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MIT student blogger Natasha B. '16

Summer Syllabus in Retrospect by Natasha B. '16

goals, guidelines, reading list

Today is the eighth day of fall and the first day of winter in my head. The warmth, which had faded, returned, and lingered over the past month, is decidedly dead. The sky is white and my bed is very warm.

So I can now see the summer as something whole and fully past. Back in May, I made a “syllabus” for my summer. I gave myself goals and intentions, reading assignments, projects, and permission not to follow through with any of it (recognizing it as idealistic, possibly self-centered and a little cheesy). This is what the syllabus looked like:


Summer 2015 Syllabus

Areas of Development
1. Intellectual
2. Physical
3. Artistic
4. Aesthetic
5. Practical

Disclosing New Worlds, Spinosa, Flores and Dreyfus
Writings, W.E.B. DuBois
Food Justice, Robert Gottlieb and Apunama Joshi
Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow
Good Citizens, Thich Nhat Hanh
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig
Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody, Ian Frazier
Sustainable Urban Metabolism, John Fernandez
Everything and More, David Foster Wallace
Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler
Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler
The Tupac Amaru Rebellion, Charles Walker
Black Elk Speaks, John Neihardt
Almanac of the Dead, Leslie Marmon Silko
A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn
1493, Charles Mann
Journals of Susan Sontag and Anais Nin

drawings and paintings
essays, stories, and poems

Keep notes from reading. At the end of the summer, review them. Reread journal entries. Compile drawings. List the lessons you’ve learned. Evaluate on these three measures:
i) how much fun you had
ii) how much progress you made
iii) how that progress contributes to your overall development as a human being

wake up before nine
climb firepole
tea and journal and plan
read a little bit, daydream a little
get to work

Every Day
lift or run
practice handstands
write something not for yourself

mostly vegetables and fruit
very little refined sugar
coffee only once or twice a week


“The only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you are alive, and die only when you are dead. To love, to be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of the life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.” Arundhati Roy

“Living simply makes loving simple.” bell hooks

“To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” James Baldwin

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” Octavia Butler

“When one begins to live by habit and by quotation, one has begun to stop living.” James Baldwin

So: tear this up, feed ambition to the wolves, accept the contradictory nature of everything. Seek discomfort, live well in uncertainty, make the people you love feel loved. Have rituals, not routines.

I spent the summer mostly in Cambridge, with trips home to Oregon and New Mexico and a stint in Stellenbosch, South Africa for a workshop hosted by the Urban Metabolism Group, within which I have done research since last January. I made no progress on handstands, and stopped climbing the firepole when I realized it gave me lots of bruises, but I ate well, slept well, wrote, read, did some pottery, and got older in a good way.

What I Actually Read
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Jump-Off Creek, Molly Gloss
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, James Baldwin
The Woman I Kept to Myself, Julia Alvarez
All About Love, bell hooks
Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow
Citizen, Claudia Rankine
This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz
Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
Free Food for Millionaires, Min Jin Lee
Love Me Back, Merritt Tierce
Killing Rage, bell hooks
Meditations on the Future of Food and Seed, Vandana Shiva


What I Actually Ate
fried plantains, the lunch buffet from Desi Dhaba, huevos rancheros, grapes

A for fun. B- for progress. Incomplete for development as a human being.


There is a Baldwin poem I love, called “Inventory/On Being 52,” which begins,


My progress report
concerning my journey to the palace of wisdom
is discouraging.
I lack certain indispensable aptitudes.
Furthermore, it appears
that I packed the wrong things.


I am 20, not 52, and I have not fixed my sights on any palace of wisdom. I am not sure what I have packed–perhaps I’m still packing–and which aptitudes I lack, I have already dispensed with, or still hope to develop. My progress report is encouraging or irrelevant. I can’t tell which.