Editor, City Tech Writer (2006-2014)
The greatness in a piece of writing lies in its author’s courage. As soon as students get a glimpse of that truth, they want in. They really want in; they want to write even though it’s very difficult. They see that rising to the challenge of saying what you’re thinking is not just a way to feel alive, but a way to trade a dreary, oppressive set of obligations and requirements for a chance at human dignity, something we all crave.
I know this about students because I was a student once myself of course, high school, college, and more. As a professor, I knew from the start that I could tap into that great well of ganas—desire. And when I did tap into it wherever I taught, and I got bold audacious writing, I wanted to publish it and did. What? Put that paper in a drawer to wilt and die? Terrible. It was one thing for the hermit Emily Dickinson to put all her spectacular poems in her dresser drawer. Her father went to Yale and was a U.S. Congressman. Someday the poems would be found, published, and venerated, and she’d be lionized. Our students don’t have illustrious wealthy parents. Our students are the children of immigrants, workaholic immigrants, likely as not. My own father’s education stopped when he was ten in Turkey and he was a workaholic all his life, beloved but still fighting the famine from his childhood. Frankly, even an excellent paper probably would get lost, it wouldn’t even get to the drawer. Probably it would get tossed in the first place with a vast messy pile of schoolwork from a year of stress, sleep deprivation, and pressure; for our students not only go to class but work long hours at their jobs, and then have hours of family responsibility at home.
Let’s talk about City Tech Writer. Well, first John Jay’s Finest. As an adjunct at John Jay College one year, I submitted seven of my students’ papers and when Frederick Rusch, the editor, published them all in one issue, he went on to ask me to take over as editor; that’s how I learned to edit a college’s journal of distinguished undergraduate writing in all disciplines. When I came to City Tech as a full-time professor, it was only a matter of a few years before I started City Tech Writer here. Most colleges in the U.S. have a literary magazine with appealing poems, stories and artwork, but only a handful, like John Jay College and City Tech have something very different, a journal of excellent papers by students in all disciplines, nominated by their professors. I can’t begin to suggest how much work it is to edit such a journal, but publishing students’ courageous breakthroughs—giving students a chance to hear their own voices—is a gift beyond measure, and not just to the students. It’s an educator’s dream, really.
In my last ten years of teaching at City Tech my students’ writings have won 115 cash prizes and/or been published. They get it that writing can open doors to a kind of power never considered before; they write about a stint at Riker’s, about being home alone caring for an infant, being angry at a sibling or a parent or the police. Or write about, as Carole Harris’s student did, feeling the joy and accomplishment of becoming his grandmother’s caretaker; she has dementia and had smeared her feces all over the wall. It’s not just courage but joy in finding a way to be human that’s authentic, and spelling it out. And the joy comes in many kinds, running a psychiatric office in Russian Brighton Beach, or working at a festive gym catering to small children’s crazy wonderful birthday parties—or comprehensively exploring and illuminating the business of being a craft beer industry entrepreneur, or evaluating the public health menace of tuberculosis in Brooklyn today.
In short, the courage is not just about expressing painful or unpopular ideas or feelings, it is about facing the dense inexhaustible complexity of reality, and with high energy, making that reality clear and coherent to the reader. All papers, no matter the course and discipline, are essays, a form which has come down to us from Michel de Montaigne in the 1600s. But what does that word essay mean? It’s from the French word, essayer, TO TRY. In inventing the essay, Montaigne said he would TRY to capture reality, or a quandary, or a phenomenon, or master a confusion. Ultimately, that’s the courage in great writing, the writer’s courage TO TRY to describe, communicate, evaluate and analyze a portion of the physical and emotional world. The reader feels the seriousness of that bold attempt and is dazzled by it, and is reassured to find hope once again in the always crazily difficult and complicated human condition.