By: Kian Yousefi Kousha
As one word finds itself next to another, the ideas in our mind begin to fill pages. These words have the ability to further our imagination and change our lives. Whether conveyed through the dystopian world created by George Orwell or the sentimental spirits of L. M. Montgomery’s characters, words are powerful and writing freely is an indispensable tool.
The concept of free writing has found its way to McMaster University through a new mandatory writing course; Voice and Vision: Words to Change the World, or Humanities 1VV3. The course is offered in the fall and taught by professor Jeffery Donaldson.
The main purpose of the course is to refine students’ thinking, problem-solving skills and most importantly, improve their writing by providing students with writing opportunities they may not have had before.
While the course addresses the expectations for writing in the faculty of humanities and prepares first year students for their undergraduate education, Donaldson hopes that the course will also address the misgivings students’ may have about their own writing.
“One of my main focuses in the course was to find a way of helping students not to think of writing as an onerous activity that they don’t enjoy [or a] writing style that is not natural to them ... I wanted to find a way of organizing a course that would actually be a celebration of the creative energy that is a part of every student’s identity. At that age, they are full of ideas and verbal energy,” explained Donaldson.
The course is taking another approach to writing at the university level by simultaneously celebrating students’ own creativity and preparing them for formal writing in the humanities program. In fact, the core of the course is a free writing assignment where students are asked to write 30 pages of prose on their own topic of choice, without any specifications.
“Our expectation is that [writing 30 pages] is more writing than any of them has ever done. They are getting used to generating prose without any sense that they have to write in any particular way and our goal was to show them that the more writing you do, the more natural your writing becomes,” explained Donaldson.
Throughout the semester, Donaldson saw improvements in the students’ writing. The final 10 pages of the free writing assignment was a major indication of students’ overall growth over time. Donaldson also approached the course by representing writing as a thinking tool for students.
Nader Nagy, one of the students who was enrolled in Humanities 1VV3 this past fall semester, witnessed improvements in his writing. This improvement was attributed to Donaldson’s teaching and approach towards writing through the course’s exercises.
“I want [students] to think of writing as something that is always going on in your mind and you release that and then gradually, as you learn to work with your writing, you adapt it to these [formal writing] constraints,” said Donaldson.
For example, students are encouraged to use first person pronouns as they make their own arguments, which is an opportunity that is considered counterintuitive for formal writing in other courses.
John Stultz believes that the mandatory course taught him and other students how to properly convey themselves by focusing first on learning how to organize and communicate ideas coherently.
Sarah Woodburn considers her experience with the course as a method to ease the path of first year students into essay writing, without enduring the pressure of formal writing.
“It is definitely a new way and a fresh way of looking at English as well as essay writing in a different light that allows students a little more freedom in terms of their writing,” said Woodburn.
Donaldson is looking forward to tracking students’ progress in their four years of undergraduate studies in humanities. He hopes to observe changes in their quality of writing as an aftereffect of taking Humanities 1VV3.
While it will be interesting to observe the long term effects on students’ writing, for now the accounts of individuals involved in the course speak to its unique position within the faculty of humanities. The course focuses on reinventing students’ experiences with writing and giving power back to the students’ voices and visions through words.