No Freedom Without Representation. No Representation Without Reading.

A learner is one who walks the paths to knowledge. Knowledge leads to freedom. Take, for example, Frederick Douglass.1

While still a slave Douglass learned to read and write, which he accomplished by cajoling some white boys to tutor him without knowing that’s what they were doing. Now, Douglass had suffered the horrors and indignities of slavery before becoming literate, but it was only after he began reading that he became fully conscious of just how intolerable his condition was, and why it was intolerable. In other words, he knew, before learning to read, that he was a slave, but he only knew it as a matter of fact. When as a child, cowering in a closet, he inadvertently witnessed the whipping of his aunt, he experienced shock and terror, anticipating that the leather would be turned against him in due course. This and multiple other devastating events, left unreflected upon in illiteracy, might very well have made of Douglass’s whole life one long, unending trauma. His autobiographical Narrative, however, transformed these horrors into history, into a perspective on human behavior and relations, that continues to serve as a moral touchstone in our civilization.

It was only after learning to read that Douglass was able, while in the midst of experiencing, to represent his experiences to himself, because the very acts of both writing and reading are acts of representation. Writing and reading externalize words from human speech. Words on a page are objective containers of sentences that were originally thought by a subjective author. Printed words stand outside and apart from the subject-writer and the subject-reader. When Douglass learned his letters, then his alphabet, then the sentences of his appropriated composition book, he developed his brain in such a way as to be able to symbolize inner experiences outside of himself. Always before, when illiterate, he’d felt the freezing cold through a whole winter with only a single coarse, knee-length shirt and no pants, shoes, or jacket; his bones felt that. But those winters were not part of any narrative, in the most fundamental sense, until he was able to step outside of his experiences and see himself in them by representing the events of his life to himself in language.

Douglass describes, upon learning to read, how he came to understand the implications of what being a slave meant. Before reading, slavery was the epitome of misery. But it wasn’t until after reading that slavery became, in Douglass’s mind and heart, repugnant to moral conscience and loathsome in all human feeling. The realization of this exacted a heavy toll. Douglass was now burdened not only by his condition but also by an acute consciousness of his condition. He fell into a depression. After a climactic, revolutionary fistfight with an especially vicious master, Douglass might have continued as a slave, sullen and belligerent as he had become at that point in his life, but he had gained something from reading that would change the course of his reality: concepts.

Slavery was no longer the de facto necessary condition of Frederick Douglass’s existence, as it had been when the main thing he knew about himself was that he was owned by someone else. But now he had developed the understanding, reading the Columbian Orator, that slavery was unnecessary, that it was imposed, and that it must be stopped, beginning with his own emancipation. For Douglass, freedom began as a fresh concept. His knowledge of the ideas of slavery and freedom enabled him, first of all, to imagine a different life for himself and for others suffering the same fate. He was then able to judge what was right. And he was empowered thus to act in accordance with his convictions.

Frederick Douglass escaped and became a free citizen. He went on to become an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, a U.S. marshall, a diplomat, an influential public speaker, a newspaper publisher, and author of three autobiographical accounts of his life. These are all very impressive lines on a resume, but what impresses me most about Douglass’s work—apart from his writings, which are of incalculable value to successive generations—were his active support of abolition and of women’s rights. The concepts he learned did not—do not—only apply within a single cause. His knowledge transcended the boundaries of his original political affiliations. What was right and worth doing were realms larger than himself, larger than his personal experiences. Learning and knowledge connected Douglass with, and called him to act in, the world beyond the self.

  1. Douglass’s birthday anniversary is February 17th, the occasion of this post. 


Process Writing

Process writing (A.K.A. process notes, A.K.A. metacognitive writing) is the quintessential self-learning tool.

After doing any freewriting exercises, reflect on the writing and thinking process you were just engaged in. Did anything surprise you? What was your experience while you were writing? (—anxious, liberated, fuming, vulnerable, giddy—whatever it was, elaborate on it). What was interesting about the arc the writing took?

