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Posts Tagged ‘University of Chicago Essay’

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.

University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2015-2016: Crazy and Crazier

In Applying to the University of Chicago, College Application Essay, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Mantis Shrimp Essay Prompt, Sapir-Whorf, University of Chicago, University of Chicago Essay Prompts 2015-2016 on July 10, 2015 at 1:21 pm

Or not.  I like U Chi’s  approach to essays and appreciate the challenge they throw down, and even if their prompts are sometimes pretentiously self aware of cleverness more than they are truly clever, they do open a window of fresh air into the stale halls of the college application essay.  If you need some help with getting into the spirit of things, just chant, “U Chi is to the application essay as Stanford is to the marching band.

One thing you can count on with Chicago is some latitude–the off-the-wall essay is more welcome here than anywhere else–but keep in mind that the usual warnings about being a whiner or offensive still apply. You are still writing to a human audience, and you still need to consider their response to you. And hey, even the Stanford marching band, where “anything goes,”  has discovered that not everything does go.  Same goes for the U Chicago essay.  You still need to use some judgment about how you look on paper.  And conduct some due diligence investigations before you write, otherwise known as research.  More about that below.

Directly below I splice in the U Chicago essay prompts, to save you opening multiple windows–under the prompts, I will begin discussing how to address some of them, including that wonderful new option of choosing an essay prompt from past years to write about.  Here are the prompts, followed by Part I of my analysis:

2015-16 UChicago Supplement:

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.

Question 2 (Optional):

Share with us a few of your favorite books, poems, authors, films, plays, pieces of music, musicians, performers, paintings, artists, blogs, magazines, or newspapers. Feel free to touch on one, some, or all of the categories listed, or add a category of your own.

Extended Essay Questions:

(Required; Choose one)

Essay Option 1.

Orange is the new black, fifty’s the new thirty, comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll, ____ is the new ____. What’s in, what’s out, and why is it being replaced?
—Inspired by Payton Weidenbacher, Class of 2015

Essay Option 2.

“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.” –Maxine Hong Kingston. What paradoxes do you live with?
—Inspired by Danna Shen, Class of 2019

Essay Option 3.

Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
—Inspired by Drew Donaldson, Class of 2016

Essay Option 4.

“Art is either plagiarism or revolution.” –Paul Gauguin. What is your “art”? Is it plagiarism or revolution?
—Inspired by Kaitlyn Shen, Class of 2018.

Essay Option 5.

Rerhceseras say it’s siltl plisbsoe to raed txet wtih olny the frist and lsat ltteres in palce. This is beaucse the hamun mnid can fnid oderr in dorsdier. Give us your best example of finding order in disorder. (For your reader’s sake, please use full sentences with conventional spelling).
—Also inspired by Payton Weidenbacher, Class of 2015. Payton is extra-inspirational this year!

Essay Option 6.

In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

Essay Option 7.

In the spirit of historically adventurous inquiry, to celebrate the University of Chicago’s 125th anniversary, please feel free to select from any of our past essay questions.

College App Jungle Advice and Analysis on the U Chicago Prompts for 2015-2016 Part I

Things not to do in the U Chicago essay:

No true confessions of your darkest thoughts/fears/desires

No whining

No begging

No plagiarism

No (obvious) bragging

Remember:  they do not really know you. There will not be any body language for them to see, no nudge-nudge, wink, wink to convey that you are kidding; they won’t see you outside of the data and activities reported and the essays that you send–as with all college applications, you are a kind of holograph arising from a few screens of words and numbers.  So “honesty” and “being yourself” are hedged terms, even here, and even here you are crafting a self to present to an application reader.  Just ask this:  which of your selves would you let into college?   And then show that self, with maybe a shot of extra zany thrown in.

Things to consider doing:

Research.   You may not end up actually including any new information learned from research in your essay, and in fact your essay should not read like some plodding and serious piece of research, but doing some research helps frame things and may give you some ideas on how to be creatively weird (instead of factually correct and/or boring).  Doing research is always advice I give for the Chicago prompts, which inevitably have some kind of scientific or intellectual background, even when they intentionally warp it, and this is  especially true this year, because Chicago is taking us into the Wayback machine with their last essay option, above, which I repeat here:

Option 7: In the spirit of historically adventurous inquiry, to celebrate the University of Chicago’s 125th anniversary, please feel free to select from any of our past essay questions.

When you click on the past essay questions, you will see that the first option they offer from their past questions is option 2 from last year, what I call the Sapir-Whorf question.  I wrote extensively about this prompt last year, so if you like it, give my commentary a  read before you dive in:  Writing About Option 2 from 2014: Sapir-Whorf.

See what I mean about framing things through research?  This was such a meaty question that I wrote a second post on it, in which I gave more specific suggestions for responding:  Sapir-Whorf Part II.

This example shows why I like the UChi prompts—-yes, you could simply due a non sequitur riff on the question without knowing anything at all, but knowing something helps a lot.

I would also point out that even the non sequitur in comedy depends on knowing what the sequitur is–in other words, if you do not know what is right or customary, you do not know when the comedian is intentionally getting it wrong.  In most cases, comedy appeals to what is broadly known or accepted, as when Steve Martin does a riff on Side Effects.   (Am I dating myself by name dropping this master of nuvo-Dada?  Probably)

So keep in mind, wiseguys and humorists:  Knowing up from down is important if you want to make down into up.

