Winter was coming and my mother’s plants were dying. Pots once overflowing with colors—pinks, greens, whites, purples—were now full of browns and blacks. She started clearing the deck of her dead plants, withered branches, and crinkled leaves. Foolish, freezing, and frantic, she launched the dead hibiscus into the woods.
“Mom!” I shouted, “Stop! I can do this for you later.”
“Sure, but don’t you dare damage my pots!”
My mom only pots plants for her deck once a year. When the flowers bloom, part of her comes to life. She’ll sip her morning coffee on the deck. Phone calls during the weekend while watering her hibiscuses. Evening tea, trimming excessive foliage. Moments of silence, a reprieve: a sanctuary sentineled by the flowers. She doesn’t read gardening books, I don’t think she owns a pair of gloves or hedge clippers; she doesn’t even plant things in an actual garden—just pots. They mean a lot to her. I couldn’t sit there and watch her dispose of those plants she once cared for and cherish so intentionally. So a few days later I ventured outside and did the deed for her.
It’s funny; as I started hauling the dead plants towards the woods, I couldn’t help but think of Jamaica Kincaid, author of My Garden (Book): the only book I’ve read about gardening. In this book, Kincaid writes: “I read my books but I also use them; that is, sometimes the reading is almost a physical act.” Kincaid says that she wants to own two versions of her gardening books—one to read inside the house, where things are “dry and comfortable;” another to read “in the rain and mud” or when “walking through a sprinkler while it’s on” (81). Pot in one hand, plant in the other, performing my very own botanical “physical act,” I had an ah-ha moment: everyday life, practical work like gardening, can be informed by the theoretical (a book about gardening).
Suddenly, like Jamaica, I was using the book, thinking about Kincaid’s ideas while gardening—my khakis covered in soil, my hands blistering from the weight of the pots, actions bloomed alongside ideas. Except the actual book wasn’t getting dirty or worn, I was getting dirty and worn. My lived experience as gardener-gravedigger-good son, something practical and concrete, helped make real a once distant and theoretical knowledge.
After this moment, I began to think critically (more about gardening, more about action, more about thought) through the lens of Kincaid’s theory, ideas, and experiences. I merged my action with thought and started thinking about my English seminar’s slow-burning question. (A slow-burning question sits on the back of our consciousness and stews over time, allowing ideas, like flavors, to blend and infuse.) Looking at the dismal deck of plants, my mind returned to the “big” slow-burning question: what is an intellectual community? Outdoors, standing by the forest, I didn’t even realize it, but this question started to kindle. A spark, the fire lit.
Different modes of expression will perform and model how an intellectual community functions and exists. By presenting ideas in different forms (in text, image, and sound), I will represent unity within a multiplicity—one idea or one concept tied together by many different types of expression, one classroom united by many diverse thinkers, one garden composed of many different potted plants.
Each plant is a student—an intellectual on display: each alongside other students who have been supplanted from home, replanted, and placed on the deck of a college.
We learn from our nurturers, the ones who water and prune and tend to us: our professors.
An intellectual community is a community composed of “passionate weirdos” like me.
I’ve been potted not to be replicated, but to be made into something entirely unique—not one of William Dereiscizewz’s “excellent sheep,” but a “passionate weirdo.” How does one take advantage of the institution while avoiding institutionalization—the process of feeding excellent sheep? Our education should provide this: a degree of flexibility so that we can grow into our own unique fullness—not a captivity that locks our futures into place, delineated by the whims of an institution or our professors. Negotiation is necessary.
“Emancipation, Bruno Latour writes, “Does not mean ‘freed from bonds’ but well-attached.” The strings stay on. By identifying more threads of association, we are better able to see these attachments not as constraints but as forces to harness” (Sousanis 135).
Nick Sousanis, author of Unflattening, the first dissertation at a major university submitted as a graphic comic, reminds us that, at some level, being potted, remaining “well-attached,” is advantageous. Sousanis defied the systemic expectations, pushing the boundaries of scholarship at Columbia, but he was only able to do so while engaging with some form of institutional norms. We need some sort of structured planting, some combination of mentorship and humility to realize growth. Why pretend like we know it all?
What child doesn’t need a mother? What student doesn’t need a teacher? What plant doesn’t need its water?
