Humanities 557: A Twenty-Something Survey Course

Rachael Shay Button

“If I died right now it would be with every single thing unfinished.”-Pam Houston, Contents May Have Shifted


In this course, you will stare at the stars and speculate about the future. You will cry your eyes bloodshot and laugh till your belly cramps. Go on vision quests, join a dream group, and start journaling. You will stay up late talking with people ten years your senior about the books you’ve dog-eared and the plans you don’t know how to execute. You will ride the subway in the middle of the night, drive cross country solo, and go camping by yourself in the desert, dusting red sand from your sleeping bag in the morning. You will retrace your past with regret, rethink words you didn’t say, and ask yourself “why?” at least once weekly. You will stare at your reflection in the mirror until you begin to like it. Gather your stamina and start over again and again, until beginning becomes a habit and a promise. You will define what you want. Tell your story. Wonder.

Textbooks/Required Reading:

The Way It Is by William Stafford

The Necessity of Empty Places by Paul Gruchow

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Mountains and Rivers without End by Gary Snyder

The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Love: An Index by Rebecca Lindenberg

The River Why by David James Duncan

Contents May Have Shifted  by Pam Houston

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Claiming Ground by Laura Bell


You will frequently analyze music in this course, listening to a range of folk and country, rock, rap, bluegrass, and R & B. Essential texts include Johnny Cash’s Live from Folsom Prison and Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Be detailed in your analysis of the music you encounter, internalizing lines and lyrics, playing them over and over in your head as you run, hike, walk, or wander. These texts will become the root of many of your experiences, giving you a soundtrack for your love and lost-ness, your sense of place and your nostalgia.


This course requires flexibility, curiosity, and stamina. To be successful you need to shed your sense of entitlement, dirty your hands, wear holes in your jeans, stay up nights worrying. You need to be willing to fail, reconfigure your life, and then fail again. Read stacks of books. Pull your legs into your belly, lean back in your chair, and listen for hours. Kiss men you’ll never marry. Write essays, poems, and books you’ll never publish. Walk till your legs ache. Burn the prairie. Plant seeds in soil.


Study. Stay up nights surrounded by textbooks and coffee cups. Write hundreds of pages.  Practice peer review. Begin projects. Abandon ideas. Invest years writing a book. Defend it in a room full of professors and peers. Graduate, for the third time since your 18th birthday. Toast successful completion with champagne served in Mason jars that you bought at Goodwill.  Spend the weeks after your defense digging in the dirt and walking fields lit by fireflies.

Work outside your field. Learn about science. Memorize field guides. Walk packs of sixth graders along Puget Sound Shore. Collect marine specimens for educational touch tanks. Feed frozen mice to ball pythons. Research ways to keep rats out of industrial-sized compost bins.  Scrub toilets. Mop floors. Lead Hikes. Sing in front of strangers.

Get Lost. Go on a vision quest. Read poetry by Alice Walker on the coast of the Olympic Peninsula. Break up with someone you love. Date someone you don’t. Quit a job you haven’t started. Drive across the Cascades crying. Work retail. Drink too much at a wedding. Vomit on a family friend’s lawn. Wake up by the southern shore of Lake Superior. Swim in your underwear.  Begin something new, baptized in Great Lake water.

Get Found. Move to a remote village in the mountains. Snowshoe. Learn to like silence. Brew beer with a mechanic in felt overalls. Fumble with knitting needles. Pray by candlelight.  Memorize the names of full moons. Watch sun shadow the mountains. Fall in love with a farm boy who writes poems and cooks kale. Winter-camp with him beside a river that runs strong through banks thick with snow. Gather strength in your stride. Ask questions with no answers.  Make footprints in the snow.


Rachael Shay Button hails from Metro-Detroit but currently lives in Holden Village–a remote community in the North Cascades of Washington–where she works as a Para educator for the village’s eight student public school. Her work has appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, The Collagist, Creative Nonfiction, Diagram, Redivider, KNOCK, Ozone Park, and Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. She received her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Rachael is currently at work on an essay collection titled, “When I Get Home.”  She can be reached via e-mail at or found online at

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