Learning How to Think Again

When I look back at the beginning of the course, I see a senior biochemistry major sitting down for his first English 100 class. He was only present because he needed an additional class in English in order to apply for medical school in the coming months. He skimmed through the lengthy syllabus, looking for what he had to complete in order to receive an “A” and keep up his GPA. He neglected to notice most of the material provided for him, including the course epigraph. He had other things on his mind, applying medical school, captaining the men’s soccer team, completing his upper-level science courses and figuring out a way to find a little extra time for sleep. From his abbreviated look at the syllabus, he determined that he would likely be able to put in a moderate effort, complete the course then forget it. I am this student. Correction: I was this student. The reason I introduce myself in the third person is that the student I was when I sat down for my first day of class is unrecognizable to the person I am now.

In one of the first days of class, Dr. McCoy asked the room full of students to go back over the syllabus and identify one item in particular. The course epigraph. A quote from Dionne Brand read “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” It’s very fitting that Dr. McCoy has noticed that students tend to overlook important items when presented with multiple pages of a dense syllabus.  At first read, I believed the epigraph meant, that I should improve my power of observation, and notice small things that I would commonly overlook. In my blog post “Knowledge and the Ability to Notice”, I claimed the ability to notice came through acquiring knowledge. If you learn about things that have happened, you can notice similar things that are happening. I now believe that I was only partially right. The ability to notice is connected to how we think.

The title of the course is Literature, Medicine and Racism. These are topics that are not normally discussed together. The course title led me to infer that everything that we would learn and write would carry enormous weight because of the pain and distress associated with it. I had imagined this course to be full of learning about the history of racism and how it intertwined with the practice of medicine. It was, but only in part. We were introduced to Harriet Washington and her documentation of the problems of discrimination in the medical field in Medical Apartheid. Washington illuminates some of the lesser-known acts of discrimination and cruelty towards minority groups. However, the syllabus contained other books, some of which were considered science fiction. How is science fiction interconnected with Medical Apartheid? Over the course of the semester, it became increasingly apparent that the science fiction novels were far more significant than mere stories but provided import commentary on social issues. In order to interpret the relationship between the novelists we would read and Harriet Washington, I would need to be able to notice and, more importantly, think in a way in which I was unaccustomed.

I was intrigued by a recurring comment that Dr. McCoy provided me as feedback on many of my blog posts. One rendition of the comment was “…keep going, keep thinkING, keep figuring things out.” I realized that my ability to notice wasn’t rooted in my attention to detail but in the process of thought. As a biochemistry major, I have been trained to absorb vast amounts of concrete material that generally was not open to interpretation. Science consists of explicit mechanisms and direct cause and effect relationships. Initially, I approached the stories and concepts presented in this course with my previous mindset. Although this has provided me with the ability to understand many intricate chemical and biological concepts, I was at a loss when presented with materials of fiction. I was unable to grasp the commentaries and their significance, that were presented behind complex fictitious plots, and my ability to comment on major course concepts was limited. I needed practice in thoughtfully navigating socially important course materials and noticing the connections.

Percival Everett’s Zulus is a novel that is very stimulating of thought, but only if you commit to it. At first, I didn’t. Can you blame me? The world was not relatable, the characters were peculiar, and the writing caused me to constantly re-read sections with the hope I could find some context to help my understanding. Even the headings of chapters were filled with abstract quotes and allegories. With some guidance, I was able to navigate the plot but struggled to grasp how Zulus connected to the concepts from class. Dr. McCoy was able to walk the class through a statement made by Kevin Peters, one of the main characters, when he said that “We are the great wound.” This connected to the government’s mistrust of people due to their unpredictable nature as presented in Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid. A doctor, in 1867, had purposed that the cause of John Patterson’s mental condition was due to his newly acquired freedom as a former African-American slave. Washington wrote, “The doctor believed that, as with other black patients with this condition, the psychological pressure of caring for himself when Patterson possessed neither the intelligence nor the judgment to do had proved too great, and Patterson had sunk into madness.” This illuminated the tendency of people in power to attempt to prevent the free-thinking in the oppressed class. It was proven to me that Everett is providing social commentary, not just trying to infuriate his readers.

After, Dr. McCoy pointed out that the main character, Alice, might be trapped inside of the actual book.  Everett described Alice’s severed head as being placed in a cube filled with “strange primitive drawings and isolated words, some in languages she did not know, but there, speaking to her.” This quote fell in a section that I did not understand and quickly swept over. Dr. McCoy was able to interpret this section in order to illuminate its significance to the novel. I committed myself to “figuring things out” because I was overlooking significant parts of the novels. So far, I had missed extremely important details to both the story and to the underlying commentary that the author was trying to convey. I did not want to miss anything that important again. I had realized the importance of being able to notice.

