Writing Lessons: Ann Swindell

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In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Ann Swindell, a graduate of the MFA program at Seattle Pacific University, and a visiting instructor of English at Wheaton College. You can follow Ann on Twitter @annswindell—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

Swindell-177 copyIt’s the papers that get to me. I assign them, require them, and then stare at them dully once they land on my desk. Because they’ve got to be graded, and no one is going to grade them but me. I care but procrastinate, ignoring the stack of twenty papers that always seem to follow me around, puppy-like, wanting attention. My husband has to move papers off of the kitchen table and the passenger seat in my car.

Having to grade papers is like having to do the dishes; it’s dirty work, but the outcome is important.  I’ve become a little dotty about grading, though. I’m a writing professor, and pedagogically, I’ve decided that grading papers may be the most important thing I do. Because these students are becoming writers, here. And I’m the only audience most of them have. I am the sole person who cares about the words they have pushed together, the only one who will give their essays any attention and feedback. And I think they deserve to be taken seriously.

They deserve to be taken seriously because my English 103 students are writers. They are writing. Many of them are mediocre writers, and many of them will squeak out of my course and never look back. A few of them will fall in love with the process and the sudden epiphanies that writing offers, and they will stick. But I don’t grade diligently even for those diamonds in the proverbial rough.

I grade thoughtfully because attending to the writing of others reminds me of why writing matters to me, of why writing matters at all. It humanizes us. Words can be linked together like chain mail or like filigree, and how these students learn to craft sentences is one way that they are learning to become more fully human. They are learning how make their thoughts intelligent, and graceful, even, on the page. They are learning how to communicate as adults in a communication-drenched world, and it matters that they know how to do so with wisdom and power. As the singular audience member for the papers they spend hours of their lives crafting, I want to help them get better.

But grading also helps me. The gaps I discover in their writing—the ways young students sidestep problems in their thoughts or with their words—mirror my tendency to ignore my own inadequacies as a writer. The occasional lyrical sentence—one often sandwiched between yawn-inducing, simple phrasing—is enough to spark the hope that even I, doused as I am in academia, still have some imaginative fire left in me from my years as an MFA student.

Grading papers helps me write more thoughtfully, and it helps my students learn to write better. I may dislike the time it takes to trudge through college essays, but I love the outcome. Like many things in life, the reward comes slowly, but surely after all.

To submit your own essay to Writing Lessons, read our guidelines here. The series will return in the new year.