Introducing my Capstone Project: Going Behind the Student Activist Leader Curtain

Hello, minor in writing community!

I can’t believe the time has come to report out about my capstone project. It feels like I was in the North Quad classroom for my gateway class last semester. Congrats to everyone on completing their gateway and capstone projects–and a special congratulations to the class of 2019!

I am bittersweet to share that I have officially finished my minor in writing capstone project: Going Behind the Student Activist Leader Curtain.

The opportunity to pursue my capstone project came at the perfect time: my final semester at the University of Michigan. I entered this project with a mission to provide student activists with a platform to elevate and empower their voices and work, but it also became an opportunity for me and the interviewees to mutually reflect on our time at Michigan and what the ideal Michigan would be like.

Through interviewing the various student activist leaders, I unexpectedly found myself using the post-interview conversation to reflect on our Michigan experiences. As I come to the end of my career, I am incredibly happy that I applied for the minor in writing. As a former speech and debate nerd, I have been able to use my minor in writing work to continue to polish my communication skills and learn how to better use my voice to serve others. More importantly, through this capstone project–and some other assignments–I have also begun my journey of helping provide others with platforms to empower their own voices.

What I wasn’t expecting from completing my capstone project was the array of emotions I and the interviewees experienced throughout the process. In navigating the interviews, I had a few unexpected heart-to-heart moments with the interviewees. The most notable was when we would discuss their campus legacies, realizing how one person can make a genuine, productive impact on our campus community. The other teary moments were completely unexpected: when I would simply say “thank you on behalf of the student body.” Almost all interviewees had the same glassy-eye, teary response. It left me speechless as I had the realization many of these critical student leaders seldom received any gratitude.

Thank you to all my friends, family, classmates, and educators (shout out, Shelley, for dealing with me twice! 🙂 ) for helping me complete my capstone project–and helping me navigate my Michigan experience. Although our campus is not a perfect institution, I hope my capstone project will help our campus community get even closer to our ideal Michigan.

Before I start getting too emotional…

You can check out my project, Going Behind the Student Activist Leader curtain here. I hope you enjoy–and become more cognizant of some of the incredible student activist leaders on our campus.

Re: Why I Write (Writer to Writer Blog Post)

Reflecting on Lauren Weiss’s Why I Write post on the Writer to Writer blog led me to consider my self characterization in my past pieces. I ultimately found in my most common work, academic argumentative essay and memos, that using first person was typically easy, which is weird because prior to college I was taught that using first person in formal writing is unprofessional and therefore a vulnerability. However, after my minor in writing gateway course and a few public policy project submissions, I found that first person—most notably the use of “I”—can help the concision and clarity of my work, even if it’s for a formal setting.

What I didn’t expect my reflection to illuminate is my similarity to Lauren’s cautious use of first person in personal narratives. Although ego plays a role in most works, my fear is less about ego and more about self-preservation. I found that when I tell revealing stories about myself and my past experiences that I usually think it through—and often times write—in third person. For me, third person self-characterization in personal narratives acts like a shield from perceived vulnerabilities and potential embarrassment. Although it’s a simple change of a few letters, the difference lets my guard down enough to jump deeper into raw emotions—and be more revealing in my story telling.

Like Lauren, I find comfort in using “he” instead of I. But, I also have a part of myself that feels required (for a lack of a better term) to be honest and clearly state: I. Why would I accredit by experiences to someone else? Perhaps Lauren is right. My ego falsely obligates to take clear ownership over my experience and ideas. Maybe not? Regardless, that internal voice in my head reminding me to be honest usually wins, and I fear it undermines the potential of my writing.

