Practice Makes Perfect: A Student Perspective on Mason’s Culture of Writing

Writing Practice

by: Mikal Lambdin

Mikal is a senior studying English at George Mason.  She previously worked with WAC to create disciplinary writing guides for student use. Mikal is graduating in May 2015! To reach her, please contact wac@gmu.edu.

When first asked to write a blog post about my experience with Mason’s “culture of writing,” I will admit that my first question was “What is a culture of writing?” In response, Dr. Michelle LaFrance, Director of Mason’s Writing Across the Curriculum program, showed me the WAC program website. It reads:

At Mason, the WAC program upholds a campus-wide commitment to student writers, writing-rich coursework, and writing in the disciplines. . . Central to our program’s mission is the belief that when students are given frequent opportunities for writing across the university curriculum, they think more critically and creatively, engage more deeply in their learning, and are better able to transfer what they have learned from course to course, context to context.      

Looking back at my own undergraduate experiences, I can clearly see that Mason’s culture of writing had an impact on both my overall education and my development as a writer in many ways. Instructional faculty, academic departments, and higher administration at Mason all did their part to foster the idea that our campus is a community of writers and that students must be supported in order to develop as writers, especially through explicit attention to writing in the disciplines. From the kinds of assignments I was given to the different teaching approaches faculty employed, each of my professors challenged me as a writer. In this piece, I hope to shed light on how being surrounded by a culture of writing as an undergraduate facilitated my growth as a writer, thinker, and student.

Becoming aware of the rhetorical decisions that all authors must make represented the first substantial challenge that I faced as a writer. ENGH 380, Introduction to Writing and Rhetoric, pushed me to think actively about why I wrote the way that I do, as rhetoric is inextricable from writing practice. The assignments for the course were more rigorous and demanding than any I had ever been given. The class opened my eyes to the power of writing as a tool of rhetoric, as I learned how to synthesize complex information and draw ties between seemingly unrelated topics. My favorite assignment was a rhetorical analysis where I applied Aristotle’s theory of drama from the Poetics to a film review of the recent adaptation of the musical Les Miserables. It was in ENGH 380 that I came to understand the doors that rhetoric could open and the discoveries that I could make as a writer by wielding this new knowledge.

Throughout my undergraduate career as an English major, I have completed countless writing assignments. My lower-level courses required analyses of a specific text or topic, while some included very particular types of research to support my arguments. As I began to take higher-level courses – many of them focused on rhetoric and rhetorical theory – the assignments became longer and more in-depth. The research components, such as the integration of sources and evidence, grew in both complexity and rigor. These papers almost always analyzed the scholarly positions of authors in a text, requiring me to use my growing awareness of particular rhetorical theories as lenses for my analyses. Surprisingly, I thrived when faced with lengthy essays that gave me more room to experiment and express myself, yet struggled with shorter analyses. With the latter, professors often seemed to expect a level of depth and insight that I found difficult to achieve considering the limited parameters of the assignment. Understanding faculty expectations for these writing tasks challenged me to think critically about how different texts are composed and structured, and also about the decisions that I could make as a writer to more effectively respond to them.

From my initial general education courses to my disciplinary rhetoric courses, my professors sent the same message: writing matters. The genres, norms, and conventions changed (sometimes dramatically) from class to class, but most of my professors were alike in having clear standards – as well as very high expectations – for their students’ writing. Faculty expressed the value they place on writing in different ways: some offered extensive feedback and multiple revisions, some gave very clear guidelines for each assignment, and some simply assigned multiple papers. In spite of these differences, most were unwavering in their determination to help us become more advanced and rhetorically savvy writers with every assignment.

The professors who helped me the most as a writer were the ones who tailored their instructions to each student’s needs and interests. There are many “right ways” to write (although there are plenty of wrong ways). Correspondingly, there are many ways to teach writing. Students approach writing with different background knowledge and levels of natural ability. We have often been exposed to diverse methods of writing instruction. Some students need additional structure in order to succeed. Some thrive when given freedom. I seemed to do my best work when a professor allowed my individual vision to mesh with the broader assignment, even if that meant going in a new or risky direction. Professors who took the time to understand my unique writing style and approach, and consequently permitted me to take risks, understood that following more traditional models of writing did not necessarily result in a stronger finished product. These professors knew how to uphold their standards, values, and central messages when teaching writing, but also knew how to give students a little flexibility to learn and to write their own way.

With writing, as with anything else, practice makes perfect. George Mason’s culture of writing has played a vital part in my education and growth by giving me the opportunity to practice, practice, and practice some more. Extensive revision, feedback, and exposure to different genres of writing have made a real difference in how I approach each new writing task, helping me to push the writing skills I brought with me to Mason and to foster new abilities through the repeated act of writing itself. Although teaching writing can be time consuming and multilayered, I’d like faculty to know that it is well worth their effort. The skill of polished and effective communication through writing cannot be undervalued. It is necessary for practically every aspect of life, especially as students join their professional communities. Extensive writing practice has also enhanced my confidence about writing in general. Mason’s culture of writing has driven my success in so many ways, and it has equipped me for life both inside and outside of the classroom.

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