Monday, September 27, 2010 marks the release of the very first book to commemorate Excellence in First-Year Writing at this university. As chair of the Sweetland Writing Prize Committee, I am proud of the work here, not only as an example of a successful collaboration between SCW and the English Department Writing Program, but also as a way to make writing more visible on this campus.
The book features papers written in 2009 from Kathleen Telfer and Alexandra Park, from Great Books and Comp. Lit., as well as portfolio samples written by Thomas Yeh and Alex Liberman from our SCW 100 course. EDWP prizes are represented by English 124 papers written by Michael Flood, Erin Piell and Chong Guo. While these students and their nominating instructors were recognized at a ceremony in April of this year, there are many people to thank for making this award possible. The visions of Anne Gere and Anne Curzan, directors of SCW and EDWP, my co-editor/chair, Chris Gerben, and the guidance of Naomi Silver were invaluable in getting these first prizes off the ground.
Thanks should also go to the nominating faculty and the many judges from SCW and EDWP. Very special acknowledgment should go to Laura Schuyler from Sweetland and Barb Kehoe from ULitho (the local printer who saw this project through).
For my part, editing this book involved looking much more closely at student writing than I have done for many years, something much more intense than grading and responding to papers usually affords. In my own first-year writing courses, I often teach works by the great American writer Langston Hughes. Why? Not only because of his place in the canon. Because like our first-year writers, he wrote across genres and disciplines. His poetry speaks for itself, but he also wrote novels, short stories, plays, journalism, essays, letters and even musicals in a career that spanned nearly five decades. Plus, his first book, The Weary Blues, was written when he was roughly the same age as our UM students. Hughes begins the first volume of his autobiography, The Big Sea, with this epigraph: “Life is a big sea full of many fish. I let down my nets and pull.” And there’s nothing not to like about that line.
The first-year writing courses here at the university will be some of the smallest classes our students ever take. Not so very long ago, when I was a young freshman, it was sometime halfway through my first semester writing course that I really for the first time felt connected to my school, to my classmates and professor. I scarcely recall the specifics of the class, the readings or the assignments, but I can still feel the thrum of energies behind my eyes and in my hands as I wrote out and then pounded out my papers for that class, writing as though I really could belong to something. I like to think this is part of what Hughes is after when he says “let down my nets” because this class not only gave me the nets, but the boat and the sea to ride on.
What of it? Nothing except thank you to Kathleen, Alexandra, Thomas, Alex, Michael, Chong and Erin. Thanks to you first-year writers, already now second year writers, for helping me remember when I first let down my nets and pulled.
By the way, stay tuned for the 2011 Excellence in Writing call for nominations, with all new categories for upper-level writing, in late November.