i Reflective Essay | COLLEGE WRITING: DEBATE(S) IN HIGHER EDCUATION

Nevena Prebiracevic

Writing was never a big passion of mine; in fact, I was always much better with numbers on paper than with words. After all, math was my “first love.” However, recognizing the importance of written expression—and having maintained for a long time a consistent feeling that I was lagging behind—I have spent a considerable amount of time writing in both Montenegrin, my native tongue, and also in English. Even so, I do not consider my writing skills in either language exceptional; not even close. As someone who likes to read a lot and has a lot of ideas and opinions on different topics, I understood early on how important it was to gain a certain level of writing proficiency in order to communicate my thoughts. Despite this understanding, however, I have struggled with it. While I can spend hours discussing and debating a wide range of topics, when it comes to putting my thoughts and ideas down, it gets a bit complicated. In part, I blame my formal education in Montenegro for this. As a culture deeply rooted in the oral tradition, our exams and assignments were, for the most part, oral or practical examinations. Written assignments were rare. This, I believe, hindered my comfort with writing. And, of course, writing in Montenegrin has been significantly easier than in English because I no longer think about the grammar or sentence structures as they have become a part of the natural process. On the other hand, English has a different set of writing rules and sentence structures which have been, at times, challenging to grasp.

With this awareness, I was determined to enroll in a class at St. Norbert College which would help strengthen and improve my writing skills by teaching me the rules of proper and effective writing. Dr. Scheler’s class did just that. As I wrote in my first blog post, developing writing skills is essential to critical thinking because, in the words of Fareed Zakaria (one of the advocates of liberal arts education), “writing forces you to make choices and it brings clarity and order to your ideas”. And that is exactly what we’ve been learning in this class: to express our ideas, thoughts, and views on different topics freely while following the basic rules of proper writing.

Over the last semester in Dr. Scheler’s class, through carefully designed steps, we have learned how to structure clear sentences, coherent paragraphs, and develop and defend claims by using arguments with reliable evidence. We also learned to acknowledge the ideas of others and respond to them in a proper manner, even when we disagree. Dr. Scheler taught us to always select effective and useful sources, cite them properly, and then present easy-to-read, interesting, engaging, and meaningful writing for our readers. In reflecting back at my four blog posts, both their original drafts and revisions, I can say with certainty that I have struggled quite a bit to come up with solid writing for each of the assignments, but it was going through that process that has taught me a lot. Do I still make mistakes? Of course I do! But am I a better writer because of having taken this class? Absolutely!

Of all the aspects of the class, I have found Dr. Scheler’s feedback prior to posting my blog online most helpful. Even him pointing out what I did correctly, or which paragraph was strong and which one wasn’t, was very helpful in my ability to recognize good writing from not so good writing. With professor’s guidelines and through editing, I was literally learning from my own mistakes. Additionally, each blog post taught us something different so by the time we reached the fourth one, we were able to tie various lessons together.

The main focus of the first blog post was to explain whether we think higher education is good or not good, and do so through intentionally ordered paragraphs, coherent discussion, correctly quoted supporting evidence, and clear and properly structured sentences. I struggled a lot with it, particularly with organizing paragraphs and with quotations. I was mixing up several different points in a single paragraph, which of course led to the paper that was really hard to follow. And, then, I was trying to support my points and ideas with quotations that I would just insert in the middle of my paragraph without ever explaining them. For example, I quoted Dale Stephen unaccompanied by introduction of who he is and without explaining my understanding of what he was saying.

In the second blog post, we had to develop our claims about specific subject, reasons to support our claim, and valid evidence to support our reasons. I pretty much did everything alright, and I received feedback from professor Scheler saying that “I see a clearly-articulated argument, defended with specific reasons, which are in turn supported with clear evidence of different kinds.” But, yet again, I had trouble with quotations. At this point I still didn’t understand that I can not just simply take out someone’s sentence and quote it without more explicitly explaining it. Particularly, I made mistakes in quoting Marks…in the first instance, I fragmented the meaning of the quote by improperly using ellipses; in the second, I somehow managed to not quote the full sentence. I think this stemmed from my struggle to go the distance in giving the context and explaining—and communicating—what I had read. In my head, it was clear, but clearly not so in my writing.

In the third blog post, we had to show that we understand how to acknowledge and respond to objections, and I chose to write about underage drinking and argue in favor of lowering the drinking age to 18 or even 16. In this post, I was back to struggling with properly organizing my paragraphs (i.e. making my points clear and not confusing) and even clearly, and directly, communicating my claims. I also, at times, managed to insert my personal testimony without offering strong, objective reasons. Before posting the final blog post, I had to reorganize my paragraphs in order to develop my argument better, but I did it. For example, in one of my paragraphs I used a statement by Rick C. Jakeman, assistant professor of higher education at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University, that  “Students are underprepared to create and manage parties in which others can socialize with alcohol in safe environments” to set up an argument, agree with it, and then structure my own response to it as it pertained to my topic.

Finally, in our fourth blog post, we had to do our own research into a particular topic in order to find reliable resources that could be used as supporting evidence, solution, or background information for the specific topic and claim. I was writing about diversity at SNC, and because I had strong opinions against any kind of discrimination, and wanted to say as much as time allowed at that moment (this was at the end of the semester, and I had many different papers to write, and study for different exams), I was again mixing different ideas in the paragraphs. For example, I tried to put socio-economic, racial, sexuality, and ethnic diversity all in one paragraph. On the other hand, I also repeated myself by re-stating the facts about SNC’s lack of adequate diversity and managed to offer a couple of, as Dr. Sheler put it, “thin” arguments in favor of greater diversity. However, in the end, I believe (or hope!) that I was able to make the corrections and enhance my last post in its final version.

In conclusion, writing is tough, and learning to write well is definitely a never-ending process. We can always do better. I think this is especially true for someone who is trying to say so much in so little time and in another language. And, I unequivocally support the claim that we simply cannot learn everything in just one semester! At the same time, although I have struggled and have gone back and forth many times in learning—and re-learning—certain writing rules, I know that through this class I have gained an excellent base for future application of writing principles and have become slightly more comfortable with writing. But the journey has just begun. Hopefully, by the end of my St. Norbert education, its commitment to writing across curriculum will have made me into a solid writer and will have also taught me how to overcome my inner-struggles with putting my thoughts down…after all, all this passion for expressing my ideas and opinions needs to be channeled somehow and not everyone wants to listen to me, so I better get on with writing. :-)

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