Writing The Academy

Lots of work within rhetoric and composition has been put into examining the intersection of gender and writing in higher education over the past thirty years. I can’t summarize it here, but instead I’ll steer the mindful and attentive reader(s) toward the work of Gwendolyn Pough, whose published articles I’ve been moving through lately, and leave it at that for now.  The following paragraphs won’t directly engage with any sort of scholarship, but, I don’t know. This is where my mind has been wandering to lately. Anyways, onward.

This coming May, my younger sister will graduate with an M.S. in Public Health from a four-year institution in Rochester, New York.  I like to joke that I’m disappointed I can no longer call myself the most successful of the Richter siblings, as my sister will have the option to include letters after her name after she becomes certified (no small accomplishment!). However, underneath some very meaningful feelings of brotherly and familial pride, which I won’t expound upon here, are a few central points I’d like to draw attention to that come to mind when examining my sister’s journey working (and writing) her way through the academy.

A portrait of this particular writer would not be fair without acknowledging her tremendous growth as an individual, as a student, and as a scholar. She’s talented, humble and strong. She’s quiet, though far less so than even a year ago. She’s a communicator.  She’s direct and concise in speaking. She’s practical, pragmatic, and understands the motivations of others.

She recently penned a grant to improve the public health situation on her campus, which was selected for funding from a vast and competitive field of proposals.

A question is raised in my mind when I think of her, one I’ve been turning over in my head for the past few weeks after a discussion at a recent conference: How do we teach our students to think of themselves as intellectuals? 

Why do we not ask our students, at the conclusion of their undergraduate career, to return back to their past courses, writings, projects, notes, tests, and syllabi, and review for the world the exact components of their education? What did they get from it? What do they carry with them as they walk down those podium steps at graduation?

Why not ask our students to venture a few answers to a second vital question, one that goes a long ways toward answering the first: What skills do I have to offer the world?

This is all brought up from a series of Facetime sessions my sister and I shared in which we edited her CV and a cover letter through Google Docs together. For my sister, I’m not sure there was always a clear answers present in her mind to these percipient questions. It makes me a proud brother, as someone equipped with inside knowledge on her social, economic and educational background, to report that in only the past few weeks I’ve noticed a distinct leap forward in these areas.

In her voice over the mobile device, I heard a tone of engagement and active participation; in her body, an eagerness, a leaning-forward action; in her vision for the respective compositions, a real grasping of her audience, a true sense of exigency and purpose, an impressive eye for style, arrangement, and unity.

The brother within me glowed. The rhetorician within me smiled. But the intellectual within me left the table to ponder. Something had changed in her. Some sense of herself as a professional was present, which hadn’t been on display during previous conversations.  What change has she undergone?

The answer is obvious. She’d always been an intellectual, but only lately has she become aware of it and been able to talk about it.

Suddenly, I find myself admiring her, three years my junior, and realize we’re all only a few conversations away from re-inventing ourselves as humans, as writers, as thinkers.

How might we work toward this with all of our students?

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