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How to Write a College Application Essay About a Quote in 2018-2019: Part 2

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Miles Davis Essay, Mind that Won't Stick Essay, Uncategorized, University of Chicago Application Essay, Zen Master Shoitsu on July 12, 2018 at 11:01 pm

Also known as How to Write the University of Chicago Application Essay:  Part 2

I ended my last post by looking at U Chicago, so let’s return to that now.  Here are two of the numerous prompts from Chicago that use a quote:

“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.“—Miles Davis (1926–91)
—Inspired by Jack Reeves

“Mind that does not stick.”
—Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)

Let me begin by saying that Master of Jazz Miles Davis is being pretty zen in his quote here.  In fact, Davis is basically presenting a koan to “explain” his art.   But Zen Master Shoitsu is being pretty jazzy–he is, in fact, suggesting  what it takes to be Miles Davis improvising on his horn. (Note:  I know Mr. Davis played the trumpet.  See this if you have any questions:  The Man With the Horn.)

In a recent post, I talked about looking into the background of prompts.  My statements here  relate to the deeper story that each quote tells–to their background.  Knowing about both of them–about something the Tao of Davis and the Way of Shoitsu–allowed me to connect them. Your essay does not need to connect them, of course, though Chicago does like a little improv, and they do offer you the opportunity to make up your own prompt, which could involve combining these two.  But to do that, you would have to know some things.

Of course, you could just riff on either quote without even knowing, for example,  what instrument Miles Davis played, or even what jazz is, and if the essay is good, who needs background?  Whatever great thing rises up without the interference of the stuck mind is fine with the University of Chicago, and with the universe as well.

But here is the thing:  that is hard to do.  It’s hard to improvise without knowing  what you are improvising  from or about or for.  And while you need and are searching for a starting point for a college application essay, your mind is already stuck, and filled with noise, due to your desire to get into college, but also due to what you have been taught an essay is and should do, by all the essays you have written for school, which have done little to help you deal with these two prompts.

It’s kind of a zen experiment in itself:   The fact that you are writing to an elite and highly selective college suggests that you are already  in a race for achievement. You are trapped by the past and by your fears of the future. Which creates a Mind that Sticks.

The purpose of the college application essay makes students get stuck in trying to write about not being stuck as they show off how flexible and yet full their minds are.  These students talk about how they were studying or working on A, then started reading B, then lost themselves in C.  They go on to list all the great things they have learned by being an autodidact or by simply being constantly distracted by curiosity, claiming that this is what it means to have an unstuck mind.  But they end up with a blatant list of activities and things they have likely not really read all of, or read at all.    Trying to separate themselves from the crowd by showing how much they know, how far they’ll go.

It’s almost a koan:  Bragging while not bragging about it!  Very Zen!

Not.  This is a stuck mind.  And a laundry list of activities doth not make a good essay on Mind that Does not Stick.  Mind that does not stick is relaxed and flowing, not worried about outcomes.

What to do?  Think about what makes you flow.  Look at the two prompts I selected.  Ask this:  what is Miles Davis thinking  when he is playing?  He is thinking, but he is also . . . in the music, moving with it while shaping it.  Not thinking in the normal sense of wondering what will be for dinner (or breakfast–late nights for musicians and all).  He is not wondering if he left his oven on.  He is not checking the clock to see if class is over.

No, he would mess up his playing if he started thinking in that sense.  So would you.  One way to hear what is not there is by not being trapped by thought and expectation.  In this case, what should be played next is not what Miles Davis played.  But once he played the next note, it was right (Okay not all the time, but most of the time).  He was absorbed in the moment, one with the music.

Likely you have had similar experiences, in which you lose track of time, are one with your activity.  Which means that you, too, have experienced an aspect of unstuck mind.  Maybe that is your topic.  What makes you lose yourself.  What makes you lose expectations to hear what others do not hear. Very . . . Zen

Speaking of Zen, let’s take a look at it and at Zen master, Shoitsu.  (Warning:  This is dangerous.  Many people talk about Zen, but almost nobody knows what they are talking about.  Because, first of all, you cannot really talk about it to get it.  You have to experience it. Which is obviously a problem for anybody, but especially for you, because, well, you are just trying to write a college essay and that has a deadline that is in a few months, unlike enlightenment.  But this prompt caught your eye.  So we will try).

Here goes:  It is common to oversimplify so-called Asian philosophy and religion, particularly in making broad generalizations that stand in contrast to what is supposedly the Western style of thinking.  But there are some aspects of Zen which are broadly shared with other traditions, and knowing something about them  can help you understand where Master Shoitsu is coming from.

In Zen, and in aspects of other eastern meditative traditions, like Taoism, the thinking mind is not really the thing.  In fact, it is fundamentally an illusion.  Here is why: We look out at the world from a particular perspective, shaped by experience and by desire, but most of what we do is: not see.   This is true for a range of reasons, mostly involved with wanting things and suffering–and we suffer mostly because we want things we cannot have or do not have at the moment.  And in this process, as we think, we constantly judge what we see in order to try to avoid what we do not like or want and to get what we do like or want.  Desire, then, drives us and blinds us.

That’s pretty much it.  But this is also pretty hard to know.  You just read what I wrote above, but you cannot know without experiencing the loss of that thinking or ego self.  Which is where the meditative tradition of a guy like Master Shoitsu comes in.  These

Zen guys were and are hard core–sit there and breathe (and do a bunch of other work with total concentration and other stuff, like giving up things you do not need, etc, et al) and eventually insight and maybe even enlightenment might happen.  Through a full-on confrontation with the ego over a long time.  Check out Bodhidharma, for how hard-core zen practice is.  (Note:  one story has Bodhidharma staring a hole in the side of the cave during that nine [or ten] year meditation described in the linked page).

So Zen Master Shoitsu is  pointing out that your mind is basically a kind of construct, a filter gone rigid over time as it sorts events into categories such as like and dislike to the point that it is always stuck (Yes, that subtext is aimed at social media categorizing.  Wait, Zen Mind vs. Social media?  A topic?  Could be . . . ).  The mind is not really seeing reality because it is too busy processing, seeking advantage, driven by emotions like anger that are the product of habit–notice when you have “knee jerk” reactions of anger due to old experiences.  That, my friends is stuck.

Yes it is also a deep part of the mechanisms that keep you alive, but there you are: wanting.

Wow, that went deep, fast.  For more background on Master Shoitsu and Zen emptiness, check these links out:

What do Buddhists mean when they talk about emptiness?

Instructions of Master Shoitsu

For Miles Davis hearing what others do not, try this: Miles Beyond

And for your essay, if nothing else works , but you like these quotes, and you want to go with the spirit of either quote, you want to think about what absorbs you utterly, what makes you flow with whatever you are doing.

Or just riff on one.  Have fun and ignore all my advice on using background.  Give it a whirl, as I did here, just goofing  an introduction to see what would happen–

Zen Master Shoitsu’s words on being unstuck fascinate me as a physics problem.  In a similar way, some time back, I was trying to work out the problem posed by that famous koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

I embarked on a series of physical experiments to explore this question, but all I ended up doing was getting cramps from squeezing my hand a lot–though at one point I did slap myself as well.  That definitely made a sound, but my findings on clapping one hand were inconclusive. 

However, this is the spirit I try to bring to every question that  me:  rigorous but joyous experimentation.  Full on engagement.

This started at a young age as I attempted to build Leonardo’s Flying Machine in my garage, but was apprehended by my dad as I tried to haul it up the ladder to the roof.  It has continued as I  . . . . . etc etc etc.  Etc.  

Notice the way I use an interesting intro to set up a discussion that would follow the etc etc to show things about you that need emphasis.  Notice also that humor is a good thing, or it can be if it us handled well.  And since U Chicago wants edgy,  feed that desire . . .

Time to wrap this post up.  If you were looking for a lot more clear explanation about what to put and where to put it in an essay, you are kind of missing the point of both quotes.  Try some essay experiments, without being attached to them, and see what happens.

And follow my blog as I continue to post on essay prompts and related topics . . . Or if you need help from a Zen Master of Editing, Contact Me.

How to Write the University of Chicago Application Essay for 2018-2019, Part 1: The New Word Essay

In Making Up a Word Essay, Uncategorized, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essays, University of Chicago Essay Prompts on July 9, 2018 at 11:14 am

Also known as the essay for students who wish to absquatulate to the University of Chicago, or if you prefer, to skedaddle, or  for those who are in a real hurry, to skidoo.  

Always suckers for a punny response and for innovation, the University of Chicago is taking aim directly at your ability to innovate this year:  not only can you make up your own essay prompt for the 2018-2019 application, you can also choose to write an essay in which you make up your own word, as shown in the prompt:

University of Chicago Essay Option 3

The word floccinaucinihilipilification is the act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant or of having no value. It originated in the mid-18th century from the Latin words “floccus,” “naucum,” “nihilum,” and “pilus”—all words meaning “of little use.” Coin your own word using parts from any language you choose, tell us its meaning, and describe the plausible (if only to you) scenarios in which it would be most appropriately used.

-Inspired by Ben Zhang, Class of 2022 

Some Rules for Neologisms

So first, let’s get our tools in order here, which in this case means let’s look at a few useful words about words.

What you are being asked to do is to create a neologism, which means to create a new word, and therefore some kind of new idea–so start by looking around to see what new things need a new word, or what old things seem to have mutated in such a way that a new word is in order to describe the new strangeness.

This brings up a second term, etymology,  which is the history and usage of a word, or if you will, the biography of a word.  Yes, words have lives–they are born, they live, and if they do not die they do fade away.  So think of your new word as being alive, and think of your essay as explaining the birth and life of your word.

Here, for example, is the etymology of floccinaucinihilipilification:

“action or habit of estimating as worthless,” in popular smarty-pants use from c. 1963; attested 1741 (in a letter by William Shenstone, published 1769), a combination of four Latin words (floccinaucinihilipilifi) all signifying “at a small price” or “for nothing,” which appeared together in a rule of the well-known Eton Latin Grammar + Latin-derived suffix -fication “making, causing.”

[F]or whatever the world might esteem in poor Somervile, I really find, upon critical enquiry, that Iloved him for nothing so much as his flocci-nauci-nihili-pili-fication of money. [Shenstone, letter, 1741]

The kind of jocular formation that was possible among educated men in Britain in those days. Just so, as in praesenti, the opening words of mnemonic lines on conjugation in Lilley’s 16c. Latin grammar, could stand alone as late as 19c. and be understood to mean “rudiments of Latin.” The entry above comes to us courtesy of the Online Etymology Dictionary, which for me is worth ten Wikipedias).  

Obviously, Chicago is revivifying an old and obscure word in citing floccinaucinihilipilification  (Notice that the word is composed of a series of Latin words used as a repetitive root that basically restates the same meaning, followed by the suffix ification, so a certain amount of nonsense is clearly okay when making up a new word, as long as the nonsense in your word is aimed at skewering some real nonsense out in the world.  

This alone should give you some ideas about how to proceed, among them the careful selection of an existing word or set of words which you then combine and add prefixes and suffixes to, as needed for effect. You could start our search by going to the Online Dictionary of Etymology to look up the suffix just mentioned (ification) and then just click around  to find ideas, notebook at hand:  Etymology and Examples of ification.

Why We Make Up Words

People make up new words in order to describe new realities or situations and/or because making up words is fun.  Just look at the etymologies for the words I started this post with to get an idea of how new situations and the need for fun can promote linguistic creativity:  skedaddle, absquatulate.

Being in the midst of the Civil War and wishing to be elsewhere, plus the long periods of boredom between battle promoted the invention of many words, it seems, though there was also a fad through much of the 19th and into the early 20th centuries for coining new words using Latinate roots, because they sound great and meaningful while conveying silly or lightweight ideas, mostly.   Some of these 19th-Century neologisms live on, partly because they capture an idea well, but also because of the way they sound.  Bloviate  is an example, which conveys what it means partly by how it sounds.  So sound really does matter.  Say it out loud after you coin it to see if it passes the fun sound test.

