Writing after the Election: Trying out the Language’s Three Most Important Words

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I’m writing this the weekend before the election. So much has already been written about the candidates, the process, the scandals, the lies, the cheating, the intimidation, the vitriol, the ignorance, the racism, the misogyny, the failures of the press, media bias, confirmation bias, the polls and the pollsters, the pundits and their punditry that it’s hard to imagine having anything new or important to add to this tsunami of text that continues to crash, in wave after wave, on the increasingly polluted remnants of what little time we have left on Earth here together.


And it’s even harder for me to imagine what words I could compose just prior to November 8th that will be worth your time when they go live on November 11th.  Whatever happens this coming week, you will have gone to work in one world on Monday morning and you will have finished up teaching in a very different world by Friday.


I just want to draw attention to one data point before I get on to the challenge of imagining what teaching post 11/9 (the day after the day after the election) is likely to entail. When I checked Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com this morning, beginning the day as I have every day for the past many months, and found that Clinton’s chances of prevailing on Election Day had continued their decline, I dropped down further on Silver’s page to look at the graph of how his polling numbers had changed, day-by-day, since his first report on June 8th.  (Silver, recall, skyrocketed to fame following the 2008 election by predicting the results in 49 out of 50 states, practically down to the county-level. He experienced immediate Internet fame afterwards, via the hashtag #natesilverknows followed by something impossible—i.e., what you’re eating for breakfast tomorrow.)


Silver’s method grabs all reputable and semi-reputable polls, then models various ways of correcting for bias and reliability to come up with a prediction that has aspirations of neutrality. Silver strives to separate the signal from the noise, aims to provide a constantly updated, clear-eyed vision of what’s more likely to happen than not. And what I saw this morning is that, while the odds of who will win the election has waxed and waned for the past four months, as we slouch towards Election Day, Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning have declined .6% since early June. All the money, all the rage and hatred, all the debates, all the airtime, all the sleepless nights, and all the worry—and that’s it: .6%.


That says a lot to me about rhetoric and about the many industries that thrive on political and social dysfunction.  Does it make sense to talk about persuasion in what is, essentially, a binary system? It seems that very, very few people have changed their minds over the course of this ghastly, grueling crawl through the sausage factory. The maps are red and blue and then shades of each, but when it comes to voting, there’s no gray area, no possibility of registering a qualified, complex, nuanced, contextual, or contingent response; there’s no way to go gray.


And yet, all of the attributes that the act of voting doesn’t allow are attributes of the creative mind, attributes that education is meant to cultivate, encourage, and nourish. They are all attributes that we’ll need after the election is over, regardless of who we voted for, if we are going to be able to promote ways of working together across, around, and through our differences.


Teaching Post-11/9

Ann and I have an essay in Habits of the Creative Mind entitled, “On the Three Most Important Words in the English Language,” where we discuss different ways of making connections between thoughts and observations. “And” is one of the three most important words. It allows us to connect like to like: Clinton is this, that, and the other thing; Trump is this, that, and the other thing. (I was playing with this kind of connecting in the first paragraph of this post.) This is paratactic thinking. It’s our most primal way of making sense of the world: this and this and this and this. It’s the thinking that children do when they’re telling stories about their days: we went here and we went there and I fell asleep and Mommy woke me up and . . . .


The other two most important words in the English language allow us to escape from the flattening sameness of paratactic thought. “But” allows us to qualify; “or” allows us to imagine alternative possibilities. These ways of connecting ring in worlds

  • Of contingency: X won the election, but Y refused to concede.
  • Of uncertainty: Neither X nor Y won the election; they tied (this actually is possible!).
  • Of opportunity: If X wins the election, we’ll have a Constitutional crisis or cooler heads will prevail and we’ll find a way to reclaim the virtues of compromise.

Teaching after 11/9, we need to make sure we’re helping our students—and ourselves—to remember that the future is ours for the making and that, at the mico-level of the individual mind, we prepare ourselves to participate in future-making by practicing complexity, practicing nuance, practicing qualification, and, practicing kindness. I’ve added the last term on this list to my thoughts about the habits of the creative mind after reading Beth Boquet’s new book, Nowhere Near the Line, where she elaborates on the necessity of practicing this way of being in relation to one another:

"Too often we think of kindness as a quality someone either possesses or does not. We admire a kind person as a rare object. We speak of kindness as a random act, something that surprises us precisely because it is unusual, unexpected. Kindness, however, is really a habit, an orientation, something we practice and, indeed, can get better at."

Finally, post 11/9, I think we also need to refamiliarize ourselves with the original texts that have shaped and structured the democratic ideal—as we should have done post 9/11. Ann thinks we should all hit the pause button and spend the next week having our students read and discuss the Constitution. That sounds to me like a really good place to start.

About the Author
Richard E. Miller has been teaching writing for over 25 years. He has blogged extensively about digital technology, the end of privacy, and the future of higher education on his website www.text2cloud.com. He’s served on the executive committee of CCCC and of the ADE; he’s been on the editorial board of CCC, Studies in Writing and Rhetoric, and Pedagogy (ongoing). He’s an essayist, social media fanatic, sometimes poet, photographer, multimedia composer, graphic novelist (he writes about the misadventures of his alter-ego, Professor Pawn) and memoirist.