My Favorite Assignment: A Wondering Essay

For the final assignment for my advanced writers at Penn State–after moving through signature stories, controversy and persuasion, opinion pieces, and professional materials for job applications, students attempt the classic humanities essay of writing to sift or understand what they think about some curious thing.

It’s a wondering essay.

It’s an essay rooted in fascination and marveling at something or someone till we arrive at new understanding or an epiphany. We read to see your mind at work. It’s a very old-fashioned kind of essay, one we once mastered in centuries past, now taken over by argument and debate.

Students begin by writing down what creates that sense of wonder in them. What fascinates them? What do they want to keep learning about?

We talk about the neuroscience of curiosity and wonder and just how much the brain loves this kind of thinking. We talk about asking the kinds of questions that lead to wonder: Why this? How can this be? Why do we care about this? What if? What now? 

We talk about strange and beautiful things: the mimic octopus, how squirrels know to bury acorns, why we love sunsets and the Northern Lights and whether they are intrinsically beautiful or if they would cease to fascinate us if we experienced them every day. We talk about if the Grand Canyon is always grand or if living near it would make it ordinary. We consider the supernatural, celebrity obsession, romantic gestures, and conspiracy theories.

We talk about sound waves, gravity, and prophecy. We talk about the construct of time and how we experience it. We talk about how some people experience numbers and sounds as colors.

And we wonder. We marvel. We stay fascinated.

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