What New Situations Need New Words Today?

Your new word should also, hopefully, describe something you see going on that, as of yet, has no single word or simple phrase to describe it.  As an example of a word that was created to describe a new situation, you can look at the idea of “buggy” software or a “computer bug,”  though the source of “bug” as a word for a technical problem is actually quite a bit older than that, as shown in this OED blog entry:  Buggy

When we are not making up words for new situations, we often simply borrow them from other languages, either directly or by slightly repurposing them, as can be seen in words like monsoon and tsunami (extended discussion here), so you should also consider looking at foreign languages for ideas–but do not simply borrow the word straight from the other language, lest you offer your frenemies an opportunity for schadenfreude when your application is turned down for lack of originality.

If you find an interesting foreign word, tinker with it a bit.  For example, if you take a noticeable stand against certain public figures these days, say on Twitter, you might face a Trollnami of attack Tweets.

Which brings up some additional advice:  I thought I was pretty clever in coming up with trollnami,  until I did a search and found multiple examples, and saw that trollnami already has its own hashtag on Twitter.

So back to the drawing board, but this does show you one of the elements of making a new word: it has to define a current phenomenon that does not yet have its own name, and the armies of trolls on platforms like Twitter is a reality that is creating new words.

If we ditch tsunami and look for some other words to combine to describe a situation that is new, we could come up with  Donaldangst, something that is plaguing some of my acquaintances, and many I know are upset by the Ubersqualidification of our culture due to social media (mis) use.  These last two neologisms use German word parts–one a root word, the other a prefix, so I will now point you to one of my favorite word books:  

Schottenfreude is a book in the spirit of this U Chicago prompt, in which a British man who speaks no German makes up fantastic new Teutonic words, like Schlagerschmeichelei, which means enjoying emotionally manipulative mass culture, despite knowing you are being manipulated, or Eisenbahnscheinbewegung, which denotes the false sensation of movement when, looking our from a stationary train, you see another train depart.  

For more ideas from this book, go here: Shottendfreude Op Art, and if you like that, support the arts, and buy the book:  Schottenfreude.

For some more inspiration in fearful times, as well as a supplemental discussion on making up words, have a look at the word of the month for June, 2018, from the Oxford English Dictionary:  Trepidatious.

The OED also has a blog that discusses neologisms and has basics on word roots, prefixes and suffixes–a good place to scan for ideas.

This ends my first post focused fully on writing the 2018-2019 University of Chicago application essay.  I will write about U Chicago again soon, and have written about them frequently in the past, as in this example. so come back soon.  You might also want to follow my blog as I continue to post on various essay prompts for 2018-2019, and if you need editing assistance on college essays, I offer highly detailed editing at a great price–you can find me here:  Contact Me.

 

And They’re Off: College Essay Season Has Begun

In Applying to the University of Chicago, Cornell University Application Essay, Dartmouth Supplemental Essay, Ivy League Application Essays, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Southern California Supplemental Essay, University of Wisconisn, Yale Application Essay 2018-2019 on July 6, 2018 at 12:28 am

Some of the major super-selective colleges and a range of other solid schools have already released their essay prompts for 2018-2019, and the Common Application and Coalition portals have had their prompts out for months, which means it’s time to get started on those college essays.

(Momentary pause for sinking feeling and/or butterflies).

Not ready to write?  Then how about some sorting?

I do encourage my clients to get writing by giving one of the Common Application prompts a go, but if you are stuck and can’t get that started, or you already have a draft for a main essay like the Common or Coalition Apps well on its way, the next thing you need to do is have a look at a range of target-school essay prompts and start doing some categorizing.

After all, you are likely to apply to ten colleges, in some cases twenty, and one way to save a lot of work is to compare essay prompts, looking for ways to overlap essays and, when possible, to reuse essays.

Yes, essay polygamy is the name of the game if you are doing more than five or six apps, which most of you are, and in this case, polygamy is totally legal.    (Just don’t forget to change the college names if/when you do reuse an essay, by doing search all for the last college’s name and changing it to the current college.  Telling Brown they are your one and only in an essay that you are reusing from Princeton, and in which you forget to swap Princeton out for Brown . . . yes, that is usually a deal breaker.  Think it cannot happen?  Listen to Rick Clark, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Tech . . . by clicking here.  It will take a few 2.5 minutes to get to Rick himself, and a couple of minutes to get to those who don’t proofread . . . ) .

How the University of Chicago Essay Prompt is Like (Almost) Everybody Else’s Including Yale, Northwestern, Indiana, Tulane, Cornell, Etc, Et Al.

To kick off our research on essays, let’s start with a place that prides itself on its weirdness, at least when it comes to application essays:  The University of Chicago.

Sure, for U Chicago this year, you have many options: you can write an alternate universe/speculative essay in which you are onboard a 13th-Century ship that suddenly sails off the edge of the world, or you can write an essay in which you consider the world from the point of view of a Mantis Shrimp, but the opening question for Chicago, which all applicants must respond to is this:

Question 1 (Required)

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

Despite Chicago’s well-cultivated reputation for nonconformity, their Question 1 actually conforms pretty well to  prompts used at hundreds of universities, including, so far this year,  Yale, Dartmouth, Northwestern, U-Texas Austin, Tulane, Wisconsin-Madison and Indiana.  Some ask for an essay on this in longer form, some want a shorter response in the 100 to 250-word range, but this kind of prompt shows up pretty often–call it the “Why Us” question, or the “What are You Planning To Do Here” question, and whether it says this or not, this “Tell Us What You Want to Study Here and What You Want To Do With That Knowledge”  is always a two-part question.

One part is about you.  The other part is about the university.  Many applicants forget that, and either talk at length about themselves, showing no due diligence in researching the college itself, or they talk about the college without showing how they fit in–no school needs you to give it a research paper on itself, and no school that asks what they can offer you wants to hear only about you.

What to do?

Use that wonderful tool of the modern age, the search engine.   That’s Google, to most of you, but even more than Google, it is the web site not just of the university in question, it is also the sites of each school and program within that university in which you might have an interest, and on down into what various departments are within each school, any associated labs, research arms, then on again into what is posted by individual professors, blogs, research projects and so on (nearly) ad infinitum.

What a question like this asks is what you want to learn and what you want to do with what you learn.  Yes, that’s a lot to ask of somebody who, as I write this, has not even started the last year of high school yet, but that’s the point.  And the best place to start on this kind of essay is to pick an important target school, dig in via the internet, dig more, then consider yourself.

After you have done this once, and written an essay, you will have what I call boilerplate–in this case, language about yourself and your interests that relates to the areas you researched in the essay–that you can reuse in other essays, and you will also have some specific reference points about the university.

Exactly what the balance should be between talking about yourself and talking about the university is a variable that depends on you and the exact wording of the prompt, but I usually find that this kind of essay has slightly more to quite a bit more about the student–but the references to and descriptions of the college are all the more important for being limited to some extent.

For  a simple reason:  showing that you know about them shows a degree of seriousness about the school.  To put it in more human terms, you know a lot about the face of your beloved.

Examples of Researching a University for the “What’s Your Major” or “What Makes You a Good Fit” Essay

So let’s start with an excerpt of an essay edit for an elite school, with my editing comments and some specific references-this is still in rough draft form, but you can already see how we are trying to cite specific detail on the school and drop some names:

I hope to  interact with professors who have a passion for research and chemistry, such as Geoffrey Coates, whose research on catalysts includes new, biodegradable polymers, that might be used in biomedical devices—bringing my interests in surgery and chemistry together. Or, and Peng Chen, who has been applying single-molecule microscopy in a variety of fascinating ways, with applications that may range from  solar power to medicine, the kind of thing that makes me wonder about powering medical implants with solar technology, hmm, a solar shirt that recharges a heart implant . . . my mind is on fire with ideas.

This section of the essay followed the introductory portion of the essay, where the writer reviewed her own life and interests, and how they developed and grew, until we reach a point where we pivot to specific things going on at that specific university.  The app reader learns a bit more about you in general, but you also provide some bona fides by showing–or appearing to show–that you know a lot about the school.

Talk about your Demonstrated Interest:  You, too, can click to see what Geoffrey Coates is up to, here:  Coates Research.  For Peng Chen, you would have to find his main page, here–Chen Research–do some reading, and click through two more layers to find out how his work relates to solar energy, here:  Chen Solar.  It’s the kind of reading and clicking that gets you to these details that will convince your app reader that you are serious about their school.

Yes, all of this may be just to name-drop twice in a single paragraph in a single application essay.  But in an application game that is all about nuance and margins, paying attention to the details makes a lot of the difference.  And that rough-draft, above, became a final draft that helped this particular student get admitted to that Ivy-League university.  Not only that, some people I have worked with have, in fact, found their mission in life as they did this kind of research.

Researching the University of Southern California Supplemental Essays and Responses

Sounds like a lot of work, and it is, which is why you want to start working on college essays early because, yes, they are actually research essays, in their own way.  But let’s look at one more example, in which we just start clicking:  U.S.C., and specifically the Viterbi School of Engineering.  I am skipping U Chicago for the moment because I plan to revisit them again, in a separate post.  You might want to follow my blog to get notice when I do.

So how to research an app essay for a potential engineering student at U.S.C.: Let’s say you just have an interest in engineering, but it is not, at sixteen or seventeen years of age, completely in focus.  That’s okay.  This exercise itself may help you get a focus, and if not, well, fake it ’til you make it.

So let’s start with the main page for Viterbi, which you can go ahead and click on, then have a look around, clicking and reading on whatever interests you, here:  Viterbi Main.

Possibly you will find some stuff that interests you right away, in which case, click away. But in the case of my next example, knowing some of my client’s interests, I was able to suggest going to this page to  search for manmade retina–I will have a specific link to a specific page below, but just type in ‘manmade retina’ here to see what happens:

Search: Manmade Retina

Here is where this student settled in to do some reading:  Artificial Retina.

And here is how some of those references appear in a mid-stage essay draft on why this student wanted to go to U.S.C. and specifically the Viterbi School:

When I flew out from Georgia to visit  USC last May, I loved the campus and diverse disciplines, like the school of gerontology an unusual but absorbing subject for a young engineer who hopes to reverse the effects of aging–but the research being done at Viterbi particularly fascinated me. I will pursue experiences like learning under a former NASA employee and in an internship with real world applications.  From perfecting the 3-D printing process using the MIP-SL technique to creating a manmade retina, Viterbi is at the forefront of innovation, which is exactly where I want to be in my own future.

This is part of an essay that was part of a successful application package for ‘S.C.  The essay as a whole is just under the 250-word limit, and it begins on a personal note about how the applicants engineering interests started with a model rocket, then to a self-built telescope, then after the illness of a relative, the focus turned to more terrestrial concerns, which you can see manifested in that paragraph, above.  In the essay as a whole, you have fewer than 100 words that reference truly specific information about the Viterbi School, but those words have impact because of their specificity and the way they fit into the context established by the personal focus of the introduction.  Returning to my earlier point, the best essays of this sort offer insight into you, the applicant, and show that you have knowledge of, and insight into, the university–even if you just got it last night off the internet.  Good internet research is good material for an essay.

Where to go from here?  If you are interested in engineering at U.S.C., let’s just continue with that example.  You are looking for specific areas of interest to you, and if you are not sure, see what does draw your interest, and your purpose is to get just a few examples and references to drop into your essay.  Of course if you do happen to stumble upon your true mission in life–this does happen–as you click around, super.  Don’t forget to mention my blog for getting you started when you collect your Nobel.

So let’s start by looking at the About page for Viterbi, and be sure to scroll down to see what lies below the banner and P.R. stuff at the top of the page:  About Viterbi. Read and click on anything interesting.

