Hello and Welcome!
Musing on Milton
During our visit to Phillips State Prison, I met an incarcerated student who spoke no English when he first began Dr. Higinbotham's class. Since then, he has greatly improved fluency and literacy in his second language, in large part thanks to reading and discussing great works of literature. But he once jokingly said that, "reading Milton makes my English worse." I'll admit to sharing a similar opinion when I first attempted to understand Paradise Lost. I assumed that analyzing an epic poem written in early modern English would be interesting in a purely academic sense, but wouldn't necessarily improve my communication skills in today's world. Wading through Milton's convoluted language seemed to me a mental test, my own private struggle to understand a seventeenth century writer who pelted me with obscure Biblical and ancient Greek references and did his best to obfuscate simple sentences, using vocabulary far older and stranger than "obfuscate." However, reading and responding to Milton's famous poem forced me to confront my stereotypes about classical literature in general and religiously rooted works in particular. Years ago, when I read Dumas, Homer, and Shakespeare outside the classroom, I approached these works in a vacuum devoid of outside ideas and perspectives. As a result, I struggled to understand their deeper implications and articulate my own thoughts. But after a semester of English 1102, after discussing Milton's epic poem with classmates, declaring my own opinions, and debating them with others, I developed a stronger voice in literary criticism and other areas of communication. Furthermore, creating projects using my WOVEN skills improved my ability to advocate for myself, whether I was arguing my positions on Paradise Lost or presidential candidates - though I still need plenty of practice.
Annotating Paradise Lost
Making My Own Paper
Linking Ideas Using Prezi
My Rhetoric on Rhetoric
Professor Higinbotham quoted Milton when she declared her intention for us "to know, to utter, and to argue freely" about Milton and more after her course. My first two projects approached this goal, but my formal research paper was the final test of my ability to argue and advocate my ideas using WOVEN skills.
Fittingly, the topic of my paper was Satan's development as an orator, and how Milton uses Satan's rhetorical development to educate his readers on the awful power of persuasion. To make this argument, I reviewed the existing literature, weaving evidence and counterevidence into each of my points. I even used electronic resources like Purdue Owl to check my MLA citation format and Hemingway Pen to improve the clarity and readability of my writing. (The latter is a cleverly coded program that checks essays against Ernest Hemingway's writing tips, which I can appreciate both as a computer science major and an English 1102 student.) Peer feedback was another invaluable resource; I used oral and written communication skills to give and receive many different perspectives. With each pass - peers, professor, Communication Lab - I strengthened my written argument.
Shortly after I submitted my paper, I had the opportunity to visit Phillips State Prison for a unique class bringing together college students and incarcerated students. While we discussed Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing, with its undertones of sexism and surveillance culture, I was reminded again of the importance of feedback not just from peers but from those with very different perspectives. My preconceived views on many topics were challenged, but at the same time I was able to hold my own in a fast-paced intellectual discussion because I was confident in my WOVEN skills.
Gathering My Thoughts
After a few weeks of muddling through Paradise Lost and trying to make sense of classroom discussions, I began to see the beauty and relevance of Milton's epic poem. It was around this time I first began annotating the poem on my own, instead of merely copying down the impressive insights my classmates and professor spouted in class. Also, I started keeping a commonplace book, which involved collecting quotes from Paradise Lost and reflecting on them in a little notebook. Using these two techniques of written communication, I slowly developed a sense of my own positions on Milton's many messages, from political power to censorship to gender roles. Every day in class, I had the opportunity to argue these opinions, practicing rhetorical techniques and organizing my logical reasoning. In addition to improving my oral communication, this experience allowed me to respond to others' feedback and learn from their perspectives.
