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How I Write and Learn

My Journey to Finding My Voice

By Don, a Writing Coach

I remember reading my professor’s comments on a paper I’d written in one of my first graduate seminars at Carolina. The paper excited me because it was a topic that interested me, and I believed that my excitement would also factor into producing a well-written, deeply riveting original argument. I was wrong. When I read my professor’s comments, which were few, the words that stood out most were on the last page. Scribbled around some other notes that mentioned the promise of my idea, the professor had written, “This is almost unintelligible.” Reading this comment took a heavy toll on me even though I thought I could shake off the unhelpful criticism.

The semester those words stabbed at my confidence was also the first year of my coaching and teaching writing at UNC. My mind ran aimlessly with the possibilities of what this failure could bring. Was I not capable of successfully completing graduate school? What would the Writing Center think of me as a coach if they knew that a professor called my writing unintelligible? What would my students think if they knew their writing teacher had just been scolded as intellectually deficient? How could I ever consider a career in teaching from that moment forward?

A stop sign.
Rather than encouraging me, my professor’s feedback felt more like a big red stop sign telling me I wasn’t good enough.

As time went on, I felt as though I was on auto drive. I smiled and laughed with my peers and colleagues. I continued to teach, faking my enthusiasm because deep inside burning questions about my identity as a writer tugged at me. I wore a mask shielding my friends and family from my overwhelming thoughts of inadequacies. To them, I was soaring. But it felt as though I was falling deeper and deeper into a pit in which my mask would give way and my voice would fade into the background as the faint whisper of a once-promising educator.

Towards the end of my first year at the Writing Center, our former Assistant Director introduced me to Vershawn Young’s essay that questioned the framework of how we teach and learn writing: “Should Writers Use They Own English?” Young, an interdisciplinary scholar in African American studies, wrote this provocative essay in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and its words sang to me from within the pages. For Young, the central concern is the negative effects from people in power not acknowledging other forms of writing and communication in English. I realized that the problem was this professor’s lack of awareness that many English speakers’ use of this language is inflected with their histories, backgrounds, and lived experiences. While my writing is far from perfect, it is comprehensible. I know that now. It wasn’t that my writing was unintelligibly written; rather, it was my professor’s refusal to understand that they didn’t own the English language.

I write this blog, recalling this pivotal, chaotic time in my life, because it was this moment that prompted a turning point in my career. As a writing coach and teacher, I have come to understand the position of power that I hold over students’ potential learning outcomes. Because of my time at the Writing Center, both as a coach and a coachee, I know that my feedback matters. It matters even more when the students I help every day can use this feedback to build more skills and to learn more about themselves as learners and writers. I hope to never make a student feel the way that I felt that semester.

I love the English language, and I often think of myself as a special curator, whose life mission is to record and uphold the lasting rhetorical legacy of my people. The way that we use this language, while practical, forceful, and rhythmic, is vital to our collective mapping of American English, which, in and of itself, is diverse, colorful, and teeming with new usages and words every day.

Blue, purple, yellow, pink, and orange wild flowers in a green field.
How I think of the English language–diverse, colorful, and constantly growing and changing.

Useful feedback is leaving room for students to effectively communicate without losing their sense of identity. Even though this journey has been less than ideal, I am confident in my abilities as a learner and educator. I know that what I bring to the table, what you bring to the table, what others bring to table are all necessary components to our larger understanding of the world around us. Through the journey to find my voice, I hope that I am able to amplify the voice of others along the way.

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach, a peer tutor, or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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