Next, be sure to visit the Research and Innovation page, which also gives you a handy breakdown of divisions within the School of Engineering: Research and Innovation at Viterbi.  Notice how you can use this to get an overview, as I just mentioned, but also to chase specific and intriguing ideas and areas–take a look, for example, at Research Centers.  And maybe you had a biology or earth science teacher who introduced you to Climate Change, but maybe you turned aside, because, well, how depressing, not to mention Tech pays way better and an education at U.S.C. is expensive, (Or maybe not; more on that in another post, soon), but then you see this, while clicking on the Research Centers:  Arid Climates and Water Research Center.  And then within that, you keep clicking until you find a page on the people involved, like this:  Watercenter About.

Then you click on a specific professor for the heck of it and find robots: Nora Ayanian. Then you start to think about what the heck robots have to do with water, which takes you back to their research page, which talks about robotics for monitoring water and suddenly you see where to go with your engineering career.

Or maybe not, but you’ve got some specific stuff to reference for your application essay.  At the least.

So there you go.  Notice what attracts you as you do some research, and start coming up with some language about things you’ve done and what inspires you to start the essay.  Then get to where you name-drop learning from people like Assistant Professor Nora Ayanian, whose robots are probing the changing chemistry of the oceans even as I write these lines . . .

Good luck, and come back soon for more posts on this year’s application essays, data, and the scene as a whole.

 

 

They’re Baaack: The University of Chicago Application Essay Prompts for 2017-2018

In Applying to the University of Chicago, Chicago Typo Essay, Essay on Joubert, Uncategorized, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay Example, University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt Two, University of Chicago Under-Discussed Topic Essay on June 26, 2017 at 11:43 pm

And this year, the essay prompts from U Chicago, a.k.a. “The Place Fun Goes to Die” are a little more lightweight and also more personal than in previous years.  Overall, this year’s U Chicago prompts are more about a quirky personal response than deep philosophy–though you can always find something deeper, or at least interesting to say with these prompts, with a little extra thought.  

And if you wanted to take a risk while writing an essay, this is the place:  Chicago pretty much begs you to take risks, wake up the app reader, show a little originality.   So be anything but boring.  

To show what I mean, we will now take a look at the first two of the University of Chicago Extended Essay Prompts for the 2017-2018 application season: 

Extended Essay Questions:

(Required; Choose one)

Essay Option 1.

“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” – Joseph Joubert

Sometimes, people talk a lot about popular subjects to assure ‘victory’ in conversation or understanding, and leave behind topics of less popularity, but great personal or intellectual importance. What do you think is important but under-discussed?

-Anonymous Suggestion

 

So let’s look into the background of  this prompt before we look at an example of how to write about it:  it is based on the relatively obscure Enlightenment French author, Joseph Joubert, and it seems aimed at our present national moment of mutual incomprehension:   What, you have never heard of Joubert?  Neither has 99% of the populace.

He actually is quite the dead white guy, a man who wrote aphorisms that read like the best haiku.   But he was also a writer who never actually wrote that book he was going to write; instead he wrote many aphorisms and short descriptions that distilled the essence of this or that,  as he hung out and engaged in witty conversation in the great salons of Paris and pretty much “enjoyed the journey.”   The journey over the destination is a cliché, of course, but if you read some of his stuff, like his Pensées, you will see what I mean.  Not that you need to read Joubert much to write this prompt . . . but it could help.  For example, this–  

A hard intellect is a hammer that can do nothing
but crush. Hardness of intellect is sometimes no less
harmful and hateful than hardness of heart.

Or this:

Some persons there are who, intellectually, are
reasonable enough, but whose life is quite irrational ;
and there are, on the other hand, those whose life is
rational and whose minds are devoid of reason.

The last one sounds like a pretty good sociological take on America today, no?

For those of you acquainted with Montaigne, Joubert is  what Montaigne claimed to be–a free explorer of whatever was on his mind.  Here is what his most recent translator into English, Paul Auster had to say about Joubert, in part:  

Neither a poet nor a novelist, neither a philosopher nor an essayist, Joubert was a man of letters without portfolio whose work consists of a vast series of notebooks in which he wrote down his thoughts every day for more than forty years. All the entries are dated, but the notebooks cannot be construed as a traditional diary, since there are scarcely any personal remarks in it. Nor was Joubert a writer of maxims in the classical French manner. He was something far more oblique and challenging, a writer who spent his whole life preparing himself for a work that never came to be written, a writer of the highest rank who paradoxically never produced a book.”

So take all that together, and you have some sense of the spirit of the question posed by Anonymous here; while you can pretty much riff off of a U Chicago question in any way that you can invent, they do offer some prompts that seem to have a political or cultural slant, and this is one of them, a prompt for a polarized age of argument in which most of use are having trouble understanding the other side (Qualification: Understanding does not mean agreeing, and I believe that the conflict in the U.S.A. is over real values . . . and will have a real impact on lives).

 If you like the prompt, but nothing is coming immediately to mind, a public e-text of Joubert’s Pensées is available in jumbled form here:  Pensees.  Just scroll down past all the documentation and introductory material to get right to it.  You might find an idea by going to the source.  Note that this does not mean you have to use the quote in your essay–that can be its own cliché–the idea may work well put into your own words.

Another way to look for topics that are not discussed enough is  to look at some topics that are almost certainly discussed too much, at least in kind of blind arguments that Joubert deplored :   politics, race, climate change, Trump (Trump is as much a sociological and psychological as he is political, so I give him a separate category. So true).  

Does that mean you cannot and should not write about any of these for this prompt?  Well, no.  Surely there is some aspect of these that is overlooked, or more to the point, surely most of our conversations about these things are clichéd, and clichéd in that deepest sense of using clichés to avoid dealing with the truth?   Take Trump.  I see him as an excellent example of the outcome of Winner-Take-All . . . parenting.  And I am not talking about Trump’s kids; I am talking about Fred Trump here.  Think of Donald Trump as a boy, and you have a different kind of discussion.  Maybe even some empathy–which does not mean agreement, by the way. 

Let me sum up our lesson on the U Chicago essays so far:  If  there is a background (like Joubert), it is better to know about it; it may not be useful, but you may be missing the point of the prompt if you know nothing about the background.  Not that being clueless will necessarily hurt, as a clever non sequitur can also be a winner.  But still, I would want to be choosing to write my essay as a kind of alternate-universe response that uses the opening quote as a way to go somewhere totally unconnected; I would not want to be doing that by accident.  

And now, more briefly, a typo prompt for number 2:

Essay Option 2.

Due to a series of clerical errors, there is exactly one typo (an extra letter, a removed letter, or an altered letter) in the name of every department at the University of Chicago. Oops! Describe your new intended major. Why are you interested in it and what courses or areas of focus within it might you want to explore? Potential options include Commuter Science, Bromance Languages and Literatures, Pundamentals: Issues and Texts, Ant History… a full list of unmodified majors ready for your editor’s eye is available here: https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/academics/majors-minors.

So the obvious place to start would be with your actual interest area–take me; I would have been looking at things like Comparative Literature; hmmm . . .

Comparative Bitterature?  The knowledge and Study of all things bitter, from the best espresso sourced from a tribe of failed hipsters who now populate a long-lost South American coffee plantation, producing the deepest, darkest bitterest espresso ever known to man;  to the bitter  souls of internet trolls or the sense of defeat experienced by ex-presidential candidates. 

Notice that   in changing the majors via a typo, you are, in fact, inventing your own major, so you do not have to actually look at any subject you are interested in.  Look for the words you can change in interesting ways–and that is the obvious intention of this prompt:  to test your spirit of invention.  

I will leave it at that, other than to add that I would conclude my essay on Comparative Bitterature by explaining the purpose of my created major:  Comparative Biterature aims to reacquaint the cotton-candy culture of my own country, the U. S. of A, with the benefits of the bitter, which my tai chi master taught me  when he said, as I stayed down in a full horse-stance squat, “You must eat bitter before you appreciate sweet.  Which is why you will hold build up enough strength to hold that horse stance for 15 minutes before I teach you the next form . . .  Ouch.

Start creating some typos; I will be back in the next week or so for another post on this year’s U Chicago prompts.   

 

The University of Chicago Supplements for 2016-2017: A Quick Sample on Vestigiality

In Applying to the University of Chicago, Brainstorming a College Application Essay, Uncategorized, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay Example, University of Chicago Essay Prompts, University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2016-2017, Vestigiality Essay on October 21, 2016 at 11:28 pm

Greetings U Chicago Want-To-Be’s. Welcome to a look at the University of Chicago application essays for 2016-2017. Our topic today:

Essay Option 5.

Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.

—Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020

So there are plenty of vestigial artifacts in the world.  Take the internal combustion engine for example, or pull back to look at how we generate energy, and you will realize that we haven’t made all that many changes since James Watt perfected the steam engine in the 18th Century.  Seriously:  what is a nuclear reactor but a giant tea kettle?  So looking at technologies we really should be replacing is one way to go at this prompt.

On the other hand, I would point out  that our ideas about vestigiality are often  wrongheaded.  Do we not call many things useless because maybe we just don’t get it?  A short history of science shows that–and the most up to date science suggests that even your appendix still has a reason to be. (More on that in a moment.)

To me this question says more about our idea that the latest and greatest is always the best than it does about the usefulness of our appendix. So to turn this prompt against itself, which is often the best way to approach a UChi prompt, I would use the question  to explore how we define vestigiality. Most interesting of all is how each age has all the answers until the next age comes along to mock it, failing simultaneously to recognize its own blindness about other things.

Tiffany Kim may be a member of the class of 2020, which means that she graduated from high school with the latest and greatest that an uber-achieving youth could learn in AP Biology,  but her question is pretty 20th Century when it comes to her example:  the appendix. Those of us keeping the pulse of the newest and best in science learned recently that the appendix does indeed retain an important function, to wit: it appears that it is a refuge for all the good bacteria we need when our guts get disrupted and flushed by illnesses (think Montezuma’s revenge). It is to your body as a country estate was to somebody in early Renaissance Italy who retreated and closed the gates to wait out the plague, after which they would safely go out into the world again.  One pictures bacteria telling stories and engaging in libertine pursuits while they wait out whatever ailment is purging one’s guts.  (That’s a Decameron allusion, for those who want to know).

To justify my claims,  I quote one of only many sources for the new view on the appendix, here: Dartmouth says au contraire on the appendix. Of course,  we can lose the appendix and go on, though armed with modern science we might want to grab some probiotics any time we have an intestinal bug, but we can lose a lot of things it would be better to have and go on. Like our legs. I don’t find any of my body parts vestigial, even using my tailbone when I sit.

So much for vestigiality.  That’s your first lesson on how to look at a U Chi prompt from another point of view.

On the Other Hand

On he other hand, keep the idea of the prompt; instead of arguing that vestigiality itself is outdated, you could look at many contemporary and seemingly cutting-edge ideas as out-of-date.  In particular I think of all those ideas that are memes bouncing around in everyday speech, used by people who want to seem techno-hip and tres moderne.  Let’s face it:  once a cutting-edge idea filters out into the world of talking heads, you know it’s already a cliche.  In keeping with that spirit, let me offer my own short list of  cutting-edge pop-tech concepts that are already vestigial ideas:

Humans uploading their brains into computers to live forever

While I deeply admire the thought experiments about this concept from science fiction writers, (check out Solar Lottery by Philip K Dick, in which a man’s consciousness becomes trapped in a rapidly decaying robot-and that’s just a subplot), I think that the current guru peddling this idea, Ray Kurzweil, has painted himself into a corner, philsophically speaking, because he views the brain itself as a kind of computational device, which it isn’t. It produces its results in a way that relates only to computers in certain outcomes, but the processes are not alike:  No one’s and zero’s are being manipulated in circuits in the brain, and the brain in fact has no circuits.  We are using and analogy or a metaphor when we say the brain has circuits.

