Essays/Articles That Opened Your Mind
October 1, 2019 8:16 AM   Subscribe

In search of nonfiction that makes you go, "Huh. Never thought of it like that before.” Suggestions, please!

I’m teaching first-year college students, and I’m finding myself burnt out on the readings I usually have them do. (I teach writing, if that matters; to me, it means pretty much anything with words has a pedagogical use.)

MetaFilter is usually great for pointing out fascinating articles and essays on, well, everything, so please recommend me nonfiction pieces that meet any of the following criteria:

• Potential to alter/broaden the reader’s perspective, however slight. More than anything, I want stuff that’ll provoke thinking. Maybe you read something you're still mulling over long after? That's what I'm on the lookout for. Good examples of this are Jess Zimmerman’s Toast piece on emotional labor, Adichie’s TED Talk on the danger of a single story, and Scalzi’s blog on the lowest difficulty setting.
• 3000 words, give or take.
• Any topics are welcome, but I’d be particularly interested in discussions of race, class, sex and gender, and/or mental and physical ability with an introductory bent (most of the students are eighteen and I don’t expect them all to be familiar with these conversations).
• Major bonus points for pieces by authors of identities beyond straight, white, able-bodied, neurotypical cis males.

Thanks so much!
posted by xenization to Media & Arts (53 answers total) 252 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: On Self-Respect, Joan Didion immediately comes to mind. The essay's topic of seeing the value in adversity for its ability to cultivate self-respect might be relevant to college freshmen.

It seems blasphemous to cut out a part of the whole for quick ingestion, but here's a favorite sentence:

"Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The charms that work on others count for nothing in that devastatingly well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions."
posted by EKStickland at 8:28 AM on October 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The most thought-provoking article I’ve read in the past few years is ”Homelands” by Stephen Ferris, which makes a case for worldwide open immigration from various perspectives: moral, economic, logic. A sample:
From the standpoint of economic theory, liberalizing the flow of labor is no different than liberalizing trade. Both redistribute and grow global wealth. The difference is that liberalizing trade disproportionately benefits the rich. Easing immigration restrictions would help the world’s wealthy while offering significant opportunities to the world’s poor. If free trade is a tide that lifts all boats, then so is free labor. But in this scenario, it is the smallest boats that get the biggest boost.

There might once have been a case to be made that each nation should stand on its own and bear responsibility for only its own citizens. With each factory that moves overseas, though, that argument becomes weaker and weaker. We’ve globalized capital, but not labor. The American manufacturer of, say, a washing machine can cash in on China’s low wages; but the Chinese factory worker is barred from picking up and heading to where the pay is better. . . .

So accustomed are we to the obstacles faced by immigrants that the Lampedusas and Benin Cities of the world seem like normal, if terrible, costs to pay for restricting the movement of people. After some 250 years of nationalism, the segregation of the world’s population into separate countries seems as natural as the division of the globe into continents. So it’s important to remember that restricting immigration is a political choice, one whose burden is carried largely by the less fortunate.
One of those pieces where you stop and go “why the hell am I just thinking this now? Why haven’t I read this before? Why doesn’t my mind work like this?”

I believe it is longer than 3000 words, but it’s split into chapters that you could choose from.
posted by sallybrown at 8:32 AM on October 1, 2019 [12 favorites]

Best answer: William Cronon's essay "Only Connect" is the essay that sticks with me the most from my own first year of college.
posted by papayaninja at 8:38 AM on October 1, 2019

Best answer: "Can You Turn A Terrorist Back Into A Citizen?", a 2017 Wired article on Muslim Americans radicalized by ISIS and the deradicalization programs trying to address this. Absolutely changed my perspective on the nature of radicalization and the people who become radicalized. ~5600 words.
posted by LSK at 8:46 AM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
posted by shoesietart at 8:50 AM on October 1, 2019 [20 favorites]

Best answer: If you don't mind something very old, How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading is an essay I've thought about for forty years.
posted by FencingGal at 8:52 AM on October 1, 2019 [12 favorites]