I have written about a number of other interesting prompts from U Chicago in the past, so in keeping with this post’s emphasis on research, you might look at those while you are waiting for my next post on this year’s U Chicago essay prompts:

The Heisenberg Prompt

The Mantis Shrimp Prompt

I think that is enough due diligence for now.  Stay tuned for my next post on U Chicago, and let me know if you need editing–three rounds of editing on single U Chicago essay starts at $160, ready to submit if you follow my editing.  Serious inquiries only, lest your e-mail be converted to processed, canned pork product.  Until next time,

Cheers.

WordGuild

July, 2014 Update On College Admissions Essays (With Current Listing of Available Essay Prompts)

In 2014-2015, Boston College Application Essays 2014-2015, College Application Essay Example, Mantis Shrimp Essay Prompt, Penn Application Essay, Penn Supplemental Essay, University of Chicago Application Essays 2014-2015 on July 21, 2014 at 11:31 am

Update and How to Use this Blog

First a caveat: my blog has detailed entries on college admissions going back about five years, at this point.  My current policy is to keep most of my posts up, as a kind of archive of college application information and also because there are only so many essay types that the colleges can offer. Certain kinds of prompts show up every year, and in many cases, I have already written about the prompt type.  This kind of analysis continues to be useful.

I mention all of this because I can see what people are reading on my blog, and there are a number of you, Dear Readers, who are reading last year’s essay prompt from, for example, the University of Chicago, on the mantis shrimp (Note:  unlike the NSA, I do not see your metadata, cannot access your e-mails, am not storing information on you, and can only see the number of people who look at my posts, per day.  So no, I am not spying on you.  I just know, in aggregate, what you are reading.)

I think the mantis shrimp  is a fun prompt, and if I do say so myself, my  post on the mantis shrimp is also informative and high-quality; it just doesn’t have anything to do with this year’s University of Chicago essay prompts.  I have started discussing this year’s Chicago’s essay prompts in the two posts that precede this one, so have a look at those here:

U Chicago Essays 2014-2015: Post One on Essay Prompt Two

U Chicago Essays 2014-2015: Post Two on Essay Prompt Two

We are currently in the 2014-2015 application cycle, so use caution when visiting college admissions websites–at least for the next two weeks (I am writing this on July 21st, 2014; August 1st, 2014 is the date most app sites go live, with this year’s prompts and information).  Only a limited number of universities have so far posted this year’s prompts, or have confirmed that they will be retaining this year’s prompts–look below for more on these.

On the other hand, I have dozens of old posts on topics like writing about books, or on how application essays are evaluated or on how to write essays that don’t look like the typical, boring, five-paragraph essay format taught in high school.  These posts are still useful, so they should be read, by anybody who has to deal with an essay on a book or idea that interests them, or who wants to know how essays were and still are evaluated, or who wants to write a good essay that isn’t a rote exercise.  By all means, read and use posts like these; just don’t send Chicago an essay on the mantis shrimp this year.

Developments in Application Portals–Universal vs. Common App

The 900-Pound Gorilla Tag-Team of College Admissions includes Naviance and the Common Application.  This is due to the large number of colleges using both, and the fact that Naviance currently operates in coordination with the Common Application.  This tandem has become somewhat controversial, partly because it starts to look like a racket when so many students are directed to third-party organizations when they apply to college–organizations that take a cut of application fees–and partly because the Common Application web portal was such a disaster last year.  I hasten to add that I am sure the Common App people have their act at least somewhat better organized this year, but the trouble last year went on, literally, for months, and forced a number of big-name colleges to extend application deadlines.  In a way, this actually benefited some students, who were able to keep working on essays and other information, but at the cost of considerable stress.

One side effect of last year’s Common App fiasco has been an increase in the number of colleges adopting the Universal Application, which has the advantage of being simpler to use and generally easier to navigate.  Unfortunately, Naviance has not yet incorporated the Universal App into its system, and the Universal App does not have as many colleges using it as the Common App does–but many more have signed up in the last year, and I expect Naviance to adopt the Universal App by the 2015-2016 application season.  Here is an example of a college that adopted the Universal App this year:

Published February 18, 2014

uchicagCollege applicants next year will have more application options as the University of Chicago is joining the Universal Application.

“We decided to announce we will join the Universal College Application for the next application year now because we want applicants, families, recommenders, and the Higher Education community to know of our commitment to providing them with an application option that is easy to use, reduces stress, and simplifies the process,” said Jim Nondorf, Vice President for Enrollment at the University of Chicago. “We have been very happy with how easy it has been to work with the Universal College Application team.”

And here is a link to the Universal Application:  Universal Application Portal

Getting Started Now:  Some Application Essay Prompts are Already Available

The Common Application is using the same essay prompts this year as last year, which I will link below; some schools have posted early or are keeping last year’s prompts–University of Chicago has posted new prompts and Penn, for example, will be using last year’s prompts, so there are essays that can be worked on as of right now.  I also e-mailed Berkeley and was told that they will be using the same prompts (though, in a typical bureacratic maneuver, my contact also said that if anything changed,  I should see their website?!  Because this seemed a bit equivocal to me, I will not link the U.C. application portals yet.)

Links to some essay prompts that are already available below:

Common Application Essay Prompts, 2014-2015

Penn Essay Prompts

University of Chicago Essay Prompts

University of Georgia Essay Prompts

Boston College Essay Prompts

These are all prompts for this year, which is the 2014-2015 application cycle–this is your application cycle if you are a rising senior/will be graduating from high school in 2015.

