An Evolution: Learning to Write With Passion
A controversial scene discussed in my paper, “An Analysis of Social Commentary on Homosexuality in American Film”
This is an image of the first topic I was ever passionate to write about. I wrote a paper on the history of homosexuality in American film for my term paper at the end of my freshmen English 112 class and had almost complete freedom in what I wanted to write about. This was the first time I had been given this type of writing freedom—and it was scary. It was scary because I had to search my brain and think hard about what I cared about, something I really hadn’t been asked to do before. Throughout the next four years, I unknowingly carved my own path in a type of writing that revolved around controversial and often humanitarian-related issues.
Although my professors helped me with the mechanics of my writing, many of my classes didn’t force me to push myself on what kinds of topics I wrote on. It was up to me to think hard about and take seriously what I wanted to dedicate each paper to. I already loved to write, so I was happy to give myself this challenging task because I realized how valuable passionate writing was for my studies and my mind in terms of keeping me engaged and excited to sharpen my writing skills. While I was usually itching to start a paper because of my chosen topic, many of my classmates were dreading the same assignment. I see a problem in writing classes at the university level in getting students to seriously contemplate on what they are passionate about before they start writing. In most of my classes, there was never a guided cultivation of what issues impassioned us. Very rarely were we asked to free write for five minutes on what we was most interested in, or what we saw or read in the news that week that struck us before we chose our topic. Eventually, I created a thriving writing environment for myself because I chose classes that would cater to the kind of issues I was interested in writing on. But we need a more general system or path in writing classes to get students excited about their writing. I quickly realized that when I wrote about topics that I was passionate about, my writing was of much higher quality because I was motivated to take the time to do research, plan the outline of my paper, and develop my argument(s). This motivation helped me immensely both in my studies and in helping me solidify my future career path, and every students deserves to have this experience.
When I first started writing, I was good at doing what I was told. Throughout high school and almost my entire freshman year, I wanted a topic, format, page length—the more requirements the better—and I was set. But when I was asked to choose my own topic that was related to American popular culture at the end of my English 112 class, I felt lost. I had no clue what the best way to choose a topic was. Without direction, I followed my gut and took a week to think about trends I’d noticed in film. For some reason, Brokeback Mountain came to mind and I started thinking about the increasing number of gay relationships portrayed both on television and in movies. I was interested in exploring both the history and the progression of the prevalence of homosexuality on screen but when first proposing my topic to my instructor, I was worried it might be too controversial or out of bounds. To my surprise, he was thrilled about my chosen topic. While impassioned to write on my topic, I spent too much time talking about what other people thought about the issue and not enough time talking about my own opinions or arguments. This is because I wasn’t yet confident or comfortable asserting my own opinion on a controversial subject. As freshmen, we never got a crash course on how to make and support our own arguments other than by creating a “thesis.” Only until much later in my college writing career did it occur to me that I could disagree with well-known sources, make multiple arguments, and make realistic calls for change in the world—all within a paper.
Illegal immigrants stopping to sleep on railroad tracks
I finally found some guidance in learning how to find and write about topics that impassioned me in English 225: Academic Argumentation. In this class we read many examples of impassioned writing and then used those writings as models for our own writing. I remember reading Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and being so inspired and intimidated by his writing. I couldn’t think of how I’d ever find something I cared about so much that my writings on that subject would impact a reader as much as Dr. King’s writing impacted me. Our professor assigned us an “apologia” paper, in which we had to justify or defend a certain issue we believed in. I chose to tackle the controversial subject of illegal immigration and argued that many states needed to appeal ineffective anti-immigration laws in my paper entitled, “Attack on the True American: An Analysis of Anti-Immigration Legislation.” In style with Dr. King’s letter, I made an open appeal to a congressman to repeal the REAL ID Act, which was originally proposed in 2005.
Protesters calling for justice after the killing of Trayvon Martin
English 225 was the first class that forced me to dig deep down and taught me to a) figure out what I cared about in the world, b) decide what I wanted to argue based on these issues closest to my heart, and c) find and use sources to both effectively support my argument and to argue against while defending my stance. For my final paper in this class, I argued for the repeal of the “Stand Your Ground” law that was deeply embedded in the Trayvon Martin case of 2012, which affected me both as a humanitarian and as an aspiring attorney. Although my own opinions and arguments are more visible in “Attack on the True American: An Analysis of Anti-Immigration Legislation” than in anything I wrote freshman year, I feel my paper on Trayvon Martin was where I found my true passionate, activist voice. In this paper, my tone was both commanding and emotional, my research was extensive, and my argument was detailed and well-supported. I would later turn this paper into a mock case briefing for the Writing 200 Gateway course in the following year. Although English 225 was immensely helpful in learning how to choose what I could fervently write about and how to do so, my decision to take this course was pure chance. I was a transfer student and was in the middle of my day-long orientation when I signed up for this class. An older student helping us register for classes asked me what I liked to study and suggested I take English 225: Academic Argumentation. I had no better ideas on what to take so I decided I might as well give the class a shot. What worries me is that if English 225 had never been suggested to me, I don’t know if I would have ever found the class, and if that had happened, I don’t think I would have unlocked my activist voice until much later in my college career. That troubles me because I wonder how many other students may have missed out on writing courses that would have inspired them to write enthusiastically about things they truly care about. Even worse, I wonder how many students have decided they don’t enjoy writing because they have never had an inspiring writing class.
