Writing is not like my service in the military, classroom, university office, church, or work as an AARP volunteer leader. Not like my contributions as a consultant, workshop presenter, or association leader.
Or the service I provide as husband, father, friend, and responsible member of the human family.
But I hope my writing is a service in helping others find their way through life’s challenges.
Writing can be a service to self or a selected few. Through internal reflection. Penning or typing journals, diaries, confidential letters, and other documents that help us sort out individual problems or manage personally felt anguish.
That kind of writing is a conversation with the self or chosen others. Sometimes to be used later. Or for posterity. Using a medium that supplements memory, registers and acknowledges differences over time.
Service through writing requires introspection and the ability to connect personally felt human frailties and vulnerabilities with our transformational self.
And with others of our species.
Especially those experiencing similar circumstances in life.
I wrote the book, Confronting Dementia: A Husband’s Journey as an Alzheimer’s Caregiver, to both soften my anguish and help other men who care for a wife with dementia. As a husband, I understood my inability to seek solace from others by sharing the depression and sense of helplessness I experienced.
I am no historian. But I enjoy reading historical biographies.
Especially intriguing to me are the writings of famous people also known for accomplishing other things. Like Benjamin Franklin, Rachel Carson, Winston Churchill, Jane Goodall, and Theodore Roosevelt.
My reason for favoring those writers is encapsulated by a portion of Roosevelt’s 1910 The Man in the Arena speech: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”
Roosevelt sought out challenges and entered many arenas as an administrator, rancher, explorer, military leader, politician, president, and naturalist. He wrote extensively about all those experiences, which gave him credibility far beyond anything written by an uninitiated observer.
When I became a college professor my father congratulated me. But, using his own phrasing, he said something like George Bernard Shaw’s well-known line, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”
But it motivated me to advocate and practice something I called “applied scholarship.” Now recognized at Emporia State University as part of its service to our community and culture.
The idea behind applied scholarship is simple. Professors have a responsibility to better understand the contemporary world around us. To explain those understandings in the classroom. To identify and act on how to solve problems revealed by their new knowledge. In the real world.
To share with students how the problem-solving initiatives worked. Or did not. And write about it in professional publications.
My father knew I also liked to write. He cautioned me in much the same way about that medium. As if to say, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, write.”
But in later years, when teaching plumbers, lawyers, accountants, and others how to teach in a community college extension program, it became evident that good teaching and writing are every bit as challenging as anything else.
Maybe more so.
People in those classes who could “do” were often unable to write a cogent paper, organize and present a good lesson, or deliver a convincing speech.
Many so-called experts in their fields can neither write nor teach well. One of my pet peeves is the technical expert who incompetently tries to write instructions for how to assemble or repair something. Or teach novices the same skill.
I could, if so inclined, make an equally dubious statement by reversing Shaw’s remark: “Those who can, fail to communicate their skills in any medium.” Teaching or writing.
But that stereotypical criticism would be fallacious for the thousands of practitioners who excel at both teaching and writing.
America’s second president, John Adams, was often described as cold and arrogantly judgmental. True enough. Many of his policy and political writings reflected that side of him. But his core beliefs and vision of our American society were much more sensitive and refined when seen through the copious letters sent to his wife, Abigail.
Abigail, as reflected in their letters to each other, was John’s “better half” in upholding the rights of women and abolishing slavery. So, he also wrote eloquently on those subjects.
Much of what we consider to be uniquely American is based on the writings of others, like Adams, who founded the country. Especially Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Both men had personal flaws but were able to reach deeply into history, philosophy, and governmental theory to write documents that today are the bedrock of our national culture.
At a turning point in our nation’s history, Abraham Lincoln used the writings of Jefferson and others, supplemented with biblical references, to construct a powerful and iconic image of who we are and what we stand for as Americans.
Writing also changes who and what we are. For this reason, academic doctoral programs require dissertations. Preceded by the ability to come up with and explain an “intellectual itch that needs scratching.”
Many believe those who receive academic doctorates are just smart folks who take many more semester hours of coursework. And succeed in passing them with high marks.
But that is not true.
The prelude to conducting meaningful research and writing about the experience must be a kind of cognitive agitation. Because something is not right about a piece of our world.
Answers now given about those disparities are inadequate or nonexistent.
Doctoral research also requires a creative mindset to be effective. Asking the same old hackneyed questions will not reveal new knowledge. Devising new questions takes reflection, introspection, and time conjuring up “what ifs.”
And plenty of creative juices.
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