Best answer: On Dumpster Diving, written by Lars Eighner. The author was homeless for a few years, and wrote a book (Travels With Lizbeth) about his experiences. This is one chapter from that book.
posted by JD Sockinger at 8:53 AM on October 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Privilege, Power, and Difference by Allan G. Johnson (he talks about what it means for him, a white guy, to be writing a book on this topic). The chapter that opened my mind the most was the one on capitalism, which argues that capitalism laid the foundation for racism in the United States (and elsewhere). The other idea from the book that has really stuck with me is that patriarchy and other norms of oppression/privilege are actually bad for men too (or whatever dominant group) because it constrains their behavior ("I'm not a 'real man' if I do this or that"). I hadn't really ever thought about how patriarchy was bad for men before that.

Deep stuff, accessibly written. Would definitely require discussion with freshmen.
I haven't assigned it as reading for freshmen, but I have used it as the foundation for a lecture on privilege, given to students who were mostly freshmen.
posted by kochenta at 8:58 AM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "The Futile Pursuit of Happiness", by Jon Gertner. This article really changed the way that I think about my future self, and whether something I'm considering now is really going to make me happy in the future. If this description sounds vague or weird, just read the essay.
posted by alex1965 at 8:59 AM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Depressed Person - DFW (PDF)
posted by rhizome at 8:59 AM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Robert Hass has a beautiful essay called "Images" in Twentieth Century Pleasures that attempts to understand the nature of the feeling you get from a perfect haiku or lyric image more generally. It's personal and accessibly written and I've taught it successfully to first- and second-year university students. (MeMail if you want a scan.)
posted by Beardman at 9:08 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: By insulating myself with the intellectually evasive dismissal of violent men as psychotic or sociopathic aberrations, I self-comforted by avoiding the more terrifying concept that violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions.

The Danger of a Monster Myth, by Tom Meagher.
posted by Gorgik at 9:28 AM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Someone I gave this article to told me it helped him decide not to kill himself. It helped me understand suicidal ideation in myself and others. How Not to Commit Suicide, by Art Kleiner.
posted by theora55 at 9:38 AM on October 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Infuriatingly, no one seems to think that essay collections need tables of contents online and my copy isn't on hand so I can't pull the title, but I strongly recommend the essay on the nature of beauty from Tressie McMillan Cottom's recent Thick.

Leslie Jamison's "Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain" from The Empathy Exams would be excellent to read with this, in part because it's very good and in part because Cottom's piece really challenges whether you can have a grand unified theory of anything female.

Coates's "The First White President" (from the Atlantic and republished in We Were Eight Years in Power) is a more analytic piece than "The Case for Reparations"--both are very good, but the latter is more a historical reconstruction, so it depends on what you want the mix to be.
posted by praemunire at 10:00 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I Want a Wife springs to mind.
posted by heavenknows at 10:02 AM on October 1, 2019 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Also, the titular essay of Kiese Laymon's How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is very good.
posted by praemunire at 10:10 AM on October 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The blogger Siderea has a ton of great essays that are very thought provoking. One about class and privilege is Vimes Boots Theory: Further Thoughts, but there are a lot of great ones.
posted by gideonfrog at 10:11 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? by Linda Nochlin was extremely mind-opening when it came to bringing me into feminist art history.
posted by COBRA! at 10:14 AM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
posted by FencingGal at 10:18 AM on October 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I want to second the Te-Nehisi Coates recommendation.

Also this Sunday NY Times article, Can Animals Be Gay?, has a provocative title, but really it's about the failure of our own abilities of observation, even when we think we are being objective. We might miss obvious things right in front of us because they are outside of a belief system we might not be conscious about. It's also about the failure of the neutrality and objectivity of science.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:21 AM on October 1, 2019

Best answer: Lynda Barry's "The Sanctuary of School".

