Writing, a Modern University Education, and the Expansion of the Self
By Sophie Lewis
On November 10, 2014, Alfred Guy, the director of the Yale Writing Center, gave a lecture titled “Escape from Zombieland: Why Writing Matters.” The lecture, which was the inaugural talk in the Barnard College Writing Center’s Susan Scheman Ratner ’86 Writing & Speaking Pedagogy Series, was intended to guide both students and faculty members in a critical discussion surrounding writing in the academic environment.
Guy began his lecture provocatively, “large and largely impersonal forces wish to suppress your capacity to reflect. They wish to keep you locked you into a cycle of appetite and consumption.” Writing, however, according to Guy, “disrupts this cycle.”
Guy explain that these “large and largely impersonal forces” are the cultural product of capitalism and consumerism in today’s society. Explaining the “zombie” part of his talk, Guy noted that “starting with George Romero’s Living Dead series in the 1960s, zombies have been frequently marked as products of either capitalism or consumerism.”
Bringing his discussion out of the realm of fantasy and into the sociological, Guy cited several studies on millennial culture in order to argue that teenagers, in their dependence upon technology and reduced engagement with world events and the written word, resemble zombies in many ways.
This statement drew a few surprised laughs from the audience, but before he could be “marked as a pessimistic luddite,” Guy qualified his argument by acknowledging that not all teenagers are this way and he reassured us that he “loves Barnard students. You are fantastic.” This led to more chuckles from the audience.
What Guy is worried about, however, is that across America, “the culture is working overtime to discourage reflection […] the forces of advertising and marketing work to create a cycle of desire and consumption. […] Nothing in the culture encourages our students to embrace ambiguity, to develop philosophical desires, or to learn a language for contemplating the good.”
Guy’s proposed remedy to the lack of reflection among millennials is teaching reading and writing. Acknowledging that “it can seem simultaneously touchy-feely and grandiose to claim that your job is to develop students’ inner lives, or if you’re a student that your job is to cultivate your own inner life,” Guy nonetheless cited numerous scientific studies that show the benefits of writing—from a more commonly recognized capacity to explore our own identity and emotions, to the recently-discovered link between writing and healing of traumatic injuries.
Beyond these positive physiological and psychological effects, Guy guided his audience to think of the benefits of writing for the self in more philosophical terms. Citing The Gutenberg Elegies by essayist Sven Birkerts, Guy argued:
“…the private encounter with another’s language [through the act of reading] expands the reader’s imagination in a very specific way. Hearing another’s voice internally requires us to try on that writer’s sensibility, his or her way of being, and that this trying on shows that we can change, that the words themselves are a medium of change, and that this language both conveys and enacts different possible configurations of the self.”
Guy believes that we can apply this same theory of thinking and being to our own writing: “Being prompted to write enables us to hear the aspect of our own interiority that is immersed in our own language.” Encouraging students to write into “the edge of their understanding” helps cultivate an inner life, which is what Guy argues is the point of a university education, rather than simply gaining professional skills.
Finally, to conclude his talk, Guy offered some techniques, such as free writing and incorporating counter arguments, to help improve both pedagogy and individual writing. These practical tips, however, for Guy, are intertwined with expanding the self.
To conclude his lecture, Guy left his audience with the sentence that he puts on all of his undergraduate syllabi: “but more than prepare you for something else, the writing and thinking we will do are intrinsically valuable, because they expand your capacity to live a reflective life.”
While I, as a fourth-year student about to complete my undergraduate degree, cannot say that every piece of writing I have ever done or assignment that I have ever submitted has “expanded my self” as Guy so eloquently put it, I walked away from his lecture feeling inspired to begin approaching my own academic and non-academic writing in this way and encouraged to engage with the voices of other writers around me.
Sophie Lewis is senior at Barnard College majoring in Music and English. Barnard College of Columbia University is home to the Delta of New York chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.