Before even wondering what a human being’s memories would be as data stored in a computer (hint:  not human memories)  Just ask these questions to check on how silly this idea is:  What does it mean to have a human mind without a human body, anyway? And when computers do “think” will it look anything like what we do? (No).  Can a computer can think about sex, hamburgers, how to catch the perfect break on a wave and wonder why its ankle itches? Does a computer fear death?  Does it like kittens?  Does a computer  have any emotions or need them? And conversely, is human thought in any way separable from emotion? (Last one has an easy answer:  Nope. ) That’s just a short list. For more reading, start here: Your Brain is not a Computer and vice-versa.) The real deal here is that people like Kurzweil and Peter Thiel fear death and are in the midst of creating their own techno-religion in which really smart rich guys can buy eternal life while they meanwhile tinker with how to construct AI systems that would not so much replace us as render us redundant.

The Humanities Don’t Matter

Speaking of A.I., when the robots take all our jobs, the only thing left for humans will be the humanities. And appreciating beauty and food and sex and looking at the stars and telling stories and painting. Oh, wait, that all is or is tied into the humanities. Poetry, anyone?

Tech will save us

It is necessary but not sufficient. Tech has changed many industries, but the fundamental social arrangments are still the same, and its the social agreements, like money, how it is made and who controls it that are the real deal.  Even with 24-7 online connectivity, the United States is still a capitalistic, commerce-driven representative democracy that provides most of the electricity keeping the internet real by burning fossil fuel, with all the externalities that comes with, like climate change and ocean acidification.  We are all connected all the time, but look at something like food:  even with drone delivery of food boxes, you’d still be dealing with a largely centralized  industrialized agricultural system with farmers or corporate farms shipping product to markets largely through middlemen, while  all those personalized, home-centered high-tech hydroponic wallgardens are pretty much what my old Italian neighbors used to have in their backyard (but used les energy to grow the stuff in the garden, which was in the ground, soaking up free solar energy from above, no constant water pumping needed).  Also notice how any technology with the power to transform and redeem also has the power to destroy. So you could say it’s all about politics and activism, supplemented by tech, kids.

A supplemental vestigial idea is that all these transformative technologies are totally powerful and totally safe, simultaneously. For an amusing example of this, consult any interview in which Craig Ventner, he of human genome fame, talks about Frankenstein and by doing so shows that he has never read the book,  while he explains  how his bacteria will save the world by creating diesel fuel that recycles carbon out of the atmosphere.  Of course it is not actually getting rid of any carbon, and it’s not doing anything about the energy inefficiency of having most of us in 1-2 ton vehicles that waste most of the energy that drives them, but at least it feels like some smart guy is going to save us.  To which I add one more thing:  Whole lotta water needed for that project, Craig.  Whole. Lotta. Water. And land.

 

That college is unnecessary for smart kids

Seriously?  It is totally fascinating to me to see all these Silicon-Libertarians who went to elite schools trashing college.  Take Peter Thiel and his foundation and fellowship.   Thiel has two Stanford degrees but advocates against college for smart kids and to promote  his idea has created his own little tech incubator on the cheap via his foundation.  Yes, that is what it looks like to me.  Gather the smartest kids you can interested enough to apply and go through the process, get them to present an idea they want to develop, and then give a small number of them money and support.  That’s a tech incubator, right?  Or is it the Ivy League?

And of course any tech incubator will have some slice of the pie that is baked in it.   That Thiel foundation does not look so altruistic anymore, does it? As a comparison with the Ivy League, the admit rate for the Thiel Foundation’s first Thiel Fellowship class was 6%.  Not a good admit rate, a bit better than  Harvard and Princeton, but not by much.  Of course,  the kids who got in get 100 grand and access to all kinds of Silicon Valley mentoring and venture capital, but so far they do stuff like make caffeine spray and marginal apps.  It’s probably a good experience for these kids, but it’s a totally skewed take on not going to college–how many people does Thiel want to hand 110k and mentoring to?  How many can shape a life without formal training?

If you want an unbiased and one-stop place to see if college is worth it in the terms most people [Especially those aging hipsters who all went to elite colleges hanging out with young hackers whom they tell not to go to college—Hmm, I really need a word for old parasites feeding on idealistic young tech kids–Tech vampires?  Sugar mommas and daddies?  Somebody help me out here]. Have a look here for more: College and Income from People You Can Trust [The Pew Center].

So that’s a few ideas, and the kind of thinking that you need to show in a U Chi essay.  Your mantra:  Don’t follow the herd.

And here’s my final tip: make your own list then start clicking to find ideas for you to build a case in your essay for U Chicago.

All the best until my next post on, um,  I’ll get back to you on that. OR get in touch and let me know what you need a post on—I follow the wisdom of the crowd for some new topics. Vote early and vote often . . .at wordguild@gmail.com.

Also contact me for editing assistance. ASAP actually, as sometime before Thanksgiving my calendar will likely be booked through January 1 (though the occasional spot will open up even then when a client misses a deadline).

 

 

The University of Chicago Application Essays: Prompt 2, Part 2

In Application, University of Chicago, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay Example, University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt Two, University of Chicago Application Essays, University of Chicago Translation Essay on July 10, 2014 at 10:53 am

I gave background to U Chicago’s Application Essay Prompt 2 in my last post; in this post, I will provide some more specific suggestions and sources for essay inspiration.  Before I do, here is the prompt, again:

Essay Option 2.

In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness”. In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.

Inspired by Emily Driscoll, an incoming student in the Class of 2018

Alrighty.  So my first suggestion is not to accept Ms. Driscoll’s argument that some words are untranslatable, because they are all translatable.  However, even once they have been translated, a foreign person still may not really get it.  One reason:  culture, which includes language but also history, philosophy, geography, weather, technology, etc, etc, etc.  A concept like the Chinese idea of Chi is actually pretty easy to translate but not so easy to fully understand–it can best be translated as energy but also can have to do with a person’s temperament and mood, with the weather and time of year and its influence on the person, with the “energy” or nature of food a person eats–and the chi of food alters as well, depending on the way food is cooked.  A fever manifests a disturbance in chi, but is also  a kind of chi in itselfand a martial artist of skill will use a person’s chi against him.

Notice that much of this does not fit the western concept of energy, though electricity is a also a kind of chi.  A nonnative speaker of Mandarin can become fairly fluent in the language but would need to, for example, study some martial arts under a master, maybe do some qi gong and learn about Chinese cookery, architecture and art in order to have a decent grip on Chi, on its meanings and manifestations in Chinese thought and experience.  So looking at language as an expression of culture, and at culture as a kind of closed room that must be entered and explored before many words–many concepts–can be fully understood . . .  is a good way to approach this essay.  There are also personal and familial reasons why a person may not be equipped to understand a word–even a native Mandarin speaker may not have the understanding of Chi that, say, a Taoist master who is also an acupuncturist and painter would have.

My second suggestion is to look at idiomatic expressions.  You might want to start with your own language, Oh Native English Speakers. Of course, given the different varieties of English, it can be argued that we Americans are speaking a foreign tongue to those Brits.  Or vice-versa.  A famous Brit whose name escapes my data banks once claimed that American speech is slang.  Contrasting the Queen’s English and the Colonies’ English is a fun exercise in itself–you can start with those slang and idioms that do translate, pairing them, then find idioms that do not translate at all; for example:

American English/Queens English

a dust up/argy bargy

cock up/snafu

biscuit or bikky/Cookie

bobby/cop

technical expert (or geek, in some uses)/boffin

screwed/buggered

opportunist, schemer or swindler/chancer

chat or gossip/chinwag

reconnoiter or check out/dekko

old man or boss or old and the boss (and dreary and annoying)/gaffer

The next step is not just to look at what the equivalent expression is, but to try to figure out why/from what the term came.  Again, notice that they are translateable, but there is a cultural flavor and flair with many slang expressions.  A good example is dekko, which is not English in origin; it comes from  British military slang and derived from the Hindustani dhek/dekho meaning “to see”. It is also less commonly decco, deccie, deek, deeks.  It is also an example of what I mean about language and culture.  The British Empire ruled over India for well over a century, and in the process of garrisoning India, it brought back more than chutney and curry. It brought back many words and forever altered British culture.   Given that many of British soldiers were also working class, you find quite a bit of this new language entering through more street or slang dialects, like Cockney, which also has a lot of Romany (these people are commonly called gypsy) words.  Like this: Put up your dukes, pal.  Look the last two words up for more.  They are Romany in origin.

Cockney itself would be an excellent place for you to look for inspiration, though you should keep in mind that Cockney has just about died out–the last true Cockney speakers were fading away by the 1990’s, pretty much as the East End of London faded as  a stronghold of working class whites/Cockneys.  Notice how slang evolution is tied into history and slang, as well as “proper” language evolves over time.   So slang and idioms are a great source for an essay like this, and you can use the wonders of the internet to look for ideas,  making lists of words and looking for ways to connect words and concepts that say something larger about culture.

To start working with idioms, try British slang, Cockney, and American slang as search terms and give it some time. There are many sites and posts devoted to this, and quality varies.  Make lists and double-check definitions against other sources and sites–I will provide some good dictionaries and other sources for looking up and crosschecking, below.  What makes you laugh would probably also make your essay reader laugh, which is a good thing (as long as they are not laughing at you.)

To recap and add an example:  the history of language and word meanings, whether they are considered idiomatic or otherwise, is  a great place to look for essay ideas and content–words do change meanings over time, just as words are born and words die.  In the 13th Century, the word gay   meant bright (brightly colored), cheerful, et al.  It had nothing remotely to do with sexual orientation.  Then, in 1890’s America, it gained a slang meaning–a gay lady was a prostitute (I guess somebody was happy.)   Then, in the 20th Century, the term, which already had a double meaning associated with being happy or bright, and with suspect or illicit sex, was assigned to homosexuals, then adopted by the homosexual rights movement; but this change in meaning then led to suburban youth by the 1990’s referring to something suspect or bad as “gay” –a change that illustrates the adolescent fear of being different,  especially sexually, and conversely, of punishing those who are different.  This is an example of a  psycho-sociological effect that is reflected in the change in a word’s meaning.  Words change all the time, but not always this drastically–fear and prejudice are powerful influences, even on words.  When you write your essay, your focus might be on how the history of language is closely tied to sociology and psychology.  Our words say a lot about us.

To close things out, I am going to recommend some source materials, and as part of that paste in a recent article that shows a good way to open an essay like this . . . Hello loyal readers.  This is the second post on this Chicago prompt, and you have to pay a subscription to my private blog to get full access to this post and quite a few other posts, past and future.  You have about half of the post available in this sample.  If this seems unfair, that’s probably because you have been taught to disrespect the value of written work, due to the parasitic nature of most of the big internet companies, which offer creators little compensation while essentially giving the creative work of others away for free.  A subscription for full access to all of my posts is available for the small price of $15.  You send me an e-mail, with the subject heading “subscription, please,” and I will send you an invoice for $15.   After you pay it, I will give you access to my private blog, which has all of my posts available in full, including the rest of this post.

One more thing–a caveat emptor–I do not delete old posts from other application years, partly as a matter of historical record, but also because many universities repeat the same prompts, or use prompts that are similar to prompts used in the past.  If you see that a post was put up during the last application season, you need to double-check to be sure about the prompts for this year’s applications at your specific universities–we are currently in the 2014-2015 application season.  The software of this site will link “related” posts, but they are sometimes from previous years.  Be sure to visit the university website to check on application requirements and timelines for this year.

Speaking of which, I am still accepting some college advising and application essay editing clients.  E-mail me soon to inquire and to secure a spot.  As of this writing, July 10, 2014, I am fully booked in early August, but can accept college application editing business in July and from the latter part of August on.  This will change in the coming weeks, of course,  as new clients take up existing space in my schedule, so it’s better not to wait too long.  I only have so much time. . . See you soon.

