The Nature of College by James Farrell

Reflective Journals

I never know what I think until I see what I say.

Saul Bellow

Who we are is ultimately a moral question, bound up with the issue of who we wish to be.

William Sullivan


Education is a process in which students learn to make their own meanings, to answer the question “what does it mean to me?”  A journal provides a regular opportunity to reflect on that question, to see how course readings and discussions relate to our individual life experiences, to our own aims and assumptions, to other things that are going on in our lives.  A journal allows us to integrate life and learning, to connect the texts and contexts of our lives.  It should also reflect and affect the quality of our class discussions.  In a class, professors necessarily teach the same thing to all students, but each student learns differently.  The journal is the place where different and diverse learnings can first take shape.

Try to write in your journal daily (the word “journal” comes from the French word “jour,” or day)—or at least often.  The idea is to get in the habit of perception and analysis.  Although we will occasionally suggest topics that you may want to write about, you may, in fact, write about anything that interests you–class reading, other reading, events in the news, perceptions of your own day.  In looking at the connections between land (or landscape) and culture, you may want to take off from the reading, but you might also want to look around you, and see if you can apply ideas to your everyday life.  What do you notice now in the St. Olaf landscape?  The landscape of your hometown?  The place where your family vacations?  Why do people have potted plants in their dorm rooms, or Georgia O’Keeffe paintings?  Is there such a thing as an interior landscape?  What does your favorite TV show tell you about land and the American imagination, and why?  Why are SUV ads always set in sublime landscapes?  What’s your favorite landscape?  Why?  If you were designing a utopian landscape, what would it look like?  Why?

Since you are examining your own thoughts and ideas, you should write in your own voice.  You might start entries with reactions to readings or events like “I really don’t understand ______

because . . .” or “This makes me think about _____ because . . .” or “I think the relationship between _____ and _____ is interesting because . . .” or “These ideas remind me of the ideas in [another reading] because. . .” or “This event or reading reminds me of something in my own life, the time when . . .”  Feel free to have the courage of your confusions (a word which, serendipitously, comes from the Latin “confundere,” “to pour together”).

There are several types of journal entries, and we’d like you to try a variety of them in the course of the semester.  The first is a reading response, where you set yourself in conversation with one of our authors (or something else you’re reading).  You generally use this sort of response to clarify your relationship to an idea or set of ideas in a reading. You examine the logic of the argument, the imagery that s/he uses, the way it fits with something else we’re reading or something you thought you knew.   Another type of response is a close reading of a social or cultural situation (like Jim’s essay on “College Parties.”  You take an everyday occurrence (a party, checking your e-mail, driving a car, etc.) and “dense fact” it, looking for the American values and environmental values in it, and making sense of the common sense of our culture.

A third type of response could be a table, which is just a way of mapping ideas.  There’s one that Jim is working on now at the bottom of this message.  A fourth type of response is just a personal (and often visceral) account of what you’re learning, and what it means to you.  Sometimes these entries begin with a quotation that seems to encapsulate an idea perfectly, or that leads you to make other sorts of connections in your life (or in American life or the life of the planet).  There are probably more types of journals too, and you will invent them in the course of the semester.  Use them as a way of “going deep” into class materials, and into your own soul, and you’ll be fine.

Bring your journal to class.  There will occasionally be in-class writing, and it often works well to record your class notes in the same notebook as the journal.  That way you will have catalysts for further reflection.

The journal is not a research paper (although you can look stuff up if you’re curious); you should “probe” rather than “prove” your thoughts.  It is a place to play with ideas, a place for what Daniel Noel calls “serendipping.”  We’ll read the journal and write back every once in a while (but if you have entries you’d like us to look at earlier, please say so).  In evaluating the journal, we look for a focus on nature and culture on campus, and for connections, comprehensiveness, complexity and care.