“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
-David Foster Wallace, “This is Water”
When I walked into my English Critical Thinking and Writing (CTW) class on the first day, I had no idea what to expect. My professor, Nick Leither, showed the class David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water.” After discussing the speech, Professor Nick switched gears and flicked the screen over to the next slide. The screen displayed the course overview, reading “Food Porn: Reading Food, Self, & Culture.” Both intrigued and confused, I left class on that first day with two questions. First off, how can an english class be entirely dedicated to food? Also, what the hell is water? I had no clue what was to come during the two quarters of this class.
I should first explain that I did not sign up for this class. Every freshman at Santa Clara University (SCU) is randomly placed into a mandatory CTW class before even arriving to campus. I was honestly quite displeased when I learned that I had been assigned a 7:30-9:10 PM CTW class. Convinced that my brain would not be capable of attending class at this time of the day, my naive-self even talked to my advisor to see if I could switch into a different CTW section at a different time. As you can probably guess, my advisor told me to suck it up, and viola- my “Food Porn” CTW class at 7:30-9:10 PM was here to stay for two quarters. Although I was first unhappy by my CTW course placement, the class and its material caused me to reflect on my lifestyle and personal values, which which will continue to stick with me- not only for the remainder of my college experience- but for the rest of my life.
My mother has always described me as “right brain” dominant. This language comes from the idea that each side, or hemisphere, of the human brain controls different types of thinking — the left being more logical, and the right being more creative. A person who is “left-brained” is often said to be more logical, analytical, and objective, while a person who is “right-brained” is said to be more intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective. Though scientists have debunked this theory, I think it’s absolutely true that people learn and think in different ways. I bring this up because I’ve always struggled with and often been in denial about my strengths and abilities.
From a young age, I realized that Math and Science were not my fortés. Despite bringing home C’s in biology and geometry, I remained a voracious reader, and my English teachers would praise me for my creative and thoughtful writing.
Other children may have been motivated or encouraged by such praise to pursue careers in the arts, law, or journalism (as my parents pushed me to do, despite their profession as engineers) but I was stubborn and simply wouldn’t hear it. Even though my parents were nothing but supportive and open-minded, my high school — located in the heart of the Silicon Valley — has always been known for its emphasis on STEM education, aimed at sending students into engineering and medical fields at brand-name schools like UC Berkeley and Carnegie Melon, which can create and foster a toxic stigma towards the Liberal Arts.
My dream since before I could walk was to be an architect (this followed my short-lived dream of being a garbage truck driver) was perfectly aligned with my community’s high
value for STEM, so I saw no reason to explore other avenues. I decided I had no time to dedicate to “soft skills” like reading comprehension or writing, regardless of whether or not those were really my strengths. I buckled down, slowly raising those C’s in science to B’s (and a few A’s), all the while ignoring and neglecting my English and Writing classes. Bullshitting essays the night before they were due and reducing timeless epics like Homer’s The Iliad to page-long SparkNotes summaries became common practice (sidenote: I did go back and read The Iliad in its entirety).
As time went on, what began as a small nagging voice in the back of my head grew into an overwhelming cloud of dread that perhaps I wasn’t being true to myself or my talents. Feeling lost and guilty, I made a conscious effort to return to my roots as a writer. This proved to be more difficult than I had expected. No matter how much time I spent poring over essays, I was met with nothing but frustration and writer’s block. I felt like I had lost my creative spark. I struggled with reading and writing more than ever, and wasn’t faring much better in my Physics or Calculus classes — all of this mere weeks before I had to choose a University and a major.
Flash forward to Fall of 2016: still confused as ever, I’m attending Santa Clara University, not more than a stone’s throw from my hometown. I’m majoring in Computer Science, but the University’s Jesuit philosophy of “educating the whole person,” obligates me to take a burdensome mess of CORE requirements — ranging from ethics, to diversity, to creative writing. This last one gave me a great deal of grief, as I knew I would have to confront some of my innermost demons, exposing my shortcomings and inabilities. Now, I bet you’re expecting me to say that taking Creative Writing with Nicholas Leither led me to some sort of epiphany — an “aha” moment that brought me clarity, helping me figure everything. Well, yes and no.
I have to say that from Nick’s bohemian chic, to the circular arrangement of desks in the classroom (probably part of an attempt to replicate some unconventional, new-age style of teaching or some bullshit like that), to his insistence that we call him “Nick,” I was skeptical. Great, another pseudo-hippie English teacher who thinks he can change the world.
And as soon as he turned on Meet Your Meat — some PETA propaganda documenting abuse in factory farming, my suspicions was confirmed. Dear God, this man is the embodiment of the stereotype. Or so I thought.
Creative Writing was a humbling experience for me. Nicholas Leither remains to be one of the most educated, well-spoken, and enthusiastic individuals I’ve ever met. He’s deeply invested in each and every one of his students (he somehow had all our names down by the second day of class), and he has a strong personal connection to the material he teaches. He facilitated some awesome, engaging discussions and got me thinking about very very uncomfortable issues — issues pertinent to my life that I had previously opted to ignore — even outside of class.