P.S.  The ads you sometimes see below some of my posts are inserted by the WordPress people.  Allowing them to advertise allows me to save expenses on this platform, and by keeping my fixed costs down, I am able to offer not only the most effective editing service you are likely to find, I am also cheaper than all those big operations you may have heard of.  I myself do not see the ads unless I access my own site via an outside search.  If you do dislike one of the ads, please let me know at the e-mail above, and I will have a look and contact WordPress, if necessary.  Thanks.

Back To The University Of Chicago Application Essays: What They Aren’t Telling Us About History (And What We Aren’t Noticing)

In Don DeLillo, University of Chicago, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago History Prompt, What They Aren't Telling Us on November 19, 2013 at 2:10 pm

This post is on last year’s University of Chicago prompts.  If you want to write an essay about history for a college app that would allow a response on this basic topic, go ahead and read the post below.  If not, this post is  totally history . . . but for this year’s University of Chicago prompts, you can go here:

University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2014-2015

These new posts are history in the making, which is where you should be. 

 

Overview of this Post:  I will address the history prompt of the University of Chicago in this post and describe three basic approaches to the prompt, supplemented by a miscellany of ideas and inspirations, supported by numerous informative and inspirational links that range from the old Cointelpro program to  NSA spying and Edward Snowden to social network “privacy policies” and Jaron Lanier and on to Harry Frankfurt, the philosopher who wrote the book On B********.  Not to mention Hannah Arendt, Daniel Goldhagen, and different ways the Holocaust is interpreted, also with links.   I conclude with a very strong movie recommendation for a film that examines what it means to live in a state ruled by secrecy–the film alone makes reading to the bottom of the post worth it.  The post is broken up into rough subtopics, but within some subtopics on how to approach the prompt, you will find multiple ideas.  And while you read, keep in mind what George Orwell wrote in 1984: He who controls the past controls the future.  He who controls the present controls the past.  Have at it:

I know, I know, it’s a long title for a little four thousand or so word blog post, but we must give the Windy City, the City of the Big Shoulders, Chi-Town, The Chill,  The City on the Lake and the City on the Make its due.   All of these phrases are or have been used for the City of Chicago, some of them still in use, some of them artifacts of history.  Which makes this an apropos intro to a blog post on the University of Chicago’s essay prompt about history, the latest in what is by far the greatest series of college essay prompts.

The Beginning of History

So let’s start with  a word about history.  It’s worth thinking about what history is before you write about it.  We begin, dear readers, with the fact that the man called The Father of History has also been called The Father of Lies.  His name was Herodotus, and he wrote a long book relating his inquiry–the Greek word for inquiry is historia–into the origins and conduct of the Persian Wars. It’s pretty much the decline and fall of the Persian empire.   He was born in what we now call Turkey, but the area in which he was raised was Greek culturally, and he viewed himself as Greek–which brings up the first thing about histories.  What’s in them depends on who writes them.  Given the times, Herodotus was pretty fair in his presentation, but one wonders what the Persian Wars would be called by a Persian.

Herodotus discusses in great detail the cultures and leaders involved, with granular detail on specific battles–that movie The 300  was, uh,  taken from Herodotus’ account of the battle of Thermopylae (I should say, taken from Herodotus, run through a Chippendale’s transmogrification machine and subjected to  historical revision injections until, voilà! 300 iron-pumping Trojans fighting in pull-up diapers, without the benefit of armor.  Thus we have what movies tell us about history–or really, about what sells tickets.  Not a bad topic idea, if I may say so.)

While Herodotus tried to be factual and would only use material he himself had learned directly from a source, this often included quite a bit of, ah, somewhat inflated and apocryphal if not downright fanciful information–such as his accounts of griffins, dragons and his introduction of the phoenix to the western world. (Search the page for “phoenix” to find Herodotus’ account.)  Like all of us, his ability to examine the underpinnings of knowledge and opinion in his epoch were limited, and he gave us his best version of the facts as he knew them.  Which is pretty much what any history does, but even the best have flaws.  So as I said, Herodotus the Father of History is a pretty good place to start with a prompt about history.  And before we dive deeper,  here is Chicago’s history prompt:

ESSAY OPTION 3.

“This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” — Don DeLillo, Libra.

What is history, who are “they,” and what aren’t they telling us?

Inspired by Amy Estersohn, Class of 2010

Returning to Herodotus for  a moment, and to why this man the Greeks called  The Father of History was also called The Father of Lies: later scholars took umbrage at his methodology, and condemned him because he took so many apocryphal stories at face value and included them in his book.  Like that Phoenix thing.  (One also wonders  if Xerxes really had his men whip the ocean at the Hellespont to punish it for wrecking his pontoon bridge.)  To be fair to Herodotus, living as he did on the edge of the Greek world and rubbing shoulders literally with people the Greeks considered barbarians, he was amazingly open-minded for his time and place.  And he did call it an inquiry, an historia, which does connote an open-ended exploration, which is what he literally did by traveling as he conducted his inquiry, seeing at first hand many places he wrote about. Imagine someone in the ancient world, traveling by foot, boat and animal, trying to run down the original source of every tale, or to double-check the veracity of every source in a work as large as Herodotus’ Histories, especially without tools like real libraries, much less the internet.  Not gonna happen.  Herodotus shows us that, in its origins, history is, indeed, a  kind of storytelling, shaped by the tools and knowledge available in his time as well as by his outlook–his personality.  So in the shaping of history, one place to look for a “they” and to examine what they aren’t telling us is to look at the writers of history and their circumstances–and there are many who write history who aren’t in fact  historians.  In our time, pundits seem to have replaced reporters, in a way that changes the ongoing narrative of recent events, substituting beliefs no more real than is the Phoenix while the history of the moment is recorded.

History as a Shifting Narrative

That would be my first way to look at the question, by looking at all histories as stories, and what is not told is a result of the outlook of the time and of its  limitations.  Each era is marked by limitations in the knowledge available, and also by limitations in what people seem able to see, by what information is accepted as relevant–behind the stories we know are many more stories untold, and what stories are told, and what they mean, changes with each era.   So what is “truth,” what becomes our  history, is a result of not just the incidents in time, but the perspective and tools of that place in time,  influenced as well by the individual personalities doing the research and writing. The “they” in the prompt can be historians, can be reporters, or pundits or even powerful interests setting up think tanks to shape public opinion, but “they” is also the culture at large, what we as a group are willing to hear and ready to understand.  There are pivotal people who do shape perception, who push it one way or another, by being in a certain place at a certain time, or by finding a new cache of overlooked, lost or secret material, or by simply putting all the pieces together.  Hannah Arendt, for example, famed for her phrase “the banality of evil,  or more recently, Daniel Goldhagen, who dismissed Arendt’s argument.

Speaking of which, one interesting example of how history is a changing narrative is what is usually called the Holocaust.  In the period after the war, multiple narratives developed about the holocaust–that it was an act of unspeakable evil committed by inhuman monsters;  that the average soldier didn’t participate in the machinery of genocide directly, and that the average German also did not–though they did turn a blind eye; that it was a mixture of conformity, fear and antisemitism that, step by step but without a clear overall plan, eventually led to the Final Solution.  But late in the century, continuing into the early part of this century, that narrative has shifted–with books like Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which detailed a very high level of knowledge and mass participation in the events of the Holocaust.  Daniel Goldhagen, the author, effectively indicts German culture at large, which is quite a change from many of the  earlier historical readings, which tended to see it as  caused by  a relatively small number of leaders who created the Final Solution piecemeal, over time, and who used a larger group of fanatics from the ranks of the SS and the Gestapo,  leaving the rest of the Germans as either ignorant, afraid or “just following orders.”  So what is being told–and what is being left out–also changes over time.  Goldhagen’ s swing to a broad assignation of guilt  to non-Jewish Germans as a whole, is highly controversial, but I think that just reinforces my point about history as a changing narrative–for more on that controversy, see this:  Willing Executioners?  Be advised that I have merely provided a couple of examples of different readings of this history–scholars have found over forty different frames for Holocaust studies, as shown here:  A Survey of Interpretive Paradigms.

Don Delillo and Us:  The Sum Total of Being Watched

We are a lot like Herodotus, who recorded so much apocryphal information from supposed witnesses, but instead of receiving our information via interviews that we may not be able to corroborate, we rely on media, and more and more for your generation, dear reader, not so much internet research as information spread through social media. I add here that I am fascinated by the degree of gullibility and cynicism that internet “knowledge” develops, but that would take an entire series of posts to address, so I’ll just move on now to  a consideration of Don Delillo and his context.   Since he’s the source of the quote, he is definitely worth knowing about.

The quote used in this prompt is from DeLillo’s novel Libra, (about the Kennedy assassination, in this anniversary year of the Event in Dallas, but it’s only a coincidence . . . or maybe not ) but Delillo’s breakout novel is entitled White Noise; it is about a professor at a small university, head of the Department of Hitler Studies (!), a field of his invention–but also an obvious parallel/parody of Holocaust studies–and the good professor’s  observations of the effects of a mysterious Airborne Toxic Event, especially on himself and his wife and family.  Fear of death is a major subject, as is the use of pharmaceuticals to deal with what ails us, including our fear of death.  I love that part, especially given when the book was written years before the idea of mood enhancing drugs became mainstream.   In a 1988 review in the New York Review of BooksRobert Powers memorably called him “chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction.”

I love that.   Delillo, a man of his Cold War generation, does see conspiracies,  if not everywhere, then as pretty frequent features in our social and cultural geography. Dialing the time machine back to Delillo’s salad days, Nixon was definitely not telling us for months that he was bombing the sovereign country of Cambodia as part of his Vietnam strategy; the CIA did not tell us they were spying on Americans in the 1970’s especially antiwar activists and others exercising the 1st amendment rights; the FBI didn’t tell civil rights leaders that their phones were tapped. But the rumors circulated, and the truth finally did out.  Or what we now about now came out . . . .Who knows what we don’t know?  For more on this era, start here: Cointelpro.

So Delillo has good reason to view history as being untold, as shaped by conspiracies.  And after the black sites of the CIA and “rendition” programs were revealed back in the “oughts”, it became clear that the same hidden machinery working away in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s had not gone anywhere.  Then came  Mr.  Snowden and his, ah, communications team, Glen Greenwold and Laura Poitras, and we learned we have all been spied upon, excuse me, have had our metadata analyzed and our communications mapped, with times and places.  Oh, and the topics we discussed noted.  Oh, and the discussions themselves recorded.  Oh, and our skype calls monitored and. . . never mind.

Delillo is, indeed, interested in what you might call the secret history behind history, and the past year has revealed a whole lot about the secret war in which we have all been pawns, witting or not.  Going further, Delillo has also defined a very specific role for writers as gadflies, as rebels, those whose job it is to  question the accepted values and beliefs of their cultures.  So history in Delillo is a bit like the proverbial iceberg, with what you can see only part of the story.  Why the events really happened and who is responsible lies underwater in an unseen world of unknown events and unknown causes for the events that are known.  I might add that documents released by Edward Snowden show that the NSA has, literally underwater, attached probes that extract the contents of various undersea communication cables,  sucking up every e-mail, et al, that goes through the conduits of international communication.  So the point of view in the Delillo approach to history is that you cannot  trust the authorities and you can never be certain that you have the whole story.

This is not a new idea, of  course; the legal grounds for the stuff our intel agencies and the Brits are doing go at least back to WWI  and the Espionage Act, or the Czar’s secret police or to Lincoln in the Civil War or to the Star Chamber and Queen Elizabeth’s secret police, and you can find examples of clueless authorities all the way back to the Book of Job, but Delillo and his baby boomer ideas of conspiracy, shaped by the Cointelpro revelations from back in the day,  take on a new life with Snowden and  what we might call the  Wikileaks school of history.  The they of the prompt, in this case, are not just the visible government, but the increasingly powerful cryptocracy that runs the show behind the scenes and which, like wizards, both protects and amplifies its  powers  through the  circular logic of secrecy,which I might summarize in this way: “We can’t tell you what what we are doing, but trust us, it saved thousands of lives, the details of which we can’t share because they are secret.  By the way, why aren’t you buying the geriatric brand of dogfood for your aging dog instead of that higher fat dogfood showing up on your charge card, and is that an illegal download of music we see on your hard drive?”