The growth in my ability to think through and reveal concealed commentary is demonstrated in my blog post “Who is Mark Spitz ?.” In the blog post, I introduced Mark Spitz both as a character in Zone One by Colson Whitehead and as the Olympic swimmer. The character was given the name because instead of swimming to safety, as his companions did, Mark Spitz fought off a horde of dangerous skels in an incredible act of bravery. However, his act of bravery was really enticed due to his inability to swim. Equipped with the training to notice and the commitment to figuring things out, I began to think about Whitehead’s commentary on racism. Whitehead subtly brings in an element of racism during a conversation that occurred after Gary had been bitten by saying “Plus the black-people-can’t-swim thing.” The conversation also revealed that, in the story, Mark Spitz was an African-American. As a result of noticing these small details, I began to formulate an idea. I created an analogy, where Mark Spitz represents an idea of a better world. The idea that one day all people would be treated as equals without any form of bigotry or discrimination. The idea for hope, that cannot be killed or destroyed even if it faced with a whole world full of forces that opposed it. While this may not have been Whitehead’s message while writing this book, it incited this idea in me. It was a powerful thought. It gave me the hope that if we fight against racism without discouragement we can create a better world for those to come. The deep analysis of the text had a profound impact on me, and it could for everyone. Expanding my process of thought allowed me to understand the weight of the text.

My growth in the combination of noticing and thinking can be seen in my blog post entitled “Eugenics, Genetic Counseling, and Jacob.” In the post, I discussed the controversial nature of eugenics and the practice of genetic counseling and related it to Octavia E. Butler’s Clays Ark. Two characters in Clay’s Ark, Rane and Lupe shared different opinions regarding giving birth to genetically altered children. Lupe, who at this point in the story is depicted as evil, explains that “Eli says we are preserving humanity. I agree with him. We are.” I paused after reading this line. Butler had trapped me. Do I side with Rane who was portrayed as an innocent victim? Or do I side with Lupe, who Butler uses as a villain? Normally, I would have cut my losses and abandoned the topic because of the controversial nature of eugenics and the weight my words would carry. While noticing that I was afraid of engaging such a topic, I chose to commit to it. I noticed something in the reading and myself and then worked through my thought process.

I didn’t commit to a side, but the process of thought. In my blog post, I explained what I was noticing in the text and in myself. Butler posed a question to me as the reader. I answered it with more questions, which would have earned me a failing grade in my biochemistry courses, but well demonstrated my thoughts. It was difficult for me to find the right words to responsibly navigate this topic. I found myself re-writing the post again and again in order to find the right combination of words that would thoughtfully describe what I had noticed without portraying myself as controversial or insensitive. I realized the significance of what I was actually doing. Like Butler, I was trying to convey the significance of thought about a difficult topic. Letting people decide for themselves what they believe to be right, without persuasion, is the importance of thought. Only through your own thinking can you truly understand troublesome topics and establish your own personal beliefs.  

My understanding of Dionne Brand’s quote changed over the length of the semester.  The first part of the quote reads “My job is to notice”. The significance of this portion was clear to me. In order to be a successful writer, one must be able to notice the intricacies of the world to be descriptive and relatable to readers. At first, the understanding of the second part of the epigraph eluded me. What did it mean to “notice that you can notice”? Perhaps it meant that everyone had the ability to notice and they should be aware of their capability. Of course, like all of the other materials provided, the entire epigraph connects to the course topic. I believe that it means that everyone can indeed notice, and has a responsibility to do so. In order to eradicate racism, every act of discrimination needs to be identified in order for it to be corrected. The latter portion of the epigraph is the more powerful part of Brand’s message. I interpret this piece as a call to action for everyone, including myself, to be aware of the fact that they can initiate change by using their ability to notice. Without noticing deplorable acts, no rectifying change will ever occur.

I have learned a great deal about the history of racism. Although the historical knowledge I have gained is extremely important, I feel that my growth as a thinker is the more beneficial effect of enrolling in this course. I have grown to be able to better understand my own thoughts and to communicate my unique interpretations to others. Everyone has different experiences and will have different reactions and thoughts regarding the text. The world is full of different voices each with something unique to say, and this course has allowed me to be able to responsibly contribute mine. This class has helped to train my ability to notice through improving my process of thought and will have a profound effect on everything that I encounter in the future. I can confidently say that I am now better equipped to navigate the world and have a positive impact on my fellow human beings. There is still a lot for me to learn and much room for me to grow, but the experience that I had during this course has set me on a path to becoming a more complete and socially responsible human being.

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