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Dean Moore Reflects on the Undergraduate Writing Symposium

Closing Remarks by Roger E. Moore, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Science (March 2015)

I’m happy to have been asked to deliver the closing remarks today as I have always cherished the Writing program and Writing Studio at Vanderbilt.  Before moving to the dean’s office, I was the director of the Undergraduate Writing Program, and in that capacity I worked with and advised faculty who were teaching writing-intensive classes.  I was amazed at the dedication of writing instructors from every department, from English to history, from Economics to Mathematics, and I learned from these instructors as much as I taught them.

I was present for the first Undergraduate Writing Symposium years ago, and I have attended all but one since that time.  For me, this is one of the most important, and most exciting, events that the University sponsors during the year.  I’ve nominated students for the event, I’ve chaired sessions and engaged in lively discussions with students, and now I’m here giving the closing remarks.  I thought I would reflect here for a moment, at the closing, on four reasons why the Symposium we’ve just attended is such a valuable endeavor.

The Symposium honors the tremendous amount of hard work that good writing involves. Producing a strong piece of writing involves creativity and native talent, but it mostly involves a great deal of time and effort.  The best papers are those that have been revised many times .  Often, by the time the final draft is complete, the paper is almost unrecognizable from the first draft.  Today, and over the years, I have heard countless tales from students about the arduous journey of writing and perfecting their papers.  Some of the papers heard today did not receive As on their first try.  A couple of years ago, I learned that one of my own students, whose paper I had nominated, had been spurred on to revision because I had given her first draft the lowest paper grade she’d received in college to date!  But she turned that paper around, and her hard work paid off.

The Symposium treats college writing seriously. Too often we regard student writers as apprentices, their work merely a trial run for the more serious work they will do later in life.  The model for today’s event is the scholarly conference, in which scholars present the findings of their work and engage in dialogue with their colleagues.  By giving these writers the opportunity to present their work formally today, the symposium recognizes them as serious academics with sophisticated scholarly voices.

The Symposium celebrates collaboration and conversation. In their book They Say, I Say:  The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, a book that is a staple in our Writing Studio and in composition programs throughout the country, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein  make the point that good writers always establish themselves in relation to the ideas of others, that when they write they enter into a conversation with others.  We can only make strong points if we respond to what others have said and take these ideas in new directions.  The Symposium offers a literal opportunity to continue the conversation about these writers started with their papers in classes over the past year.  These papers are already strong and establish themselves in the scholarly conversation about their particular topics, but the discussions that ensued today could lead the writers of these essays to strengthen and deepen their arguments.  To have this opportunity is invaluable.

And, finally, the Symposium operates under the assumption that good writing is the most important academic skill that students can acquire. Our ideas will only be successful if we can organize our thoughts, make assertions, and present them to others coherently.  The writers honored today are among the strongest on our campus, and the skill they demonstrated today will ensure their success as communicators and leaders in the years to come.

Congratulations to all of the students who presented their work, and to the parents and families who supported and encouraged them!

March 29, 2015