Each semester the past couple of years the First Year Writing Program at St. John’s University holds a conference called “Coming to Writing.” My colleague Tara Roeder was one of the faculty members who came up with the name and it comes from Hélène Cixous, a writer Tara describes as her favorite, fabulous, French feminist. Here’s a quote that has previously been used on the conference program.
“I sensed that there was a beyond, to which I did not have access, an unlimited place […] A desire was seeking its home. I was that desire. I was the question. The question with this strange destiny: to seek, to pursue the answers that will appease it…
—Hélène Cixous in “Coming to Writing”
I moderated a panel discussion of students I worked with during the semester, recorded the session, and published the session as a podcast with their permission. I can certainly spot ways in which many of them were, as Cixous describes, in pursuit of answers. What follows here is the title of our panel and a description of the work the students discussed.
Writers on the Craft of Writing
Like it or not, these students had to be writers this semester. They wrote two blog posts a week and created a documentary film as a culminating writing project. Here’s a list of the students who presented and what it was that most struck me about their work:
- Brianne revolutionized the way many of us thought about how a dean might work with students in his or her respective college. She talked with deans from many of our colleges at St. John’s and then surprised most of us when her exhaustive interviews of students revealed that many students communicate with their deans regularly.
- Tahyanna is a funny and smart writer who I think ought to write a memoir something along the lines of Confessions of a Germaphobe. (I don’t think she’s going to do it) During the “Coming to Writing Conference,” Tahyanna talked about her writing process for the final paper, an assignment I call “A Writer on Writing.” I make my students (no sense in saying I ask them to do it) something we call an “annotation.” For annotations, students print out articles and take notes on them. Tahynna explained how she put all her annotations out in front of her and looked at her written comments on the articles as a way of organizing how she was going to write the paper.
- Miriam was the only student I had who referenced the only poem we looked at all semester as a way of thinking about images. Although Miriam wrote about several topics, I remember her for writing about the environment. In one of her pieces she wrote about a sort of paradoxical beauty, that oil in a puddle of water can be beautiful: “Some puddles are murky, quiet as to how deep they really are. Others are crystal clear, reflecting the fiery fall foliage. Others seem to have life. An intermingling of swirling colors…these puddles have harnessed their own rainbows.”
- Michael came up with a theme for his blog: conflict. What impressed me most about his work (aside from his sometimes encyclopedic knowledge of the Middle East) was the savvy and empathy he showed entering into controversial topics. Rather than lighting up our classroom with angry argument, Michael fostered ideas of tolerance and conversation meant to help us all understand many points of view.
- Diana says she comes from family that immigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel where she was born, and that she considers herself an American. These identities informed her writing in which she used the various generations of her family to underpin the structure of her final portfolio. She also alludes to a terrible nickname given to her by a former teacher: ESL, she was called, because her teacher felt she spoke using poor grammar. Way to go dude.
- Kevin started off not sure if he wanted to write about working on cars or the fact that he switched his concentration of study to nursing. He took a practical approach to the work of the class and interviewed coworkers at the hospital, gathered information about graduate schools in nursing, and read numerous scholarly articles in his field. If I was ever in need of someone to look after my health, I’d trust Kevin completely.
Thanks to my colleague April Julier for organizing this semester’s conference. The audio podcast of our panel discussion is available below. If you take the time to listen, I wonder how you envision the college composition course? Perhaps you are someone who says you are getting students ready to take it? Maybe you’re headed for school yourself or had a very different experience when you were a student? And of course there are other teachers of writing who have very different takes on what this class can be. Love to hear from you regarding your thoughts on the sort of writing you’ve experienced connected to the first year writing course.
You can connect to the podcast here or search for “digital book club” on iTunes. Thanks for checking this out.