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Writing as a Transformative Experience


Hector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners.

Ordinarily, when speaking about the teaching of writing, I'd address my remarks to an audience of my peers—teachers of English (Lit too), and composition and rhetoric teachers. But I've chosen to do otherwise, feeling that I want to try to communicate directly with you, instead.

My reasoning is simple: the teaching of writing allows for a particular way into a student; it's a way of seeing a student quite differently and through language— the student's language. Language is a gateway to the soul, one of just a couple, which requires that I too change my language in order to address you, an audience quite different from that found in the journals about the "craft," more inclined to "theorize" and conjure the ghosts of Bahtin and Vygotsky ad nauseam.

I'm writing like this because I've been looking into students' souls for a good part of my life and may have by now learned a few things about 18-22 year olds. I've definitely learned how the world we live in affects their dreaming, that daunting challenge of locating one's self in the spectacle. Idiosyncratic academic language impedes my need to speak to you cleanly about matters of the heart.

"You see a lot," says a young first year student leaning over my desk, her head resting on the palm of her hand; with the other she plays with her blond hair that falls gently over her shoulders. She's looking down at her essay, doodling, sometimes note taking. She never raises her eyes to mine. "You see me ... like very accurately," she informs me, still not looking directly at me. She's crossing a shaky bridge; she's divulging something of herself, testing the water. Can I trust him? she's wondering. What will the journey be like? Will he last? She's asking to get closer. She grins, eyes still downcast, her blond hair framing her angular face, her sky blue eyes I could see only in flashes. "I ... I think I'm going to be with you for awhile," she says. "Beyond this class, I mean," she says, ensuring that I get it. "Awhile," she repeats and giggles nervously and finally glances up at me as if peaking through a curtain open just enough for her to see my immediate reaction, a vibe of reassurance.

What I see in students today is not what I saw 28 years ago—not even what I saw 10 years ago, even 5. Not even what I saw when I published my first book on this very subject, back in 2001, a lifetime ago it seems, Life-Affirming Acts. Times have changed and there's great anxiety among 18-24 year olds, I'm afraid.

Writing is transformative. That's been my experience. Writers write to inquire, to dig deep into an unknown. Writers like to feel as if the experience of writing changes them. A young writer, however, hesitates because transformations like this are like shedding a skin, a layer, something personal changing into something else and the world suddenly looks different.

An undocumented worker may be at any point deported, in return for his hard work and contribution to the American economy, writes a student.

Another writes, An eerie peace that is rarely found on these city streets holds steady as the sun begins its ascent over this little section of Stone Town known as Vuga.

For starters, writes yet another, a person does not merely place herself with the group of disposable people. We, the people as a whole, are the ones that force others to become indistinguishable.

Transformations. Confessions and transformations. Today, though, the major obstacle for creative, even disruptive transformation is fear. Students carry lots of fears, more then I've ever experienced in them before. Are the student writers, above, divulging something of themselves that they need to express, even in the dreaded "college essay"? Do we who reside behind the hallowed ivy provide the safety needed for students to transcend their fears, express themselves, and launch into a journey of self-discovery?

There are two types of people—and writers: when you come to the edge of a pool, an ocean, a lake, do you tip your toes in first or do you just jump in? That's it, two kinds of people. Everything in-between is trying to accept one or the other. Students are everything in-between. Fear is the cause. Fear of not being right. Fear of rejection—by peers and professors. Fear that not understanding something means you're stupid. Fear. Fear and performance anxiety. Fear that asking a question—is it the right question?- may lead to raised eyebrows. And the worst fear of all—fear that I will amount to nothing, that I won't have a good life, that I'll make the wrong choice. Fear that I will always be anonymous.



What if I can't get a job? What if no one wants me?

Fear: a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being  afraid; concern or anxiety; solicitude; something that causes feelings of dread or apprehension; something a person is afraid of.

Let's take a closer look.

Much of the grammatical—syntactical misfiring I see in students' writing has little to do with not understanding how to write in American English and everything to do with fears. Whole essays, sentences—all are weighed down by the anxious need for institutional approbation.

The academy, often, has a difficult time creating hospitable environments for expressive writing to take shape. This is because the various disciplines—Mathematics, Economics, the Sciences, the Humanities—compete with one another, intellectually and literally, and devise idiosyncratic languages as ways to raise a draw bridge, closing themselves off behind high walls and moats. Moat language. Students that want to bust in must beat at that door with the refined language of their chosen discipline. This takes time—and a lot of anxiety.

Adding to the anxiety is grading. Students tend to look at the grade rather then the subject of their paper. They wear grades as if they're personality markers. Only the most mature of writers can transcend this compartmentalization. This is why I don't grade students, rather we have conversations about themselves and their writing, and only when they feel comfortable, will I ask them, what grade do you think you deserve? Students prefer this method; however, it's time consuming in an age where higher education is looking for ways to cut costs.

Writing is intimacy; the institution is not warm and fuzzy, however. In the way of honest, true writing is an institution that mirrors the vituperative socio-economic model(s) driving our culture. It's about performance and accolades; it's about achievement, economies of scale and tight administration of resources. None of this helps students write; all of this frightens students who feel they're working less to find themselves and more towards gaining entrance into systems that require not individuals, but rather, nodes that can change a tire, a spark plug, a wire - mechanics for a socio-economic conveyor belt that promises illusory success. Writing about this and writing with students in this climate is tough. And what I inevitably see are students' souls dying to come out to create and speak, but held down by a system's need to feed itself. What I see, too, is how emotionally wrenching this colonization of the human spirit is to a young heart - and to mine, which is not so young.

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