Is calling something a thing a thing?

by Skyler Samuelson, Writing Fellow ’17

Check out this interesting New York Times Opinion piece. Alexander Stern muses on the popularity of the phrase “…a thing.” (“Is that actually a thing?” “When did that become a thing?”) In offering different takes on the linguistic phenomena, his idea that the modern world is closing the gap between reality and satire intrigued me most. As Stern writes, “The absurd excess of things has reached a point where the ironic detachment needed to cope with them is increasingly built into the things themselves, their marketing and the language we use to talk about them. The designator “a thing” is thus almost always tinged with ironic detachment. It puts the thing at arm’s length. You can hardly say “a thing” without a wary glint in your eye. The volume, particularity, and inanity of the phenomena effectively force us to take up this detachment. The complaint that the young are jaded or ironic is misplaced; it’s the conditions that are this way.”

Food for thought: is this a thing?

On Abstract Thought and Feeling Dissuaded

by Geneva Hutcheson, Writing Fellow ’17

I am often impressed by those who think in the abstract rather than concrete. As someone who can only think in the concrete, in language, and, even more specifically, in English, I sometimes feel trapped by words. It will be as though I feel an emotion or conclusion, but when I begin to prod at that feeling, it slips away. It’s like Pandora’s box, and I begin thinking, “No, not that. That is too big a concept; I will have to do something about it later.”

In the back of my head, cold water spills down like some hundreds of half-opened thoughts too big for me to finish, and they remain; under the cold water, they freeze. Sometimes these thoughts come back to me in pieces. I remember last week, walking under the bridge connecting EC to main campus, it occurred to me… something about Ancient Greeks and time (perhaps whether they thought they had magic, or whether, like us, they imagined someone before them had magic and they lost it—although probably not that, as it was something I could not research the answer to). I remember feeling that thought was too big for the linguistic confines of my mind, and then I shut it down. Even after shutting it down, that thought haunted me. It tasted like hope, and in closing myself off from it, I kept myself from feeling something good. Often these thoughts are personal: I may begin to realize there is something off in my life, and then, when that sensation begins, I learn to hold the two things in my head at once, and I close the thought. I tell myself that language is no space for gray area—words are clearly delineated. Meaning can be found, and seldom is the connotation positive and negative.

So, when a friend said that she, an abstract thinker, is frustrated when she can draw a form to show what she means but cannot write or say it, her words took me aback. I assumed that abstraction is freedom. That if only I could escape words, those rotten things, then I would be free to comprehend my emotions, but with comprehension comes a barrier. If you truly understand your own sentiment, if you fearlessly open the box of complex and contrary emotions, of ideas that deserve form but are not concrete, you become isolated. Communication is difficult (that is why Writing and Speaking Fellows exist), but communication of concepts requiring abstraction is even more difficult.

So. How does one communicate ideas that exist beyond language? Perhaps I, a concrete thinker, am not best to attack this problem as I often shy away from the grayer parts of thought. But for the sake of those thoughts I previously discarded, I will consider the problem.

It is true, yes, language has limits. It is the game of language: to find its bends and breaks, to see the gaps between words, the spaces we have not yet reached. So I propose not disentangling the abstract thought—but prodding it like you would a painting (figuratively, of course), or music, or a poem you do not yet understand. Apply a word to that abstract thought. How does that word fit, what does it hide, where does it fail, how can you qualify its failures, and how can you highlight its successes?

Now apply another word to fit between that word and the abstract meaning still hidden. Think of it as a piecemeal process. For me, I quit when I grow frustrated with the words in my head, worse when I must hold all the inadequacies of those words in my head as well. Write those words and their inadequacies down. Write down what works—and what doesn’t.

If you cannot find the words to express the thing, then write down what that thing is not. Perhaps, like music, the meaning will finally arise in the negative spaces.

Multilingualism and Me

by Alice Min, Speaking Fellow ’17

Last December I managed to hop from Chile—where I was studying abroad—to Barnard to Columbus, Ohio to Shanghai, China to Singapore, and return to Columbus before the end of 2015. It was amazing, overwhelming, and rather surprisingly gave me insight into my understanding of language. I’m a Chinese-American majoring in Spanish; therefore, I’m relatively competent in three languages: English, Chinese, and Spanish. Would I say I’m trilingual? Eh, I can’t really read or write Chinese, and my Spanish speaking skills are at a point where I still mess up but know how to correct myself. English is the only language I feel truly comfortable saying I’m fluent in. I found out during my travels that my differing levels of knowledge and the context of my learning experiences greatly influenced the person I was when I interacted in Spanish, Chinese, or English.