Process notes are especially useful and revealing when they reflect on the composition of an essay or the creation of a work of art. Because essays and art projects are long, involved processes, it is best to pause and do some process writing at various stages throughout the project. For instance, you have an Economics assignment on stock investing that initially you’re not sure how you want to approach; but later, while watching an ice hockey game on T.V. it all suddenly becomes clear to you: Of course! an investment is just like the puck, getting slapped up and down the ice! (value fluctuations)—and the players are investment brokers, checking each other on the boards and trying to score! (Can you tell I’m not an economist?)… Anyway, after you scribble down your brilliant idea (in a focused freewrite, of course), follow up with process notes on just how stumped you were when you first got the assignment, and then how you became inspired.

Process writing is done as a narrative, not as an outline. (In that respect, the term itself, “process notes,” is a little misleading, because they’re not the kind of notes you can jot down on Post-Its.) One way of thinking of process writing is to tell the story of what happened in your thinking process and in your writing process;—a story more like a personal essay, less like a report;—a story about how your intimations arose from the primordial goo of your brain, and were fruitful and multiplied, and how and by what/whom they were influenced, and how you nurtured them into ideas, and lo, how you brought them forth and arranged them just so onto sheets of paper, and they were good.

The reflective aspect of process notes is key. Imagine you were going to write about an experience you had with your family: you’d write it reflectively, thinking about what happened and why, just as much as (if not more than) merely recounting the bare events. In this very same way, your process notes should talk about the conception and writing/making of your essay or art project as your experience, not merely as an assigned activity. Why do process notes take this tack? Because an assigned activity ultimately belongs to the class that assigns it, whereas a writing or artistic experience belongs to the writer/artist: you. Process notes are a way of taking full ownership of what you’ve created.

It is true that students and even many faculty have found the exact purpose of process notes elusive. You might feel that this metacognitive exercise is arbitrary and redundant: “I already wrote the paper! You want me to explain it again?” Like response journals, process writing is a method of inquiry and learning, except whereas in response journals you’re writing about the assigned reading, in process notes the subject you’re writing about is yourself—you as learner and author. Patricia Hampl in her essay “Memory and Imagination” makes the distinction between “writing what I know” and “writing to find out what I know.” The benefits of process notes come more into focus if we augment Hampl’s statement to: writing to find out how and what I’ve learned, how and what I think, how and what I write. This kind of reflection is usually not manifest in the essay itself.

In process notes the writer becomes the object of examination and analysis. Some people have found this image helpful: To write the essay, I read, take notes, compose, edit. To write process notes, I step outside of myself and observe myself reading, taking notes, composing, editing… in order to gain insight into the evolution of my thinking. The question remains, though, to what end?

One of my mentors and a former colleague, Jamie Hutchinson, offered this as one of process writing’s many useful purposes: “[To learn] how to make a case for what one has written, both its form and content.” The ability to articulate a case for something you yourself have written implies a capacity to see yourself in a broader context of other learners and authors; to be able to think of yourself on the same plane as and in relation to, for example, Patricia Hampl, or the author of the text you’ve just been assigned to read, instead of being content to sit back and shout praise or criticism at books from the grandstand. In a more immediate sense, articulating a case for your writing enables you to see and think of yourself in relation to fellow learners and writers (including faculty) in your class at your school.

Perhaps more than any other type of writing assignment, process notes build intellectual community. Certainly metacognitive writing directly fosters the conscious (as opposed to impulsive) development of authorial voice.

Despite all these Utopian pedagogical sentiments, many people nevertheless find process notes difficult either to do or to explain how to do, or both. Really the only known remedy for this predicament is to practice process writing until their benefits become self-evident, as when the obscured image suddenly emerges out of a “Magic Eye” pattern. Once you’ve beheld their effects, process notes might very well become a learning tool you never want to do without.


Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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