I've used it in teacher education classes.
posted by mareli at 10:27 AM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Tyranny of Structurelessness has completely changed how I approach any kind of collaboration. It describes some really common ways that groups risk failing when they're trying to be nice and casual and informal, or when they're trying to work by leaderless consensus, and it's helped me figure out how to explain those risks to other people I'm working with.

It comes out of second-wave feminism, and the examples are definitely about a specific time and place. But the concepts in it are more widely relevant, and none of it relies on the homo/bi/transphobia that people sometimes now associate with feminism of that era. It does share with a lot of white feminism the flaw that it ignores race entirely.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:55 AM on October 1, 2019 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Big massive trigger:

I will throw in a rec for Fatal Distraction, the Pulitzer Prize winning piece from Gene Weingarten about children left in cars. It is a difficult and amazing read, writing-wise. I think it's a good piece for students that age to grapple with morality and criminality and the general idea that terrible things happen and can't always be neatly categorized to bad guys/bad actions.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:31 AM on October 1, 2019 [14 favorites]

Best answer: And I also think any of the 1619 Project the NYT is doing right now is both timely and relevant and everything I've read from it has been stunning.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:31 AM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I recently used Robert Park's essay "The Virtual Astronaut" for exactly this purpose.

In it, he argues quite convincingly (to my mind) against the very notion of any sort of space flight or exploration that involves human passengers. (It's massively more expensive; it limits the scope of the mission; it's dangerous; robots do it better, anyway.) Ever since the 1950s, "manned" space exploration has been almost synonymous, for most people, with space exploration in general. To see the case against humans and for robots laid out so straightforwardly is, I think, one of those eye-opening moments. Or it was for me, anyway.
posted by Dr. Wu at 11:41 AM on October 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: "Reprieve", by essayist Tim Kreider. He writes about a near-death experience, and how it changed him -- and also didn't change him. It's a wonderful meditation on mortality but without the usual maudlin clichés that you might expect for such a subject. In general, I would recommend many of Kreider's essays. He's a fantastic writer.
posted by JD Sockinger at 11:43 AM on October 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: "Fatal Distraction" is one of the best and most disturbing articles I've ever read. I think about it all the time.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:50 AM on October 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

Best answer: "In Plato's Cave" from Susan Sontag's On Photography is a sharp, "huh"-inducing, 12 page essay for any students interested in social media, society, meaning, or interpretation.

It's not explicitly about the topics you raised, but it does flow nicely into a discussion of worth and value, which you can apply to those topics.

"Photographs alter and enlarge our notion of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing."
posted by matrixclown at 12:29 PM on October 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Anything by andrea Dworkin. For example, Intercourse is a collection of essays that demonstrate that the personal is political - even and especially in the bedroom. Changed my life for sure.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:42 PM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Childism: The Unacknowledged Prejudice Against Kids
posted by jillithd at 12:56 PM on October 1, 2019

Best answer: Oh, as long as you're willing to do a little contextualization, Federici's Wages Against Housework is a brilliant attack on a paradigm that persists today.
posted by praemunire at 12:57 PM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might check out the essays of Zadie Smith, Jia Tolentino, and Roxane Gay. All women of color. All fantastic writers delving into the topics you mentioned. Jia Tolentino and Roxane Gay both have websites with links to some of their essays. You can find some of Zadie Smith's essays through a search. Roxane Gay's book, Hunger: A Memoir, was riveting. You might be able to excerpt some chapters from it. It's also a great audiobook. She reads it.
posted by anggna at 3:54 PM on October 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You Want a Physicist to Speak at Your Funeral, via NPR
posted by easy, lucky, free at 5:43 PM on October 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Live Like a Hydra is a great summary or antifragility.
posted by reenum at 6:42 PM on October 1, 2019

Best answer: Re physical ability: DFW article abt tennis player Michael Joyce, The String Theory.
posted by she's not there at 12:52 AM on October 2, 2019

