Holly Peterson has just finished her first semester at Shimer. She'll be back with an introduction, but wanted to share her end-of-semester experiences with you first.
Writing week is arguably one of the best things about Shimer College.
In case you are not aware: Writing week is what happens after we finish a semester of intense reading, paper writing and discussion. Each student picks something he or she thinks is interesting and spends approximately 40 hours working on that project. The only requirement is that it relates to something discussed that semester, which leaves a lot of wiggle room. This semester projects included building a chair out of cardboard, dismantling and remantling (not a word, shhh) a clock, writing poetry, memorizing poetry, sketching, hypnosis, playing basketball and journaling about it, a psychological study of workers in animal shelters… the list goes on.
I had trouble picking a project. Not because I couldn’t think of anything, but because I, like many Shimerians, upon being offered a week to study anything, came up with a huge list of possibilities.
I toyed with doing something about the Occupy movement (which was only fleetingly interesting) or going on a hitchhiking trip (which was deemed unsafe by a facilitator, which I’m sure my Mum appreciates). For several weeks I was convinced I was going to study how best to influence people through television and write, shoot and edit a pilot for a tv series aimed at influencing the gender gap into oblivion (which I realized I couldn’t finish in a mere 40 hours).
When writing week began I still had two ideas. One was writing a haiku for every element on the periodic table. The other was to build a pocket sized espresso machine. I started working on both, but four poems in I abandoned the periodic table. After all, I had just spent $40 on copper parts for the espresso machine and I had all my tools, so I felt a little more invested in that one.
Also, I kind of wanted to write a paper revolving around the following line from W.E.B. DuBois’s book The Souls of Black Folk: “To seek to make the blacksmith a scholar is almost as silly as the more modern scheme of making the scholar a blacksmith” (52). As a person who can never quite figure out if I want to be in school or if I’m following the herd’s dream instead of my own, I wanted to do something less academic and ask myself if that pursuit felt more silly or sincere than academia.
Wednesday afternoon I realized that it wasn’t going to work. My drill’s battery barely held a charge. I couldn’t find a pharmacy that would sell me the syringe I needed for the alcohol stove. There were discrepancies in the blueprint I found online and I didn’t have time to contact the man who made it and ask for his help. Etc, etc, etc.
So, with roughly 48 hours, including sleeping, eating and working time remaining before the projects were due, I started writing haiku again. (Did you know that haiku is the plural form of haiku? I didn’t. I should also mention that modern haiku writers don’t follow the 5-7-5 syllable rule anymore unless it makes for a better poem. So I didn't count syllables religiously.)
As I started writing (and reading) I found that there were elements, like Gallium, with beautiful characteristics that lent themselves to poetic images.
Melts like chocolate in your hand.
Other times I would read something that I thought was unique, like lithium burning when it touches water, only to find out that almost every element does the same thing.
Burns at water’s touch,
Skates sphere-like on its surface.
Because the traits only got me so far, I started writing haiku about the stories behind elements instead.
Painted fingernails, licked brushes.
They told us it was safe.
I also wrote haiku, like the one I did for Antimony, that felt more like riddles than they did poetry:
Fire grabs it by the throat.
Is it a vase?
I would like to suggest that what makes writing week so special is that it is the time when each student personalizes his or her semester. It is a time to learn how to self-motivate and create and to stay up until seven in the morning writing haiku that you have come to hate because you switched projects too late and you’re too foolish to skim the articles and speed through the writing because your goal is perfection even more than it is completion. Despite this, only a day later, after turning in your project, you will take it up again not for a grade, because that’s out of your hands now, but because it is something that you want to do. You had initially envisioned a visual representation of your poetry and you’ll be gosh-darned if you will stop before your project is what it is supposed to be.
That is why writing week is special. It reminds us Shimerians that if we do what we love, even if it is as trivial as writing a set of 118 haiku, we will want to finish it because it is important and meaningful on a personal level. That reminder is bigger than an individual project could hope to be.
That said, I will definitely be finishing my espresso machine over break.