Facilitating Graduate Writing

For the last two weeks I’ve been leading graduate student writing workshops.  When I conceived the idea of an interdisciplinary graduate writing course in the fall, I didn’t know what to expect.  I was responding instead to what I perceived as a need.  So I thought I’d try to the course and see how it went.

When the course proved so popular we had to open to two sections of it, I knew the need was there.  But I still didn’t know what to expect in the classroom.  So I prepared the course based on my own experiences: as a graduate student, as a composition instructor, and as an academic writing researcher.  So far the course has been both challenging and exciting to teach.

I am utterly amazed at the depth and quality of work our graduate students are engaging in.  My first question in each class has been about their individual work.  Because my background is steeped in literature, rhetoric and pedagogical practice, it takes a while for me to understand some of the topic areas (such as biological treatment systems).  Before the course began I was a bit concerned by this but it has proven to be a strength in the classroom.  Because my knowledge is close to non-existent in some of the research areas, these students are forced to explain to me what precisely their research is about.  And if I don’t understand, I state it.  I have no ego here.  I look more like an idiot if I actually pretend I understand the overall mass transfer equation in their paper.  In response the students are forced to find a way to make me understand.  And they have all been able to do so.

But despite the skill and knowledge these students bring to the classroom, I’m also deeply troubled by their fears and hurts.  It is quickly becoming clear that this class is about more than learning to write an article for publication.  I have students who are so blocked that they can’t write a single word.  I have students who are so fearful of stealing someone else’s idea that they can’t even begin to get their own wonderfully unique contributions down on paper.  The class has become both emotional and cathartic for many of the students.  And once again I’m left to reflect on what we, as faculty members, do.

The weight some of these students are carrying on their shoulders is immense.  These are incredibly intelligent human beings.  They present an external image of calm and professionalism.  It’s quickly becoming apparent that this is an image they don’t even realize they possess.  And I am reminded, once again, of how carefully we, as faculty, guard our self-doubts and anxieties.  These students don’t see them.  They think it should be easy.  Research should come naturally to them.  They should not be having these problems.  They have said they feel “stupid.”

And I wonder how long I will remember what it was like to be a doctoral student who had no idea what her theoretical framework was about, much less how to articulate what I did think.  Or how intimidated I was in my philosophy classes by the likes of Habermas, Plato, Wittgenstein, Freire and Bakhtin.  The importance of remembering that painful time of uncertainty is becoming more and more apparent.  I almost withdrew from my doctoral program countless times.  I asked myself almost every day “Why am I here?”  Doctoral studies should kill part of you.  That sound horrid but it’s true.  If you don’t experience a rebirth of some kind through the process, I don’t believe you’ve actually succeeded regardless of the piece of paper they give you at the end.

These students I’m working with are so full of new ideas.  They are the future knowledge makers.  But right now they are infants in the Academy.  As faculty we have a duty to them.  We need to remember the uncertainty, the fear, the pure angst of intellectually pushing ourselves further than we ever thought we could go.

And writing.  Writing is particularly fearful for our students.  It is this print culture we live in.  I’m beginning to think that if faculty members would share with their graduate students the writing process, perhaps it would make it a bit less painful for these students to write.  They don’t ever see our “shitty first drafts.”  All they see are the polished and published works:  the books, the articles, the conference papers.  But, as we all know, writing is re/writing.  All our work is crap at first.  It begins with a spark that grows within and takes shapes in that space Vygotsky calls Inner Speech.  The translation of Inner Speech to External Thought is forever a struggle.  To take internal thoughts and shape them into dialogue is not ever easy.

I think our students need to know this.  The question is:  do I have the courage to share my own writing process with them?  Not talk about it but actually show it to them.  There is something incredibly private about drafting.  To expose the draft before it is more than a draft is to risk its death.  But in this case I think the risk might be worth it.

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