Dear Outsiders–my last entry focused on the idea of self-discipline, and the price we pay for the privilege to WORK WITH WORDS in our daily lives. Lest we think that studies in the humanities is all work and no play, let’s shift gears today and affirm that while our chosen discipline entails a lot of struggles, we got into this gig in the first place in order to have…


Indeed, those who have adopted the humanities, the liberal arts–and reading and writing in particular–as disciplines have done so, largely, because we find them FUN. I shared the definition of “discipline” in the first blog this week, but we didn’t discuss the etymology. Remember, words are fun, so let’s take a look, courtesy of Dr. Google:


So there you have it–the Latin form focused on “instruction” and “knowledge,” but by the time the English got ahold of “disciplus,” they transformed it into discipline–the “mortification” or “scourging oneself” as in religious penance. Given what I outlined in my previous post–the self-torture we administer in order to WORK WITH WORDS, the English may have translated it correctly! Think of Reverend Dimmesdale–literally whipping the guilty weight off his shoulders at night with bloody straps while countless English students on any given night are figuratively “scourged” in their forced reading of the text! Of course, for many of us, such self-discipline (the reading of The Scarlet Letter, I mean) is not “work” or “torture,” but, dare I say, FUN?

In this sense we adhere to the final transformation of the word–we become “disciples.” Life-long learners. Followers of an extensive parade of teachers–in classrooms, in texts, in person, in mind, in spirit. And why hitch ourselves to such a train? Because it’s fun!

A few weeks ago I found myself in a cornfield outside of the north-central Nebraska town of Neligh, grooving with a wild mix of ranch kids, political activists, hippies and farmers, listening to Neil Young lay down some impressive reverb with Willie Nelson’s kid–guitar sounds the likes of which had probably not echoed in that cottonwood shelter belt in, well, forever. Young is one of my favorite performers, so I was digging it, of course–but even in that moment of pure joy, the English major emerged: I became a disciple, once again, of the words. When Neil sang an acoustic version of “Comes a Time”–a song of great personal significance to me–the tears poured forth. Then came his pump-organ rendition of “Mother Earth,” and the harmonica for “Heart of Gold.” Somber–self-searching moments. HARVEST THE HOPE CONCERTThen he plugged in and things got loud and funky as he played a series of numbers from his rollicking album Ragged Glory, a pre-grunge favorite of mine, before wrapping his short set with a call to environmental arms with “Who’s Gonna Stand Up (and save the earth)?”

Now that was FUN! And, deep. The context–those words, with that music, in that place–and the conversations engendered from that moment, the reflection, the ideas pulled forth from deep in that brainstem. Wordsworth had Tintern Abbey, where he proclaimed  “That in this moment there is life and food/For future years” and that “Thy memory be as a dwelling-place/For all sweet sounds and harmonies” to be recreated in moments of tranquil recollection, in the mind, or on the page, as I am writing this very moment… Not an ancient church being reclaimed by nature, but I think my corn-field concert is just as worthy of such thoughts “too deep for tears.”

Or, to slightly alter the lyrics of another cut from Ragged Glory, you’ve got to “Love to Learn.”

Late one night I was walking
in the valley of hearts.
A spirit came to me and said:
You gotta move to start
You gotta take the first step
You gotta crawl to be tall
And then she told me something,
something that
I’ll never forget.

You gotta love to burn. LEARN!
You better
take your chance on love.
You got to let your guard down
You better take a chance,
A chance on love.

Well, that was a stretch–but experiences like Neil Young jamming in a corn field do it for me. I think English Majors and students of the Humanities have a special affinity for such moments. We love to get together and get deep, man–drive life into the corner, as Thoreau was telling my students this morning, and see what it is all about. This is one of the true JOYS of our discipline–the FUN we get to have by living in close association with serious readers and writers on a daily basis. My students may not agree, but I have a lot of FUN in classes–even in the hard work of preparation and grading. We have tremendous FUN in and around our offices just sharing some thoughts over a cup of coffee on the latest thing we read, taught or learned–and both the pleasures and frustrations attendant with our discipline.

And there are the perks. I’m looking forward in two weeks to attending the Western Literature Association conference in Victoria, British Columbia. The theme for this year’s conference is “Bordersong,” and we have put together a panel presentation–from little Chadron State College–that is going to rock those Canucks. Here is the composition of our panel presenting on Thursday afternoon, November 6:

Plain Songs with a Beat: Music and Walking as Spiritual and Social Journey in the West:

Matthew Evertson: “Escape Artists: Songs and Settlement in Three Nebraska Writers”

Steven Coughlin: “Finding a Voice: Thea Kronberg’s Rejection of Gendered Social Conventions in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark”

Thomas Deane Tucker and Kathleen Woods: “Rucksack Revolution: Images of Walking in the West in Kerouac”

So notice the clever language used throughout–the alliteration and vivid imagery, the double meanings behind “Plain” and “Beat,” and the way we have integrated seemingly disparate themes and topics into one set of presentations? See how our panel aligns with the broader conference theme of “border songs”? What do we have here other than a shining example of FUN WITH WORDS?

And it is our WORK with words that allows us this opportunity–to travel to a part of the world we have never been. To mix and mingle with other lovers and workers of words. To attend several panels at the conference and continue to “love to learn.” (And, to skip several panels and learn more about Victoria and the region and the local taverns and restaurants).

For those of you planning to be future educators–such joys await (along with all the hard work). For our current students, you, too, can have FUN WITH WORDS. Two years ago our department helped to send EIGHT of our students to the Sigma Tau Delta International Conference in Portland, Oregon. (We sent students again last year to Savannah, Georgia).

Student trip to Porland, 2013
Student trip to Porland, 2013
Portland, 2013
Portland, 2013

Our students have not only attended such conferences, they have presented their work to much acclaim. If you are involved with studies in English and Humanities at CSC, you have many such opportunities: open mic events, field trips, writing workshops, fundraisers, etc… You can learn more about such opportunities by reading earlier entries in the OUTSIDEYOURSELF blog–just scroll down for insights from students who attended the Portland conference, for example.  One of these blogs outlines specifically what you can do to WORK WITH WORDS and have a good time doing it. Here it is:

If you live and learn in this region, perhaps you have a chance to visit our big city to the North. Driving back from Rapid City, I’m always impressed as I round the curve of Buffalo Gap National Grassland–and perceive the wide open plains before me. You can see all the way to Chadron–and at night you can see the lights beckoning. You pass a sign. This IS the Good Life–not because of where we live, but how we live.

You’ve gotta love to learn, baby. You gotta take a chance…


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