Undergraduate Writing Symposium 2012:
Cynthia J. Cyrus
25 March 2012
Today's symposium marks a public celebration of a private act. Putting words on paper (or for that matter committing them to digital spaces) is a sacred act in academe, one that situates each of us – writer, readers, and learners – within a centuries-long tradition. As we write, we commit ourselves to a current set of words in service of an idea. We frame out an argument; describe methodologies; shift from one piece of information to another; adopt examples; and dress up our perspective with the paraphernalia of sources, citations, and references that reveal an intellectual lineage. Writing shapes the way knowledge grows, and in so doing ineluctably shapes both what we know and how we come to know it. Books, articles, case studies, essays, posters, papers: these are the dry goods of the academic general store. They bespeak a kind of permanence, for they give us the fixity of the written word rather than just a fleeting notion shared in conversation but otherwise unpreserved. These written tokens reflect the "thought through," not just the passing thought.
True writing, the saying goes, is rewriting, for the process of speaking a true thing rarely goes smoothly the first time through. And so, like many of you, I have spent my time hesitating over a choice of word or fretting over the order of ideas. I have numbered and then reordered sentences and whole paragraphs, and revised for those ugly shifts of verb tense that are my personal "regrettable habit." I have bemoaned the complexities of footnotes, and alternately lamented and relished the many micro-details that need to be "just so." Fact checking and managing data become a way of life when we pass through the gates of any college or University – and those are skills we carry with us when negotiating a house contract or filing our taxes.
Yet writing belongs to a sacred space, not just to the mundane world, for it brings us closer to our colleagues and peers, and draws us together into a broader discussion. It is, in other words, an invitation into community. The carefully crafted phrase invites the reader to join us in our intellectual interpretation – of a text, a result, even of a hair-brained idea. We devote ourselves to the written word because it conveys meaning to another. Ideas need to propagate; words are the common mechanism for them to do so. That can, at times, seem daunting to an author, particularly at the moments when the paper is blank and when the thinking that writing entails is still to come. In response, many of us develop secret writing rituals. We fold the sheet of paper in half so that it does not seem so large, or use colored pens to outline our work, or check our word-count electronically every hundred words or so. We make lists or web diagrams. We adopt formula-writing where the structure is standardized but the ideas filling out the paragraphs are our own. (Scientists often think they have the lock on this habit, but plenty of humanists do it too.) We use tricks to get the writing done, and then, as the timer ticks down, we often hit stride, where the words come easily, and the ideas finally knit together into some sort of coherent product. "It seems like it wrote itself," someone will say, hinting at that state of otherness that separates our writing selves from the less elevated world of chores and checkbooks that we more commonly inhabit.
The written body of knowledge circulates differently now than it did a generation ago. The work I do as a humanist relies on digital copies of primary sources that would have taken months upon months upon months of travel to consult in olden times. Similarly, the provisions of a JSTOR or a WorldCat allow for bibliographic access undreamt of a century ago. Now that the broad scaffolding of writings from the past comes to us with a few clicks of a keyboard, we necessarily stand in a more complex relationship to our intellectual antecedents than we did before. Likewise, the speed at which scholarly literature passes through into final form creates a obligation to test one's ideas against near temporal peers. This can mean a last-minute scramble to find and assess that most recent article, the recently released book, the item that one knows from the digital sphere but not yet in its physical, touchable form here in the local library. The creation of a written document itself is also in many ways fundamentally different than that of my mother's generation. The words we write can be cut-and-pasted, backspaced over (and sometimes recovered) and reshuffled. Many of us put through full drafts that would have meant untold hours of typing in a pre-computer era. Even the mechanism of preparing footnotes and bibliography can be automated by our preferred word processor, managed by our favorite reference management software, and edited en-masse when one realizes that page ranges should be separated by the en-dash rather than the hyphens which one thoughtlessly included.
Yet even if technology has been transformative in so many ways, the process of writing remains firmly welded to the scholarly ideal of the authorial individual who grapples with a particular disciplinary tradition, designs a plausible response, and communicates that to his or her audience through written genres already familiar to us from course syllabi. We may share our thoughts on blogs, and tweet our responses to bad books, provocative lectures, and big ideas, but to communicate our own ideas, we adopt the forms and conventions of our scholarly community. We seek to place our work alongside that of the people who have come before us in a field, moving the conversation word by word and line by line forward to a new perspective. We write, in other words, as you have done. We ponder and edit and rephrase and reorganize and write again, until we feel our work is ready, our deadline nigh, and the task met. And once our work is written we share, hopeful that it forges a connection for one another to this continuous tradition of academe.
That is why we gather here on a Sunday: to celebrate in community these many acts of writing. The papers that we have heard today, the work over which you have labored so long, bespeaks an intellectual continuity, a continuity of ideas, but also of process. For writing is a process, and it isn't always pretty. It takes a lot of willpower, and it sometimes takes an unfortunate amount of time. But when finished properly, the writing that we do functions as an offering, a token gladly given, that fits our own idea into the broader array of the intellectual storehouse that we are all here to explore. The thirty-four authors of today's symposium should be justly proud of their own place in this most academic of endeavors. Please join me once again in congratulating today's authors and speakers for the fine work for which they are being recognized.