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Why are you doing this?

Earlier this month, a colleague at another institution mentioned that they were reading a few of my essays, and then followed up with an interesting question: Why are you doing this, and how long have you done this and how long do you hope to keep it up for? [1] This essay is an extended version of my response to that colleague. I hope it is useful for new readers and old.

Why? A variety of reasons. It started, in part, because I found I had a lot of writing I was doing that I thought might be more broadly useful. For example, once I’ve written to one student what kind of computer they should buy, it’s not clear that I need to write a different email message to the next student [2]. That’s actually worked pretty well. When students ask me questions, in addition to answering them, I point them to my essay on the department and my list of essays for prospective students.

I started, in part, because I rant a lot, and I found it useful to put my rants in essay form before converting them to email messages. If I had more energy tonight, I’d probably be ranting about accessibility and Web sites at the College, which is what I’d originally planned to write about. Oh well, that will happen later.

I started, in part, as a form of therapy. I’m suffering from some significant burnout, and doing these essays seemed to be a way for me to do something I enjoy (that is, writing) without necessarily having goals [3]. Many articles serve little purpose other than to give me an excuse to write and think about something. In some sense, the articles are also a followup from a mid-career faculty workshop in which it was suggested we find something outside our main area of expertise to work on. These essays are my something.

I started, in part, as a way for me to work prospectively. Writing the essays encourage me to write talks and speeches before I give them. Last spring, I used this series to prepare my speech to Duke TIP students. More recently, I used this series to prepare my part of a panel on scholarship for all.

The profiles that I wrote last month serve another purpose: They remind me of how fortunate I am to do what I do. I work with and teach some really amazing people. Writing about them makes me feel happier. I think it also makes others feel happier (and not just the subjects of the articles).

How long have I done this? I started in the spring of 2016, stopped for the summer, and then restarted in the fall. I’m up to about 120 essays (40 before summer, 80 since) [4]. Breaking 100 gave me a sense of accomplishment. I also feel some sense of accomplishment at the end of each month and even at the end of each essays.

How long do I hope to keep it up for? At this point, I intend to keep going indefinitely. I have a list of about 100 additional topics to write about, and I expect that I will continue to come up with new topics. I certainly have a wide variety of Grinnell folks who are not yet on my list and are worth writing about. At some point, I’ll probably also find the need revisit past topics.

I continue, in part, because I have an audience [5]. Having an audience is surprisingly exiting. It’s particularly exciting when I discover that people who I hadn’t told about these essays are writing these essays. It’s also exciting when I hear from people that they benefit from these essays in some way or another [6].

I continue, in part, because I hope that writing these essays provides a useful model for students. I write the essays to suggest that writing is not a chore, but a pleasure. I write these essays to suggest that writing helps you think through complex issues [7]. I write some essays to encourage students to do their own writing. For example, one of the morals of my essays about other people is that writing about other people makes both you and them feel better [8].

But, now that I’ve nearly finished this essay, I realize that there’s one more reason I’m writing these essays, and it’s probably the most important reason: My sons and wife read these essays and seem to enjoy reading them. While there are many things that keep us close together (playing games, talking and arguing, making music, cooking and eating, etc.), it never hurts to have another. And I think these essays help them know me a bit better. (And, unlike in our family discussions, they get me the chance to get more than a few words in [9].) I like that they suggest corrections. I like that they suggest essay topics. I like knowing that they read these essays and sometimes even encourage their friends to read these essays. It makes me happy that this is something I do that makes them proud. They do so many things that make me proud that it’s nice to do something in exchange.

[1] Okay, that’s three questions. But they called it a question.

[2] Similarly, once I’ve written to one person about why I’m writing these essays, it’s not clear that I need to write a different message to the next person; I can just point them to this essay.

[3] Okay, I sometimes have the goals I just mentioned; but I’m also free to write something stupid or silly if that’s what I decide I need to do

[4] Those numbers were the case when I wrote back to the person. I’m now up to about 140 essays, 100 since summer.

[5] Yes, I know that I’ve said that I write these essays for me, and I do primarily write these essays for me. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate my audience.

[6] No, that is not a request for notes from people. It’s just an observation.

[7] Or at least that writing helps me think through complex issues.

[8] More precisely, writing positive things about other people makes you and them feel better.

[9] Just joking.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-12-06.