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Columns

Journaling Through the Semester

By Julie Heng, Contributing Opinion Writer
Julie Heng ‘24 lives in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

When I first checked my on-campus mailbox this year, I was surprised to find, alongside three COVID-19 tests, a hard-bound Class of 2024 journal. The journal — courtesy of the Harvard Journal Project — is black with an elastic band and ribbon bookmark, features a textured Veritas Shield on the front, and smells like fresh newsprint on a winter morning.

Such journals were distributed, either in on-campus mailboxes or by national or international mail, to all 1,415 freshmen who enrolled this year. Many students may cynically see such journals as superficial or pointless, but as someone who’s journaled off and on since the second grade, I think they’re brilliant.

An overarching theme of life, especially at the intersection of college life and pandemic life, is the irrefutable presence of uncertainty. Uncertainties are everywhere, from the monumental “How will I make a difference in the world?” to the trivial “Does the guy who lives on the floor above mine like me?” and everything in between: potential concentrations and pandemic reopenings, incomplete blocking groups and political races. Everybody worries and wonders, and nobody knows.

By no means do I have the answers to any of these questions — I am in fact the second-most indecisive person I know — but I am able to collude with and confront them in my now-daily journals.

Take an excerpt from my entry from Oct. 2: “What do I want out of my education? ‘Thinking critically’ as a phrase may have lost any semblance of meaning, but I am hoping to gain that ability to persistently and creatively consider propositions.”

Or Oct. 23: “It’s Friday again, which means yet another slight lag between set objectives and catching up to them.”

Or Nov. 7: “I awoke to honking and cheering and handbells and a lightness I haven’t felt in a long time.”

In his compiled Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “[H]ave patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Within our journals, we can live those questions. Or at the very least, we can parse their clauses.

Journaling serves the twofold purpose of memory-catalyzing and life-analyzing. In terms of remembrance, writing down my experiences amplifies them. When I return to my dorm, I replay conversations from walks along the Charles and reconsider philosophical debates about personal turning points or social media motivations or faith in altruism. In terms of introspection, journaling allows me to do all the ruminating and intellectualizing that daily life often brushes aside. Together, this twofold process of remembering and analyzing has helped me crystallize personal discussions and value systems.

The Harvard Journal Project affirms that work. The Journal Project began as an opt-in program two years ago. Freshmen were encouraged to select red or black journals at the Student Involvement Fair, with opportunities to share their thoughts (if desired) with other students, Dean of Student Life Katherine G. O’Dair, or Senior Assistant Dean of Residential Life and First-Year Students Nekesa C. Straker. Students were then encouraged to take ownership of personal transformation, inspired by Seymour Papert’s constructionism learning theory. Constructionism encourages students to discover and create their own mental models of learning in a sort of bricolage, which comes from the French word for creating through tinkering.

This year, the journals are accompanied by a series of online reflection prompts that have spanned civic engagement, community-building, and environmental awareness. So often, a university education is seen as a means to an end: a series of concentration requirements, a crucial grade for a premed application. The Journal Project takes a step back from these variable disconnected plot-points to explore elements of a successful educational transformation. It promotes a sort of bricolage — one that’s nonlinear and open-ended.

But even beyond remembering and analyzing personal uncertainties, I think journaling should inform our interactions with each other. To me, journal entries are micro-experiments, private exercises in empathy, a sort of sparring with oneself. When you journal, you treat your conflicting opinions with improvisatory grace and gingerly entertain ideas amid emerging plans. If we all journal, perhaps this practice will be extrapolated to larger educational and societal discourse, where it’s often so easy to ignore or oversimplify the thoughts and motivations of others. Journals are extraordinarily intimate ventures to recognize multiple perspectives within ourselves. Analogously, on the scale of public discourse, we can recognize that others feel, think, hurt, and love as we do.

Harvard students, in defense of the Journal Project and for your own enlightened revelations, I encourage you to journal. Whether you choose to follow the weekly newsletter questions provided or subscribe to your own series of inquiries, taking ownership of your life experiences in writing is valuable.

In less than two weeks, most of us living on campus will move out. Less than two weeks after that, the fall term will be over. So, what happened? What does it all mean? Where are you now, and where will you be headed next? Journal, and you may join the ranks of Marie Curie’s diligent reporting and Mark Twain’s whimsical imagination and Thomas Edison’s careful mundanity. Your current selves will benefit from the analysis, and your future selves will savor the memories.

My friend George never journaled before receiving his Veritas 2024-emblazoned journal from the Journal Project. He now writes, in incomplete sentences and annotated punctuation-reactions, people-focused entries that analyze motivations and implications of new interactions here on campus.

George told me he’s sure his journaling is worthwhile. Aside from better understanding uncertainties, it’s also just nice to catalog accumulated experiences. It’s nice to know that this is all real.

Julie Heng ‘24 lives in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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