And this leaves aside the issue of the privatizing of war making and spying–Snowden himself was a contractor for the NSA, in effect a mercenary who didn’t like the principles under which his employer operated, and blew the whistle.

This second way to look at history as what we aren’t being told also introduces the digital world as perhaps the major factor in what is told and not told, what is known and by whom–which is quite an irony, if you consider the early promise of  the personal computer revolution, which was going to create a  libertarian wonderland of freedom, at least according to the first generation of Silicon Valley moguls. Many of them still seem to think this way  (and notice how Google, Facebook, etc, are Shocked, shocked!  To find spying going on!).

Clearly the advent of e-mail and then of social networks are providing a vast temptation to spy, and those who are spying–the They who aren’t telling us things–includes both private companies taking personal data in exchange for “free” services but not making any promises about what they may eventually do with our information, and government agencies who have clearly escaped the leashes of their supposed political masters.  These are huge forces shaping what is known, what is told, and what will be known and told in the future.

Spying always has to do with controlling  human behavior and winning conflicts–notice the targeted ads, aimed at getting you to buy stuff, as well as the intelligence spooks looking to see if you are a “person of interest,” which includes gathering intel on environmentalists,  but of course it’s been clear for years now that all kinds of peaceful domestic groups have been spied on–as here:  2005.  This kind of stuff is always  problematic, but especially at a time when it’s being shown that corporations are effectively writing some of our legislation and that much of the domestic spying seems aligned with particular corporate as well as intelligence interests, this seems, well, to justify the view that we are being conspired against.  Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean my e-mail isn’t being scanned.    And it’s not just the FBI, CIA and NSA that is spying on environmentalists–check out the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security’s activities for what I’d like to call Orwell light.

So it’s not just the government and its hidden minions (and not just the U.S. government, either) that is fodder for this essay prompt.  No, let’s face it, it’s the private sector and all those social networking empires as well–most famously Facebook–that play fast and loose with our privacy, scheming to make a buck on what they know about us.  If you’ve been around for a while, you even call it an erosion of privacy–as here: Facebook and the Erosion of Privacy.  And don’t get me started on Google, whose accumulation of data is being challenged in Europe.  One way to look at Google Glass is to see it as a handy way to record everything all of us is doing, voluntarily or not, through an ugly facial apparatus that our friends may choose to wear to, say, our party.  Plug in some facial recognition software and who needs drones to track people?  Even the Google model for ad prices, on the sales side,  echoes the NSA–this is what our ads are worth because this is our data proving what they are worth.  Trust us.

So we appear to have another essay topic here, folks, using the privacy (non) agreements of Google, Facebook, et al, in which the fine print allows them to change their use of whatever information they have on us at some point in the future.   As Jaron Lanier has said, these guys could get rich just on their search algorithms, but they have chosen to turn their  social networks into private spying agencies.  To whom most of us give quite a bit of information, many essentially putting their entire lives online.  If history is being shaped by these companies, what has recent history shown us about what they aren’t telling us?  You might want to actually pull up the agreement you have signed onto, by clicking agree, and reading it.  You might find an essay’s worth of material there, especially when you click on something like the timeline I linked above and look at the change–or what the heck, here it is again:  Facebook and privacy, a timeline.

Every Man Is An Island Or, The Problem Is Us As Well As “Them”

A final thing to consider, and I’ll keep it brief, is the way in which media today is creating a fragmented polity. Back in the day, say 1984, most people got their news from a daily paper, local radio, and one of  the big three television networks. Public radio and television were on the rise, but that’s about it.  A lot of local news had a particular flavor–conservative in conservative parts of the country, not so much on the coasts, but the overall mix was influenced by journalism done in major cities, from which the major networks broadcast–I mean ABC, CBS and NBC–maybe you’ve heard of them.

Now you have many more sources, but there is no longer as clear a mainstream narrative, driven by these major news organizations, who got many things wrong, but who also but tended to work toward the truth.  So a now vs. then comparison is also a fruitful way to look at how the news of the day, which is what becomes history, is being told.  Clearly journalism has changed, with advocacy becoming the dominant mode of journalism, while the major source of more objective reporting, the newspapers, is  in serious decline and long-form journalism is looking like an endangered species.  (This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it was the newspapers that drove all other news, in the old model; television took their cues, and most of their story ideas that mattered, from the newspapers.  This is still often true, and most internet news sources are actually parasites on other sources, especially newspapers.  Seriously, who came up with or wrote out the stories first?  By the way, I am still encouraging clients to pursue their journalism dreams–but as a Journalism major, be ready to be entrepreneurial, looking for new ways to be paid for content.  Somebody is going to have to produce news, and you know what market economics says about supply and demand . . . eventually content will be worth something again .  .  . maybe a lot, if you are lucky and smart enough to come up with the right venue or model . . . ).

As for what is wrong with the they in media, telling us what is happening today, just look at the kind of speculation about who’s going to run for president in the next election–it’s not reporting, it’s what I can only call bullshitting, no more real or relevant than sports fans talking about the chances of various teams next year.  (For more on the phenomenon of bullshit, I recommend philosopher Harry Frankfurt–you might start with this:  On Bullshit–a discussion.  You could also try Frankfurt writing on the topic here, a great source of inspiration for who “they” is, what isn’t being (honestly) told, and why.)

So in my last suggestions on topics, the “Them” in the question can be the media, especially the partisan media, but of course “them” also can mean us, as participants who buy the product and the b.s.  And no, I don’t think a U Chicago reader will object to this term, especially if you name drop Dr. Frankfurt, analytical philosopher.

The result of all these influences is a real decline in the ideal of objectivity, and it’s increasingly apparent that many people know what they want to know, and go to the outlets that tell them what they want to hear. Don’t believe in global warming?  Spend your time on Fox and websites like The Heartland Institute.  Believe that global warming is simply a finding of science and is happening?  Go to CNBC (with some caveats) or to Realclimate.org.  (I need to add here, having read a lot of science, from science sources, like GISS,  NSIDCThe Royal Society, et al, that it is clear that this climate argument does have a correct answer, which is that it is happening and that it is human driven, and that venues like Fox and Heartland produce smogscreens and misinformation on this matter, both bullshit and lies, not scientifically validated information.)

But back to my main subject:  the “they” in this final approach to the prompt is really, in the end, us–or many of us–who don’t want to know what we don’t want to know, and who don’t examine what we are getting–and not getting–from our trusted sources, or at least don’t test the stories by looking at other sources closely enough.  This is more true on the conservative side largely because of, in this order, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News–they have simply done a better job of establishing themselves and dominating the arena.  See this analysis of Fox, Wingnut Commander,  for more. And consider, as you think about this approach to the topic, where you get your own news–we usually don’t see our own blind spots, you know . . . it takes a lot of reading, listening and cross-checking over time, these days.

To return to the Greeks one more time before I wrap up, historia is not so much like Herodotus’ inquiry these days;  it’s more like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, with a babbling mass of prisoners chained down in darkness, staring at the shadows cast by a bluish screens, shadows which they think are real, and exchanging bad information as gospel truth. Or maybe not–scholars studying this matter disagree.

But speaking of bleak fictional worlds, just think of the possibilities of the future!  When your car, driven by Google, might lock the doors and take you right to the police station after somebody decides what you are e-mailing while the car speeds along is suspect.  Or maybe takes you to a CIA black site.  Keep in mind that I am writing in the best spirit of the Chicago prompts and am kidding.  Maybe.

And to End:  A Movie

And now I’d like to suggest, with my highest possible rating, a movie that will convince you that you don’t want to live in a surveillance state:  The Lives of Others.  Get it and watch it as soon as possible.  Then write a great essay.  I wish you all the best as you assess history in our times.

Good luck on your essay and let me know if you need editing help, by contacting me at

word guild@gmail.com

Yep, I use google mail, but I don’t use Google Docs–given the information available, I assume that they are all spying, after all . . .

Oh, and I accept the ads that may appear at the bottom of this post as necessary to support the wonderful platform of WordPress, but that does not mean that I endorse any specific product which may appear there.  Thanks for your support.

The University Of Chicago Essay Prompt On The Mantis Shrimp: Seeing Is Believing

In Mantis Shrimp Essay Prompt, University of Chicago, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2013-2014 on August 6, 2013 at 10:47 pm

This post will focus on another Chicago prompt with both humorous and philosophical  potential, yes that one on the mantis shrimp.  To refresh your memory, here it is:

ESSAY OPTION 4.

The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain.

Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu

What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?

Inspired by Tess Moran, Class of 2016

There are many options for approaching this prompt, but all of them begin with perception.  Here’s the thing:  cones and rods shape what comes into the brain to be seen, but seeing takes place in the brain.   And I’m not sure how far you can really go in talking about what a stomatopod  sees, even with this kind of groovy visual apparatus to riff on, without talking about yourself–when it comes to consciousness, let’s put it in video terms:  you’re Halo and the mantis is Pong.  As soon as you have a thought beyond “eat now” or “run away” about what you are seeing, you do more than a mantis shrimp does with all its rods, cones, infrared, multifocal and other apparatus.  Though I’d hate to get into a game of table tennis with a human-size mantis shrimp.  Speaking of which,  you will likely have to move to an anthropomorphic approach pretty quickly with this prompt if you are going to do anything with it.

With that as a preface, I would like to observe that the cross-species  thought experiment proposed in the mantis prompt is more complex than it might seem at first, and it opens up the opportunity to be a bit philosophical, and even serious, if you wish.  I will discuss this more specifically  when I discuss what I call Option Two, below.  Keep in mind that, as in all of my prompt and essay analysis,  all of my “options” are arbitrary–these are just  starting points for ideas, not the last word.   But also keep in mind that the trick with a strange or open-ended prompt is to come up with some way to organize your thinking, first by understanding and breaking down the prompt and then by being able to list and categorize ways to approach it–if you don’t do this first, you may end up floundering as you try to slap together disparate ideas.

And also be aware  that when you talk about this shrimp you are really talking about yourself, showing the reader what you are like as an individual, which is, of course, the point of all the U Chicago prompts.

The most obvious way to break down the approaches to this prompt is,  first, to  try to walk a mile in the shrimp’s, uh, pereiopods, writing about the world the shrimp would perceive, then shift to some observations about and an elaboration on the interplay of perception and reality, or on how we are shaped by our environments, or pivot from what the shrimp sees to a humorous human topic.

And now a word from your author:  this post, my friends, is on a University of Chicago prompt from the year 2013-2014.  We are now in the application cycle for 2014-2015.  If you feel I tricked you by making you read a few paragraphs before telling you this, just consider how we have already had a look at perception and reality as well as having started to look at options for an essay like this.  You can continue reading for more, or you can go to the link immediately below, for a quick explanation about how to use my blog, as well as links to currently available college application essay prompts–most of them won’t be online for this year until August 1st, though many schools leave their old prompts up until August 1st.  Now that is tricksy.  For more on why this post is here, as well as posts on this year’s college app prompts, click here:  College Essay prompts and other information, 2014-2015

The First Approach:  My Life as a Shrimp

To start with, it’s not even a shrimp.  It’s called  a mantis shrimp because it has a resemblance to both of the species in its name.  So you could spend some time on the “shrimp,” learning a bit about it, then write.  Not that a whole lot is actually known about this creature.

By the way, the word shrimp, while misapplied here, comes form an old Norse word (that’s Viking-speak, to you) and seems to have originally been applied to denote a skinny if not starving cow, among other things, coming from a root verb having to do with shriveling up.  The word skimpy seems to be related to this root as well. I note all this because you have to start an essay somewhere, and even if the mantis is not really a shrimp, as noted above, when you are making stuff up,  start with some facts, however tangential.  Then take it somewhere surprising and interesting.  Maybe the mantis in your essay resents being called a shrimp and wants to talk about that.

