Writing to Connect

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The following message was written by Professor Jenn Fishman from Marquette, who was my research partner in the Stanford Study of Writing. Jenn expresses so beautifully the aims of that study, which began shortly after 9/11/2001, and of our deep belief in the power of writing to connect us to others. 


Jenn has given me permission to post her message here and I do so with gratitude. 


In early September, 2001, I was a graduate student and a member of the Stanford Study of Writing research team. At that time, we were preparing to recruit a cohort of entering students for a 5-year longitudinal study of college writing. Members of the Stanford Class of 2005, including the 189 first-year students who joined us, were among the first travelers after the attacks. Since Stanford is on the quarter system, many needed to fly or drive significant distances to reach campus on time for orientation. While all study participants completed surveys and contributed examples of their writing over the next 5 years, a small group also agreed to be interviewed by us annually. Sandy, the student whose reflection is attached to this message, was among that group. 

For me, remembering the confluence of events 16 years ago underscores the importance of writing in the face of tragedy, both in the moment and in reflection years later. As Hurricane Irma wreaks destruction on Florida and Hurricane Jose gathers force; as everyone affected by Hurricane Harvey, the recent earthquake in Mexico, and unprecedented flooding across South Asia works to rebuild their lives; as changing US immigration policies threaten thousands of DREAMers including Marquette's own, I hope we can help students find both refuge and agency in their own and others' writing. 

I share Sandy's words with her permission.

A reflection on starting college immediately after 9/11

Written by Sandy*, a participant in the Stanford Study of Writing and a member of the Stanford Class of 2005. Shared by Jenn Fishman with permission.

September 11th was a Tuesday. I was wrapping up my summer job at my dad's office, making plans to drive from SoCal to Stanford for freshman orientation on September 21st. I was scared - everybody was. That day, I didn't know if all of America was going to blow up; I didn't know if Stanford would start on schedule. But Stanford did, and my dad and I drove north the next week.

We stopped in Sacramento to spend a day rafting on the American River, before heading to Stanford. On September 20th, driving from Sacramento to Palo Alto, we stopped at a small seafood restaurant in Berkeley, CA. The TV was on in the bar, and everybody stopped eating when President Bush addressed Congress.

The President pointed his finger to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda that night, as well as to the Taliban in Afghanistan. He announced the new Department of Homeland Security. He said, "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." He said we would fight the "War on Terror," and that it would have "decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion." I realized this meant we would go to war; I was scared.

Freshman orientation was a whirlwind. I remember sitting on the quad hearing a university official speak about the attacks and what this meant for Stanford. I remember this person talking about Stanford's commitment to diversity and against racism. In less than two weeks, mass racial profiling of young Muslim men had already begun.

School started and the days whizzed by. There was so much to take in that it was hard to think about the world beyond Stanford. I wanted to get involved in journalism, so I found Stanford's radio station, KZSU. At the News Department's first meeting, I invented my own assignment. I decided to attend a Muslim prayer vigil in the courtyard of Old Union. I was proud that the station loaned me brand-new recording equipment. I sat at Old Union during the vigil, wondering about the nature of Muslim American communities and what terrorist organizations actually were, and fearing for my fellow students about the racism that they would encounter.

Four years later, I sat in the Quad again, but this time, I was graduating. The student spoke of entering as a freshman right after September 11th. I knew this had colored my college experience, but it was hard for me to imagine what college would have been like if September 11th hadn't happened.

Now, two and a half years out of college and almost done with law school, I'm beginning to get more perspective. Attending college in the shadow of September 11th made me deeply aware of cultural differences and inspired me to search for ways to bridge them. However, now I also realize how much government propaganda I bought into at the time, for instance, thinking that there was at least some sense to a war in Iraq.

It's taken me over two years of studying law to begin to get a sense of how much the government has used September 11th as an excuse to violate our civil liberties in ways that have no bearing on the "War Against Terror." Now that more time has passed, I've awoken, and I want to be an immigration lawyer and immigrants' rights activist, so that our country treats its newcomers decently.

*  Sandy (a pseudonym) was a member of the cohort we interviewed between 2001 and 2006 for the Stanford Study of Writing. Her experiences as a college writer are also referenced in "Performing Writing, Performing Literacy" (CCC 57.2).

Sandy's reflection exemplifies using writing to process significant events and connect with others. How have you encouraged your students to use writing to connect?

Credit: Pixaby Image 2142402 by joergwunderlich, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.