In actuality, I wish I used “he” more because I think I too often re-construct a sentence or reconsider revelations merely because I feel the use of I in submitted writing forever ties me to the content. It’s like taking a harsh look into the mirror fearing the potential consequences of others knowing what’s beneath the surface. Is that unique to me? Is that just simple insecurity? For example, my minor in writing gateway project was a space for me to explore myself and some of the struggles I was going through my sophomore year. In those pieces, my mere use of first person served as a constant reminder of the fear of going public and being honest with the world about what I’ve experienced and how I feel. I am thankful Lauren’s piece made me more cognizant about the implications of speaks about myself in first versus third person, but I’m disappointed that it matters. I am all about raw, honest truth and emotion, but even I have a double standard to myself. It’s time to break through that fear. Does it start by using 3rd person for myself as a stepping stone? I guess he’ll see.

Writer to Writer Interview: Heather Ann Thompson

The first interview I listened to from the Writer to Writer series was Shelley’s Manis’s interview of Heather Ann Thompson. In addition to being a member of the University of Michigan’s Department of Afro-American and African Studies, Department of History, and the Residential College, Thompson regularly writes about the history of policing, mass incarceration and the current criminal justice system for high profile news sources including, The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, and The Washington Post. Her work, ranging from exposing prisoner mistreatment in a South Carolina jail to unwarranted policing policy, indubitably helps illuminate injustice within the American justice system.

         What I found most compelling to me as a minor in writing was Thompson’s emphasis on ensuring the accessibility of her writing to all audiences. As our nation navigates the current politically turbulent times and grapples with the consequences of past and current institutional and systemic discrimination, writing, such as news articles, social media posts, academic articles, journals, and more, can—intentionally or unintentionally—serve as an accessibility barrier for communication and knowledge. Her interview served as a reminder of one of my greatest personal lessons from the Miw gateway course: writing is an art and its value is derived from its ability to effectively, productively, and genuinely communicate to audiences.  

         When I was a younger writer, I often times found myself believing that using sophisticated, complex words and grammatical structures meant stronger writer. The series of academic articles and readings assigned over the years inundated with in-field jargon and weird grammatical presentation reinforced this perception. Consequently, I would attempt to improve my writing by creating unnecessary, super complex sentence structures, spending too much time searching on the Thesaurus website, and squandering my time on “sounding right.”

Needless to say, I was wrong. Very wrong.

         Now, as I come to the end of my Capstone course, I have realized that I measure the strength of writing not in sophisticated word choice or unusual sentence structure, but in effective communication, concision—and perhaps now: accessibility. What does it mean to have a well-written piece if audiences can’t access its meaning and purpose? That’s not to say different audiences can’t have different interpretations. But, writing, especially the forms I want contribute to in policy, law, and social justice, should not perpetuate barriers to the information the piece seeks to communicate.

Goodbye, Gateway!

Wow! I can’t believe it’s December already.

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The past semester has certainly been an interesting obstacle for me. I’m not sure whether the sophomore slump is real or it’s just one of those periods in your life.

I don’t often believe in fate, but the Minor in Writing gateway course could not have come at a better time. The last semester has actually been a rough, yet productive learning experience for me. Despite many success, Fall 2016 certainly had some of my life’s lowest lows. I genuinely believe that I could have sunk even lower had Writing 220 not been in my schedule because the course gave me an outlet to explore my feelings and evaluate my situation.

I originally applied to the minor because I knew I wanted to improve my writing through mechanisms like word choice and sentence construction, but to my surprise the class forced me to use my writing to improve myself.

I learned a lot about the art of writing. Shitty drafts should not be a source of vulnerability; in fact, they are normal. Writing can be strengthened by proper word choice and sentence construction, but the true value lays in the content behind the message and a writer’s ability to communicate to his or her audience.

Although I have found my voice and started constructing clearer messages, I still have a way to go. My struggle with word choice, concise statements, and sentence construction will be the topic of discussion for my next writing course, and my writing voice is still too conversational at the wrong times. I want to learn how to better embed arguments within a piece and do so with a non-condescending authoritative tone.

The gateway course was an experience. I started the semester uncertain about which original piece to use and what genres I wanted to explore. Now, after my final submission, I am happy that I made the decisions I did. I was able to open up and become more honest with the world. The drafts and edits of my works reflect my journey outside of the classroom during my off semester, yet I sit here now with a sense of ease and excitement for next semester. It may sound corny or cliche, but writing helped me work through what could have truly been a catastrophe.