On the other hand, consider what it’s like to be chased by a mantis, to be its prey, as here, where a mantis shatters an old glass a crab tries to use for shelter:  World’s Deadliest (video starts after an ad.  Thanks to National Geographic).  Hard to avoid being anthropomorphic here, as well, but that’s the way it is, with this prompt.

So I do encourage research–as you can already see, I have done some–but more of a tangential nature than of the formal research paper kind, though if you want to take a scientific slant, you could go all kinds of directions–what is happening to the kind of shallow-water habitat that the mantis needs as the oceans warm with climate change; or how ocean acidification is affecting shellfish of various kinds (hey, the mantis as a species is literally going to see these changes in its habitat –the fact that it has no clue about what is going on both emphasizes the fact that you do, or can, if you conduct a little research, and it also emphasizes the responsibility that those of us with human consciousness have for those changes, both in addressing them and in bearing responsibility as their cause.)

You could also write a kind of faux-scientific entry on the shrimp–you know, start with the facts, then invent a whole set of  new “facts” or do a takeoff on something, making a turn into satire–a home improvement show for a mantis shrimp, shopping with a mantis, Mantis Iron Chef.  Whatever.  If you want to do humor, start listing ideas, the more ridiculous the better, then you begin with what it sees and take off into fantasyland from there.   Pimp my Mantis Ride.

After looking at the mantis as predator, it’s also interesting to consider it as dinner, as I found here:  yum, yum.  And if you happen to live in northern California and want to see one in captivity–this does not happen often, for reasons the link with the prompt makes clear–the Monterey Bay Aquarium has one on display currently:  On Display.

Option Two

Use the shrimp as a starting point to talk about a philosophical matter raised by this imaginative activity–in other words, work with what this prompt says about  what it means to be human or what it means to be sentient at all.  This could focus on human imagination, perception, creativity, all of which you have to call on to write about what shrimp sees when it sees.  This prompt raises  serious philosophical issues in the realms of ontology and epistemology  the shrimp is having an experience, but one quite different from you, one that his determined by its physiology and environment, just as yours is. What does it mean for you to imagine yourself as that animal?

Others before you have thought about thinking about the experience of being another creature–the philosopher Thomas Nagel, for example, who used a similar trope  to examine materialist assumptions about the mind, and argued that a purely mechanistic view of the brain leaves out what it feels like to be embodied as a specific creature.    Nagel discussed this back in the 1970’s, in a famous essay entitled, What Is It Like To Be A Bat?  He noted that we can think about what it means to be a bat–nearsighted, using sound to navigate, etc–but we can never know what it really feels like to be the bat itself; there is something to the individual experience that remains ineffable and unknown from the outside.  Something that demands respect.  I think his critics have missed that last point as they felt he was attacking the materialist approach to the brain as a sort of mechanism, a biological entity which can be broken down.  It certainly is, but that hologram we call the self that arises from it also deserves some respect.

For more, take a look at Nagel’s original essay here–I recommend it most highly;  the first paragraphs alone will give you a lot to think about: Nagel.  

From Nagel’s point of view,   we can only talk in a superficial way about what a mantis shrimp can see, from its point of view,  because to do so means talking about its conciousness, not just a range of the visible spectrum–there are a number of ways to talk about why it sees what it sees, including habitat, evolution, the mechanics of its trifocal eyes, etc–but we have to pull back from claiming to know its actual, individual experience.  Yes, I know, the consciousness of a being this far down the cognitive scale from us is hardly a consciousness at all, but Nagel is also indirectly making a profound argument that we should respect the subjective experience of every sentient being as he discusses what it’s like to be a bat–we are more than we appear to be, all the time, and only we know and own our own experience–even if we are the fascinating, ferocious but cognitively primitive mantis shrimp.

I find it interesting that most of the counter arguments  to Nagel which have been written since do exactly what he suggests they cannot do, by presuming that we will, at some point, be able to map brain activity well enough to show what it is like to be any sentient being and/or that, in being able to manipulate the cognition and experience of a mind, through chemical manipulation, for example, tinkering with dopamine or some other brain chemical, that we know it.  Messing with my head is not the same as being me–a point Nagel would agree with.  And reading a map, even in 3-D, on a screen, even via a virtual reality helmet or goggles, is not the same as being in the territory, or being the territory itself, whether of a stomatopod, a mantis shrimp, a human or  a bat; only the creature  in the moment can be the consciousness,  in the moment  (The map vs. the territory or vice versa is an interesting thing to explore and has been, in philosophy and fiction–I’ll leave that one to you to look up).  I also find this interesting to consider this issue in the age of Facebook and other social media–just as even a relatively simple creature like the mantis shrimp is beyond our real understanding, so are we all more than what an FMRI scan can show, or a Facebook profile, or our meta data, for that matter.  What does it mean to know or to be known–the biggest ontological question of all, folks.

Do some research and start scribbling down ideas and be aware of what you assign to the shrimp, Oh Human.    Good luck and see you soon.  I may return to the Chicago prompts within a week or so, but I’d also like to get to some of the slowpokes (Princeton, I’m talking to you) in the Ivy league.

 

University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt 4: A Lesson in Invention and Homonymic Non-Sequiturs

In College Application Essay Example, Essay About A Quote, Essay and Literary Terms, Essay Beginning With a Quote, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay Example, University of Chicago Essay Prompts on July 25, 2012 at 11:05 am

This post ranges far and wide as it covers prompt 4 for the University of Chicago for this year.  Warning:  this is one of my few remaining “freebie” posts for this year.  Other posts will be available completely only on my private website, which is open to subscribers and college advising or application essay editing clients.

Essay Option 4.   “…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present.” –The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern   Present: pres·ent   1. Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift.   Let’s stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.   Inspired by Jennifer Qin, admitted student Class of 2016.

This prompt, like the other U of Chicago prompts, opens up a vast space for invention and creativity by asking you  to respond to  what I will call a homonymic non-sequitur.  But even with a quote prompt that repurposes its source material, like this one, it is still a good idea to look at the source of the quote.  In this case you are more interested in understanding the weltanschauung of this prompt and in seeking inspiration than you are in getting some obscure information to use in the essay. You are, after all, going to be writing a work of fiction here.

The source of the quote in this prompt, The Rose Rabbi, is a near-future or alternate history novel, depending on how you look at it.  So we will begin with a quick look at The Rose Rabbi, then discuss other topics that are worth exploring before writing to this prompt, including  a thematic discussion  in which I reference lyrics by The Talking Heads.  This will be followed by   a quick assessment of the homonym and its origins in the history of the English language   and, for the first time this year, I will conclude this post by dashing off an example essay responding to this prompt.

I generally don’t use example essays for specific prompts because this tends to funnel people toward a particular response, but since I will be inventing a history for that great gift to civilization called espresso, I don’t think there is a danger that I will be coopting somebody else’s idea or, on the other hand, steering too many people toward my topic.  Especially since I will be claiming that espresso was developed as an adjunct experiment during the Manhattan Project.

The Source of the Prompt:  The Rose Rabbi and Its Theme

The Rose Rabbi is about a gent named Wolf Walker who tries to understand how he has arrived where he is in his life.  This after being tasked with discerning whether one the clients of his advertising agency is the mafia.  The novel is set in a New York and in a world which are both like and very much unlike ours, with political chaos widespread and the “Chateau Wars” engulfing Europe.  Employed in the world of  the huckster, of those who try to shape the reality of others, Wolf grapples with the great philosophical questions as he reaches his 40th birthday and tries to make sense of his life and place in the world.   The Talking Heads aptly summed up the existential situation captured in this novel in the song Once in a Lifetime:

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

So that’s Wolf’s problem.

Your problem in writing about this prompt is a little more Shakespearean, though I think your essay should be informed by the spirit of Once in a Lifetime.  What I mean by my reference to Shakespeare  (and those of you who come to English after learning another language are more sharply aware of this than are most native speakers)  is the fungibility of English vocabularity, the source of our rich tradition in puns and of this essay prompt.

The Prompt:  Homonymic Causality With Non Sequitur Results

Ms. Quin, the author of our prompt, presents a literary non sequitur, conflating one definition of the word present with another.  She is, of course, also working with a pair of homonyms to define her prompt, and I emphasize that, in choosing a definition and therefore a word that the original sentence did not intend, she is using a non sequitur that emphasizes this prompt’s attitude as well as establishing parameters for the topic.  To put it more concisely, she’s inviting you to play:  Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc. — pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.

Her homonymic invitation is deeply related to the nature of English.  We English speakers are citizens of a mongrel linguistic world, for English is a pastiche of languages, Germanic at its root, an offspring of Norse cousins, reshaped by French, injected with Latin and Greek and borrowing from most major languages in the world.  Even something as seemingly All-American as a cowboy riding up to a bunkhouse and asking, “Who’s the head honcho around here,” shows the mixed nature of English.  Honcho comes into English  from Japanese, and appears in English for the first time in the years after World War II, as a slang term interchangeable with “boss” .  In Japanese it means “Master Sergeant,” and it became the term G.I.s used during the occupation of Japan when they wanted to find out who was in charge (noncommissioned officers are always in charge–ask any officer).  The very history of this language is nearly as strange and convoluted as any imaginary history you could write.

As a result, we have a language composed of many languages, with words  from completely different sources sharing the same space. Many of these words,   jostling elbows as they find a place in the language, come to sound and look like existing words.  Thus you have a rich supply of homonyms both native and imported.  In this prompt,  present, that point in time between past and future, and present, a gift.  Think about this phenomenon  as both a philosophical matter and as a source of material.  In this way, the language itself is a gift to all of us.  In fact, word etymologies are a great place to start considering where anything comes from, even if you are going to make up a history for the object or metaphor in question.

If  this topic intrigues you but you are having trouble getting traction, I would suggest that you  start by having a look at both the word gift and the word present.  Try a good dictionary, like The American Heritage Dictionary or a good dictionary app, like the free Merriam Webster app through the App Store.  Be sure to consider the etymologies of these words and to check out the synonyms and usage discussions.

Next, think of gifts broadly, listing objects that were gifts to you or discovered by you in one way or another,  and then move on to substances, ideas, places, traits, and accidents or coincidences that you could now see as gifts.  Eventually you will find a suitable “present” for which you can invent a history. Need I say that a gift may have been given intentionally or simply stumbled upon?  A trait received from a parent or an answer to a question?    A work of art (a poster facsimile counts here) or a bridge over troubled water?  (Note that the latter is a metaphor, per the prompt.)

Start  brainstorming.  Don’t forget:  you are inventing a history, so if you know the real history of the “present,” you need to make up some sort of alternate history that may include some facts but which should, to some degree, be your invention.  Feel free to use your own non sequiturs.

And now I will, in keeping with the spirit of the prompt, and name dropping the U of Chicago in a wink-wink kind of way,  fabricate a history for one of the great “presents” offered us by modern culture:  espresso.  Look below the essay for links and explanations that show how I mix fact with fiction in my “Secret History of Espresso:”

Espresso: Ah, the nectar of the gods, the elixir of invention, the quintessence of the coffee bean.  Espresso is perhaps the greatest gift bequeathed to us by the marriage of nature and technology,  and it is itself the father of more inventions than can be counted.  How many late-night cram sessions, how many tech start ups, how many moments of artistic insight can be attributed to its influence?  How many millions stand in line each morning, awaiting its benediction?  Yet its true history is almost unknown.  In fact, dare I say, I alone possess the true secret of the origin of espresso.  And now I am, for the first time, going to share this tale with the world.

It all began in the dark days of World War II.  Scientists assigned to the Manhattan project needed a version of coffee in keeping with their theoretical work related to  the relativistic universe, and not wanting to master the engineering challenge presented by creating sub-atomic-sized  cups of coffee, they settled for the demitasse holding an essence of coffee distilled at high speed and drunk slowly.  They used a prototype nuclear reactor to heat the water and high pressure pumps to force the atomic water through a fine grind of coffee.  All well and good.  But then, after an experiment with time travel via wormholes went wrong, espresso was introduced into turn-of-the-century Italy.  

