Some Final Thoughts: An Afterword

This is the final post in Ryan Sheldon 13’s series.

I’ll confess that writing this coda feels odd—in some ways, the process of synthesizing and distilling the opinions expressed in these interviews seems a bit transgressive. It’s as though I’m adulterating the voices of the respondents by examining them under my lens. But I’m confident that the writers who participated in this project have spoken for themselves quite well, and what’s more, I guarantee you that each one of them could continue to talk at length about any number of the issues and debates considered during the course of this project. I wish I could give them more ample and adequate space to keep these discussions going, and I’m so thankful for all they’ve contributed.

In the interests of honoring my own academic intentions in exploring student reading habits, I hope you’ll permit me to draw a few connections. Perhaps the most prominent sentiment articulated through this survey is that many students don’t identify as writers in any grand or professional sense of the word—the respondents did not embrace the identity of writer with a capital “W.” At the same time, however, they exhibited a highly professional approach to their writing and their studies, regardless of context—personal, academic, satirical, critical, what have you.

By and large, the writers I’ve talked to over the course of this project exhibited great humility. They’re ambitious and accomplished, and if they identify as writers of a kind, it’s out of love for their craft, not for want of any external distinction.

What was particularly fascinating and affirming for me was that all of my respondents emphasized the importance of reading as a means to self-development. Both poets discussed self-edification through their own individual study of poetry—Glenn specifically used the phrase “self-training” after taking us through his first experience of poetic identification; Peter mentioned that writers like John Ashbery and Zach Schomburg helped him to cast off his literary inhibitions and push his own work in new directions. We’ve seen a lot of attention given to the formative influence of existential literature, and still more to the idea that what we study in an academic context can and does have real resonance for us. I think we might apply Alex’s comment on classical texts—that “there is always something…interesting going on when humans write about human things”—to literature in general. This fundamental human quality is what keeps us reading, and in the case of our bloggers and essayists and poets, writing. It’s what makes existential literature of any stripe compelling.

Reading offers us the potential to define and instruct ourselves inside and outside the classroom. You needn’t take the wistful, seasoned commentary of the n+1 editors at face value—after conducting these surveys, it’s clear to me that there really is a tremendous amount at stake in the endeavor of reading to learn and to teach oneself even as one is educated at the collegiate level. Higher education involves both passive and active modes of study, and this project has taught me that reading definitely falls within the latter province.

What should the writing tutor do with this information? For my part, I’ve taken to using close reading as an instructional technique in the workshop with great success; elevating student work to the level of the primary text and deconstructing it as such allows tutees to approach their pieces with renewed self-respect, confidence, and (under the guidance of qualified tutors) authority.

Provided they’re adequately supported, students can become their own personal editors. As I see it, we as tutors must ensure greater proficiency in reading in order to empower our tutees outside of the workshop; if reading allows for literary self-direction, it must be given equal emphasis in writing instruction.

I would recommend that writing mentors read at least one extracurricular book with their students over the course of the semester. Alternatively, it might greatly improve the Ford Seminar to conduct a similar semester-long class project in which various modes of reading are examined with respect to a preselected text and in tandem with practical and situational teaching exercises (for example, in Freshman FYI classes). Through a firsthand study of self-edification through reading, we might glean further insight into the ways in which we develop as intellectual citizens, too.

Finally, I’d like to offer a word of thanks to the Ford Fellows and Anne Greene for allowing me to conduct this project and for all their invaluable assistance and tutelage over the course of the 2011 Fall semester. I could not have done it without them, and I owe them an ineffable debt of gratitude.

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