There have been many linguistic theories and experiments studying the relationship between changes in the perception of personality and multilingualism. American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that every language perpetuates a worldview that affects how its users perceive and experience the world. Sociolinguist Susan Ervin-Tripp designed an experiment where she interviewed Japanese women living in San Francisco. She asked the women to complete sentences such as, “when my wishes conflict with my family….” When the women answered in English they said, “I do want I want.” When they replied in Japanese: “it is a time of great unhappiness.”[1] The study demonstrates Whorf’s ideas. American English, with its directness and lack of formal speech, lets people express their demands for freedom. Japanese, with its many forms of honorifics, asks the speaker to consider the consequences of personal freedom at the cost of elders. But which comes first? Grammar and syntax or cultural norms? Was it always a part of the American cultural experience to rebel against family wishes and our language simply melded to fit our needs, or was it the other way around? Perhaps, even more importantly, does language actually shape who we are? Does that mean out personalities are not constant? I can’t really speak to the historical or linguistic reasons behind this phenomenon, but I can speak to my own experience.

During the first month of my homestay in Chile, my host mom asked if my whole family was quiet like me. I was rather surprised by this question. I am NOT a quiet person. I am a SPEAKING fellow. I spent my childhood in timeout because I talked way too much. My mom still has a stack of teachers’ notes to prove it. But that was in English and Chinese. In Spanish, I was always more hesitant. I have to think before I speak. Do the genders match? Was that the right tense? Does no creo que need the subjunctive? In the few seconds I needed to form sentences in my mind, I would wonder, “wait, is this even worth saying?” Thereby self-censoring whatever I had planned on saying. So, of course I came off as quiet in Spanish. I was also more appeasing in Spanish. I would often say “” automatically, not because I agreed but out of a desire to come off as friendly in case I messed up elsewhere. I was also less likely to jump in as a dissenter in my classes because I was afraid I couldn’t articulate my viewpoints and just come off as dumb. All of these factors, from the context to my level of fluency, made me come off as a more reserved human being.

For me, Chinese is the language of food, scolding, and innocence. Racism, sexism, inequality do not exist because I don’t know the words for them in Chinese. While visiting my relatives in China, I was shocked by how many of my relatives looked down upon migrants from the rural areas of China. I chimed in and tried to explain that we shouldn’t be making generalizations about people and that we should check our privilege because we benefit from cheap migrant labor. However, I couldn’t find the words. How do you say generalization or privilege in Chinese? Strangely, I could figure out how to say it in Spanish. But wasn’t my Chinese supposed to be more fluent? I can get by in China without anyone thinking I’m a foreigner. But I couldn’t express my more complicated thoughts. When I finally chimed in to state rather gracelessly that we just should not judge people if we don’t know them, my grandma tapped my arm and whispered, “Children should mind adults.” I felt pretty indignant: “I am 20 years old!” However, it was true. I came off as rude because I don’t know how to use qualifiers in Chinese. My Chinese vocabulary and syntax have remained stuck at the level of a kindergartener, so I sound like one. I felt like my 20-year-old mind was stuck in a kid’s body.

When I finally got back to Barnard and spent most of my days babbling away in English, I thought I would feel relieved to be back home. Finally, the USA, where I would be in on all the cultural jokes, call out all the idiots, and be the loud, proud, and annoying person I always was. Except, there was still something scratching at me in the back of my head. Sometimes I wanted to describe that certain sort of pretentiousness where people are aware of their snobbiness but are actually proud of it instead of ashamed. There’s a word for it in Chile: cuico. But I can’t use that word without sounding like that one kid who went abroad and came back all “cultured.” Or maybe I want to compliment a particularly open-minded person by saying, “you know I appreciated that you can think it open,” which comes from the Chinese phrase xiangdekai (想得開). In English, that just sounds weird. I’ve always had the lost in translation feelings with English and Chinese, but I had my family to joke about that with. We pretty much speak Chinglish at home. But whom can I speak SpanChinglish to? Maybe the point of this blog post is a call to arms for all the SpanChinglish speakers in the world! Hello, talk to me about and in these languages!

In the end, I’m not quite sure what defined my experiences. Was it the language I used? The context? My level of fluency? The cop-out answer: all of the above. My own theoretical-not-based-on-any-science answer: I don’t think I am a different person when I speak a different language. I’m not quieter in Spanish—stereotypically speaking, shouldn’t I be louder? —I’m not more childish in Chinese, and I’m not a master of eloquence in English. I’m pretty much all the same, but I just sound different, and I have a different pool of vocabulary and syntax to draw from. As a result, others perceive my words and actions differently, and I react accordingly. Am I arguing on the side of nature over nurture? Maybe, but I would argue that our nature molds to the nurture society gives us. Languages just happen to be one form of nurture.

[1] Taken from Alice Robb’s article “Multilinguals have Multiple Personalities” in the New Republic, April 23rd, 2014.

Public Speaking is a Lifestyle

by Cheryl Lee, Speaking Fellow ’18

Many people outside the Speaking Fellows Program approach me, complimenting my public speaking skills. As a leader for KCCC, the Korean Campus Crusade for Christ, I often speak in front of my club members. My co-leader often says, “Cheryl has a natural gift for public speaking.” However, I was not always this way.

On the contrary, it was not until my sophomore year in high school when I became interested in public speaking. I feared even the tiniest public interaction before then, and I despised the attention of even one person. When I share this story to people like my co-leader, they usually respond with disbelief and shock. However, looking back, I am grateful for my past insecurities about public speaking. They are a testament to a belief I hold strongly: public speaking is a lifestyle, not a natural gift.

