Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Student Newspaper as an Exemplar of Student Writing

School started here last Wednesday. Although it comes out each weekday and is free, today is the first day I picked up a copy of our student newspaper, the Daily Illini, which I read over my lunch break. This past weekend I had read a book review on Francine Prose’s new book, Reading Like a Writer and I thought the review was an interesting piece, especially from the vantage of what we instructors want students to do with their writing. That piece helped to crystallize what I’ve been coming to realize for some time about how my blogging is helping me to appreciate the creative work of others.

My sense is that most faculty, especially those who don’t teach writing (in other words the vast majority of us) don’t sample much student writing outside of the courses they teach. Mostly they read professional writing, either from within their discipline or from more general interest outlets and so probably have a tendency to compare student writing to that as opposed to comparing student writing to other student writing. One place where student writing is on showcase is the student newspaper. And though for years I’ve been on again and off again reading the DI, today was my first day of looking at it from the perspective of displaying student writing rather than from the vantage of learning the news or seeing student opinion on some issues.

We in the campus IT organization, occasionally the object of stories in the DI, are generally concerned about the accuracy of these stories and whether the reporters have done sufficient homework ahead of time before writing the stories. Reading the paper with that thought in mind makes for a less than satisfying experience. The pieces seemingly fall short of the ideal on a regular basis. So I was surprised today when reading from this other perspective how much I enjoyed what I read and how I felt about these students/fledgling columnists in their personal trajectory toward getting to being mature writers with their own distinct voices.

This is the Opinion Page if you’d like to take a look. There is one unsigned editorial and there columns. I believe all the columnists are undergrads, though this Web reproduction of the paper doesn’t include that information. I don’t know any of these students personally and as far as I know I’ve not read any of their work before.

The column by Brian Pierce is extraordinarily well written, compelling to read from both a personal and an educational perspective. It’s the type of piece that I think could be reprinted in other student newspapers nationally, possibly in other types of publications as well. I did wonder as I read it, since it is so personal, whether columns of this sort belong on the opinion page. I suppose this is a more general issue with student newspapers – the better writing is likely to be personal because then the students will be writing about what they know – but for it to be newsworthy there must be some generality about it. In this particular case, I’m glad they included the piece in the paper because it is such a good read, and I’m not aware of an obvious alternative outlet. In any event, I will be looking for Brian’s future columns to see if he can keep up with the high level he has set with this piece.

The column by Tyler Friederich is also well argued and has a certain personal aspect to it, both good things, though the article title betrays something in the piece itself - a perspective of right or wrong only, and does not admit the possibility of other ways in which to consider the question. So if Tyler were my student I might ask him to respond to the following question: Obviously, attending the U of I is an “economic good” in the sense that there are more people who apply than are admitted and since Tyler was initially one of those he’d have to agree with that part. This economic good is partially financed by tax dollars paid by taxpayers in the state of Illinois. So the question is, what type of admissions policy makes this type of funding an acceptable part of the social contract, where overall the taxpayers who might have children who could attend the U of I think it is a fair deal? What would Tyler come up with if he took a reasonable stab at answering that question? And then, how would the writing change as a consequence?

I liked the column by George Ploss because he argued strongly for students taking social responsibility, in this case African American students helping out each other, this especially in light of the low graduation rates of such students. This seems like a good argument to me and one that sounds as if it should be made on an ongoing basis. But I thought the piece itself had some awkward places where George seemed to want to use fancy language that didn’t quite fit in with what else he was saying. (Incidentally, so I don’t seem like I’m picking on George, I thought the editorial suffered from the same issue.) If George were my student, I’d encourage him to talk through the article aloud without referring to the written text. Then I’d encourage him to rewrite the way he talked about it. And finally I’d ask him to read both versions and see which one he likes better.

I do hope all these students continue to write more. Reading this stuff you can see the potential. Writing for the student newspaper under deadline is probably not the best way to go through many drafts on a single piece of work, but if one has a regular column one can collect the work and see how it changes over time. That is a fascinating possibility.


Downes said...

I cannot stress enough how valuable five years of student journalism (including two years of writing editorials - we signed ours) was.

And how rewarding when, in my fifth year, I was selected as one of the city of Calgary's top journalists in a student poll. The paper never ran the poll (too bad). But I knew.

If I could, I would advise every aspiring writer to seek similar experience. Yes, even before blogging. Working with a team, writing to deadlines - this, as much as the practice, brings out the best in you.

Lanny Arvan said...

Stephen -

Thanks for the suggestion. It sounds like a good one.

A related question is how a kid who is not majoring in Journalism or English nevertheless knows she wants to be a writer. Something must drive that but whether it is inner ambition or outer opportunity, I'm not sure, and likewise for how important getting recognition for good work is as a spur to write more.

On a personal note, you've given yet another reason for why I'd like to relive my college years, as I missed this the first time around.