My research journey actually did start with my freshman writing class in undergrad, and it affected my every academic and professional move thereafter. The topic was food studies, and the first assignment I had was to write about my favorite food. I was a terrified, exhausted pre-med freshman, and was expecting to have some difficult, stodgy writing assignment. Instead, I wrote about the strawberries that never grew in my parents’ backyard, and the little farm stand the next town over where we would get the seeds from. (The strawberries never grew because the fat squirrel- affectionately named MF, or “Mommy’s Friend”- always ate anything that came up.)
My professor recognized the farm stand, and it started off a wonderful mentorship and friendship, where he graciously made room for my growth in his classroom. He also thought my squirrel joke was funny. He convinced me to change my major to English (over pizza on Arthur Avenue- who could say no?) and prompted a significant grappling of a nuanced past that I was previously unable and unwilling to see. He was the one who made all my writing become deeply personal as a student. He took very literally “reading the self as a text,” in his classroom. We explicitly discussed the historical, social, and political implications of what we eat, how we eat it, and who we eat with, which squarely placed my classmates outside our small childhood bubble and into the world at large.
After my major-changing writing class, I became a writing tutor, and noticed that many other students were dealing with similar affronts to everything they knew about themselves. But, it was one student in particular who really changed how I saw writing to be a personal tool for growth. He was in a class called “Death as a Fact of Life,” and he was asked to write about someone who died. He sat with me for an hour to write about the death of his mother. The tutoring session turned more into a grief counseling session for the student, where he shared that his mother recently and suddenly died, making the assignment all the more raw. This willingness to “lay it all down on the line,” or even to take on “themselves as texts” that Kynard describes allowed for the release of his emotions, and allowed me, a stranger in a cubicle, to effectively make space for it.
This session, and many others like it, stuck with me. I began to follow the writing professors around- stalking their syllabi to see if I had the opportunity to tutor students in a more meaningful way, or if a final paper or writing prompt would bring them to the writing center. This obsession turned into a research grant where I worked with a writing professor and a psychology professor examining meaning-making in drafts of freshman writing classes. I took both a qualitative and quantitative approach- choosing key words that indicated growth, as well as taking the symbolism and meaning from the actual story they were telling, and how these developed through the drafts. The grant was small, and only lasted the summer, but it was enough to cover what I would have made at my restaurant job and then some, so I was thrilled to not have to go back home for the summer. I examined two classes, in total about 30 students, and their drafts that they submitted throughout the semester. All the students needed to agree to hand over their work to me for the sake of the project, and some were even excited to hear that they would be part of the project. It turned into about a 40 page paper, where the results confirmed what I had originally hoped- that students who put it all on the line were more likely to show meaning-making in their final drafts.
After this experience, I met with my freshman writing professor, who suggested I look at Narrative Medicine, since I was becoming so interested in the personal narrative and expressions during times of transition. At the time, I didn’t have plans to go graduate school right after undergrad, but this professor always pointed me in the right direction. In this way, my initial research interest that first started with writing about my own personal experiences, brought me to teaching writing myself, and hopefully to do it full-time. I strongly feel that this is a calling for me, and every step brings me a little closer to understanding where I should be.
I try to invite the students to bring in their personal lives as much as possible in the writing class. I teach business writing for City Tech, so the material itself is incredibly dry. In order to keep it interesting, I ask the students to talk about the jobs they have now, or their ideal jobs they are working towards getting in the future. Their final paper is a problem they see in the workplace, and I really challenge them to identify something that angers them about the workplace- something they feel passionate about. The students who end up doing this always have a better finished product, however, they do say that the assignment was difficult. I think it’s important for them to identify the problem and then ask the questions “how can I fix this?” in a way that challenges their original idea of a thesis statement, where they need to have an answer before they even ask the question. It sparks true research, true curiosity, and true problem-solving in a real-world situation.
When it comes to future classes, I love the idea of taking something so universal- like eating, family, music, humor- and using it as the crux of a writing course. These topics are easy for a student to identify with, and to begin the process of self-reflection, while also pulling the topic outside themselves in order to objectively analyze it. Additionally, I think these kinds of topics ask the students to expand on their thinking of research being something cold, informal, or impersonal.