Most importantly though, he was able to help me confront and (at least partially) overcome my tremendous aversion to writing. There have been agonizing moments over the past two quarters, where I believed myself to have hit a wall, unable to produce anything of quality or substance, but after just one ten-minute conversation with Nick, I often found myself re-energized, excited, and bursting with ideas. I’d often come into his office dejected and unmotivated and leave with a reinvigorated drive, desperately rushing to the nearest keyboard or notebook so I could jot down my flurry of thoughts.
I feel like I’ve begun to truly find and solidify a distinct writing style, which is more than I could have ever hoped to gain from a Creative Writing class. I have produced work that I’m proud to call my own, often sharing them with my friends and family.
Nick always emphasizes the importance of approaching a problem from many different angles, which has pushed me to draw upon and synthesize ideas from philosophy, ethics, history, biology, and even quantum mechanics (as absurd as it sounds) to strengthen and solidify the arguments in my papers. There have been times where when writing about topics like the aestheticization of guns in the media, or the human cost of globalization in the case of exploitative corporations like Monsanto, where I would get so caught up in my writing, that I had to take a step back and ask myself: do I sound like a crazy person? Nick would always assuage my doubts and encourage me to delve deeper still.
I could talk about the ways that Nick shook up and challeneged some of my core beliefs, or how the ideas we discussed and debated in Creative Writing have shaped my life decisions in unimaginable ways — affecting everything from the way I shop for groceries, to my dietary habits, to curbing my tendencies to cheat — but that would require pages upon pages which this blog post doesn’t allow me.
This class, along with the values of the institution I’m fortunate to be attending, have taught me that maybe these distinctions of “left brained” and “right brained” people are purely illusory. As ridiculously difficult and punishing as classes like Data Structures and Multivariable Calculus are, I’m enjoying the shit out of them. And despite how tedious and time consuming Creative Writing can be, I’ve enjoyed the shit out of it as well. Who says you can’t be both? It feels incredibly liberating to be freed from this limiting dichotomy. Nick has helped me identify and blend my strengths and interests and to utilize both sides of my brain, while also pushing me to venture into uncharted territory. A quote by David Bowie comes to mind:
“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”
So I thank you, Nick, for convincing me that I can always go deeper. Thank you for instilling me with the enthralling and exhilarating joy of creating something exciting. I’ll see you in Advanced Writing.
Authors: Robert Ota, Caley Falcocchia, Melody Nouri, Robin Johnson
While recently attending one of the Santa Clara University’s tours, I relived my first experience of stepping foot onto the campus. I remember the beautiful surroundings striking my attention; the green grass, colorful flowers, and amazing architecture. Walking among the peach colored buildings and listening to the wonderful qualities SCU contains sparked my excitement and hopefulness to attend my soon to be college. SCU holds a strong pride for their beautiful campus shown during the recent tour I went on. Allison, my tour guide, led us around the campus with a large, welcoming smile, occasionally stopping at the more attractive and iconic parts on campus to describe certain aspects of SCU.
Just before I started college this past September, I discovered that embarking on a new milestone mostly meant receiving a flurry of unsolicited advice. From my sleeping schedule (a healthy mix between “you can sleep when you’re dead” and “if you don’t sleep eight hours, you’re gonna regret it”) to my yet-to-be-determined extracurriculars (but God forbid I don’t join any! That was [person A]’s biggest regret — not getting more involved. Plus, [person A] knows a [person B] who [did/didn’t] join a [fraternity/club/sport], and they [loved/regretted] it!), everybody had an opinion on everything.
Coming to Santa Clara University as an international student last September was a rough experience. Different culture, new language, a ton of paper work and also classes! Classes were hard. Especially that English one, with a weird name. CTW. Critical thinking and writing. Why don’t you just call it English?
Well, now I realize why. Especially the thinking part of it. Media, sustainability, violence and all the other “This is water” stuff. But there also was the writing part to it that I never came across before. You know, when you live all your life outside the US nobody teaches you how to write in English. Or how to blog. And especially how to blog in English. After a numerous tries to write an interesting article about my SCU experience I realized I can’t. Instead, I decided to write a small guide on how not to write a blog. And here are some of the points I found particularly useful: Continue reading How NOT to write a blog // Petr Sushko→
I was uncomfortable from the minute I walked into “Critical Thinking and Writing” at 5:25pm on a Monday–the first day of my college career. I was uncomfortable being in a new state, surrounded by new people who had new interests and perceptions of what was “in” and what wasn’t. I grew even more uncomfortable when my teacher was late and one of my classmates insisted we all get in a circle and chat. That was not me. I was also very intimidated by the idea of critically thinking and thinking for myself. I had become very good at keeping quiet and reading the classroom and then reiterating exactly what I knew the teacher wanted to hear on whatever assessment came up. In fact, if I was directly asked my thoughts on something I would mutter an “I don’t know” and quickly divert my attention. Critical Thinking and Writing? This was not my cup of tea, to say the least.