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Writing an Essay About a Quote for Your 2018-2019 College Application

In Essay About A Quote, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Princeton Quote Essay, Uncategorized, Writing an Essay About a Quote on July 11, 2018 at 11:40 pm

Who should read this post:  Anybody applying to the Ivy League, or anyplace else that asks you to respond to a prompt that uses a quote or that asks you to use a quote.

My usual advice when asked about using a quote to start a college application essay is pretty simple:  Try something else–unless there is a really good reason, like the prompt using a quote, asking for a quote, or presenting a subject that includes quotes–such as your favorite book.

My main reason for being wary of the quote opener in a college essay is also pretty simple:  in order to prompt high school students to get an essay started, many teachers ask students to use a quote when starting an essay, or a question.  That makes the quote opener–and the question intro–overused and prone to cliche.  And given the way that most “quote” essays use the quote like you might use the word “squirrel” to divert the attention of a dog–as a kind of noise to get things moving in a particular direction, in other words–quotes are often a poor way to initiate a college application essay.  But not always, and in some cases, using a quote is a requirement of the prompt.

So there are exceptions to this rule, and many great essays have used quotes to get started and to develop ideas.  In fact, the gentleman who invented the essay as a form, Michel de Montaigne, used quotes all over his “little attempts” or “essais;”  I have never been bored by Montaigne and dozens of his essays are truly great.    Of course, these “essais”  also run from a few pages to a couple score of pages, and they were not written for college admissions.  Some of his techniques will not work, but I have some techniques and ideas below that have worked.

These techniques will come in handy this year, for there are already some important universities that ask you to write to or about a quote in your application.  Among the current year’s  releases as of early July, 2018, Dartmouth has multiple quote prompts, as does the University of Chicago.   Princeton had quote prompts last year, and I  expect them to do so again this year, so  I will be taking  a  look at the Princeton  prompts soon.  You can have a look at last year’s Princeton prompts, in last year’s main post about the quote essay, but hold off  on writing an essay for Princeton until they confirm for the 2018/2019 season, which usually happens in the last week of July–they may change one or more and it’s not worth writing until you know, though it’s not a bad idea to have a look at the old prompts and let your mind work on it a bit while you tend to other things.

Let’s take a look at the basic types of quote essays, then have a look at our first example for this year and some ideas about how to attack the prompt:

Three types of Quote Essays

There are three basic ways that colleges can ask you to write about a quote:

They throw a quote at you and ask you to respond to it;

They ask you to choose a quote to talk about;

Or, less directly, they ask you to talk about something that will allow you to use a quote, like a book or a film.

One of the main problems in writing about a quote prompt is establishing some kind of frame for what you want to do.  What do I mean?

Know the Background of the Quote

Well let’s look at what you might not or definitely do not want to do:  write about a quote in such a way that you actually contradict the quote unintentionally and, well, make a fool out of yourself and fall victim to ultracrepidarian syndrome.  Think of that stuffy and rigid person you know who is always full of opinions, especially when they are wrong, and can go on at length about something they know nothing about.  Because most of the quotes used by the universities are presented without much context, you have an open invitation to becoming a card-carrying ultracrepidarian if you do not approach the quote in a skillful way.

Many prompts are intended not to have much context, and the reasons for this vary.  A place like the University of Chicago is  interested in how inventive you can be in responding to a quote, and is not  interested in seeing a research paper,  and in fact some really great essays take off from a quote in totally idiosyncratic or non-sequitur ways that end up having little to do with the original intent of the quote, but that do produce an entertaining and effective essay.  Other quotes, like that used by Dartmouth, beg for some background research.

But even if you decide to write a non-sequitur essay, in which you  goof around with a quote to show your innovative mind, you still need to have some understanding of the quote to find a starting point, in my opinion.   How can you make a joke or satirize something or riff on it if you do not know what it is?  So knowing something about the background of a quote is useful, especially if you want to cleverly subvert expectations.

One of the best recent public examples of people quoting foolishly and widely in public involves Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” in which a character says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”   Quite a few people, some of them very highly placed in government and elsewhere, have been using this quote as  evidence for the idea of building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, as Vice President Mike Pence did, or just in defense of fences in general.

