Published on July 16, 2018
Updated on Sep. 10, 2019
Because I am Chair of the English department, you might imagine that I was a person who was born with a book in her hand, who loved writing papers in college, who always got A’s in her English classes – but none of those things are actually true. The first time I wrote something that I felt proud of – that somewhere deep down I knew was good – was my junior year in high school. My classmates and I were each asked to write a personal essay, and we were taught the basic conventions of that genre – tell a story about something that happened to you, attempt to make meaning of the event through your telling, allow the narrative to move in whatever interesting or unexpected directions you like. I stayed up late the night before the essay was due, finishing long after midnight. I had written an essay about how when I was 9 and my younger brother was just 7 he had run away from home. We were living on the Greek island of Sifnos at the time and the image of him, at the end of our frantic day of searching for him, walking alone along the side of the island’s one major long and windy road back up to our house had lodged itself in my memory. I thought this would make a sound topic for a personal essay. While I felt satisfied with the essay once it was done, there was a nagging feeling that I couldn’t shake that this was not the story I really wanted to tell, or maybe that I hadn’t told it exactly the way I felt it, or that something had been lost in the move from memory to the page. And so, I did something completely out of character – I erased the essay and started over. It was that second essay – the one I finished as the sun was coming up – that a week later my teacher would read out loud to the class, without saying who had written it. As I listened to my own words come through his mouth and I watched my classmates take in my language said through him, I began a lifelong process of understanding just how writing works – that the first thing you write is often not what you really want to write, that writing changes when someone else speaks it and other people hear it, and that praise (even anonymous praise) matters deeply.
Fast forward 10 years and I am in a PhD program in English at Rutgers University and I am in my very first semester of teaching what was there called English 101 and is roughly equivalent to MU’s English 1000. It is Fall of 2001 and I teach the Tues/Thurs 8am section and because Rutgers is 30 miles south of New York City where I live at the time, I am on the 6:45am train out of the city and in my New Jersey classroom before the first plane hits the World Trade Center, and by the time we come out of class both towers have crumbled, thousands are dead, and the world as we had known it is utterly changed. Maybe it’s because those freshman were in their first week of college or because I was a total rookie teacher or because we were unexpectedly together at this important historical moment, but regardless of the reason, this class of students and I became a tight community. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this community was established in a classroom of student writers. What marks that semester in my memory was our ability to shift, revise, argue, discuss, connect, disagree, and resolve together. Against a backdrop of political, military, and economic upheaval, we came together to put disparate issues and perspectives up against one another and then we used our writing to grapple, to learn, to forge some path forwards.
I tell you these two stories because, although one is about being a student and one is about being a teacher, they have compositely and indelibly shaped the way I think about the role of classroom writing. If you are lucky, you will have had writing instructors who empowered you to throw out the safe draft and start again, who made you feel like the thing you wrote was the best thing they had ever read, who gave you the space to muddle around in the complicated details of your world. I’ve been on the receiving end of the generosity of those instructors and I have had the privilege of inhabiting the classroom with students who became such instructors to each other. And while we might be able to say that such transformative education occurs in classes where writing is not at the center of the enterprise, it’s hard for me to imagine why anyone wouldn’t put it there. When we write – in class, after class, in between classes, late at night and early in the morning; on paper, on our computers, online, and sometimes even on our very little phone screens; for ourselves, our teachers, or parents, our friends, our lovers; to learn something, to earn a grade, to get paid, to find acceptance or approval – we are embodying the flexibility that writing has long allowed people—the flexibility of language, of tone, of audience, of media, and of process.