Lastly, I’d like to thank Shelley. The conversation about my pieces have been more than just editing sessions. Words seemingly flow more easily when I sit to write now because you helped me find my purpose for writing, and I will always appreciate that.

Without further to do, I introduce my Gateway blog.

Thank you for a great semester, Writing 220.

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A Letter to Future Gateway Students

Future Gateway Student,

Breathe.

You are certainly not a number to the Minor in Writing. You are you, and the gateway class will help you explore whomever you believe you are..

The journey you are about experience will be one of the most informative of your college career so far. The writing minor gateway class is unlike any of your other classes. There is no cramming, no memorization, no true target. It is exclusively up to  you how this class will academically service you. You merely need to show up and involve yourself in the daily discourse to  jump into the deep end. Try not to skip the readings ~ they are the heart of self improvement in this course as you may soon realize some of the greatest writers have a lot in common with you.

What is writing? Why do you write? What is good writing? Does good writing exist? Do not worry about the bigger questions. Just write. Struggling to make the first blog post? Just let the words flow. Afraid to speak during the first conversation about an article? Just let the words flow. Unsure where you want your major project to go? Just let the words flow. If there is one piece of advice I can give you, it’s just let the words flow. The gateway class is about getting the first “shitty draft” out and returning to it for improvement. You will realize that sometimes a heat-of-the-moment fire of writing will let you delve into a sea of honesty and raw emotion. Don’t be afraid to jump. The words on the page, although they may appear to be at first, are not a stranger. The words are you. Use the paper to have conversation with yourself.

Unlike Orgo or States, there is no wrong answer in this room, and there certainly is a multitude of routes to arrive at one. Some of your peers will use this class to improve their professional career aspirations while others may use this course to explore themselves. You will read personal narratives, poems, journal entries, research reviews, and genres you didn’t consciously realize existed.  What will draw every one together is a desire to explore. Try to figure out how the words can be written on a page in an intriguing and meaningful way to communicate your story.

I started this semester a bit knocked down. The sophomore slump can be real (perhaps more real than the freshman 15). The gateway course has made writing much easier for me. I’m not perfect, nor will I ever be, but I am willing to let the words flow and get lost in my own brain.

Be careful not to procrastinate too much on first drafts. Once a full draft is done it’s much easier to take your time to return to, but make sure – no matter how bad it may be – to power through and pump out the first round, ALWAYS. You’ll be happy you did.

And even on nights when you get very little sleep, show up to class!

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Enjoy the journey.

Sincerely,

Daniel Greene

Re-visiting Sullivan’s “Why I Blog”

My biggest challenge in academics is motivation and judgement. I too often find myself being lazy and fearful of judgement from professors and my peers for what I write on a page. No, I do genuinely enjoy, and I love the intellectual curiosity it provokes. What I don’t like is sitting in front of a computer to an open, lifeless, and boring word document staring into my eyes like a blinding light at the end of a dark tunnel.

My entire life I have always put off my writing to the last minute. The debate case in high school? I probably wrote the night before. The political science paper? I probably wrote the hours before. That article I wanted to write for fun? I wrote a paragraph and then got too lazy. Writing has always been a hassle for me. I don’t like writing, and I’m not sure why. I can articulate what I want to say – or so I think – but I don’t enjoy watching minutes converge into hours as I stare blankly at a screen awaiting the perfect Facebook or Gmail notification to distract me.

Blogging on the other hand feels different. I just let it happen. My thoughts and opinions, which are always subject to change, seem to flow in a more natural and organic process. I don’t struggle for words or ideas – although I certainly misuse plenty of words. I don’t hesitate; rather I just write, and write, and write. I don’t look back.

The difference between writing and blogging to me is who I do it for. I am having fun right now. I am challenging myself inside like a pac-man game searching for the right things to say, yet I am enjoying every point I eat along the way. I don’t have writer’s block when I blog. I even feel slightly more intellectual despite the informal writing style (not in an obnoxious way).

