Summit explores power of writing and language
By Ashley See
Published on Thursday, October 4, 2012
The College’s 2012 Writing Summit commemorated the 45th anniversary of the “Dartmouth Seminar,” a writing conference that took place in fall 1966. The summit, part of the Year of the Arts initiative, opened in Moore Hall’s Filene Auditorium on Oct. 2 and continued on Oct. 3.
Keynote speakers — including historian David McCullough, Cornell University mathematics professor Steven Strogatz, Vanderbilt University English professor Hortense Spillers and Brown University dean of the college and music professor Katherine Bergeron — spoke about “The Power of Writing in the Contemporary World” at a series of lectures sponsored by the College’s Office of the President, Office of the Provost, Deans Office and Institute for Writing and Rhetoric.
“Hearing public intellectuals discuss their writing for a general audience provides a wonderful opportunity for those who write inside academia to think about how one writes for a different audience,” executive director of the College’s writing program Karen Gocsik said.
McCullough, a two-time National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, discussed the “Good Hard Work of Writing” in the best-attended lecture of the summit. The hall was packed with rows of students, professors and writing enthusiasts from throughout New England.
McCullough opened his lecture by discussing personal life lessons, saying that there is no such thing as a self-made man.
“We are all the result of teachers and parents and friends and rivals and people we come to know in books,” McCullough said. “We speak a language that isn’t really ours — it has been handed to us with a tradition of expression and power that is well worth a lifetime of study. Life isn’t long enough to appreciate the pure gold of just our literary heritage.”
He emphasized the importance of reading and research and said he begins his books not knowing very much about the topic. However, aims to finish the writing process, for which ongoing research and rewriting are imperative, as an expert. McCullough said he is notorious for his “old-fashioned” habits of writing his books on a typewriter and editing by hand.
Strogatz, author of the book “Sink” and The New York Times column “Me, Myself and Math,” spoke about writing in the sciences during his Tuesday lecture, “Doing Math in Public.” Strogatz focused largely on math phobia amongst adults, an issue addressed by his columns.
“The most profound aspect of math is that math produces in some people a traumatic experience,” Strogatz said. “Smart people feel humiliated that this is the only thing they can’t do.”
The first column Strogatz wrote for The Times, “From Fish to Infinity,” discusses numbers in their most basic sense and incorporates a video from the children’s television show “Sesame Street.” Strogatz’s columns address math topics from preschool to graduate school in a relatable and entertaining way, he said.
Spillers delivered Tuesday’s final lecture in Alumni Hall on the topic “Writing and States of Emergency,” focusing on her experience writing during and after the Civil Rights movement and her difficulties getting her first manuscript published.
On Wednesday, Bergeron delivered a speech in Occom Commons titled “Listening to Write.” Playing part of Bach’s “Invention” and “the Letter Scene” from Claude Debussy’s opera “Pelleas et Melisande” and reciting Stephane Mallarme’s poem “Eventail,” Bergeron analyzed the music and poetry for the audience.
“Writing, like music, is an art of time,” Bergeron said. “When you take the time to read aloud, you change your relationship with what you have written. You become audience to your own thought.”
The summit opened with remarks by interim College President Carol Folt and a lecture from Duke University English professor Joe Harris titled “The Original Dartmouth Seminar and Its Impact on College Writing.”