That’s all for now.  I will be back soon with some thoughts on application trends and will be posting on a variety of essay prompts for popular colleges in the coming months.  If you need college advising or essay editing help, I am currently fully booked from roughly August 1st-15th, but will have editing slots open in the second half of August.  Good luck and good writing.

 

 

 

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.

The University Of Chicago Application Essay Prompts For 2014-2015: Let The Games Begin

In 2014-2015, University of Chicago Application Essays, University of Chicago Language Prompt, University of Chicago Prompt Two, University of Chicago Untranslatable Words Prompt on July 6, 2014 at 12:30 am

This post will focus on some background for the very interesting but  contradictory prompt two of this year’s University of Chicago application essays–the language prompt, probably better named the Whorfian language prompt.  This post is Part 1 of two posts on this prompt.  I will cover some background and get into a few ideas for approaching this prompt, then follow up with more specific ideas in the part II post on this prompt.  Who should read this:  Anybody applying to U Chicago in 2014-2015.

And we are off to the races, as U Chi gets their prompts out the door. Hopefully they establish a trend with this.

I say this because, in recent years, the Common Application has been going live right around August 1st, and increasingly, so have most universities, even those that do not use the Common Application.  This has meant that most students have not had any certainty about essay prompts or short answers or anything else until they are just about ready to go back to school for their senior year.  Students are often faced with five, ten or more essays, beginning in August.  This  has seemed odd and unfair to me, given the writing requirements for some university apps and the way most schools emphasize putting significant time and effort into application essays.  So kudos to Chicago for breaking away from the peleton, so to speak, and hopefully establishing a trend toward earlier application and prompt releases.

And now, in the intuitively nonintuitive spirit of U Chi, let’s skip prompt one (for now) and go right to prompt number two.

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

This prompt, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that it is based on,  represent a pretty simple idea, which is this:  the language we speak shapes how we think.  This idea is identified with a stance that is usually called Linguistic Relativism.   Beyond those basic statements about what seems a common sense idea, there is an enormous amount of debate, from whether the idea is true at all, to  whether Whorf’s ideas were hijacked and oversimplified to create a theory he would not recognize as his own. Neither Whorf nor his mentor Sapir every concocted their ideas as a formal theory in the way that, say, Einstein did.

I add here the observation that  the way this U Chicago prompt is phrased suggests that Ms. Driscoll is really rehashing a very dated version of linguistic relativism, which is no longer really espoused in the doctrinaire way this prompt puts it, even by those who accept the basic idea.  Language reflects culture which shapes  thought, to a degree, but the idea that separable chopsticks is untranslatable is a bit silly.  I mean, you get the idea, right?  Even if it takes two words to get there?

I think language does reflect a view of the world and habits of thought, and sure, you can do experiments with things like color and provide evidence that language shapes how we view color, but how can you separate language from culture?  Among other things.   But I quibble too early, for I have yet to provide you with some background to the theory behind this flawed but fun prompt, and I don’t want to discourage you from writing about it.  This prompt, even if it is a bit half-baked, should inspire some great essays.  I just want you to be prepared.  And at the least, this theory–and its misinterpretation–has helped supply plenty of college professors with employment sufficient to pay off their debts–or Schulden, in German, a word that also means guilt or shame–more on that later.   And now this theory offers you the chance to get into U Chicago, so I guess it’s a good thing.

So let’s begin.  It’s always wise to know a little bit about the topic area of any essay prompt,  so here is a brief background on Whorf, then on “his” theory:

Benjamin Lee Whorf lived from 1897-1941.  He was not originally a linguist, having studied Chemical Engineering at M.I.T.  His day job was with the Hartford Insurance Company, where he was a fire prevention engineer and inspector, and after researching  language and anthropology as a pastime,  he went on to study linguistics under Edward Sapir at Yale University.  It may seem odd that someone who did pioneering work in linguistics and anthropology worked essentially as an insurance executive, but  the avante garde composer Charles Ives was also an insurance executive,  and the poet Wallace Stevens also worked at Hartford insurance.  Maybe it’s like Flaubert said,  “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

In any case, studying people and their languages Whorf did.  He was profoundly religious, and he started with Biblical Hebrew;  hoping to reduce the conflict between religion and science, he began to pursue what he thought were similarities between ancient Hebrew and some Native American languages.  It was while investigating Aztec that Whorf began to study under Edward Sapir at Yale.  Sapir encouraged Whorf to study Hopi, which he did.

Whorf came to believe that the Hopi people had a whole different mental construction of the universe, and did not think in terms that an English speaker would recognize as past, present, and future. Whorf came to believe that  Hopi language and thought divided the world into what he called the manifested and manifesting.    In the first category, manifested, Whorf included  the physical universe,  and in the latter category, manifesting, Whorf included the future,  which makes sense to English speakers, but he also included other conceptual categories, like  desires, processes, power,  intelligence, and life forces. I say Whorf included these things because these are his categories, which he used to describe Hopi language.  Whorf thought that  the structure of the Hopi language itself contained a  different philosophy and view of reality than that of English speakers–so you can see the connection with the U Chicago prompt now.

