Messages from Writers on Writing and Education
In September 2019, I completed an IRB-approved dissertation on the long-term student benefits of service-learning/community engagement in first-year writing (FYW) courses. I interviewed 13 current and former students at the University of Connecticut, some of whom took a service-learning FYW course and some of whom took a more traditional course. The resulting case studies suggest that those who took the service-learning course had a higher sense of self-efficacy than those who did not. I also found that, rather than inspiring an activist disposition, service-learning FYW courses can teach those who already have such a disposition how to engage with communities outside the university.
In March 2020, COVID-19 closed many institutions and took classrooms online. This complicates community engagement, as instructors do not know what safety/health precautions their students take, which could endanger community members and organizations while the pandemic already disproportionately affects marginalized communities. But, several students I interviewed for the dissertation participated in community partnerships without entering community spaces, partnerships where their writing had to do the work for them.
Here, I present some of those case studies alongside my findings as well as existing research into service-learning/community engagement in writing courses. Service-learning is only one approach to community engagement. I make the case that other forms of community engagement—often ones that do not involve students or are not tied to coursework—do critical work to bridge the gap between universities and communities that Ernest Boyer criticized as early as 1990. This work continues to address problems intrinsic to higher education, but course-based service-learning in FYW has the potential to equip those students with the rhetorical know-how to continue that work beyond graduation. I also share examples of community engagement/service learning that does not require dangerous physical contact to show that COVID-19 need not reify barriers between universities and surrounding communities that we have been working to bridge for decades.
Keywords: community engagement, service-learning, first-year writing, COVID-19, remote learning
The experience of being a reader is misleading. Especially in academia, texts often appear before us fully formed, linear, and polished. When I began reading for college, I felt a great sense of accomplishment when I read and understood a complex, academic text, but that sense of accomplishment did not completely offset my anxieties about being able to write texts like that myself. And when I did attempt to write those texts, the gulf in quality between what I could write and what I read had me convinced that these academic writers were fundamentally different from me; I imagined that they thought and spoke in these logical but poetic paragraphs that transitioned neatly into new, exciting thoughts, and they never forgot a source.
Now, I’m an assistant professor, and I still stumble over words, trying to avoid non-sequiturs, and sometimes, I have a difficult time remembering where I heard that one super interesting fact about writing program administration. But somehow, I publish.
And somehow, I learned that the academic writing that intimidated me as a student did not emerge fully formed from the fingertips of authors who thought and spoke the way I imagined as I read their words. Even for the pros, writing is a process, but even more importantly—for my learning at least—the term “writing” means more than sitting down to research, draft, and revise a term paper or academic article. Sometimes, incredibly valuable writing will never make it into the final “product.” And sometimes, even, that writing was never meant to make it to the final product.
Which is why I share with you a successful proposal for an academic conference. This is a valuable text to me as a writer, but I never intended to show it to anyone other than the conference planning committee, because the genre does not require it. This kind of text does not aim to inform or persuade in the same way as, say, an academic article. In an academic article, the writer hopes to inform their audience and persuade them, at least, to consider their standpoint and/or argument fairly. But in a proposal like this one, I had a different goal: to persuade the audience that I had something to contribute to their conference. Here, I will explain to you the steps I took to prepare this persuasive document as well as other unexpected benefits of writing it.
This is a proposal for the 29th Annual SUNY Conference on Instruction & Technology (CIT). As a faculty member at Farmingdale State College, I am subscribed to several listservs, and I receive important SUNY-wide messages every day, which is where I learned about this conference. It is my job to publish my research and present it to my colleagues at conferences, so I keep a close eye on my email for Calls for Papers or Calls for Proposals, both conveniently (or confusingly) referred to as CFPs.
A CFP is a document that solicits submissions from writers. CFPs exist for conferences, scholarly journal issues, academic books, and other opportunities to publish or share one’s scholarly or even creative work. Most often, they are meant for academics, but more and more often these days, there are important publishing opportunities for students to contribute their research to larger scholarly conversations. CFPs can range from being specific to open-ended, depending on the needs of the publication or event.
The CFP for the CIT conference offered many options for proposals, and the parameters were rather open. The conference focus—as evidenced by the name “Conference on Instruction & Technology”—is teaching, but more specifically, teaching and technology. The CIT 2021 Planning Committee sought proposals having varying degrees of technological depth. One could choose to present on topics requiring introductory, intermediate, or advanced levels of technical savvy, and one could propose a presentation, workshop, or poster, depending on the style best suited for their research. Additionally, the Planning Committee sought proposals in one of five tracks:
- Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion
- Emerging Technologies and Digital Strategies
- Measuring Effectiveness
- Open Education
- Pedagogically Speaking
Often, conference planning committees propose several “tracks” or focal points to encourage an academically diverse pool of proposals to choose from.