So, why take the minor? I want my words to mean something. I want to transfer the excitement and delicacy I have with blogging into my other modes of writing. My voice matters (to me) and I want the special signature to carry over to my other submissions.

Didion has a special way of taking a location or event and writing a sentence about it and allowing that to set a trajectory. I don’t work like that – or so I don’t think. I can certainly be inspired by my environment as such is true for any human, but I can’t see something or someone and let my sentence description turn into a plot line. Sorry, Victor. I still don’t know who you are.

I do, however, find myself motivated by the very same things as Orwell. I do like the reward of writing. I love seeing how and what other people respond. It is a slight ego boost, and I love pointing out the flaws in things.

But, above all, I want to share my thoughts and ideas. I am not afraid of the truth or my opinion, and I think that’s why blogging works for me. It’s the raw, honest, in-the-moment truth Sullivan seeks, and I love it. Blogging is more me exploring myself and my thoughts than anything else. It’s almost like the impulse Facebook statuses one makes just to get likes.

I want to be funny and witty, and let the world know what I think is wrong with it just like:

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If for no other reason, I blog to share my experiences. I want to share my story. I am not special nor do the events in my life differ significantly from others, but I do believe I see the world through a unique lens, and I want to share that with audiences willing to listen.

 

Drafting and Revising Your Project

A major question in the writing minor is why do I write, and I genuinely do believe it’s a sincere question that has driven me through the assignments so far. No, I am not saying that for “brownie points.” It is a genuine question I have been asking myself because I have had so much freedom in choosing the pieces for the class and how to transform them into special works. Rather than another english or political science argumentative essay, I am using my writing for another means: exploring my own thought and character. I have genuinely enjoyed the journey so far as I have actually learned equally as much about myself and who I am as I have about writing more effectively.

Within the idea of writing about myself, I still have much to gain. Both peer edits mentioned desire for more of my personal stories. I think moving into the next draft, I will think about my work more from within. Although it is my eyes that have witnessed the events portrayed within my piece, I still neglect to get to my own truly raw, honest  story.

Something I have had to acknowledge to myself is that a lot of the information and memories I am writing about leave me vulnerable. I am openly discussing many individuals who have joined, entered, and exited my life over the past year at Michigan, and I have to be careful to let the content of the story remain factual, but I have to balance it with my emotional reality.

When I write for most classes I listen to classical music (and always the same one, OCD MUCH?): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2LM3ZlcDnk

For Writing 220, however, I find myself listening to my normal Spotify playlist. What is even more interesting is that occasionally I catch my thoughts flowing towards the emotion in the song. If an upbeat song comes on then I view the situations in a positive manner, and if a sadder song plays in my headset, the emotion seems to transfer into my writing.

The biggest component moving into the next phase for me is truly asking the question as to why I am writing. This project has morphed many times and currently lacks a easily understood genre because I know I am using the writing to face issues internally, yet I am not at the point where I know what those issues are. No, do not worry. I am not concerned at all for neither my writing nor my mental health. I’ve had a recent breakup and few other events that have knocked me down a few pegs, and I think that despite the heavy topic, this piece is allowing me to make my comeback because it’s allowing my to re-find my values and motivations and articulate them for the world.

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Re-Purposing Project: Progress Report

College is full of opportunities and experience. Some provide instant benefits while others act as stress creators. All, however, are learning opportunities. The topic of my re-purposing project is anxiety, stress, and mental health (wellbeing) of students on campus, and I hope to create a piece that explores the unspoken, common phenomena through the perspective of investigative journalism.  Ideally, it would have a “War on Anxiety” coverage appeal to it, but I continuously alter the project’s trajectory with every turn as I learn more about myself and our community.

The question as to why I write wanders through my thoughts occasionally. My current answer is because I want to know more about the world and myself. I chose this writing topic and original piece because it’s providing me an emotional release for a plethora of events that have occurred in my life over the past few months. It’s interesting because in a round-about way, this assignment is the long sought closure I won’t be getting elsewhere.

