Well, here I am. Two days into my (hopefully) last week of college. I’ve been asked for our final assignment in our fall capstone course, WRIT 494, to write a reflection that covers my experience as a English writing major at Montana State University. Though my initial reaction to this essay was to be a little overwhelmed at the prospect…
I’ve decided that taking some time to look over what I’ve actually done with my time for the past 4.5 years will be an insightful and perhaps enlightening experience for myself, and for faculty members who read this blog post, or have it forwarded to them.
Despite having found multiple errors this Tuesday morning after re-reading my already submitted capstone paper…
which I had proof-read several times, I’m still going to assert that my time at MSU has shaped me into an intelligent, insightful writer and member of society. Here we go.
Freshman Year, 2014-15: In The Beginning…
There was not much of a plan. I’ll be honest; I came to MSU in the fall of 2014, expecting to be a business major, following in the footsteps of my best friend from high school. I was on independent status, had no plan, and was not in contact with my parents. After coming face to face with college algebra, and a best friend that soon decided college was not their “thing”, I realized that I’d have to fend for myself. And that business management was not something that I was passionate about.
The second semester of my freshman year, I was required to take WRIT 101 (I didn’t even test out of 101!) which was taught by Professor Jean Arthur. Jean was the first person who had ever looked at my work, and told me “This is good! You should keep writing!” I thought to myself after that, “maybe I should switch my major to English Writing, then.” And so my affair with writing studies began.
Honestly, besides for my enrollment in WRIT 101, I would say that most of my scholarly growth my freshman year was stifled by having absolutely no academic drive— I was motivated to go to college primarily by a fear of leaving the education system. However, I had several err… out-of-classroom experiences that indicated to me that I was highly interested in the way that others expressed themselves and accomplished things, and I was in awe of how the world functioned around me.
I would say that my freshman year changed me from someone who looked for understanding based on my own experience, to someone who realized they didn’t know much about anything, but found patterns from observing things and was interested in learning how to write about them.
Sophomore Year, 2015-16: Things Get Better, But Also a Bit Worse
Having put freshman year behind me, and being behind in the amount of credits I should have had, I was feeling a little jaded. I was also a little rough around the edges from a summer of scraping by on minimum wage, loitering around town, writing poetry and stories, watching people and foreign films from the public library… you get the picture. The problem was, I had no idea that I was unaware of what it meant to be a “writing major”. I didn’t identify as a writer outside of the classroom— I made $9.00/hr at Sportsman’s Warehouse and I didn’t have a car. I had only gone back to class that fall because I knew dropping out of college meant no degree, that my high school advisor would be right… you get the picture. I wasn’t going to quit.
Fall semester of 2015 brought some changes my way. I did not adjust well; I was initially resistant to the idea of rhetoric that was introduced immediately in the class I took that autumn: WRIT 205. We read “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents”. I did not like Grant-Davie… and reflecting back, I don’t think I understood rhetoric in the sense that I do today until I took WRIT 376 more than a year later. Observing me attempt to digest rhetorical situations was like watching this child eat an ice cream cone—
things got sloppy. Fall semester brought me a new connection, though: my 205 professor Michelle Miley, who I believe was already the Writing Center director at that point.v Michelle encouraged me to keep writing, even though my subject material was dark, and heavily influenced by my experiences outside of campus. After a bout of rhabdomyolysis, and a botched spinal tap, my academic performance suffered and so did my mental health.
For WRIT 205, we were asked to schedule and attend an appointment at the Writing Center. I found out that there were students that actually gave a (expletive) about what they were doing in their course work. I had yet to reach the point of caring about writing studies after I pressed submit, or handed an essay over to my professor. I don’t remember the interaction that took place during my appointment, or who the student was that read my paper, but I remember shaping my writing voice aggressively afterwards. Rhetoric, or as I understood it at the time, became my whetstone. I only saw rhetoric as a way of making myself sound smarter than I actually was in order to get an A.
Some of the formative classes that I recall from sophomore year include LIT 285 (mythologies with Marvin), and WRIT 201 (college writing with Glen Chamberlain). What I recall from both of these classes were two vibrant and eccentric people who somehow had crafted a living doing what they loved. I was fascinated that there was an entire culture and discourse that enveloped writing studies, but felt that I was underrepresented as a black student, and as a black wannabe-writer. I didn’t feel a lot of self-worth as a student, and got the impression that a lot of my professors outside of the major in 100-200 level courses could not have cared less about whether I passed or failed.