My first step in writing this abstract was deciding I wanted to (and should) apply to present at this conference. I am not especially technically skilled. Like many (but certainly not all) college instructors, my first experience with online teaching was hurriedly building an online course for my students in March of 2020, when COVID-19 closed in-person classrooms mid-semester. Even my social media pages are sparse, so I knew that my proposal would be at the introductory level of technological expertise.
Once I determined that I could submit a proposal, I had to decide what I would submit. I could have chosen to write something fresh and new, based on my—at that point—semester and a half of online teaching, but I saw the CFP in November, and proposals were due by the end of December. Plus, my end-of-year job review was coming up, and the next CIT conference would not be until after that. I had to move fast.
And here, my experience of academic writing started to diverge from the expectations I had as an undergraduate student. Rather than having to start a new project, I had a backlog of research and writing to pull from. I had written my dissertation on service-learning in writing instruction the year before, and I had only published a small portion of it. Plus, while COVID-19 had drastically and unexpectedly changed my approach to teaching, it also drastically changed my thinking about service-learning, because service-learning involves students interacting (often in person) with people and organizations outside of the university, and the pandemic made in-person anything dangerous.
I don’t like to think of kairos (or rhetorical timing) as good or bad, necessarily. It’s like karma: it just is. And because I had to rethink my approach to service-learning, I had something to write about and write for. Instead of simply rethinking my approach to service-learning in composition, I would rewrite my approach to see what the existing research could justify and how I could apply that research to my own experience with teaching writing courses with a service-learning component. The best part was, if this proposal were accepted, I would have a deadline and accountability for this rewriting.
The first step was writing the proposal, which amounts to a promise. In writing my text, I promised the CIT Planning Committee that, if they accepted my proposal, I would turn up on the day of the conference with something useful to say, helpful visual aids, and thought-provoking questions to inspire audience participation. This promise had to both entice the Planning Committee and prove possible, so I provided some background to my research and how COVID-19 affects that research to show the Committee the exigence (or need) for my presentation as well as some key components to my promised presentation, such as the case studies and past research I planned to present.
This placed my presentation on the “Pedagogically Speaking” track listed on the CFP. Sure, there was overlap with other tracks, but the biggest contribution I felt I could make was to the teaching track, so I chose to fashion my proposal for that track. Finally, I had to choose what kind of presentation I would propose, and I had been writing an article draft about service-learning after COVID-19, so I chose to propose a 30-minute presentation. This would allow me to audition my article’s contents for a live audience, whose reception of my presentation could show me the draft’s strengths and weaknesses.
But I was, after all, only writing a proposal and not the actual presentation. I made a promise to the CIT Planning Committee, but they made no promises to me about whether or not they would accept my proposal. They did, and I am currently working on delivering on my end of the bargain, but even if they had not accepted the proposal, writing it would still have had a great deal of value, because writing this proposal required me to do a lot of the prewriting and planning that I would have done to the article draft anyway. I chose an approach: to explore the possibilities and benefits of community-engaged service-learning projects in composition courses after COVID-19. I chose much of the content: case studies of student writers, existing research into service-learning, and my own new research into online ways to engage with communities outside of the classroom. Finally, I chose to begin synthesizing my research with that of others in this new context so I could come to what it was I wanted to say.
Much academic writing does not make it into the books and articles we read, and that’s OK. I do not say this to comfort writers whose work does not get accepted to conferences or published, though there is comfort there. I say this to assure writers that their writing matters, even the “behind the scenes” writing. Anyone who has taken one of my first-year writing classes has at least heard the name Anne Lamott and read at least part of her article, “Shitty First Drafts,” in which she encourages writers to keep going, despite the frustrations she knows only too well as a professional writer.
I often think about “Shitty First Drafts” while I write. Particularly, I remember her encouraging words about drafting, as messy and seemingly wasteful as it is:
Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go—but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages. (94)
Not all writing needs absolution in ink. Not all writing has to be perfect, and not all writing has to become perfect to have value. I never intended to share my proposal to the 2021 CIT Conference with anyone other than the planning committee, but this piece of “behind the scenes” writing has proven valuable in my own work, and that would be true even if the proposal had not been accepted.
But now, by sharing this proposal with you, I hope that this text takes on new value as an example of a kind of writing that otherwise gets little attention and proof that the processes you develop in first-year writing may change over time, but they will remain throughout your writing careers.
Lamott, Anne. “Shitty First Drafts.” Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers. Ed. by Paul Eschholz, Alfred Rosa, and Virginia Clark. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005: 93–96.