There’s just one problem with that:  the poem is not, in fact, in favor of fences or of walls  Instead, it offers a subversive and ironic take on walls–and fences–questioning them, not promoting them.  Before I show you that,   here is another particularly dim example of this quote, used out of context, to make the problem clear:  Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.

Sure, this is marketing, really, but so is your college application essay, and if you were to upload something like this  as an essay response using a quote you like, I can pretty much guarantee that you would find the college gates shut, with  you outside the walls when admissions offers arrive.  Application readers know something about the quotes they present to you, and are generally well-read people who know about a wide range of quotes you might use.  This means that they usually know when somebody is totally clueless, as in the examples above.   Regardless of your politics, misusing a quote like that from  “Mending Wall” is a no-no.  Let’s just say the standards for application essays are higher than for political speech, these days.

If on the other hand, you were intentionally misusing the quote, great.  But be sure to give the reader clear clues to your clever and satirical or humorous intent.  At the bottom of this post, I offer a full analysis of “Mending Wall” and more links to clarify just how badly this quote has been used, but let’s jump to this year’s quote essays.

How to Write Short Responses and Essays on Quote Topics

For an example of how to look at a couple of quotes and learn some background, I will take a short response first, in which Dartmouth asks you to respond to a quote:

 

1. Please respond in 100 words or less:

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2023, what aspects of the College’s program, community or campus environment attract your interest?

What to do?  You might start talking about wanting a small college, or profess your love for Dartmouth, or even recall the story “The Devil  and Daniel Webster” and discuss what  slick talker that Mr. Webster was.

Better, of course, would be to talk about the program you are interested in by doing some research, as this short prompt clearly wants you to show some knowledge of Dartmouth and why it fits you, or you fit it.  I discussed researching your university and the essay on why you are a fit in a recent post: The “Why Us” Essay.

But it helps to know something about Daniel Webster and this case, as the quote, and the prompt, says something clear–but only to those who know the background of the quote.  To begin with, the quote they use is specifically from a court case that shaped the contract clause and defined contract law in the U.S.   The court case is described on Wikipedia here: Dartmouth College v. Woodward.

In addition, this quote is prominent on the Dartmouth website.  Here is how this quote appears on Dartmouth’s website, summing up their own history:

 The charter establishing Dartmouth—the ninth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States—was signed in 1769, by John Wentworth, the Royal Governor of New Hampshire, establishing an institution to offer “the best means of education.” For nearly 250 years, Dartmouth has done that and more.

Dartmouth’s founder, the Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, a Congregational minister from Connecticut, established the College as an institution to educate Native Americans. Samson Occom, a Mohegan Indian and one of Wheelock’s first students, was instrumental in raising the funds necessary to found the College. In 1972—the same year the College became coeducational—Dartmouth reaffirmed its founding mission and established one of the first Native American Programs in the country. With nearly 1,000 alumni, there are now more Native graduates of Dartmouth than of all other Ivy League institutions combined.

Governor Wentworth provided the land that would become Dartmouth’s picturesque 269-acre campus on the banks of the Connecticut River, which divides New Hampshire and Vermont. The College’s natural beauty was not lost on President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who visited in 1953 and remarked, “This is what a college should look like.”

‘THERE ARE THOSE WHO LOVE IT’

Dartmouth was the subject of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 1819, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, in which the College prevailed against the State of New Hampshire, which sought to amend Dartmouth’s charter. The case is considered to be one of the most important and formative documents in United States constitutional history, strengthening the Constitution’s contract clause and thereby paving the way for American private institutions to conduct their affairs in accordance with their charters and without interference from the state.

Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, passionately argued for the original contract to be preserved. “It is … a small college,” he said, “and yet there are those who love it.”

The underlining is mine.  Notice that this short history also implies an ethos, and that ethos includes a multiethnic approach to education–Who knew that Dartmouth’s original purpose included a mission to educate Native Americans?

Of course, that may not be as P.C. as it sounds, once you think about it, but leaving aside the questions that raises for now–that matter of genocide as European and then U.S. settlers moved west, not the mention the paternalistic view that a European education was necessary to elevate a native, etc–there is an obvious intent to show Dartmouth as educating all, and as multiethnic.  Then there is an emphasis on the right to pursue the mission of education free of interferance.  And there is a layer of American legal history.  So all of that lies in the quote, and in this, Dartmouth is presenting a sense of its values and purpose–always consider the audience you are writing to, which here is offering you some ideas about how they see themselves..