The writing minor in general is less about word choice and more about intellectual articulation – in whatever form it may take. The writing has forced me to look deeper into myself and my friends. It has made me realize how perfectly unperfected our world is.

The topics covered in this class have helped my writing process a lot too. I find myself having less confidence (yes, less!) in a productive way that allows me to just write freely, yet it leaves me more willing to criticize my writing. Tired? Hungry? Stressed? On my A-game? I am able and willing to write in any condition and let the ideas and words flow, and I love looking at what comes out in the different states.

Fun fact: writing while hangry made my writing voice rather snarky, but when I read it again later it was rather humorous.

My worries (if I can even call them that) is incorporating more images into my writing. I want it to have a battle-line-esque feel, but I’m not sure what images I want to include. The identities of the subjects I will explore in my writing should be protected, so I am challenging myself to take an artsy, yet humanizing approach to visualizing their stories. Perhaps I will take pictures of the locations certain event occurred and go from there.

In the end, I hope to look at the content behind my first and second draft and think:

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Planning Project 1

The greatest struggle for me when writing is allowing myself to be vulnerable – on record. I have never denied who I am or how I feel, but I usually do so exclusively via my articulated voice. There is something ominous and definite about putting my inner thoughts into words. I fear future repercussion or over-exposure to my infant thoughts.

But, why do we write? Why do I want to write? I want to communicate what I am really thinking, but not another speech and debate case analyzing mundane facts. I want to invite the world into my personal experience. We can write to discuss, but perhaps the greatest strength of human intellect is the ability to understand perspective and context. If we truly get wiser with age because of more experience, then why can’t we experience more via the writing of others?

I genuinely believe more can be learned from a honest, short anecdote about a meaningful moment – good or bad – than the first 100 pages of any textbook. Human progress is built upon experiences, and if writers are more honest about their experiences (from before said event through initial responses and all the way through longterm reflection) then we all become better audience members to the greatest story of all: life.

I do not have one example of writing that I consider perfect or want to emulate; I have more of a genre. I never thought I’d submit this for academic purpose, but the “Confession Blogs” on Tumblr are what I believe to be some of the greatest pieces of literature.

https://www.tumblr.com/tagged/confession-blogs

No, I do not have a Tumblr nor do I spend enormous periods of time on it. I do, however, genuinely appreciate and admire confession blogs. I like the raw, honest emotion conveyed on short recalls of experiences. The information provided is not redundant nor does it circumvent the truth. The confession blogs are infinite loops of wit, insecurity, embarrassment, and voice tangled together with constant changes. Better yet, they are seemingly masked by internet anonymity, yet re-humanized with occasional images accompanying the stories.

The construction of the pieces are conversational. It’s almost fun to attempt a voice of the unknown writer in your head. Is it a he? she? How old are they? The pieces are short. The words are chosen wisely to convey the experience emotionally. You can sense the reader’s embarrassed red face or half grin behind the joke. Yet, you know very little about the writer. They do not introduce themselves. They do not give you pages to read. The usually give you a few paragraphs, and we accept that has a full, meaningful human experience. They break the rules. And. they. do. it. all. the. time. Did your brain chop up the past sentence? The confession bloggers know how to let you in their heads to know exactly what’s going on.

A blog post is a peak into the world through a pair of unfamiliar eyes, but a more than familiar mind.

What are Multimodal Projects?

The opening chapter of the Writing/Designer book introduced me to a new means of analyzing the content regularly communicated to me. From simple texts to political ads to even Michigan Daily articles, I have consciously received messages and knowledge from texts while my subconscious has received a plethora of signals that manipulate the way in which I received those very messages. I think it’s safe to say every form of communication in the year 2016 is multimodel — or has more than one component of the New London Group’s categorization of modes: linguistic, visual, spacial, aural, and gestural.

Although the digested mental information we receive from an ad we watch or an article we read may seem exclusively based on the textual message, we regularly fall victim to what I describe as context. Take for an example the recent political campaign put forth by the Clinton campaign.

