Writing Anxiety

writing anxietyAfter I attended two conferences back-to-back in late April/early May, my semester swirled around me like a fierce tornado until about a week ago when I was deposited back down on the ground, classes done, curricula written and re-written, loose ends tied up, and an overwhelming sense of relief and exhaustion from having survived my first year as a community college English professor.

With that in mind, I have ideas to process from these conferences that were never written down and explored. So, although it’s about six weeks later at this point, I am going to talk academic/education conferences for a couple of posts to get these thoughts down and out of my brain space.

At AERA (American Educational Research Association), I was a discussant for a panel called “Adolescents and High School Problems.” You can read about how I structured my discussant’s remarks in this post here, but the entire experience was very worthwhile. As you know, I am an untenured professor, I am two years into the seven year tenure track and I need to experience, try, and document any and every academic activity that I complete towards earning tenure which is why I initially accepted this discussant role. I found it to be a challenging and interesting exercise, and while I am not sure my comments were helpful to every individual on our panel, I do know that they were helpful to one.

One young woman presented her work on homeless youth. Her paper–out of the four–was the least academic in terms of the data it presented, its organization, the quality of its writing, and its overall tone. Additionally (and you can see how she got my goat here), after pages and pages of describing homeless high school youth, her conclusions were full of teacher-bashing statements like, “If teachers would just take the time to get to know their students. . .” and other insulting comments of that nature. By the end of reading her paper, it was like I had murdered someone –it was COVERED with red writing, slashes, exclamation points, and “STOP THE TEACHER BASHING!” written at the end.

I did not intend to give it back to her. That wasn’t in my discussant job description.

When I gave her feedback during my discussant presentation, I could not NOT bring this up. Besides the fact that I found her anti-teacher sentiment insulting, there was a much larger problem in that her conclusions did not (in the least) match her data. Nowhere did her data point to the teachers as the solution to homeless teen’s challenges in secondary education–the teens themselves said that coaches and the alternative school structure made the greatest difference in their academic lives. I called her candidly on this disconnect. But the real question was, why hadn’t her adviser (in her doctorate program) done that already?

While I was speaking, she wrote furiously. After I spoke, she came up to me and asked for more feedback. Then she started to tear up and was on the verge of crying. “I really struggle with writing,” she said. “I know my writing doesn’t make sense, but I don’t know how to make it make sense. Can you give me any more feedback? I need help.”

Wow. I was thrown. Here was a young woman at the END of her doctoral program who was having a literal breakdown over her struggles with writing. Shouldn’t she have gotten writing down by now? Why hadn’t others helped her? Why hadn’t her professors called her on her shitty writing? Was I just lucky that I have had professors who did? I didn’t know what to offer her, so I told her that I had her paper upstairs in my hotel room that it had more comments on it, and that I’d be happy to give it to her. She came upstairs with me and we stood in the hall for about 1/2 hours and I went over her paper page-by-page with her, talking about grammar, structure, tone, and reiterating the wise words from my stellar doctoral adviser Lesley Bartlett, “Show, don’t tell me. Where’s your data here?”

I think she left feeling simultaneously overwhelmed, relieved, and terrified. She had so much work to do.

But what surprised me was that I felt like a real professor, like I had a body of knowledge and understanding that I could share with others. I felt professorial.

That was one of the first times I have felt that way.

Besides my own moment of clarity about my ability to do this job as a professor, what really stuck with me was the writing anxiety this young woman had. I have seen this before–a lot–but mainly from high school students and community college students, but they are the populations I have taught. I didn’t think that at the end of your doctoral career you would STILL have major issues with your writing. It made me sad and disappointed for her and whatever institution she attends. Why is writing not explicitly addressed/taught in graduate programs? Why aren’t their writing centers for grad students? I guess it’s assumed that you should be able to glean what you need from others at that point in your education, but I can’t help but feel that something is missing and while some are figuring it out, others are left flailing. And I don’t like to see people flail.