Today I teach my last unit for my advanced writing classes. We begin studying the classic humanities essay.
Here, a writer begins with a curious observation–about anything at all ranging from the natural world to any kind of concept–and then uses the essay to move through increasingly complex questions about this observation in order to arrive at an epiphany.
The reader observes the mind at work. The writer cultivates wonder and carries the reader along on the journey. We study current research about curiosity, wonder, and the pleasure of epiphany.
We talk about what it means to orchestrate a moment of epiphany–both for the writer and the reader. As Mary Pipher explains, “epiphanies cannot be scheduled, but they can be invited.” We invite moments of insight, of new understanding, and of a reordered mind because we keep asking questions about our topic. Normally, the questions end when we arrive at knowledge that helps us see a connection to what it means to be human, to our sense of self, or to some category we care about like history, science, sociology, psychology, anthropology, philosophy / ethics, or theology. I find that it normally takes about 10 questions until we get at what we’re really after. When we feel satisfied with our exploration, we discover fields of study that truly matter to us.
For example: It’s snowed last night, and it’s nearly mid-April. Consider these questions:
- What causes it to snow in April? Is our planet in danger?
- What happens to spring? Is everything just pushed back, like when schools open on a two-hour delay?
- Will birds still make their nests, or are nests weather-dependent, as if a certain temperature cues the birds?
- Will bears keep hibernating in the woods behind the house?
- Has this happened before?
- What if we lived in perpetual winter?
- What bothers me so much about this?
- How dependent are we on seasons or a sense of cyclical time for well-being?
- What does spring symbolize to me that it worries me so much that it’s not here yet?
- Isn’t spring so marvelous? How does it even happen? Who designed it?
Students love the humanities essay because they explore their own minds working, they cultivate curiosity, and they realize the joy of wonder.