“Today, I was a Learning Coach.”

An essay considering hopeful new ways to engage student writers.
Photos taken at Indiana Dunes National Park.

Once upon a not so long ago, I was studying towards a Master of Arts in Leadership. My graduate program was tailored to my professional goals, so I decided to specialize in intentional writing and creative nonfiction. Essentially, I wanted to learn how the world worked and why we do things the way we do them and how to use writing to make more things better for more people.

I learned how exactly the world did and didn’t work during the first six months of 2020 — yep, you guessed it… also my first semester of grad school. My goal was, in the grandest inner piece of me, to find the keys to liberty through literacy. I didn’t go to grad school for an M.A. in English or Education. I went for an M.A. in Leadership, and I entered this carefully chosen path of study believing whole-heartedly, as C.S. Lewis put it best:

“You can make anything by writing.”

When the rules aren’t written, it feels an awful lot like Team Rocket looking up from the bottom of another hole they fell right into — I improvise daily and learn new ways to say things plainly. When the rules aren’t clear, it’s hard to know which way’s up. Am I supposed to begin here, or there? And how is it supposed to go again?

My performance is packed with knowledge from my past; I pass on the parts I’ve found the most practical. I’m 27, and my resume and professional portfolio reflect things that are tangible — students see me and think for maybe one of the first times, “I could be doing that in a few years.” One of the primary responsibilities of my job description is to build one-on-one relationships with students. The defining purpose of my job is, simply: to mentor college students.

Today, I was a mentor, as defined here: an experienced and trusted advisor.

A difficulty I often face amongst fellow professionals is saying concisely what I do, or what I’m good at. You (who’s reading this) may have noticed that I ended my last sentence with a preposition. You very well might not have noticed it at all, or if you did, maybe you didn’t much mind. Rules like that fall flat in higher learning because they’re often enforced in classrooms filled with students who think they’re bad writers. Whether writing an email or essay or your name on an exam, the writing process starts and ends with one condition: The writer must engage with the process. Participating takes confidence, creativity, curiosity, inquiry, knowledge, practice, time… among many other token skills in academics. What that looks like is me, right now, thinking it out, doing my best to explain just what it takes to put my voice on this page so that you can hear me.

A voice is hard to find if you’re worried about where the commas go all the time. Writing isn’t math — there’s no distance between the value of a word and the person working the problem. It’s an incredibly vulnerable place for most people, but I’d argue that undergraduates of most disciplines confront one of the toughest levels of writers’ block. For some, their future careers depend on them writing a proper five-paragraph essay, using proper citations, punctuation marked in all the right places, structured neat-and-tidy with a thesis and topic sentences, and of course never forgetting to spellcheck and double-check all capitalizations, headings, formats and things, oh, what am I forgetting?

I’m still asking the question: Why are we teaching this when we know that the vast majority of students will never — outside of education and related disciplines — be asked to write something like a five-paragraph essay ever again in their professional lives?

I love writing, and I’m lucky to have a passion that matches my profession. I believe that I can make anything by writing. I have faith because everytime I try, I wind up doing something incredible that I never imagined. Writing is an interdisciplinary art, and yet we leave teaching it all to the English professors. They do a fantastic job! But next to no one is going to be writing about Literature or composing a research paper in their post-college future.

Something clicked today as I mentored, and now I wish for the day when writing is a common minor study track in schools of all sorts, not just Liberal Arts. I wish for every one of my students, no matter their trade, to get what I mean when I say I’m here and I’m just gripped by the sweetness of good sense, like when a student sends me an assignment days late but decided to write their pronouns in their email signature because I shared mine with them in last week’s class.


@bykaileyann

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