The problem lies in both Whorf’s understanding of Hopi, which now appears to be flawed, and with his view of the power of language to shape thought.  There are clear differences between Hopi and English; for example, Hopi has relatively few nouns, and tends to express  concepts that would be nouns in English as verbs. The word”wave” in English is actually a simplification of a complex phenomenon and would in Hopi be expressed in words that more or less say “plural or multiple waving occurs.”   Whorf argued that Hopi was in some ways superior to English and that the way Hopis viewed the world was in some senses better than the world view of English speakers.

 

 

But Whorf was mistaken about a number of features of Hopi.  I add that Whorf was also one of the scholars who proposed, largely mistakenly, that the Inuit have multiple words for the single English concept of “snow.”  You’ve probably heard that old chestnut about how English speakers have only one or very few words for snow, but Inuit (eskimo was the old and not very accurate word used for these people) have literally anywhere from seven (Whorf’s number) to dozens of words for snow.  This sounds plausible until you start asking anybody who speaks English and lives in snow country or just likes skiing (Powder, corn snow, Sierra Cement. . . . ), then you realize that we have many English words for different conditions of snow, and researchers into Inuit have largely debunked these claims.

To be fair, neither Whorf nor Sapir actually presented the ideas that bear their name as a cohesive theory, and reading Whorf, in particular, can be a bit like reading Nietzsche–what  you think he means depends on which of his works you happen to be reading and where you are in it.  Whorf is not as self-contradictory as somebody like Nietzsche, but he does present his ideas in relatively strong and  in more relative terms, and the “theory’ itself really didn’t gain currency until after Whorf’s early death.
Here’s a brief summary of the fundamental idea, then a quote from Whorf himself  to give you the flavor, then we’ll get to the problems with a rigid application of Whorf’s ideas:
A quick recap of the main idea of Linguistic Relativism, courtesy of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:  “Many thinkers have urged that large differences in language lead to large differences in experience and thought. They hold that each language embodies a worldview, with quite different languages embodying quite different views, so that speakers of different languages think about the world in quite different ways. This view is sometimes called the Whorf-hypothesis or the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, after the linguists who made it famous. But the label linguistic relativity, which is more common today, has the advantage that makes it easier to separate the hypothesis from the details of Whorf’s views, which are an endless subject of exegetical dispute (Gumperz and Levinson, 1996, contains a sampling of recent literature on the hypothesis).”  For more on this, have a look here: Linguistic Relativism.
And now here is Whorf himself:
“We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.” -Whorf (1940:213-14)
Despite this passage’s apparent claim that language shapes how we think, Whorf was not really a Linguistic Determinist–notice how he uses words like “largely. ”   Whorf’s  claims are limited and qualified, and this idea in the Chicago prompt that there are ideas that are  untranslateable doesn’t really hold water.
The body of his writing shows that Whorf considered language to be fundamental in shaping thought, but that language was not the only way to think, and that the effect of language on thought was not absolute.  This is something that both his critics and the proponents of the so-called Whorfian ideas about language tend to miss, and that now brings us back to the University of Chicago Prompt, and how it is self-exploding.
I say it is self-exploding because the examples it provides  of non-English words seem to translate pretty easily.  I think any person of high school age understands the concept of fremdschämen, of feeling embarrassed for somebody else–and while we may not have our own single English word for separable chopsticks, we all know what they are–the  phrase separable chopsticks is an admirably clear “word” for this utensil.  The French example, in which the English conscience and consciousness are the same in French is more interesting, but also not really accurate.  Based on context, a French speaker would understand very well that former president Sarkozy should (though may not, given his immense egocentricity) have a very guilty conscience for taking money from deceased former Libyan chief of state Gaddafi.
Having said all this,  I do think there are several excellent ways to approach this prompt, despite  the apparent obliviousness of the prompt’s author to the contradictions in her prompt.  Here is one way:  language reflects culture as much as it shapes culture, and words like fremdschämen reflect a particular view of the world–you can see what is important to a culture in words like this, words which quickly allow people to identify and discuss a phenomenon or experience that may take a phrase or an involved explanation in other cultures.  The words are translatable, but the fact that a more convoluted description or definition is needed to capture the essence of a single word says a lot, both about the culture that has condensed so much meaning into a single word or phrase and the culture that has not done that.
Which brings me back to the German Schuld, the word for guilt, shame, fault, blame and debt, among other things.  Have a look here, at my favorite online German-English dictionary for an idea of the mental landscape represented by this word:  die Schuld.
And then consider the German response to the Euro-Crisis.  Okay, I know, this started when you were in,  like, 8th or 9th grade, but Germany  profited immensely from selling its goods on a one-t0-one monetary basis against southern countries, where German goods were significantly more expensive prior to the Euro lifting the buying power of citizens in places like Spain and Greece.  This meant a lot of profit for German companies and workers, who steamrolled southern competitors.  And German banks, who were every bit as reckless as everybody else’s banks, and most German citizens and business people, have acted as if the massive Schulden of the southern countries and the debt crisis were a huge moral failing of those Latin types (I’m representing the view of much of Germany here, not my own view), and that hard-working, frugal German citizens should not have to pay more to bail out their feckless southern neighbors.  Again, this is not my view, but this does represent the view of much of Germany.  This after massive profits and massive speculation by their own banks, which stood to lose a lot of money until Americans paid the bill.
And while part of this is a natural reluctance to take on more debt and pain (they did a lot to reunite with East Germany, after all) some of this is also a narrow kind of moralism inherent in the culture, a not-my-problem moral prudishness which is divorced from the realities of how finance actually works, but which is clearly embedded in the moral categories of die Schulden, as you can see in a translation of the word.  Selbst Schuld (Your fault, guilt, problem), as they say.  But the Germans have some Schuld themselves, having let the U.S taxpayers bail out their banks  during the financial crisis, banks who made very bad bets on our side of the Atlantic and which should have shared the pain with us, if we follow the same reasoning that has dominated in Germany.  Our banks paid out on default swaps the German banks had on the crappy speculative bets and trash bond buys, which then helped push our banks off the cliff.  But ask a German banker or citizen, and most will say it was the other guy’s Schuld.  Denial is built into this conceptual framework, due to the moralism inherent in the term Schuld.  And we can translate this easily enough, and even share some of this way of thinking, but it’s still more heightened in the German.
So I think the Sapir Whorf thing is a bit backwards–language affects thought, but you cannot separate language from culture, philosophy, history or psychology.  It reflects all of this, describes all of this, and both shapes and is shaped by all of this.  And I  would argue that all ideas are in some way translatable.  Whether you understand them, however, is a matter of experience–many concepts cannot really be understood only by way of words in the dictionary.
The thing to see in language differences is how language allows some cultures to discuss some ideas, or to capture some attitudes, more easily than other cultures, and to see how this reflects an outlook on the world.  A world view.  Which is why the Japanese have a word for those disposable separable chopsticks one gets with take-out foods.  While we have plastic forks at the deli.
My most important piece of advice on this prompt is to challenge its assumptions, but then to look at how certain word capture concepts that show habits of thought–how a culture looks at the world.  Weltanschaung, the Germans call it.  A great word, and worthy of an entire essay by itself, I might add–have a look here, if you are curious:  Weltanschauung, the biography of a word.
Part II of this post will only be fully available on my private website, available by subscription.  I will offer some selected words and ideas to consider for this essay.  The Part II post will feature  more specific starting points to consider. It will also be available as a sample on this, my public website, which means that part of the post will only be available to subscribers, who pay a fee of $15 for access to my blog through the entire application season, from now until the end of April, 2015.  You can pay for a subscription by copying and pasting my e-mail and subject line below, and I will send you an invoice through Paypal.  Your subscription to my private blog will be activated after payment.
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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.

