How a Grad Student Writes

I’ve been writing nonstop for almost two weeks.
I work in a place that is about to unveil an entirely new agenda, one related to connected learning in higher education at its most passionate and most digital. My major contribution to this launch has been writing the Case for Connected Learning, a “white paper”-esque entity which will eventually end up on the website.
It is true that I have thrown my full self into this job; if anyone asked, I would tell them that I have walked to work from my car every morning, telling myself to smite with a legendary sword. Ok for smiting, which tends to be my natural state, but something else has been going on too — something worth blogging about.
Grad student writing is, in general, an odd and unnatural thing.  In some ways, it’s not so much about the content as the ability to write in APA (or MLA or Chicago).  There’s an art to APA, for sure, but it’s an impersonal game –the same game that an excellent medical student (and I was an excellent medical student) masters as they roll through the multiple-choice based case studies of the Step examinations.  It’s not particularly student-centered, if you think about it.
APA shapes the grad student writing experience, making assignments impersonal and personal at the same time; yes, you will judge me on my ability to play the APA game, but I am not synonymous with my ability to write in APA.  Funny how this sort of writing protects a grad student in some ways, but limits her in others.  Among other things, I am limited by the desperate need for validation when I write in APA – I need a second opinion on my ability to play the game.
But what I’ve written recently – it’s an entirely different thing. I was told to write anything other than an ordinary white paper.  No joke. I was told to write as myself, the natural smiter.
Well, I’m not APA.  I read the Atlantic.  I read Time.  I love a little Brian Williams and a lot of Maria Popova.  And Paul Simons and Regina Spektor.  And Ingrid Michaelson and Isabel Allende and Ernest Hemingway.  And if I could land a gig as a Woman Correspondent We Love for Esquire, I would drop this doctoral degree with poetic speed and rock myself (and the babies) all the way to a scotch whisky and a cigar in Midtown NYC. 
It turns out that after all these years of dictating patient charts and writing research papers, I like to write with a little bit of poetry and a lot of storytelling served saucy-like on a smoking slab of APA.
And the most interesting part of this experiment (to me, at least) is how I feel about others reading it.  For the first time in my grad career, I don’t care what you think about what I wrote.  If Gardner Campbell gives me constructive criticism (and I’m sure he will), that’s is perfectly fine and I will eagerly make the corrections.  Maybe I’ll even learn something. But ultimately, I feel like I have come out of this experience knowing me and my writing better than I did a month ago. 
And it’s good, just the way it is.  I don’t need validation from anyone.

So, I guess my advice to all of you graduate student advisors is to make sure your students have at least one opportunity to write as themselves and not as slaves to the good people at APA.  I don’t mean throwing them a reflective paper or two; I mean an all-out, big bad 5000 words of something.  Something with punch and power.  Tell them to go balls-to-the-wall and see what happens.  Having that opportunity has been the most valuable grad student experience I’ve had yet.  I can only hope that others have the same opportunity.

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