Greater possibilities for creativity arise when we ask: what can I do with this system, with my Duke education, with this community; while also asking, what can this community do for me? Have a personal relationship with a professor that can inspire, guide, and chide, without deciding to whom or to where you will go. Use your resources. At the Bodleian Library in Oxford, library books cannot be borrowed. They must be used inside. (Don’t break the oath… or else…) At schools like Duke we have wellsprings of financial, intellectual, and personal resources provided to us. Let’s use what we are given. Do an independent study. Flunch. Attend to lectures. Ask questions. Meet your peers. Actually meet your peers.
An intellectual community needs to be fed and needs to feed. (If only this photo was of sheep…)
Our hides hold different hues. Feed and be fed in order to become you.
Be pith. Sometimes less is more.
I have one major: English. Then I have over twenty credits to fill with any intellectual fancy that may come my way (Astronomy, Religion 101, Mass Incarceration/Citizenship). This, to me, is what being a passionate weirdo looks like.
An intellectual community is incomplete and impermanent.
We need empty space. We need silence…
…to try and test and fail—to learn and grow and bud until we hit the right bloom. I am not the best, and I will not be the best, and I should not work to be the best “A+” student I can be; I should work to be the best me possible.
Better said, an intellectual community ought to feign and fail at productivity.
Colleges ought to produce flowers that perish after their usual four-year life cycle. Perishing may seem inefficient, but feigning to be mini-intellectuals permits students to explore and discover parts of themselves they may have never tried to grow into before. This idea closely connects to failure: more often than not, our first buds will and should not be our best buds. Perfect productivity is counterintuitive. College is an exercise in how to produce and an exam that challenges us to find what it is that we actually enjoy producing. College is just the beginning.
Do it, try it
Do it, try it
Do it, try it
(“Do it, Try it” M83)
Do it. Try it. Mess up? Do it and try it again. Did it work? Do it and try it once more. Does it make sense now? This repeats, like the song’s chorus, until we ultimately get to a point where we just need to buckle down as individuals and do it. No more “trying”—make the action happen.
Recreation, pleasure, a “trivial pursuit” like my love of M83, spills over into the seriousness of this academic work. Gardening makes the grade with Kincaid; Sousanis infuses images with ideas and ideas with images. M83, Kincaid, and Sousanis all demonstrate how everything that we do and try—not just what we do and try in the classroom—but the fullness of our passions, during our personal playtime, inform our thoughts and our actions, our theory and our practice.
These isolated yet interactive ideas, presented in different forms and forums, model the performance of an intellectual community.
The slow-burning question continued to smolder as I flung the floral remains into the forest. Free from the constraints of the pot, their life cycle was far from finished. However, the emancipated plants are forever indebted to their pots, their containers, which provided structure, support, and a sense of belonging. A means of containing nutrients and isolating attention onto the object of one plant, one student, a pot, just like an education or upbringing, serves an essential role in one’s coming of age.
But most students are called to mature beyond their institution. Not all are called to academia. Therefore, intellectual communities provide a space for life and death. Life is the activity and survival of an intellectual community; death is a departure, a rupture in the communal existence giving ways to new possibilities of existence.
Jamaica Kincaid writes about the bothersome necessity of plants dying in the winter: “because death is just another way of being, and the dead will not stay put, and sometimes their actions are more significant, more profound than when they were alive, and no square structure made out of concrete” (or plastic) “can contain them” (69). Death in an intellectual community includes thesis work, registration for courses, professorial retirement, or most notably, graduation. Death is dynamic transience—and Kincaid is right, this could give ways to “more significant, more profound” ways of being, some more profound, more atypical, than others.
Twigs from a plant used as the arms of a snowman.
Another English major goes rogue from “the path” and becomes the next President of Duke. (Welcome, Mr. Price.)
Intellectual communities exist as a space for the interplay of theory and practice; they blend idea and action, helping us think about the theoretical through the practical—helping us see just how practice makes perfect, that we have to fake it until we make it. And once we make it, once we start throwing away our mother’s dead plants, maybe we can start reflecting on our action through ideas and theories to really begin understanding what’s at stake in the work of our not-so-trivial trivial pursuits.
Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. , 2014. Print.
Jamaica, Kincaid. My Garden (Book):. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Harvard University Press, 2015.