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The most important ideas I present to my students on the first day of class is how incredibly difficult good writing is and that I, too, am just a dedicated student trying to master this art form. Essays are not speeches written down, I tell them, and good writing is not the product of some innate, mysterious talent given to the few among us. No. Writing is hard, mindful work, the results of which are promised to no one, not even professional writers who bask in the glow of their computer screens as their muses slowly strum their golden harps beside them.
The student writer must learn to value the attributes derived from self-imposed discipline and directed toil; while she learns to wrestle with her most base and banal reflections as well as her most elevated, prayerful inferences, her imagined ideal of who she thinks she is will change. She must be willing to visit and revisit the text until the writing instrument, be it pen or keyboard, becomes an extension of a transmutable self set directly in the fictional persuasive appeals about race, class, gender, and sexual orientations. In fact, the real-world, social contexts in which the average writer finds herself, posing daily for selfies to upload on Facebook and Twitter, while being barraged with streaming advertisements and campaign promises, keeps her “connected” at only an arm’s length away: the millennial student is inspired to write and critique more than any other generation.
Yet, one might argue that there is little substance found in virtual exchanges. An effortless grazing of the eyes abounds some might further assert, but more often than not flashes of insights are occurring about American culture across an almost endless array of displays. What is there then that is captured at the end of a synaptic jump but the beginnings of ponderances derived in a few measured milliseconds of raw, immutable truths derived from sheer emotions tested against a more chartered course: verbal and visual literacies often illuminate the thematic discourses found in the analysis of characters, which in turn inspires passionate, robust discussions.
Therefore, adopting texts that offer a basic visual literacy is an integral part of my pedagogy. I enjoy workshops because such environments often give students a measure of confidence that is sometimes difficult to summon in a traditional classroom, especially the most reserved students of which I was once counted among. After I assign each student to a group, I am always pleased at how an analysis of a short story, an essay, a photograph, or an advertisement can teach students lessons about the world and how they might overcome it or succinctly find themselves constructed within it. Good writing, I tell them, depends on how closely they are willing to draw towards a lifelong reflection of who they think they are, fulfilling the beginnings of that great Delphic injunction to “Know Thyself.” Being a part of this reflective process is an invaluable, redemptive reward and one of the primary reasons why I teach today.
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