How To Get Into College: Or, How To Write The Essay That Will Get You There, Including Essay Examples

In common application, Princeton Application Essays, Stanford Application Essays on September 20, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Oh, and what not to do.  For starters, don’t try to imitate too closely (and definitely do not copy) your older sibling/friend/acquaintance/college essay guidebook’s foolproof example essay.  Have a look at them, sure, but for true inspiration, we’ll go to the pros.  More on that in a moment.

Because, before I get to essay examples, I want to share a “must hear” link to help you out.  Read on for more.

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To begin with,  I’d like to say that the title of this post is a nod to one of the Great American Things, a little radio show called This American Life.  Created by and featuring Mr. Ira Glass and company, one of TAL’s recent shows was entitled, How I Got Into Collegeand, at the least, you should listen to the prologue and Act One (linked below).   In it,  an admissions officer talk about dumb things people do as they try to get into college, including dumb things that are done with essays (like using the same essay for multiple schools, but not getting the school names right on each essay . . . ).

Topics addressed include parental support/intervention/obnoxious interference in e-mails and elsewhere, demonstrated interest,  and,  most important for our purposes, the admissions officer talks specifically about why most admissions essays he reads are boring.  The admissions director talks about  the same problems I talk about (e.g., the same basic essay, over and over, as in the My Mission to South America, essay).  This admissions officer also admits that he and his colleagues are part of the problem; he does not, however, specifically discuss the repetitive and self-focused essay questions that are required, again and again (Common App, I’m lookin’ at you )  or why this has come to pass, something I explain here:  Common App.

So I recommend that you go to my link to TAL’s  College App show, and listen before you read on.  After listening, you can continue reading to find links to examples of good essays, below.  More on that later; for now, here it is:  This American Life:  How I Got Into College.

Before moving on, I would suggest listening to the whole thing by continuing with Act Two–for a number of reasons.  First among these, it may put the troubles in your own life into perspective.  Second, as you embark on a journey to write about your own life, it is a fascinating study of the malleability of memory . . . as the  protagonist of the rest of this TAL episode, Emir Kamenica, who escaped the Bosnian genocide and is now a rising star at the Booth School of Business, at the University of Chicago, tells his story . . . then hears a different version of things.

As a follow-up to this show, a listener wrote a hilarious Worst College Essay Ever (my title for it). Read it here:  Prank Admissions Essay

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Welcome back, and now we move on to some essay examples.

By now you all know about the Common Application essay prompts, which are all 1st person, Let Me Tell You About Myself essays.  The Common App has dumped the open question and eliminated the possibility of writing directly about a book or intellectual experience.

So my first advice for the Common App is this:  Find the Unexpected ; do the Unexpected.  (I capitalize Unexpected by way of emphasis, not to imitate German capitalization conventions.)  This does not really require anything radical or crazy.  It’s all about how you look at things, even the mundane.

The next point I’d like to make is this:  none of my essay examples below will be student examples.  The reasons are multiple, but two will do as an explanation:  if you want to learn something, from chess to tennis to football to whatever, you don’t usually go study, well, your peers.  You pick out somebody you think is outstanding, if not the best in their field.  Somebody with proven chops.   It’s in that spirit that I offer the examples below, where  I will offer essays by people I admire or essays which I think are really good.  Note that, as examples, most are also too long for our purposes, but you should not be reading to copy exactly–you should read to find ideas, phrases and structures.  My caveat:  you can imitate, borrow, riff off of . . . but do not copy anything more than a quote.  Thanks.  Now on with the show.