Like exercise and maintaining a healthy diet, public speaking  is something an individual works on consistently. After many motivations, one being admiration towards the charisma professional men and women exude when speaking, I became excited with the possibility of becoming a speaker, perhaps even becoming as charismatic as one of those professionals I admired. As a result, I took as many opportunities to speak in front of people as I could about different topics in various ambiances. I did presentations in more casual settings such as classrooms and more professional environments like a Fortune 500 company in Wall Street.

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My first public speaking competition during my sophomore year

Since the beginning of my journey as a public speaker, I have made countless embarrassing, foolish mistakes; nevertheless, those same errors helped me become a better orator. Although some may have a natural gift for public speaking, I believe the majority of great speakers had a beginning. Speaking is not an ability arising from a few tries; it is rather a process that builds gradually upon your experiences, helping you discover your speaking style with time and courage.

college without punctuation #GIFLIFE

From college to adulthood without punctuation because life is like a gif

by DaMonique Ballou, Writing Fellow ’17

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College feels like living and never being able to find punctuation

Sentences and questions carry on into the next day next year four years go by too fast to realize when there is a break because the breaks are just other moments where you still remain within the sentence of a college though you are not imprisoned but I guess that depends on your perspective imagine it I could capitalize words to show new beginnings read and pause create huge spaces like Nikki Giovanni well in some of her poems you know but imagine it imagine living and never being able to find punctuation Thoughts have no place to stand on or stop no moments to exhale you keep running reading chasing living being that that starts and continues but is it a start if it never ends do binaries exist with two opposing forces does a part of me stop when I reach adulthood will I know if I do though that must be what I feel after graduation Graduation but I wont really know because I keep going and adjusting to new spaces as if they are new places that I must assimilate into but my presence must incite a change a shift in tone in speech in something that too never ends but that was there before I entered RIGHT why does it seem life is like a never ending gif make it stop make it stop make it STOP Lynn Nottage my favorite playwright wrote a character who wrote a poem that will never be able to find punctuation The poem she says changes and moves and evolves and keeps shifting endlessly searching for a breath

That is never there because you are in college or about to leave Congratulations

Why Write?

An exploration of why we write and the difference between academic and creative writing

by Geneva Hutcheson, Writing Fellow ’17

The act of writing outside the academic can become a nebulous, emotional territory. Entrenched in one’s head, it is easy to lose sight of purpose. Why do we write creatively? Is it an act of catharsis, of battling one’s own duende on the page? Or is it beyond that—must writing be external to be valid?

The Writing Fellows Program relies on the philosophy that all writers need a reader. So, opening the email containing my sixth rejection letter of the year, I consider, for whom am I writing? If I am writing for myself, I can stop submitting writing. If I am writing for someone else, I should change my writing style to be something my peers want to read. Instead, I attempt to balance the two, oscillating between extreme adaption (I will write what you want) and extreme rejection (I will write octaves about plants).

This process leaves me exhausted and melancholic. I am left with mangled poems that are either too detached from my reality to be valid—or too personal to be read. When a student leaves the Writing Center feeling hopeful about her work, I am uplifted. This is why we write! Writing is neither for the self nor the other. Writing, regardless of content, is expression before communication. Yes, when we write academically, we seek to teach our ideas to the reader, but when writing for the sake of writing, for the art of it, we seek instead genesis—whether our material is new or recycled, it is something of creation.

When students stop me mid-question to ask what the professor wants them to say, I find myself at an impasse. Yes, the professor, being merely human, has goals and expectations—as much as they may try to be unbiased—and cannot transform into a neutral reader. But do not write what you think the professor wants. The writing produced by this filter is stilted. Write intelligently; write a response to the text and the questions raised between it and the discussion. I bite my tongue; there is a necessary space in academic writing between the art and the task.

Returning, then, to the purely artistic writing, we are freed. There is no task here—nothing to prove nor answer. And while we are released, we are also relieved of direction. Direction must come from the internal. Thus, we are back to the difficult questions to consider through writing: What is this? What are you doing? Who are you?

Proceed.

Why Speaking Fellows

by Alejandra Figueroa, Speaking Fellow ’16

A Speaking Fellow inspired me long before I even enrolled at Barnard College. Her name was Tabia Santos. When she got up to speak, the whole room was silent. Her words mesmerized us because everything—from her posture to her gestures to the way she projected her voice and enunciated every syllable—reflected confidence. As a 17-year-old, all I thought was: “Wow, I’d love to be like her.” That’s when I wanted to be a Speaking Fellow.

As a senior, I look back and am glad that I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone to apply to be a Speaking Fellow. Not only do I feel that my speaking skills have developed greatly, but I have seen the effects of my speaking support on my peers. Public speaking requires a great degree of confidence—or at least the air of confidence. It is not easy to stand up in front of a crowd. The skills and experiences that I have gained as a Speaking Fellow are invaluable, and becoming a Speaking Fellow is probably one of the best decisions I made during my college career. If you are a Barnard student considering becoming a Fellow, do not hesitate to apply. Become comfortable with the uncomfortable.

speaking.barnard.edu/becomeaspeakingfellow