Best answer: There are so many essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan that could work for you. American Grotesque is timely, despite being written in 2910:
Insane birthers and Glenn Beck-worshipping tea-partiers, proud racists and gun-toting antigovernment loons—they're all here, and they're all angry about something. John Jeremiah Sullivan goes deep into the bowels of the great American Rage Machine on a patriotic quest for common ground with his countrymen.
posted by she's not there at 1:10 AM on October 2, 2019

Best answer: My family's slave

The New Mecca
Inside the Federal Bureau of Way Too Many Guns

The Hygge Conspiracy

Not a personal rec but my to-read list

Heavy, Kiese Laymon
Thick, Tressie Macmillan Cotton
Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino

is probably full of candidate essays.
posted by athirstforsalt at 3:58 AM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh! And when I first read this essay I assigned it in all my classes pretty much no matter the subject.
posted by athirstforsalt at 4:05 AM on October 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The importance of stupidity in scientific research!
posted by mareli at 5:14 AM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This one has always stuck with me:
What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage
posted by BeBoth at 8:26 AM on October 2, 2019

Best answer: Against Chill
posted by anderjen at 10:55 AM on October 2, 2019

Best answer: Someone I gave this article to told me it helped him decide not to kill himself. It helped me understand suicidal ideation in myself and others. How Not to Commit Suicide, by Art Kleiner.

I remember reading this in graduate school when I Googled "how to kill yourself" or something similar.

I have a student who appears to be spiraling right now but assured me he is in contact with his therapist.
posted by mecran01 at 7:38 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City By Nikole Hannah-Jones
posted by AceRock at 7:34 AM on October 3, 2019

Best answer: Audre Lorde! The Uses of the Erotic and The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House

The Trans-Feminist Manifesto by Emi Koyama

Sick Woman Theory by johanna hedva

Cash/Consent (just was on the blue) by Lorelei Lee

Decolonization is Not a Metaphor by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang
posted by allymusiqua at 3:58 PM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Douglas Hofstader's paper on purity in language is excellent satire (from 1985, discussed recently on the blue).
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 5:01 PM on October 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: You're all superstars. Thanks so very much!
posted by xenization at 6:58 AM on October 7, 2019

Best answer: The New Abolitionism, by Chris Hayes. "Averting planetary disaster will mean forcing fossil fuel companies to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth."
posted by the_blizz at 11:40 AM on October 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: How to Write About Africa by the late great Binyavanga Wainaina.
posted by sugar and confetti at 5:46 AM on October 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Learning to Work by Virginia Valian - suggested on Mefi or AskMe sometime long ago, but it’s stuck with me. Thoughtful reflection on procrastination, imposter syndrome, etc - very relevant for college students just starting out. I feel like this would have changed my life if I’d read it when I was younger
posted by aiglet at 3:21 PM on October 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Coming in late after I saw this question listed on the home page right nav. "Against the Great Defeat of the World" by John Berger. Such a great framing of a Hieronymous Bosch triptych against the transition of modern civilization from short-lived scientific materialism to capitalistic materialism. Helped me recontextualize my spirituality and wonder within the myopia of "evidence only" based faith.

There's plenty other essays in Shape of a Pocket to recommend too, and it's worth reviewing anything Berger has done for well-written explosions of the status quo.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 11:36 AM on October 11, 2019

Best answer: I remember this essay, Form and its Usurpers, by Brendan Vance, blowing my mind five years ago. It is only a little bit about a video game, and mostly about the business model of social media.
posted by Merus at 5:20 AM on October 16, 2019

Best answer: Ooh, ooh, ooh! Just remembered Jenny Odell's longish essay, How to do Nothing. Love it. Think about it all the time.
posted by sugar and confetti at 11:44 AM on October 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks again for all these stellar recommendations.

@SoundInhabitant, I had no idea I'd been linked on the front page. I feel so important.
posted by xenization at 7:25 AM on October 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

« Older I need to purchase t-shirts - the kind with things...   |   The search for feather-weight furniture Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.