Discipline: The Good Life

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: https://outsideyourself.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/work-with-words-get-paid-for-your-passion/

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…

Outside Your Self-Discipline

Hello Outsiders. Yesterday we explored the definition of “discipline,” and I posed the following question:

As English Majors and Minors, teachers and students, and general lovers of the written word–can we advance in our discipline without discipline? How much of our work within the discipline will involve “obeying” and “rules”? As a teacher or a student–how much do we enforce one to support the other?

We all love to read and write, for sure–but it can’t be all fun, can it? In posting midterm grades today, I was reminded of the cycles and seasons of the academic life. I love college so much, I never left–but for some reason I find myself surprised at various times each semester by the sheer volume of reading and writing we all choose to take up as practitioners of this discipline (as teachers, students and life-long learners). At times like this, our lives certainly seem governed by a lot of “rules” we have to “obey.” Are we crazy?

My wife thinks so. She teaches High School English–and there the pressure is even more intense. This past Friday found her grading essays when she got done with school, much of the day on Saturday and Sunday, then meeting with a colleague at 7pm on Sunday evening to go over grades to be shared with students the following day. When she was able to join her children and husband for a brief respite and linger over dinner (pizza is a sure-fired way to call her forth from the grading den), we barely recognized the stranger in our midst. She had bloodshot eyes and “grading elbow.”

Now that’s crazy. Yet we have more English Education Majors in our program than ever. What gives?

We love words. What else can be the explanation? (Well, to be fair, we may not “love” the words in that particular passage of the seventeenth essay we have graded that evening, the one with all the comma errors, but we know that, eventually, we will arrive at a passage that blows us away and takes our heads clean off, as Emily would say). Those of us working within this discipline take on faith that language will be our savior, at some point–every week, we will be vindicated in our chosen path. My students suffering through those long passages of Emerson will emerge from the Concord woods, transparent eyeballs ablaze, arduous midterm exam conquered,  and encounter a black bird sitting in their study, ready to creep them out and reaffirm their belief that, somehow, literature is fun!


Our discipline requires of us a lot of hard work. Any professional career or course of study will, obviously–but are English majors special gluttons for punishment? As I chat with students this week of midterms, I’m reminded of just how much they have on their plates–all the writing projects and all the pages to read. I remember being overwhelmed many times throughout my undergraduate and graduate career, wondering just how in the hell I was going to digest all of that material! Let alone savor it, meditate on it–engage is slow reading, as Deane Tucker wisely advised a few blogs ago. How could I possibly get through it all. Sometimes (gasp), I couldn’t! I’d have to prioritize or “triage” which assignments across my courses demanded my attention first and foremost (hint to my students, it is always American Lit). When I was unable to complete a reading assignment, I would feel intense anxiety–not that the professor would call on me, or that I would screw up a quiz or exam–but that I was being left out of that shared reading experience of the class. I would sometimes get upset when the professor would CUT a reading from the schedule. How masochistic is that? I somehow felt, deeply, that motto you see emblazoned on bags from Barnes and Noble: “so many books, so little time.” But was it worth all the the 3am essays, the cups of joe, the frantic call of the inkjet minutes before class? Who would choose this?

And so I understand the near revolt of my students this morning who complained that we had set aside just ONE day for Edgar Allan Poe. (Trying to lure me into the catacombs for a nice draught of wine was a bit over the top, though). We are all addicted to reading–though we might not all pick the same poison. (For those of you going on to teach, when you get your own classrooms–you can assign as much Poe as you want. For now, let’s turn our pages to Walden…)

In short, we have chosen a discipline that does require, at times, a certain devil’s bargain. In order to get “paid” in good grades, diplomas and, eventually, salaries, we agree to live within a world of self-discipline. We will read a lot–and not always for pleasure. We will write a great deal–often, not for the fun of it. We will internalize the rules of acceptable usage and, when needed, obey them. We will prop open our eyelids and push through to the end of the chapter. We will tap tap on our keyboards until we reach that word count. We will assess the written work of others, many who won’t share our perverse love of language. We do this because we know no other way to fill our lives with what we love.


In this blog space a year or so ago, I penned a promotion for our program that sought to appeal to all you hopeless reading and writing addicts out there. WORK WITH WORDS became our mantra. It has that nice double-meaning that all English majors can appreciate: find a profession where reading and writing are integral, and where you get to literally “work” with language day in and day out. A colleague recently shared a link to a website that endorses this theme, helping us to imagine why we might want to study within the arts and humanities, and seek out those attendant careers. Here is a link to the website:


You can make more money elsewhere, perhaps. You might have more free time to watch Big Bang Theory, or surf the internet. But at the end of the day, will your brain thank  you? Will you get outside yourself? Face it–you need words, and they need you. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can turn the page…



In the Discipline: You can Leave Your Hat On….

evertsonDear Outsiders–this week the blog will focus on the concept of “discipline.” I hope to explore this idea from several angles: discipline in the classroom, self-discipline within your chosen field of studies, the work of building expertise within a discipline and, finally, the idea of integrating disciplines (or being “interdisciplinary”).

Part ONE: “You Can Leave Your Hat on…”

I often “discipline” my writing students when they begin a paper with “Webster’s Defines…” (insert topic or idea here). This is possibly one of the lamest ways to start an essay–but, as the maxim goes: do as I say, not as a I do:

Google Defines “Discipline” like this:


So what do you think? Many of you reading this blog are educators, plan to be educators, or are currently in classrooms with all sorts of educators attempting to impose “discipline.” What IS our role in regards to discipline the classroom–particularly the ENGLISH classroom, which (I know it is hard to believe) is not always the most enthralling environment for some students. What frustrates you in your learning environment–either as a student or (potential) instructor? Texting okay? Snapchat? A noisy classroom is a sign of “learning in progress” we are often told–is this true, or an excuse for chaos? Those students chatting in the corner–disruptive? Open debate and discussion with no ground rules–should we raise hands? Pass around a conch?

And what about that guy over in the corner with the hat on? (here I would link to the titular Joe Cocker song, but it will bring up a clip from 9 1/2 Weeks, which introduces up all sorts of disciplinary problems for this blog, and perhaps disciplinary action against the blogger).

The reason why I bring up the HAT is that I know some teachers who simply cannot abide such cover in the classroom–and it struck a chord with me this weekend when I listened to an episode of This American Life that was devoted to the idea of classroom discipline. Here is a link to the episode:


In the opening anecdote, a middle school student has been asked to remove his hat. He refuses. Several teachers then share their views on how the situation should be handled–from a sharp look to throwing a shoe, and everything in between. The episode explores many issues related to classroom discipline–from what seems to be a pretty clear connection between race and discipline, to comparing and contrasting “zero tolerance” approaches vs. more discuss/redirect approaches. What is the best way for a teacher to manage a classroom? Listen to the program to find out. (Spoiler alert–there is no right or wrong approach…).

Which brings us back to Webster’s, er, Google–and that dictionary definition. In viewing the concept as a verb, we discipline our students, our classmates–maybe ourselves–by training to obey rules or codes of behavior, usually with some sort of punishment. As a noun, we think of discipline as that  “practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.” Whether an action or a thing, neither one of these sounds too pleasant. But what of that second definition: “a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education”? As English Majors and Minors, teachers and students, and general lovers of the written word–can we separate the two? Can we advance in our discipline without discipline? How much of our work within the discipline will involve “obeying” and “rules”? As a teacher or a student–how much do we enforce one to support the other?

“Tune in” for the next blog, which will explore this question further.

Dr. Evertson