With our next project, I sifted through my commonplace book to gather quotes for an intriguing conclusion - diagnosing Milton's Satan with imposter syndrome. By remixing quotes and images into collage-like book art, I strategically mixed visual and written communication, arguing my case with scraps of fabric and blocks of ink. I even used paper that I made myself during a workshop at the Paper Museum, contributing to a general sense of crafting my own autonomous argument. Initially, I didn't take this assignment that seriously - it seemed too much like a middle school art project. However, once again, my assumptions were challenged as I realized the true difficulty and creative potential offered by this medium, and how much I still have to improve as an intentional artist and multimodal communicator.
Forwarding and Countering
After developing my own independent identity as a Milton critic, I joined a team to present arguments about Paradise Lost appropriations in modern film and television. Each team member wanted the presentation to look and feel a certain way, so we initially struggled to synthesize everyone's thoughts in a logically organized, engaging manner. Eventually we decided on an idea we were all excited about - a mock theatre set-up, involving popcorn, blankets, and a themed Prezi. In the end, my oral and nonverbal communication skills were improved not only by practicing and delivering this presentation, but by mediating group discussions as well as giving and receiving constant feedback on each other's communication styles. Though creating an individual presentation on the exact same topic would have similarly improved my electronic communication skills, it would certainly not have enriched my multimodal WOVEN skills to the same degree.
It was around this time that we held the Milton Marathon, a day-long reading of Paradise Lost where students took turns reading, listening, and eating cubes of cheese. Though I only read for a few minutes, I found myself automatically projecting my voice and maintaining a confident posture. It was then I realized just how much my oral and nonverbal communication skills had evolved over the semester. Now that I was familiar with the material and confident in my own analysis, my oral and nonverbal communication skills had improved immensely. However, I still need plenty of practice before I can speak in front of an audience without experiencing weak knees and an upset stomach.
Visiting Phillips State Prison
I began English 1102 not as a weak communicator, but an unmotivated one. But in this, my first college English course, I had to consider the real possibility that many different audiences would see my work and read my words. My book art project, hanging in a public space, might be judged by passing students, visiting professors, or President Peterson - or perhaps no one, if it wasn't engaging enough. This sense of limitless possibility based on merit (a concept seen throughout Paradise Lost) motivated me more than any of my high school projects and papers had. For the first time, I was deeply invested in my final product not just because of my perfectionism or my drive to challenge myself academically. Instead, I was inspired to master WOVEN skills because they might directly lead to recognition and real world opportunities - for instance, publication in an academic journal, or simply the ability to debate with someone from any walk of life. This was no mere academic challenge, but a chance to push myself professionally and personally.
The Quality of Failure
This past year, I tried several extreme sports, including scuba diving, caving, rock climbing, and analyzing early modern poetry. Trying (and failing at) new things is one of my specialities, and I certainly flexed this muscle inside and outside English 1102.
My most memorable failure this semester was my first ever mountain biking trip. I fell on eleven different occasions - once spraining my shoulder and twice eating dirt. By the end, bruises painted my legs, and the leader of ORGT mountain biking said I tumbled off my bike more times in one trip than he had ever seen. He said it was "badass," but I didn't feel the same way about my falls.
I had started mountain biking without fear, following more experienced riders down difficult trails and doing my best to match their speed and technique. But tumble after tumble taught me to be scared of hurtling down hillsides and whipping around curves at high speed. I tried to think of every fall as a learning experience - eleven different ways you shouldn't ride a mountain bike. I know that's the healthiest mindset, but I couldn't convince myself not to be afraid. I didn't return to a mountain biking meeting for weeks afterward. I consider this my greatest failure of the semester - the failure to successfully recover from failure.
How are Milton and mountain biking connected? Aside from the fact that Dr. Higinbotham was once competed in this sport, my struggles in mountain biking mirrored my struggles reading Milton. The key difference was that I recovered from my initial struggle to understand Milton's language, but I was not able to recover from my mishaps in mountain biking.
This semester, I have embraced failure almost too much. and struggled with not letting these failures define my self-identity. In English class as in all things, I tend to err on the side of self-criticism. I hope that my success in reading and analyzing Milton will fuel my confidence to once again attempt mountain biking next semester.