Our final profiles of Slippery Rock alumni will feature two graduates of the literature program. The first was, at the time of the interview, working towards a graduate degree in education. He was also very much interested in writing on various civic and social justice issues, and didn’t just limit this activity to his assistantship.
The subject is a graduate student who has an assistantship with the university’s Institute for Community, Service-Learning, and Nonprofit Leadership. In that capacity he helps write, edit, and produce the institute’s newsletter, which focused on social justice concerns in their Fall, 2008 issues. The subject also mentioned a blog entry he posted on a Los Angeles news site, opposing Proposition 8 (meant to prohibit same-sex marriage in California), and a letter to the editor he wrote to a Pittsburgh television station regarding tensions on that city’s school board. We had some discussion of the intent and audience for the blog and letter, but spent more time on the same questions connected to the newsletter. He spoke of trying to educate both students and faculty, who form a “happy little microcosm of the world when they’re here,” about such issues as the prevalence of homelessness, and mentioned coordination of one newsletter with the setting up of a “cardboard village on the quad” to dramatize the problem.
Stylistically, the subject mentioned the preservation of the same format from issue to issue of the newsletter, and the reliance on brief bits of factual information placed in bulleted lists. “We think about how the students would actually read it. If you have a quick glance, if you’re walking past and you look at the bulletin board and see a bulleted list, usually you stop and glance at it longer than a paragraph.” He spoke of motivating readers to take action by making such pathetic appeals as focusing on the impact of homelessness on children. Readers are encouraged to attend institute-sponsored events, to visit web-sites for further information, to volunteer and donate, and to initiate programs or activities themselves.
Except for information placed on post-it notes, all of the subject’s writing occurs on a computer. He’ll gather information at meetings with a voice recorder. When creating the newsletter, “usually we start out in Word and then, for statistics and information like that, we …go to web sites, copy and paste what information we need, or just type out a list. And then from there we’ll copy and paste it into Publisher …” Prior to composition of the newsletter, the subject writes in a digital journal, typing “out everything either in a bulleted list or just a big long paragraph of what I know about the subject and kind of do like a free write on what I know.” Journaling was an alternative to outlining, which “really didn’t work for me; it would take forever.” The use of free-writing was developed during his first-year composition sequence, whereas material from his literature classes, like Roland Barthes on the American dust bowl, created a context for the social justice writing. Journaling on his own, rather than just for class assignments, began, he says, in the Practicum and Creative Non-Fiction courses he took from the same professor. Even before his current assistantship he used the voice recorder, while commuting between Slippery Rock and Pittsburgh, to get down thoughts when writing was physically impossible.
While the subject saw the connections between, for example, Dickens and “the five homeless cars that are in the New Castle Wal-Mart,” he expressed pleasure at now writing about contemporary concerns in a more immediate way. He also spoke of a graduate education class which created a “semi-public web site,” using Blackboard “so that other people could see it but it wasn’t public domain so couldn’t get in trouble for copyright infringement.”
Since the subject was in graduate school, he still used certain library research techniques learned as an undergraduate. The subject rejected the use of note cards for research-based writing, preferring to print-out and highlight source material, prior to spreading it out in front of him. Another technique he had developed was to use an Excel spread sheet for creating a bibliography or works cited page. “Make a bunch of blocks, have the author, the citation, and then you can just copy and paste it down, and then put a block for your page numbers and then have your citation, and then I’ve actually printed that out before, and cut and paste, cut the other part and them in order.” For the newsletter, he leans heavily on organizational and government web-sites, while recognizing the lesser reliability of organizational sites advocating for particular policy approaches. Giving undergraduates practice in making such judgments was something we ought to do in our courses, as well as training them to find articles in the library’s databases. He ignored web-sites after awhile because of the greater credibility of the vetted articles but knew he could have used material from those sites if he was better able to sort their content.