The Center for Humanities (CFH) hosted “Write Now: Genres of Writing – Opportunities for Self-Transformation” on Dec. 12, 2017. This workshop, geared towards junior faculty and graduate students, offered attendees the opportunity to rethink our relationship with writing so that it can become a more generative and productive practice. Rather than focusing solely on our output as academic writers, we were asked to consider our practices and the different types of writing we engage in to find more enjoyment in this task, allowing for exploration and aiding in clarifying ideas.
This workshop was led by Dr. Vincent Colapietro, who has been hired as an adjunct professor of the humanities through a joint effort with the departments of English, Philosophy, Writing and Rhetoric and CFH. Though Dr. Colapietro has a stunning body of published work, he concieved of this workshop as “academic self-care” rather than adding to the pressure to publish or perish that is persistent for junior faculty and graduate students. His insight into the process of writing, which he presents as conjunctive with the process of reading, and as something that is essential to our intellectual pursuits, made the discussion pleasant and convivial, rather than a stressful reminder of what is yet to be completed.
One theme that Dr. Colapietro returned to throughout the workshop is the idea that writing need not be drudgery and certainly shouldn’t always be repetitive. Even in terms of the academic essay there are many genres with which we engage and we should consider it as a dialogue. Our writing may never be finished or perfect, but it allows us to live the question and linger over our thoughts. Whether we set out to write in imitation or exploration, or even as a committed task that follows a formula of sorts, we should imagine sending every piece out into the world. Dr. Colapietro reminded us “a piece of writing is an intimate letter to a stranger” and encourages every piece to be written with a reader in mind. Rather than being written to an abstract “ideal reader,” he asked if writing to our aunt in Nova Scotia would elicit our best writing; whoever we imagine, the character to whom we address ourselves should help forge our ideas and our writing personas.
We were also reminded to seek solitude and quiet in our writing, to set aside time as a part of the work day to complete writing. A practical tip that Dr. Colapietro offered is to revise conference papers immediately after the presentation. He prefers revising on the flight home, when we are most excited about the idea and have the feedback from our peers clearest in our minds. This allows him to seize the opportunity of conference presentations “maximally.”
Several English PhD students and candidates were in attendance at the workshop and each took something different away from Dr. Colapietro.
Catherine Winters said that the experience not only provided her with space to reflect on her own practice of writing, but our relationship to the paper and monograph as a field. With a focus on contemporary multimodal American literature, she often considers how the book functions as a concept in her work. Dr. Colapietro’s statements about academic writing lead her to question whether we, as academics, think of our writing as in conversation with others or merely a means of conveying ideas, linking to the idea of the book as experience or repository. The workshop presented itself not only as a way for her to move forward in her writing, but also to rethink what our writing is and does in connection to our attitudes towards books and literature.
Beth Leonardo Silva, who focuses on representations of siblings in the Victorian novel, found Dr. Colapietro’s attention to how the philosophical can inform the practical to be especially compelling. Offering inspiring quotes from authors, often with his own insightful qualifications, Dr. Colapietro reminded faculty and graduate students that the time to write will not find itself: it must be made. Acknowledging how hectic life can be, he encouraged attendees to realize that the goal is to make each version of your idea or article better, not perfect. Especially relevant to those about to begin the dissertation, he warned that the more time and energy you invest in a piece of writing, the more ego you invest as well. He suggested that students seek feedback before they feel it is ready, and before they feel too invested to be open to what that feedback has to offer.
Kara Watts found Dr. Colapietro’s prescient reminder that our relationship to language is never purely instrumental a particularly valuable one. As graduate students and junior faculty are pressed to write academic articles, books, or dissertations, the idea that language has consequence can often be lost in favor of the larger ideas these works engage. The workshop was also a collegial forum on the weighted divide in demands on graduate and junior faculty work. Writing and research tend to be placed on the back burner over other immediate commitments to service and teaching, for instance, and is considered the only facet of faculty life that is so-called “me time.” The reminder that our writing in academia is not selfish, but has driving impact on all our other tasks, from teaching to serving the Humanities as a whole, was a refreshing thought as we close the fall semester.
Molly Volanth Hall, whose work focuses on environment and war in British modernist writing, found the reminder that, as much as academia is about balancing your time and responsibilities, the need to carve out time for your research is not simply important as one among many elements—but indeed the baseline factor in the vitality of all you do. Dr. Colapietro asked us to think about the way in which our teaching, service, and learning all flounder and are put at risk by not taking the time to continue to develop ourselves as scholars—to write. He encouraged us to claim agency over our own research—making a commitment to create a time and space for writing when it is most needed and often—not simply after the semester is over. As an extension of his philosophy on writing as self care, she also found it useful that he asked writer/scholars to think about the way in which writing and reading often form a “dialogic relationship” with each other—as what we write leads us back into our reading and research, and our reading compels us to stop and write. The most valuable takeaway for Hall, was Dr. Colapietro’s emphasis that if you complete a piece of writing and you have not discovered something in the process, you are doing it wrong.
All the graduate students in attendance were glad to take the time to consider practices of writing and take a few hours away from the end of the semester rush.