Having taken LING 210, I experienced difficulty getting my advisor to answer questions I had about courses and general information, and felt that he had been inconsiderate and out of touch with the undergraduate experience. Our interactions became less and less helpful, culminating in this final semester, when he didn’t tell me about registering for graduation, wouldn’t respond to emails, and then tried sneaking into his office when he spotted me waiting outside with my graduation paperwork…
Junior Year 2016-2017: Things Get Better (For Real This Time)
My junior year of college was amazing. I won’t even lie. Over the summer, I had more of those out-of-classroom experiences that indicated to me I shouldn’t give a (expletive) what other people think about me. I realized that I was overly preoccupied with my racial identity, the opinions of others, and I needed to take care of myself mentally and physically. I found yoga and started dipping my toes into eastern philosophy. I found a window using these philosophies (Shaivism, Shaivism, Buddhism)— a window that allowed me to look back into my western society and understand the actions of those around me more clearly. I could identify my own biases. And hell— I noticed that rhetoric was doing the same thing!
These experiences brought me back into contact with my parents, how to understand their motivations and the motivations of others, and that I should forgive (or to try) when these motivations are harmful to me or others. And for god’s sake, I realized I NEEDED TO CARE ABOUT MY EDUCATION! I saw that caring would lead to greater enjoyment of the material, and would help me become more involved in the classroom, the readings… everything.
I took LING 210 again in the spring of , and passed with flying colors (if a B+ counts?). I found Dr. Gaines would care more, if I cared more about the class. Hmm! I became fascinated with the way that speech function as an extension of ourselves, and the way that rhetoric allows us to shape our image…
WRIT 376, which I took that spring also helped me with the creation of my writing voice (more on this later). Dr. Mark was a huge inspiration, from his experience as a yogi, to his knowledge of rhetoric and the different fields of writing studies that were available to someone with my background.
And for the first time, I had a professor who was telling me about career paths. The text from Dr. Mark’s class that I found helpful (and still have on my book shelf) is Academic Writing, by Janet Giltrow. I found that Giltrow helped me to see academic writing as a process that can be approached informally— the only thing that sets academic texts apart is their diction. The concepts are still the same. Game-changer!
WRIT 450, environmental rhetoric, taught by Dr. Kate Ryan, allowed me to expand my understanding of rhetoric. While Dr. Mark had focused on academic rhetorical studies, Kate ushered us into the world at large, and we were given the privilege to see how rhetoric functions as a tool for describing the relationship between the environment and humans, but also how objects in the environment are rhetorical as well! Nature’s processes can be viewed as expression, and as a desire to cultivate a “voice”; think natural selection.
Kate’s class allowed me to empathize with people who have different views on climate change, sustainability… essentially I was taught how to think rationally about the world at-large. The texts that I cite as being crucial to my understanding is Environmental Rhetoric and Ecologies of Place, published by Routledge. WRIT 373, with Dr. Kirk Branch, seemed to complete the holy trinity of rhetorical studies that I felt myself step into: public rhetorics. His main course reading, Rhetoric in Civic Life, was really helpful in clarifying the ways that rhetoric functions in our democracy.
Senior Year, 2018: The Final Countdown
Though I’ve excluded a lot of the things and events that made college such a fulfilling experience for me, I’m happy to have been a part of MSU’s English undergrad program.
As a last mention of the most influential courses I took this semester, Doug Down’s WRIT 371 allowed me to consider rhetorical aspects of digital writing, in multiple mediums. In addition, Kate’s capstone course, WRIT 494 allowed me to explore the benefits and disadvantages of a personal academic essay, while tying meditation and mindfulness into the class experience in a seamless fashion.
As a last note to whoever reads this,
The department loses in the end when you create and encourage an environment that is disconnected and anti-social. I’m bookish to a certain extent, but stop expecting students to be fully read when you first meet them. Instead open the doors to these worlds for them. There are some who harbor little patience for things and people that they cannot identify with. This attitude is passed on to your students.
Don’t be pedantic, and never be condescending. As an undergraduate and as a mixed-race student, I felt excluded from many class discussions, where professors either overlooked race as a factor, or verbally addressed the entire class as white, leaving me to wonder why I was there in the first place. I’ve been in classes where ebonics was mocked openly during class readings of texts like Huck Finn.
