This past semester, I have been teaching a “research tutorial,” a course designed to use my own research to teach students the skills of research. The course is skills-oriented rather than content-oriented in the sense that while we used the category of rhythm as a platform for exploring various concepts, the objective of the course was that students used topics related to rhythm as an opportunity to practice research skills, including how to identify relevant information amid surrounding text, creating research questions, developing strategies to answer those questions, evaluating the success of those strategies and adapting them accordingly, and peer-reviewing one another’s work. The culminating project for the course was a research paper that the students then self-published as a book of essays. I am pleased to say that it is now available for free here. At another time, I may talk about what I have learned from the process of having students self-publish their work, but for the moment I simply want to showcase the students’ work.
The book, titled Forming Influence: Collected Papers from the 2016 John Wesley Honors College Research Tutorial, includes essays from a very broad range of topics but all of them are about the ways and forms through which we are influenced and in turn influence the world around us. They range from considering self-care to race, from food-systems to pornography, from visual design to speech. For a more extensive introduction, here is the foreword that I wrote for the book:
There are, generally speaking, two possible ways in which I can approach my world. The typical mode is one that is focused on the task at hand – working, planning, talking, navigating, procrastinating. I spend the majority of my time in this state of mind. Sometimes, however, I can inhabit an alternative posture. I can sometimes, for whatever reason, suspend my usual focus and instead broaden out my awareness to take in everything that is present with me in a particular time and place, whether that be the sound of the refrigerator or air vent, the support of the chair, the feel of my clothes and my posture, the organization of shapes in the room, the feel of the light. Ordinarily, I might attend to these things one at a time, as they require attention for some particular purpose: my clothes are itchy or I notice that my posture is poor, the light is too dim, the air too cold. In other words, I only notice that which requires attention or maintenance so that I can do what is necessary to allow it to slip back into the background.
Whenever I am unaware of this background, however, this does not mean that it does not influence me, how I move and think. Only a small number of the dimensions of our world exert their influence on us through our conscious attention. Likewise, only a small amount of our influence on the world is intentional. Most of this mutual influence is pre-cognitive, nudging us in particular directions without our being aware of it. However, these are influences nevertheless. The organizations of space, time, virtuality, and society that we take for granted determine the frame within which we interact with others and ourselves. Influence is not merely a question of content, but of form; the form in which reality presents itself to us make certain behaviors, experiences, and identities more likely than others. The essays in this volume are the culmination of a semester’s work exploring and analyzing the forms through which we influence others and are in turn influenced by those others. I use the term “other” here in the broadest sense; it includes the human, the non-human, the divine, and various social and biological forces. Written by students from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, these essays come out of a research tutorial course at the John Wesley Honors College, Indiana Wesleyan University in which we together explored these ever-present but seldom-recognized relationships.
Rather than thinking about reality in terms of discreet silos, whether topical or disciplinary, this course explored the relationships between things, the ways in which diverse dimensions of reality influence one another. The motif that guided our analysis of these relationships and influences was that of “rhythm.” While most think of this category as an artistic one, involved in music and poetry, it is in fact a form that occurs much more broadly. In music or poetry, rhythm is bound up with beat – the oscillation between strong and weak (although the precise nature of the relationship between rhythm and beat is contested). The form of beat is a wave composed of peaks (up-beats) and troughs (down-beats). The wave-form, however, is not limited to these arts. It is the form of sound, light, locomotion, and brain activity more generally. As the various manifestations of these waves come into contact with each other, they form larger-scale patterns that are comparable to the sorts of rhythms that form music and poetry. Examples include biological ecosystems, the many repetitive patterns that make up the life of a city, patterns of communication, and personal and communal rituals.
The prevalence of rhythm in these large-scale systems suggests that it is bound up with how things relate to one another. The connection between music or poetry and our emotions has a lot to do with rhythm. Shared rhythm is a part of what enables individuals to communicate, and part of what creates harmony within a group of people. The sound, light, radio, and brain waves mentioned above all carry information from one place to another, whether visual, auditory, or chemical. As a result, many of the influences on us and the ways we influence others occur through rhythm and it is for this reason that several of the essays in this volume focus on rhythm specifically as a form of influence. Scheibel argues that attending to rhythms is an important part of self-care. She suggests that attending to one’s biological rhythms influences one’s physical and mental health, and likewise, engaging in activities that include patterns of regular repetition reduces stress. Oelman draws attention to the neural rhythms through which pornography exerts its negative effects on the brain and consequently on patterns of behavior, emotion, and relationship as well. Finally, Potts argues that one’s speech may have a greater impact on others than is generally acknowledged, in part through the ways in which the rhythms of speech can take hold of another and draw them into action. She analyzes the speeches of two great orators, Martin Luther King Jr. and Adolf Hitler, to demonstrate how the rhythms of their speech moved others, albeit with very different effects.
However, thinking about rhythm as a particular form and mode of influence opens up awareness of other forms of influence as well. As such, other authors have chosen to explore other forms of influence. Renfroe considers the impact of race on one’s experience of depression, and Troutner explores the idea that, through principles of design, the constructed world may be able to encourage reconciliation. Story considers self-care more broadly, and how a posture of attentiveness to one’s body and needs influences religious devotion and experience. Similarly, Fatigato argues that attentiveness to one’s eating habits and one’s posture towards food in the particular form of veganism influences religious worship. In both of these cases a certain kind of attentiveness is recommended as a way of combating the pre-cognitive influences of our current patterns of busy-ness and problematic food-systems.
As such, there is more to many of these essays than merely an exploration of the form of influence. Most in fact make recommendations about how we might re-form these background influences for increased flourishing, for ourselves and others. This requires spending more time in that second kind of orientation to the world, simply noticing the background movements to which we are usually oblivious. In thinking intentionally about the influences and relationships that are not necessarily the result of choice, the hope is that we can recognize the importance of these forces, become aware of them more often, and perhaps even form them in new ways.