While I’ve been fortunate in taking many classes that have inspired heartfelt writing from me, not every class I’ve taken has lead to this type of writing, particularly in classes that I’ve been required to take for my major or for general LSA requirements. I’d like to take a look at some of my recent writing from a class I took for my philosophy major, Philosophy 383: Knowledge and Reality. As I have always been more drawn to the ethical and moral areas of philosophy, this was not a class I was excited to take, and that lack of interest showed through in my writing. In my last paper for the class, “Foundationalism and the Problem of Easy Knowledge,” I wrote about foundationalists and the problems with their theory of knowledge. In the quote below, I referenced a critic of foundationalists and discussed his theories:
“Cohen argues that these types of responses reject the KR Principle, which states that someone can gain knowledge from a knowledge source only if that knowledge source is reliable (Cohen 309). By relying on “foundational” methods or basic knowledge, foundationalists are able to escape the Pyrrhonian challenge, but Cohen states that doing so forces foundationalists to reject the KR principle because basic knowledge is not tested for its reliability…” (Curtis 2).
It’s not hard to sense my lack of enthusiasm in this passage. Because I was not very familiar with the material nor was I interested in it, there’s virtually no mention of my own opinion on the issue. I was simply regurgitating what I had read on the subject because I didn’t feel any motivation to write passionately about it, I knew that’s what the prompt was asking for, and I knew that I could get a good grade by just repeating information. The quality of my writing suffered as a result. My tone is dull, robotic, and boring. Even as a philosophy major who is used to reading dense text, I have doubts that my paper would engage any reader.
Tortured: the controversial photo of 2004 from Abu Ghraib Prison near Baghdad, Iraq
Compare this writing to another philosophy paper I wrote my junior year entitled, “Mill & Torture: Analyzing Torture Through a Utilitarian Lens.” For this paper, we were allowed to write on whatever topic we chose as long as we incorporated some of John Stuart Mill’s writings into our paper. I was interested in what Mill would think about the U.S.’s current use of torture on suspected terrorists, a highly contested issue in today’s world. Here’s a piece of my writing from this paper:
“Torture, like any other action, cannot have constant predictable consequences. Although Mill held civic rights in high regard, this is pertinent to citizens of a country and not to foreigners, especially those who have been linked to criminal activities. If the suspect in question did not have citizenship and was known to have ties with terrorist activity, the utility of not torturing the suspect does not hold up to the utility torturing and likely obtaining information from said suspect under Mill’s view of utilitarianism.” (Curtis 5).
My tone in this passage, and certainly in the rest of this paper, is completely different from my other philosophy paper. Here, my own opinions and arguments are dominant and my tone sounds energized. Throughout the paper, I not only make original arguments, but address and contest many counterarguments to further support my claims. This change in tone and depth of material is no doubt because of my enthusiasm for the topic, which I was able to choose. The contrast between these two papers shows that while in both papers I was able to complete the assignment with quality work, in papers where I’m excited and motivated to write, the writing turns out to be of higher quality and more interesting to read.
One of the violent scenes from Breaking Bad I discussed in my paper, “The Meaning of Violence”
My most investigative and motivated writing yet was produced last semester in my English 325: Art of the Essay class. I started thinking about violence and its meaning and role on television and in movies after completing Breaking Bad, the award-winning but highly violent television series from AMC. I’ve never enjoyed watching human suffering on screen but after watching and loving Breaking Bad so much, I had to wonder why I still enjoyed it even with such violent scenes. Then it dawned on me that it was possible to use violence in a meaningful way, particularly to show transformation in a character’s moral compass. I wrote my subsequent essay, “The Meaning of Violence,” on the ways our culture displays and uses violence in film and television and what the effects of this are. I was so passionate and interested in this topic that I wrote the draft for this essay in about four hours. My professor told me it was my best work of the semester and I agreed: once again my passion for the subject I was writing on enabled me to produce my highest quality of writing.
My interest for our society’s production of violence in film and television inspired me so much so that I decided to continue my investigation by focusing on a specific phenomenon of real-world violence for my Capstone Project. In my project, I will be investigating the unsolved murders of hundreds of women in Juarez, Mexico, while incorporating my own personal narrative that touches on my knowledge of Ethics and philosophy. I almost feel as though this project chose me instead of me choosing it because I stumbled upon it by accident while working in the Hatcher Graduate Library shelving books. I stopped working and started to read about the hundreds of women and girls being kidnapped and murdered just across our border and was horrified both by my ignorance of the subject and by the subject itself. With so many innocent voices being silenced just across our border, I felt compelled to share these women’s stories. I see my Capstone as the pinnacle example of how much impassioned writing can impact a student’s success, and I expect my project will show how well I have learned to express my passion for humanitarian issues through extensive research, compelling arguments, and emotionally provoking media.
Throughout my four years in college, I’ve watched myself transform as a writer and as a person. As a freshman, I was a good student who knew how to write what I was instructed to write. Now, I’m a writer who thrives off of “free topics” and takes both great pain and pleasure in deciding what topic I want to dedicate each paper to. Eventually, I found my fervent, activist voice through my college writing courses. But this was only after almost half-way through my college career and only after I took an extremely influential class by chance. I don’t think my love for writing is unique. In fact, I’m quite sure every student can find something they’re genuinely interested in or puzzled by and through writing on that subject, can find enjoyment in the writing process itself. But this experience needs to be integrated into English 111 and 112, not in various English and writing courses which students may or may not take. I believe the University should instate mandatory writing workshops for all freshman that help them learn to effectively brainstorm, free-write, and search their soul to find out what they care about enough to argue for in their writing. I could not have learned how to be introspective about what I’m interested in and how to write well on these subjects without proper instruction from professors. Because this type of writing has helped me so much in all areas of my studies and in planning my future career, the university should make more of an effort not to just teach students to write with their heads, but with their heart as well.