And stop pushing students to consider how they identify themselves racially— without indicating and discussing afterwards that this habit is an extremely dangerous and idiotic thing to do. Do we really think that LIT 300 (depending on who’s teaching) is enough to wash these tendencies away, without the help of other faculty members? And why would a white professor have the privilege to say ‘nigger’ in a classroom without first speaking with their students of black descent?
Even if the subject matter uses the n-word, you should not— not without speaking to students of black descent privately first. Not doing so is actually more offensive. Not every student will be so understanding. This happened to me in LIT 311, as well as WRIT 376. Though I was not present for the reading of Huck Finn, students in LIT 308 asked for the n-word to not be said in class. No anger was directed at the instructor. It’s simply communication.
I know, I know. This is a precarious situation when teaching African-American works, or other sources (like Twain) that use the n-word for whatever reason, and I hate to encourage the stigma around the term, but it’s the thought that counts. Our country is not at the point socially where, as a white instructor, you can say the n-word without discussing it first with the people it has historically been applied to. One day these imagined racial barriers will come down. But we need to take baby steps towards that goal. And as an instructor, you can be part of that progress!
Just talk to your students of color outside the classroom about the n-word in course material. It seems weird, but it’s easy, and it’s your responsibility to them and to the other students as well. I guarantee, if you do so, you will stand out in that student’s mind when they think of professors that helped shaped their academic careers.
On that note, racial identification is something that should be actively dismantled in the classroom and never encouraged. Not doing so is like a leftover from the days of being “separate but equal”. A quick survey of U.S. and world history should be enough to warrant the folly of this mindset, never mind the multiple readings from The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism that I was required to read. People of the same department need to be on the same page.
I’ve read and listened to linguistic teachings from LING 210 about ebonics, that generalize African-American speech in a completely untrue way; as in, the professor (purposefully or not) essentially stated that his linguistic rules concerning ebonics explain how all black people speak, and that the rules taught in the class are universal. Not true. Would the same be said about a white person from the Bronx being compared to the accent of a white man from Mississippi? Well, I doubt it because he told me otherwise.
When I mentioned to the instructor that I was able to converse in ebonics as well as “correct” English, I was told (and I paraphrase) that I was one of the few who are able to do so. Again untrue, as my own experience has shown me. Such schooling is damaging to race relations, and the comprehension of racial biases. I understand that we are in Montana, but that is no excuse to pretend that there are not people of color on campus.
One last thing: create more collaboration with other departments, especially when teaching classes like 494, or 371! I feel that this promotes networking between students, and maybe gives our English department more attention (funding?). After feeling the panic of graduation set in, I discovered that most writing jobs I applied for required experience I didn’t have, and focused on fields like advertising, graphic design, engineering, editing… all of these things were barely touched on except for my work in WRIT 371, WRIT 494, WRIT 376, and WRIT 450. I find this alarming for those students like myself who are not planning on graduate school. We as graduates must fend for ourselves, but we need a greater understanding of what we are facing when we graduate.
Our English department is great and full of amazing people. These were rare instances that occurred, which prompted me to speak up. These occurrences do not reflect on the character of the instructor or the integrity of the course material, but should be considered as the diversity of our campus continues to grow.
These things happen anywhere, and I hope that my comments spur greater communication between students and faculty. I hope that I have not purposefully excluded any important details, and that any damning language is recognized as a critique that I was given the opportunity to provide.
Thank you to everyone, in and outside of the classroom. who helped me get this far. MSU’s English department and all of its amazing faculty made me who I am today! I am excited for the future, and look forward to teaching English in Beijing this spring!
Palczewski, Helen Catherine. “Rhetoric in Civic Life.” Strata Publishing, 2nd Edition, 2016.
“Environmental Rhetoric and Ecologies of Place.” Routledge Publishing, 2013.
Giltrow, Janet. “Academic Writing.” Broadview Press, 2002.
Grant-Davie, Keith. “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents.” Rhetoric Review, Vol. 15, No. 2 Spring, 1997.
“The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism.” Norton and Company, 2nd Edition, 2010.
Twain, Mark. “Huckleberry Finn.” Dover Publications, 2005.