This occurred when a scientist named Luigi Bezzera, having just distilled a fresh cup of espresso from the experimental, reactor-driven espresso machine which was located in the lab under the bleachers at the University of Chicago, trotted directly into a wormhole time-travel experiment being conducted by Enrico Fermi.  Bezzera found himself suddenly transported to his grandfather’s village in Italy in the year 1899, still holding the freshly made espresso.  The villagers, attracted by the enticing  odor of the pungent extract of the coffee bean wanted to know, “How did you make that?”  Lacking a nuclear reactor but able to utilize the mechanical and metallurgical talents of the extended Bezzera  family to whom he was thus awkwardly introduced, Luigi perfected the first espresso machine in 1901.

It was as a result of this that espresso  is widely but incorrectly thought to have been invented  early in the 20th Century, in Italy, where it changed history by providing energy and inspiration to generations of espresso-drinking philosophers and rebels, and also established the paradox called the Doppio effect, a little-known corollary of both the Grandfather Paradox of time travel and the Twins Paradox of relativity.  This was illustrated when Luigi visited the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, in 1904, with a portable example of his new espresso machine and, demonstrating it to a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein, provided the inspiration for Einstein’s insight into the relativity of time by producing a beverage distilled from coffee beans at near-light speed.  The rest is scientific history. 

This is, of course, also an example of the Mobius-strip pattern of history as it is Einstein’s Special and General Theory of Relativity that led  to the moment under the bleachers when Luigi wandered, espresso in hand, into a gap in the space-time continuum, which then led to the transplantation of espresso technology to an earlier time and Italian place which led to . . . me having the gift of espresso-fueled inspiration for this little history, as I plot my own journey through the space-time continuum,  from high school to  the University of Chicago, where espresso was really invented.  

Some Links and Etc for my Secret History of Espresso:

On wormholes, time travel and what Al Einstein has to do with it:

Are Wormholes Tunnels for Time Travel?

Enrico Fermi and the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago (I presume that Enrico did drink espresso, but would have picked this habit up in his native Italy where it actually was invented.  No pets were hurt in my little experiment in fictional history and many of my basic facts were true)

Fermi at U of Chicago

For Albert Einstein in Bern, Switzerland, where he did, indeed, work as a patent clerk while writing his treatise on Relativity:

Einstein in Bern

Last but not least, I offer my apologies to the great Luigi Bezzera, who actually did invent the first espresso machine, though he was not transported half a century back through time to do so . . . I add that the modern pump expresso machine  can be traced to the Faema machines from the 1960’S. Here’s an espresso timeline

Espresso Past and Present

And if you happen to by touring San Francisco, you can check out a couple of early-20th Century tower espresso machines still in operation at Tosca Cafe, then go around the corner to Trieste for a modern espresso in a classic environment, or across the street to Cafe Puccini or visit Roma (Warning:  Tosca uses boozy additives to most of their “espresso” drinks.

Tosca

And finally, note that this blog post, including my example essay, is copyrighted material, available for use by individuals but not to be shared or used commercially without my express, written permission.  (Need I add how dumb it would be to copy my essay and present it as your own work?  Also note that this essay is 587 words long and so would need to lose about a paragraph of material to fit the 500 word limits imposed by the authorities. If this were your essay, and you asked me to edit it, I’d eighty-six the last paragraph.)

University of Chicago Application Essay Prompt 3: The Dark Lady

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Susan Sontag, Susan Sontag on Silence, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Essay Prompts on July 19, 2012 at 12:31 pm

This post will discuss Ms. Sontag and her quote at great length, but I will also focus on the broader problems of responding to quote prompts, particularly the context issues that quotes raise.

The Lady and the Prompt

Here she is,  in Essay Option 3:   Susan Sontag, AB’51, wrote that “[s]ilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend. The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967.   Anonymous submission.

Part 1:  Watch Your Context

As usual, I want my readers to know some of the backstory for the prompt and the issues they must tackle to write a response to the prompt.  This despite an e-mail about my recent posts on Chicago.  In this e-mail, I was asked why I didn’t just let people make it up, slap something together on the fly, in keeping with the spirit of the U Chicago Scavenger Hunt.

My response–Go ahead, if you want to, but here’s the problem:  this isn’t a scavenger hunt.  It’s an essay.  And among other things, you would probably like to have an original idea for this essay, right?  And you’d like to relate your essay to the quote.   But how do you know if it’s original?  And how do you know what to make of the quote?

One way to answer the first question is to say you can’t know how original your idea is.  You may have a great idea that is so amazing that nobody else has ever thought of it.  Just like Alfred Russell Wallace, who had a great and crazy idea nobody else had, so he sent it to the greatest living expert in his field–check out what happened here.

Because literally thousands of people will be responding to this prompt, you can expect that a seemingly original idea may have a twin or even an extended family out there.  Alfred Wallace was still a brilliant and original thinker, even if you didn’t recognize his name.  His application file would definitely be stamped “admit.”

So my advice is paradoxical:  Do the research and thought needed to come up with an original essay, but don’t obsess over how original your idea is.

There are some basic mistakes you will then avoid. As an example, you don’t want to invert or reverse a quote’s intent and meaning unless you know you are doing it and have a reason for the reversal.     It’s pretty easy to take a quote out of its context and get it badly wrong.  Even though our app readers will understand that you are reacting to the quote from your own particular place and time, they will also not be able to help cringing if you  get it totally wrong and seem blissfully unaware of it.

This is a pretty common problem, and not just in application essays.  For an example, just look at what Justice Antonin Scalia did to poor Robert Frost–In support of a ruling about separation of powers, Justice Scalia quoted Robert Frost thus:

“Separation of powers, a distinctively American political doctrine, profits from the advice authored by a distinctively American poet: Good fences make good neighbors.”

Dude, you are so blowing your quote there.  This is like saying, “Well, as Shakespeare tells us, To thine own self be true.” It’s a particularly egregious mistake for a guy like Scalia, who spends all his time arguing that the law means what it was originally meant to say.

Why?  In the first example, Scalia isn’t quoting Frost the man here; he’s quoting a character in a poem by Frost, a character who is described as being like a brutish caveman.     The poem itself doesn’t argue that walls are great or even a good idea; it questions the value of walls and fences and associates walls with darkness and latent violence.  Read it and see, here.    And it’s Polonius, the slimy yes-man to the evil Claudius who speaks the Shakespeare line.  He’s speaking it to Laertes, who will mortally wound Hamlet through the deception of a poisoned sword.  Right on, man!  Be true to your own selfish, murderous self!  Using this line as a positive aphorism is a good example of philistinism.    (Bonus activity:  Try using “To thine own self be true,” combined with the name Ayn Rand, as a search term if you want to have some fun.)

The point is this:  You should assume that your app readers are  literate in the older sense of the word, in the sense of having read widely and deeply, and that they know something about the quotes you respond to.   So before writing in response to the Sontag prompt, I would suggest knowing something about her and about the specific source of this prompt.  Try looking at the links I annotate below; after the links, and hopefully after you have taken some time to read them, I will turn to some of the many ways you might interpret this quote without mangling it.

To begin with, the quote is from one of Sontag’s essays called  “Aesthetics of Silence” which was published in her collection “Styles of Radical Will,”  a work available on Google Books here:The Aesthetics of Silence  You should read the whole essay, but she cuts to the chase in Part 2 of the essay, beginning on page 5, where she details retreats into silence.

Next, you should have  a look at this link, at what I suspect is the efficient cause of this prompt–the Sontag essay is on this U of Chicago Media Studies page devoted to . . . silence:

http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/silence.htm

This includes a rich discussion of exactly what the prompt asks for.

Then it might be wise to learn a bit more about the author,  Unfortunately, one of the best places to get a quick overview of her biography, work and  influence is in an obituary, as she died in 2004.  Try this obit on Sontag in The Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2004/dec/29/guardianobituaries.booksobituaries

If you want to keep reading about her and want to check out more of her work, the New York Review of Books has this page with links to her writings and writings about her:

http://www.nybooks.com/contributors/susan-sontag/

And finally, one of her best essays, called Looking at War, in which she analyzes “Photography’s view of devastation and death” was published in the  New Yorker in 2002.  This essay is particularly interesting as she talks about how the viewer of a photograph forms the meaning of a photograph. You, of course, are going to take a quote and make meaning out of it.  We’ve got what you might call an epistemological parallel going.

The text of the article is not behind the New Yorker’s paywall but, sadly, the incredible photographs published with the article are not included here–due to some copyright issues, I’m sure.  These are all shocking photos; in one example, a militiaman in a neatly pressed uniform,  with his sunglasses pushed back on his head, his  Kalashnikov dangling from one hand and his cigarette daintily raised in the other, is swinging a boot to kick  the head of a woman lying face down on the pavement.  The woman appears to be dead or dying.  Sontag had a commitment to seeing and writing about what she saw, whether it was horrifying or beautiful.  You can read the article here Looking at War.  (Late Addendum–I have just found the article posted as a pdf, with the photos, at the following link; the image quality is a bit compromised, but worth a look; copy and paste this address into a new window in your browser:  http://www.uturn.org/sontag_looking_at_war.pdf )

Part 2:  Some Approaches to the Quote

Approach 1

Whoa, heavy and serious, you may be thinking.  Well, yes, Ms. Sontag was very serious about her work, and the quote does present a serious argument for the value and meaning of silence.  Specifically, as you know having read The Aesthetics of Silence, Sontag was looking at artists who renounced their work or retreated into silence, and to other ways that silence can be both a haven and a statement.  This makes sense for a writer who focused with some regularity on the grotesqueries and philistinism to be found in our consumer culture.  She’s after an aesthetic for the artist and thinker, and her tone was often critical, detached, and paradoxical–note how she asserts in this same essay that   “Art becomes the enemy of the artist.”

So you might be constructing an essay that follows the lead of Sontag.  If you are, you need to know something about paradox.  (If you’ve looked at my posts on the other U of Chicago prompts, it’s deja vu all over again.) You might want to write about a time you used silence constructively, or as a shelter, or as a renunciation or as an assertion of the self,  in an act of authentic resistance to shallow blabber.  You could build on what you’ve learned about Sontag and the source essay directly.

Approach 2

On the other hand, the two most important requirements of the prompt are that the experience be personal and that silence play a role in your response and in the outcome.  You could go in a completely different direction.  For example, silence is often assent. This can be a good  thing  or a bad thing.  This can be an intentional affirmation through silence or  it can be acquiescence.

You might follow the example in another famous quote, that of Martin Niemoller, speaking of the response to the Nazis in Germany:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Here we have acquiescence, silence as an act, out of fear.  All of us have been silent out of fear or apprehension at some point, so this could be fertile ground for an essay.  Perhaps you silence was unwise or made you complicit in something wrong–handle this with care–perhaps your fear was well-grounded and your silence wise.

On the other hand, somebody in a meeting in which Roberts Rules of Order are being followed is offering positive affirmation when by remaining silent when the chairperson asks if there are any nays, and the person does not speak.

Or maybe you have been in a setting in which silence was a rule, intended to create a meditative or contemplative environment, or to foster nonverbal communication.  Taoist and Buddhist cultures have places reserved for silence . . .

Or maybe you spend time out in nature, observing, where you have discovered the virtues of silence, what silence allows you to see or what silence brings to you (is this also true in some social settings?  That those who constantly talk cannot see, blinded as they are by themselves?)

And what about that John Cage composition 4’33”, composed of . . . silence . . . or the sound that fills the hall when the instrument is silent . . .

Have fun with the process and look for a post on prompt four for U of Chicago soon.  And remember what Hamlet said:  The rest is silence.

What a closer!