Yet all of that information may only yield one or two sentences in your short response–remember, you only have 100 words for this one.   But those sentences could be telling.  Showing that you know some background on Dartmouth beyond, oh, the fact that they have a good prelaw track is a plus.  Being  specific and knowing detailed information about your target school, and target audience, is a plus.  This allows you to tailor your response in a way that reflects you and the school, and so shows a good “fit.”  For example:

Centuries before CRISPR, Dartmouth altered the legal D.N.A. of the United States as Daniel Webster defended and won academic and institutional freedom for Dartmouth, his “small college. ” I believe in the values that Dartmouth established generations ahead of the rest of the country when it offered education to native Americans like Samuel Occom,  and I hope to  pursue a degree in x, in a prelaw program, preparing for a career in  y, by working with professors like Z Z in programs like X X,  and learning about YY from  a professor such as A A.

(Note that this example is a few words under the 100 word maximum, and that it also required research into some programs at Dartmouth, as discussed in that post I linked above, and was written by a person with clear goals–all of which will help an application.  And yes, the letters denote name variables for programs and instructors.  This is meant to be farily generic.)

In my next post, I will move  on to a more pure quote essay prompt, this one from the University of Chicago.  Chicago throws six new prompts out there this year, along with a “make up your own” prompt, but then goes on to recycle old prompts, which include at least four that count as quote prompts.  A couple have caught my eye:

“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)

Here is my first idea on these:  they both look pretty Zen to me.

You will know when I post on these if you follow my blog.  In the meantime, keep a notebook or phone handy to jot or type ideas as they come.  The creative mind tends to let an idea surface at unexpected times, whether it is for a topic or a great word, or a sentence–but they can easily evaporate.  It’s kind of like that dream you remembered when you woke but forgot by the time you finished breakfast.  Write it down when it appears. 

For those needing a little more evidence that you should not take the quote  “Good fences make good neighbors” as literal truth, take the time to read the poem that is the source of the quote, you will see that the neighbor who advocates fences is portrayed as a dark character, filled with latent violence,  and is directly compared to a  cave man, “an old stone savage” who carries rocks to the wall like some head hunter returning with the skulls of those he has killed.  Throughout  the poem, the narrator argues against his neighbor, questions why they are rebuilding the wall, mocks the idea by wondering if   the neighbor fears that his apple orchard is going to invade the pine trees on the other side, and suggests that we should be careful when building walls–or fences–that we should pay attention to what we many be fencing out–and in.  The poem is highly ironic, but its purpose is clearly to question the reason for fences and walls, not to promote them, and the wall here is linked with fear and violence. In an additional irony, the reluctant narrator and his neighbor are repairing a stone wall, not a fence. 

Here is a more detailed discussion of the poem, as well as of Pence’s misuse of the quote, with some good insights on ambiguity, which is often the way the world is, and which good essayists understand:  D.T. Should Read R.F.’s “Mending Wall.

See you soon.

 

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

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

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

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

University of Chicago Essay Option 3

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

-Inspired by Ben Zhang, Class of 2022 

Some Rules for Neologisms

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

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

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

Here, for example, is the etymology of floccinaucinihilipilification:

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

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

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

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

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

Why We Make Up Words

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

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

What New Situations Need New Words Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

And They’re Off: College Essay Season Has Begun

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

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

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

Not ready to write?  Then how about some sorting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question 1 (Required)

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

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

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

What to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Researching the University of Southern California Supplemental Essays and Responses

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

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

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

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

Search: Manmade Retina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.
To request a subscription e-mail me at:
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Subject:  Subscription.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

University of Chicago Essay Prompts for 2014-2015

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

 

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

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

The Beginning of History

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

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

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

ESSAY OPTION 3.

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

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

Inspired by Amy Estersohn, Class of 2010

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

History as a Shifting Narrative

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

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

Don Delillo and Us:  The Sum Total of Being Watched

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And to End:  A Movie

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

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

word guild@gmail.com

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

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

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

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

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

ESSAY OPTION 4.

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

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

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

Inspired by Tess Moran, Class of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

The First Approach:  My Life as a Shrimp

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

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

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

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

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

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

Option Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.