all of my reading: it was my thinking about my writing—and writing about my thinking (!) that led me to it. Defying writing conventions that I had always used (like writing to prove an argument), and tendencies towards perfectionism (always having to have the “right” answer, when in reality, sometimes in writing there are no “right” answers), helped me learn and improve more than I could have imagined.

After writing the midterm essay, I felt incredible freedom from writing to learn something instead of prove something. I was much more comfortable engaging in conversations with others’ work on the blog. I think my growth throughout the semester is shown in the difference between my discussions of dehumanization and its effect on power structures (and how I conversed about this with my peers) in one of my earlier posts compared to a later post. I discussed this in my second blog post, “Power Hierarchies and Oppression of Orogenes,” and my eighth post, “Earth and Syl Anagist: A Disregard for Human Life.” Dehumanization is a concept that runs through all three books of Jemisin’s trilogy, and is instrumental in the oppression of the orogenes in the Stillness, and in The Stone Sky, with tuners in Syl Anagist. Early in the semester, my posts centered around an argument, so instead of focusing on “thinkING,” I was focusing on proving my point through text evidence. In both of these posts, I responded to peers: the first, to Sabrina Chan’s “Fake News,” and the second, to Michee’s “The Dehumanization of Civilization.” In my response to Sabrina, I was so focused on proving what I had to say to be true that I did not have as much of a conversation with her work as I had with Michee. In my response to Michee, I was able to connect what she wrote to my own ideas not only about dehumanization in the Stillness, but about dehumanization in Syl Anagist. Michee discussed dehumanization with mass shootings in America, and wondered whether she should face the dark realities of the issue or “cover [her] eyes and shield [her] emotions from the realities of the world.” Reading this around the time of the midterm elections made me think of my opinion on political agency, as it bothers me when people tell me that they are shielding themselves from politics and “don’t care about voting” or “don’t know anything about politics.” I explained that when my friends say this, “I say that they should educate themselves and vote for those who are affected by injustice in America and those who cannot vote.” I added that “I agree with Michee—while it is comfortable and easy to shield oneself from injustice and the horrible events occurring in our country, it is also unjust, because the only way to create change and make sure these things do not happen again is to acknowledge and fight injustice.” By writing to have a discussion and to learn something instead of to prove a preexisting idea I held, I was able to converse with my peers more effectively. I was also able to connect my reading to real world issues, showing the importance of studying literature. My reading led me to think about and discuss oppression and politics with my peers, and while I have always thought reading is very important in order to develop an understanding of the world around me, this solidified that idea in my mind.

Another post I made after the midterm essay that I think highlights my newfound ability to practice “thinkING” was “Solarpunk and Solving ‘Real World’ Problems.” Here I examined how different authors get people thinking about climate crisis, and how solarpunk writers believe that “a focus on the apocalypse in science fiction prevents people from thinking of solutions to climate change that can help us in the future,” so they instead focus on science fiction that emphasizes sustainability and imagining a different future than an apocalyptic one. I “wondered” whether writers would therefore find Jemisin’s work problematic because “even a society that originally appears to provide some hope of an alternative way of living—Castrima in The Obelisk Gate—is destroyed.” However, I said that personally I believed Jemisin’s work actually does inspire readers to think about climate crisis and look for solutions because of the dire situations of oppression, enslavement, and genocide that perpetuate the Stillness and Syl Anagist. I remember how I enjoyed the process of thinking about the impact of solarpunk as a genre compared to that of Jemisin’s apocalyptic books. I think that my last line of the post, “Thinking about solarpunk and the possibilities it has for making people discover solutions to real world problems like climate change caused me to contemplate the ways in which Jemisin uses her writing to get people thinking about issues in today’s world, as people on Earth struggle with climate crisis and oppression,” really displays how my thinkING process allowed me to connect my reading to real-world problems and ideas.

Finally, my last blog post for the class centered on the group blog post I helped work on, as I reflected on how my ability to practice thinkING functioned in a group. I am usually skeptical of group projects, and I like to work alone. However, I actually really enjoyed working with my group and writing the group post, where I was able to see others’ thinking processes intertwine with mine. One instance in which I found this rewarding was when I was struggling to sum up a paragraph and Heather helped me add a line that actually said the words that I had been looking for. Working with a group also showed me that I have room to keep thinkING and improving. The diverse ideas and viewpoints of my group members made me realize that there is no ceiling for my learning, and I will never know enough about a certain topic or book. By discussing and writing about literature with my peers, I realized that as long as I am thinkING, and opening myself up to new ideas and not preconceived notions, I will grow as a writer beyond this class. My major goal coming out of taking this course is to continue to write to learn something or figure something out, instead of merely to prove an argument. I also hope to continue to connect ideas I find in my reading of literature to real world issues and be able to analyze and discuss them. I know that I can leave this class assured that my thinking process will benefit me in all of my future reading, writing, and discussing endeavors, but that I still have so much room to grow as a learner (and the thinking process will help me grow!).

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