My annual, first attempts at essay writing usually feel more frustrating than productive. Despite having read 79 primary texts for my courses, my first real essay efforts can leave me feeling considerably under-read, a little vulnerable and maybe even a little desperate. To paraphrase a talented colleague, the bottom lip can start to quiver about this time of the study year. The emotion puzzles me because I am doing three things I love best, reading, writing, and picking over a complex problem.
Nevertheless, nerves are nerves, and the shift in focus from a general perspective with closed ended study questions to more specific, open-ended, and complex questions can undo my nerves, if only for a moment. It is same ‘sinking-feeling’ kind of effect I get reading Ovid, when Arachne realizes she has just challenged Minerva to a test of skill and knowledge. Gulp. You just have to buckle down and work with what you have.
The challenge at this point in the term is to articulate specific critical arguments and analysis of the primary texts I have read. Even though I consistently use our Study Guides, Examiners’ Reports, and follow my study plan it is easy to be impressed that the task is a large and challenging one. What is the wisest way to proceed? Alas, Ovid does not offer much help. He does not tell us why Arachne chose the particular theme and imagery she wove into her tapestry during her competition with Minerva. We have to work that out for ourselves, which is part of the joy of reading and studying too for that matter.
Working it out for ourselves is a very satisfying way to approach reading and studying. Right now I have to work out how to best prepare for 4 exams, considering time, number of courses and texts, and how to get the most relevant knowledge or material from these resources. One choice is to focus on a minimum of 6 primary texts for each unit and study them in as much detail as is possible. Another choice is to select 5 or 6 specific topics and explore them through the use of all, or at least many, of the primary texts I have read this term.
Why am I going on about Ovid, Arachne, and Minerva in this context? Luckily for me the influence of classical authors is a big point in all my courses this term, and Ovid is always elucidating after his fashion. And I do empathize with Arachne, who toward the end of Ovid’s telling of her story, winds up with the goddess of wisdom thumping her on the head with her shuttlecock to such great distraction.
Ovid lets, well, insists, that the reader decide why Minerva is responding so vehemently to Arachne and her tapestry. Is it Arachne’s perfect weaving or her subject matter that has Minerva so vexed? The reader has to supply answers to all the ‘whys,’ which is a very interesting way to tell a story. He describes Arachne’s and Minerva’s tapestries through the stories revealed in the patterns as they are woven, and by his narrative description of their competition and the craft of weaving. If you ask me that is the real story.
Now back to my story. Am I any closer to solving my own case of nerves and making the best study choice? Yes, and with considerably less angst than poor Arachne, though Ovid did earn her my sympathy through his portrayal of her commitment and pride in her craft. But this week I am not going to say which approach to study I will use, or why. Like Ovid, I will let the reader supply the answers. The moral of the story is Arachne is ‘transformed’ through her pursuit of knowledge, challenge, choices and process. I know I am, and I hope you are too.