Essay Examples

After the first example you will find an annotated list with links; this post is planned as one of those that expands over the course of the app season, so check back–I will add material and links as I find them.  I also have plenty of examples with earlier posts, incorporated into discussions of specific topics and topic types, so browse the archive for material that looks like a fit for your topics.

Okay, here we go:  to show you what I mean about finding the unexpected, as well as how to look for examples, I will start with a link to an essay and then will give you a little editing exercise that will cut this essay down from being about three times the length of a Common App essay to being about 40 words too long, which is a minor overrun, in my world.  I am very serious about the editing exercise–it is short but will teach you a lot about how to look for examples, and how to take apart a longer piece of writing and put it back together–a very educational  exercise in how to read as well as how to edit.

So go to this  long essay about a young immigrant who found a home, of sorts, in the uber-suburban show The Wonder Years.  Read the whole essay first, then come back for this exercise, below.  The exercise doesn’t take much time and will show you something important about the art of the cut in editing, as well as how to read and how to look for material and ideas that might be useful to you in writing an application or any other essay; here is your link:  My Wonder Years.

And here is your brief and painless editing exercise:  copy the essay, splice it into a document, then number the paragraphs.  After you number the paragraphs, delete all paragraphs except these paragraphs: 1, 4, 6, 9, 11, 12 and 18.  Yep, all the rest of the essay is deleted.  Then delete the first word in paragraph 12 and capitalize the next word.   Then read this “compact edition” as an essay in itself, which it is.

You have a very different essay, of course–this shorter version leaves out an important focus in Ms. Nguyen’s  original essay, but notice how it does show her own sense of being an outsider in the United States, as well as her “place” of comfort and connection, a virtual world reached through a television screen.  Yes indeed,  a  nice example of a place you feel comfortable topic.  And this is, in its full form or in my shortened edit, another good example of the Unexpected.

Example 2: Cooking is Freedom–About a middle school rebellion against sexism and its reverse, by a boy who wasn’t quite fitting the stereotypes of his time and place.  The problem our essayist faces is very much a problem of the early ’70’s, but he writes in a clear and charming way and he absolutely challenges an idea–and he writes  with humor, which is an awfully good thing to have  in an essay that might be number one hundred and ten, on a Wednesday afternoon, for a tired and cranky app reader.

Example 3: Why Department Stores Are Vital  This essay would also be a great fit for the prompt on a place that you feel comfortable–Here   the author take a place which has most often been used to show what is wrong with America and argues for it not only as a place where she feels comfortable but which she thinks is necessary for our culture–another  great example of the Unexpected, in point of view  and attitude.  The topic is an old one, but the picture we get from the author surprises and charms.

Example 4: An Essay by M. Allen Cunningham, on the theme of how the Oregon landscape has influenced his work–this is a superb, rambling essay and another essay on place, which also examines the influence of technology in an interesting way and excerpts from the author’s own novels as it develops.  The first two sections could stand as essays by themselves, with a tweak or two, so keep in mind my little editing exercise from Titi Nguyen’s essay, above.  Or just  skip to section #2, for an essay within an essay on place, perception and much more.  Good stuff.

Example 5 (Multiple Examples): This I BelieveThis link will actually take you to a page with multiple essays.  The writing quality is not always exceptional–I would rate them from excellent to decent in their prose quality–but all have something interesting to say about beliefs and acting based on beliefs, or about how their beliefs developed–and they fit any of three of the current Common App topics.  The beliefs here are from the full spectrum–for a taster, this selection includes an opening essay by Penn Gillette, the magican/performer, on why he is an atheist, and if you look further down the page, has an essay under the title My Brother’s Keeper, which starts as the author leaves Sunday school with his kids.  The latter essay is both humanistic and religious, and both the atheist and the believer are sincere and trenchant in discussing their own beliefs.

I do have one warning for this collection:  this specific  essay topic became really popular in the last decade, primarily because of the This I Believe  project, which was frequently featured on National Public Radio.  So if you write an essay on belief, please don’t start with the clauses I believe in x, or  This I believe: x.  An app reader or officer may start rolling his or her eyes, (Not this again). But even with that caveat, this page, and at least a few of these essays, are definitely worth a visit and may inspire great ideas, even if you do not use any of them now.  Oh, and be sure to be good to the pizza guy.

As noted above, I plan to expand on this list over the coming months, so you might want to check back on this post in  few weeks, scroll down, and see what is new down here.  Thanks for dropping by.

And remember:  Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but copying somebody else and claiming that the work is yours is  . . . theft.  Just say no, or this may happen to you, a la Dante:  Wages of Sin.  Hey, man, don’t mess with the Dante.

The University of Chicago Application Essay for 2013-2014: The Joke’s on Whom?

In Essay on a Joke, Joke Essay Prompt, University of Chicago Joke Prompt, Writing About A Joke, Writing About Humor on July 18, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Getting Started on Your Chicago Essays:  We Begin with the Joke Prompt

Before reading this post, you might want to look at my earlier  post with all of this year’s U of Chicago prompts–scroll down this linked post,  past the Penn essay, to view all of the Chicago prompts: Start Your Essays.

