David HowellThis April I’ll publish The Descent into Happiness, a book written last summer while I bicycled from Seattle to Milwaukee. The book is a travel narrative, chronicling the events that took place while I did a solo, self-supported month-long bike ride. But it’s also a book about the thought process that goes into such a ride: how solitude is a blessing, the need to slow down, the pursuit of the big picture.

The book is written for a general audience—but I’m a professor, and it’s my intent that the book will also serve as a textbook for some classes I teach, courses such as Ethics and Creative Thinking. The book will be in print soon, but I could not wait to share it with my students, so I provided them a preliminary draft. The benefit was mutual: they received a text that better articulated the ideas covered in the course curriculum, and I received some much-needed audience analysis on the manuscript.

I had students in my Creative Thinking class write a review of the book. One of my students, Shannon Mahoney, provided some insightful feedback in her analysis. In the following excerpt from her essay, Shannon responds to an anecdote that takes place early in book, one in which I’m trying to navigate my way with the use of some bike-specific roadmaps:

We may be able to try to predict how the road is going to bend from how it is bent in the past, but the further down the road we get, the more unpredictable it becomes. In a literal comparison, Howell talks about that in the beginning of his trip: he was using a map that was given to him of all the common routes cyclists take along the path. However, he was so focused on the map and not straying from the guidelines that he was missing the experience of the true adventure that he was on. Overcoming the difference between wanting to know where your life is going and truly experiencing life as you are living it is a struggle that people need to balance out. The hard truth is that the future cannot be predicted: living life as it goes on is a better method.

This is what I hope for from students: you introduce an idea, and they expand on it based on their interpretation of text. In this case, the text is a happy blend between The Descent into Happiness and Shannon’s life experiences. Is it better to keep your eyes focused on what’s coming down the road, or should you focus on the present moment—and let that be the guide to your destination? I’m glad Shannon raised the question; it’s one that generated some great in-class discussion, since Shannon agreed to let me share her essay with the class.