The quotes alone from Trump carry negative connotations regardless of political views. The implied message is clear: do you really want a man who speaks so “unprofessionally” to be the next leader of America’s future? But the campaign takes the textual evidence to the next level to play into the emotions of its audience. Visually, the video juxtaposes a future under Trump versus a future under Clinton with the use of darkness and shadowing. While in the Trump portion, the visual mode of communication subconsciously predisposes the audience to anxiety and fear, which rapidly disappears upon the entry of Clinton’s portion with full light and a comforting aesthetic. The aural messaging also create a clear divide as the somber, gloomy music playing behind Trump’s voice only furthers the provoked fear behind his quotes.

The multimodel display is crucial. Clinton could merely tweet his quotes or discuss it in an interview or debate, but her campaign’s choice to release an ad optimizes the ability to exploit Trump’s sound bites and shortcomings through a perfectly blended multimodel composition. Yes, we, The People, know the quotes are bad for any American to say (let alone a presidential candidate), but they need to be taken beyond face value. The other modes help us necessarily delve deeper into the severity of his quotes. We wouldn’t normally consider vulnerable children listening to his message or what how it can shape our families’ futures, but the message hits home because of the multimodel aspects.

I’ll be honest. I use to think pictures and videos were a blogger’s way of being lazy. I thought pictures could be nice, but it could be done better in words. I was wrong. What better way is there to convey a message than to provide an audience with as much material as possible?

Take for example, Buzzfeed’s article 12 Millennials Who Actually Give a Shit. 

https://www.buzzfeed.com/moreofthis/millennials-who-actually-give-a-shit-and-why-you-should-t?utm_term=.ngJvqqg2#.ggew44Vv

The stories and actions of the text are strong, but as a writer the images push the message so much further. Every reader (And writer!) has personal bias. We can’t help but to grow up in a world where everything is relative to our own experience. It’s not because we’re bad humans; it’s because we are human. By blending the visual mode in the piece, Buzzfeed detracts unnecessary effort from the reader. The simple picture of all 12 millennials makes the stories more compelling — more human. It’s transforms the textual intent of the piece from simple anecdotes to inspiring, tangible people. It practically humanizes the literal words because without pictures we are seemingly constrained by our own bias in a way that stalls the knowledge gained through readership.

The multimodel approach to communication can also cure a lot of uncertainty. We have all experienced situations where we wish the sarcasm font was real or that we didn’t send the heat-of-the-moment message. Maybe, we sent a perfectly fine Facebook message or text that seemingly unpredictably spiraled out of control. When it comes to solo text, there are two voices. The message is composed in the voice of the writer, yet it is read in the voice of the reader. We assume that a joke or grave statement is clear, but in reality even a basic conversation can be analyzed like an AP Lit essay. Multimodel communication leaves less gray area and ambiguity. Take for example the following text:

“I didn’t like it”

What is the intent? What is the tone? Is it rude? Aggressive? You obviously don’t know the context of the situation, but who wants to receive the text “I didn’t like it”?

A multimodel approach, however, would incorporate maybe a visual and/or gestural aid — via emoji! Dependent on the emoji chosen, the 4 words can be shot anywhere from sarcasm to playful to the beginning of the end. Why leave the answer up for interpretation when you can simply add more to your text? To me, the 5 modes blend to create clearer messages that push the boundary of hitting the writer’s target.

What if we take away the words? Can a message still be conveyed with no text?

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The moving image (GIF) above has no words, yet in context can perfectly convey a message. The expression and gestures of the monkey combine with the lighting and mood to show disapproval or sadness. The visual says more than “I’m sad.” It gives more to the experience of the sender’s true feelings.

Ultimately, an effective message is a clear message. With improved technology, writers are able to do more work for the readers clearing ambiguity and unintentional analysis. Combining each mode only provides more depth and flavor to the words. All the completely multimodel pieces are new, and I think it’s because the means of conveying messages are changing. The presentation is seemingly limitless to the antiquated black and white words on a page.