So you do not have to click back and forth between windows, here is Chicago’s joke prompt, which is the topic of this post:

Winston Churchill believed “a joke is a very serious thing.” From Off-Off Campus’s improvisations to the Shady Dealer humor magazine to the renowned Latke-Hamantash debate, we take humor very seriously here at The University of Chicago (and we have since 1959, when our alums helped found the renowned comedy theater The Second City).

Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.

Inspired by Chelsea Fine, Class of 2016

Hmm.  It seems that  the joke is on the University of  Chicago when it comes to this prompt, for they have misattributed it.  While it is possible that Winston Churchill did, at some point, requote Charles Churchill, there is no record I can find of Winston actually saying this.  The original quote is from an obscure satirical poem of  the 18th Century, considerably before Winston’s time.  To see the details and the origin of the quote, go here:  Charles Churchill. 

It looks like a Wikipedia moment for Chicago, which likes to crowdsource prompts from their own students.  Ms. Fine didn’t do her homework and neither did the university.  Which inspires my own knock-knock joke:

Knock-knock

Who’s there?

Otto

Otto who?

Otto know what yer talkin’ about.

Ba-ding.

Okay, dumb, but I do think it’s a good to know what you are talking about, so in that spirit, let’s look at humor a little more seriously.

Some Things to Think Consider

There are two basic ways to approach this prompt:

First, you can do what the prompt asks in a straightforward way by writing some sort of explanation and analysis of a joke.  This is the obvious response, but possible variations are many–a joke might be just a jumping off point to discussing  something the joke brings up or is based on–status, sex, values, ethnicity, all play a role in  jokes, and our expectations and our world view are almost always in play.  This is why so much humor is culturally specific while slapstick tends to cross cultures.

The second approach is, in effect, not to explain the joke–instead, you explain explaining.  Or the limitations of explaining.  Think of it as an exploration of the epistemology and ontology of humor.   I know this second option doesn’t necessarily directly address the topic,  but this is the University of Chicago; thinking outside the box is pretty much what they do (or what they think they do). If your essay is well done, they will not only welcome an unconventional response, your originality will give you a leg up on the competition.

Joke Taxonomy

Regardless of the  approach you take, you might want to start by considering how jokes appear as variations using similar parts, scenes or characters.  This is true of many folk literary forms, from fairy tales to epics, and the technical term for variations on shared situations or characters is a cycle–possibly the most famous cycle of all is in the Arthurian Romances, but the knock-knock joke is considered a joke cycle by American academics.   It’s useful to turn to an explanation of this, both as an example of how to explain a joke and to see how the explanation–the academic approach to explanation–can change a good joke into . . . something serious.  Go to the book at this link and start at page 69: joke cycles

So now you have the academic approach, in which jokes are taxonomized like plants and animals.    There is a lot you can learn from books like this, but while this is informative, because it is more about classifying and describing, it could be a bit dry  for a U Chicago application essay. Paradoxically, I think you need to avoid losing your sense of humor as you analyze your joke.  And do try to set the joke into a frame that provides a bigger picture.   Your focus may include a taxonomy of the joke, but then you’d want to turn toward looking either at what the joke’s humor says about us (or about those who find it funny) or at how the joke itself offers a criticism, social or otherwise.

You can also turn for some help to the pros, not in academia, but in comedy.  While most comedians do not like to explain individual jokes, many comedians will discuss the craft of telling jokes, and boning up on what they have to say can help you as you prepare to write a joke essay.

A good place to do some reading on the art of the joke is in a recent article on Jerry Seinfeld, (Pardon tbe interruption, but now a word from our sponsor:

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The University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2012-2013

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde Enemy, University of Chicago Application Essay, University of Chicago Essay Prompts, What I Care About Essay, What is Important to Me Essay on July 16, 2012 at 11:33 am

The University of Chicago has posted its questions for this year.  They are earlier in getting out their prompts than many of their competitors, which is only fair–they will, as usual, have some of the most challenging questions out there, as well as some of the most entertaining, so you will want to give this essay some extra thought.  I will look at the prompts one at a time,  beginning in a moment.  Before I do, may I suggest that you get into the spirit of the prompts by investigating the U of C scavenger hunt.  It’s always a good idea to have some idea of your audience’s perspective, something I have discussed before in a number of posts.

You can start here, with the site for the scavenger hunt:  Lore.   The hunt represents the University of Chicago’s world view, taken to an extreme, so it is worth knowing about.  You will get a broader look at the atmosphere and outlook of the university in a recent article  published in the New Yorker: U of C Scavenger Hunt.  Like my website, the  New Yorker has a paywall on some content; if you or your parents have a New Yorker subscription, you can read the full article; if not,  you can pay for access to it.    This article does give you some history and insight into Chicago’s essay prompts and school tradition as well as the scavenger hunt itself–I’d say it is worth the fee to learn more about the school.

Continuing to the prompts, I will deal with them one at a time, with suggestions, ideas and background on prompt 1 in this post, and the others to follow in subsequent posts.

2012-13 essay questions:

Essay Option 1.

“A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.” –Oscar Wilde.

Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).

Inspired by Martin Krzywy, admitted student Class of 2016.

Let me say first that you could write a satirical or otherwise humorous response to this prompt.  I want to start by making that point clear because the background to this prompt, which I will discuss below, is not so funny.

This prompt also has some overlap with those for other essays, such as Prompt 4 of the Common App, which asks you to discuss the influence of a character from fiction or a historical figure.  If you strongly identify with a character in a book or in history, hey, their enemy might be your enemy. Imagine yourself entering an elevator to find some literary or historical baddie on board.   So if you are all geeked out over a particular set of characters from books or if you are a history buff, feel free to insert yourself creatively into their story.  Do try to make it relevant to “real life” or show what this opposition means in your life and says about you.

Before you do, however, you might want to take apart the prompt a bit more.   First I offer a little detour into the taxonomy of this quote–it’s probably better to call it an apothegm than an aphorism–go here for the distinction.

Though this prompt seems aimed at generating responses both creative and humorous,  the relationship this prompt has to Wilde’s demise is anything but humorous.  It’s worth looking at Wilde himself while you are trolling the depths of your mind for an idea for your essay.  Wilde’s enemies were multitude, as it turns out, from the power structures of his time, political, legal and social to . . . his own lover.  He is a good example of of a person who did not take his own advice.

As England’s leading wit and one of its great writers, Wilde lived flamboyantly in London and elsewhere, and made a very bad enemy in the form of the father of one of his lovers.  When Wilde’s affair with Lord Alfred Douglas came to light, Douglas’ father, the Marqess of Queensbury, was enraged.  Though the Marqess instituted the Queensbury rules of boxing, making it a “civilized” sport, his own conduct was anything but civilized  (he was considered something of  a brute in his own time, which is saying a lot, given his noble status).  Queensbury threatened Wilde with physical violence both through proxies and in person, and when this and other means, including cutting off Lord Douglas from funds and any other support failed, he attempted to disrupt the opening of Wilde’s  play The Importance of Being Earnest.

Though  Wilde had used the police to keep the raging lord out of the opening of Earnest,  he did not foresee the potential for revenge that he handed Queensbury when he told his solicitor (that’s lawyer, to you Yanks)  that Queensbury’s charges were lies.  Queensbury himself was, as a result, arrested on libel charges.  But Wilde’s verbal pyrotechnics in the trials that followed were not going to allow him to evade the obvious fact that he had himself lied in denying the nature of his relationships with other men. Today the  odious Marquess would have been the one found guilty and punished, but this was the late 19th Century; Wilde did not account for the legal system he faced when he tried to use it against his enemy.  A gay man turning to British law at this time for respite from  an enemy like Queensbury should have understood that the law, too, was his enemy.  But the cruelest betrayal for Wilde would be that of Lord Douglas himself.

Rather than defeating the brutal Marquess, Wilde himself was eventually arrested, and in the end, convicted and imprisoned for “Gross Indecency” under sodomy laws.  His trial is also generally seen as marking a turn to much harsher attitudes toward homosexuals in Britain, attitudes that would reach a peak of nastiness during World War I.

If you wish to explore the Wilde angle of this prompt and the potentials it raises further, Barbara Tuchman puts Wilde in the context of prewar Britain in her great work of popular history The Proud Tower.  For more immediate information on Wilde’s trials, try this link: Famous World Trials. If you are a Wilde fan and want to really get into this, try Ellman’s biography:  Oscar Wilde.  Wilde himself created a great artistic response to the injustice done him by writing the poem Ballad of Reading Gaol; use the link for some background and  to access the poem itself through the Guardian website.

Wilde’s life represents a serious side to this prompt, but whether you lean toward humor or toward being earnest, you might want to begin by simply making lists of things you oppose.  Don’t prioritize, don’t establish a heirarchy, just do it–from pet peeves like the missing sock to existential threats like nuclear destruction, you have a large and every growing category of problems, threats and villains to choose from. If you’ve written or thought about writing the Problem/Concern essay for the Common App, you may be able to turn there for inspiration–you aren’t writing the same essay, of course, but you may be recycling the same idea.

You can then easily split your list of That Which You Oppose into either serious or lightweight and humorous topics.  In either case, consider how to make the essay about you as well as about the topic–how do you fit in to the picture; what is your relationship to the topic?  I have written before about the nature of the college app essay, which is often about an “external topic,” but which is always, nevertheless, about you, the writer.  Keep this in mind.

If you have selected a problem that is serious, these can be represented by individuals whom you feel are responsible, but only if you can easily show it’s a clear-cut case of malfeasance–you have hundreds of words available in this essay, not thousands. In general  I  suggest that, if you are going to write about an issue, you focus on the issue rather than a person–ad hominem attacks are generally better in politics than in application essays.

As with any rule, there are exceptions to this one, both serious and humorous.  We have all kinds of serious examples from various banks in well-deserved trouble to despicable political leaders who kill or incarcarate their own people.  Be sure you know what you are talking about, however, and avoid cliched discussions with trite solutions for dealing with your “enemy.”

As for humor, the range of topics is also wide open, and I think that you could include inanimate objects and phenomenon beyond human control.  You could also include notable individuals, if you choose with care and handle it with wit, such as a certain New York City developer with bad hair . . .or you could use the late and great Pogo as an inspiration–“We have met the enemy and he is us”–to  examine  some personal or social foible.  For my part, on Monday morning, my sock drawer is my enemy . . .

Spend some time brainstorming and riffing off of the basic idea this prompt presents to come up with any  antagonist you wish.  You know you have an enemy somewhere . . .

I’ll return to more of the University of Chicago’s prompts in the next day or two.  Come on back soon but be aware that some of this will be behind my paywall.