“Hey Mr. Branson. Is it OK if I write my essay about the effects of divorce on children? My parents are divorced, and I want to write about the impact that divorce has on a child.
For my freshman composition class, I let students write about whatever they want to write about as long as they provide me with a realistic outline. As long as the basic concepts of writing are covered, most English composition classes can be flexible with content. This motivates students to find the right topic for themselves since I am not dictating what they must write about. While students have the freedom to write about whatever they want, students often listen to my suggestions for what they should write about.
So then, if these 18-year-old freshmen take my topic suggestions seriously, what kind of content should I suggest? For English teachers, a question we must answer is “What content will benefit college freshmen the most in the long run?” Typically there are three content categories I commonly see English teachers guide students into for freshman composition: the political angle, the professional angle and the personal angle. While the political and the professional are meaningful categories for composition teachers to suggest to students, I think the personal angle should take top priority for students in 2020.
The personal angle is asking students to address topics such as mental health issues (such as anxiety and depression), communication problems within the family, divorce, grief, relationship problems and existential questions. I intentionally signal to students it is encouraged to explore psychological, philosophical, and sociological issues. This invites students to know that college is a place to ask complex questions.
Too often English teachers suggest only political topics for student reflection and students grow weary about writing another essay about global warming policies. I have run into other students who spent significant time their senior year reflecting on what their future profession could be. If English teachers go overkill on the same topics, students will look sad and reach for their Smartphones. But I've noticed that for some reason students make eye contact with me in classroom discussion when I start talking about anxiety, depression and the meaning of life.
What exactly does encouraging a student to write about his or her personal life look like in ENG 111? The examples English teachers give our students signal to our students what content areas they should explore. Last semester I had my students read a blog entry titled “How to Help a Grieving Friend: 11 Things to Do When You Are Not Sure What to Do.” The goal was to have students to think about how to write a process essay (a “how to” essay). One student approached me after class and asked if she could write about how to help a friend who is grieving. This student had a friend whose child passed away recently, so the topic seemed relevant to her personal life. She did research looking for suggested steps by psychologists and professional counselors on what is suggested to those who are grieving. From what I understand, she has no plans to become a counselor or a therapist, she just wanted to explore research on grief. She was able to wrestle with how to cope with death while also learning the basic skills of writing a college essay.
How Studying Literature Kept a Neurosurgeon Sane
We often forget that the professional and the personal intersect. A person can be completely competent and knowledgeable within their profession but have a personal life that is fragile and chaotic. An employee’s personal life can impact their ability to succeed in their job.
Paul Kalanithi’s story that he shares in his memoir “When Breath Becomes Air” gives a clear example of how the professional and personal intersect. Kalanithi’s memoir is the story of a neurosurgeon who shortly after graduating from medical school, found out he had cancer. His book explores the struggle to cope with his own cancer as a doctor.
Since Kalanithi was nearing death when he wrote this book, it allowed him to be candid about the morally conflicting choices that those in the medical field face on a daily basis. For example, Kalanithi’s friend Jeff, a fellow surgeon, commits suicide after one of Jeff's patients died during surgery. Kalanithi was deeply affected by his friend’s suicide and spends multiple pages reflecting on how surgeons can cope with seeing patients die. In reflection about this tragedy, Kalanithi says this about what he wishes he could have said to his friend Jeff:
“Death comes for all of us. For us, for our patients: it is our fate as living, breathing, metabolizing organisms. . .We had assumed that onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility. Our patients’ lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients.”
This paragraph touches on the everyday weight doctors face who fail to save a patient. If doctors do not know how to personally cope with such situations, they will struggle professionally. While a student might learn how to save lives in medical school, what kind of classes will prepare a student to cope with mortality?
It is unclear in the book as to why the successful surgeon named Jeff committed suicide. However, it is clear that the mind of Paul Kalanithi was strengthened by his studies of literature and philosophy. Kalanithi received his undergraduate degree in literature and his master’s degree in philosophy from Stanford before he decided to attend medical school to become a neurosurgeon. And in today’s professional world-------we have to acknowledge that moral and emotional problems intersect every day with the professional world. Kalanithi’s strength as a neurosurgeon both professionally and emotionally comes from his well-rounded education in both humanities and the sciences.
I am not proposing we force all nurses and doctors to minor in literature or philosophy. However, I am proposing that writing teachers should resist outside pressures that they are wasting their students' time by asking them to write about self-reflective topics.
Developing Professionals Who Are Personally Sane
Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi’s story might seem like an unrealistic comparison to a normal university student considering he is a Standford and Yale graduate. Let’s consider an example we might see within a university student who might attend a community college or university.
Let me give an example of self-education. If a student named Sally enters college at 18 years old wanting to be a nurse. She is excellent in the sciences as she does well in biology and chemistry. She is also taking the required English class and in a conversation with her teacher about what to write about her teacher suggests “write an essay about the effects of growing up in a single-parent household.” This strikes Sally’s interest and she begins to do research about growing up in a single-parent household. She is surprised to find out that there are multiple articles online and an entire book from the library on the topic. When she takes sociology her sophomore year she ends up writing another essay about growing up in a single-parent home after hearing a lecture about family structure. She graduates on time as a nurse and shortly thereafter finds a job.
Sally's research in English 111 leads her to come to the conclusion that there are answers out there regarding the disadvantages of growing up without a father, which pushes her to read more about the topic. One book suggests it would be helpful for her to visit a therapist. Sally eventually decides to start visiting a therapist to discuss her relationship with her mother and to fill the void of an absent father.
Students today can simultaneously develop their personal and professional paths. While Sally will become a nurse at the local hospital, she also has learned the skills of self-reflection along with how to educate herself on problems in her own life. This is a picture of a well-rounded individual, just like Paul Kalanithi.
Reviving the Idea as the University as a Place for Answers
We need to rid ourselves of the idea that the university is a zero-sum game of either developing professional or personally. Both co-exist and aid one another. The university today is more often imagined as a place where people get an education in order to obtain a career. This is good. However, we can make the university experience more attractive by also reviving the idea that a university is a place where students not only find a career, but also a cultural center where people come to find answers in a chaotic world.
If college presidents want to attract students, why not restore the idea that a university is a place where students can have their philosophical and personal questions answered?
According to the May 2020 article in the Atlantic, it seems the next generation is going to have some personal questions they need to unpack. This will not be an option, this will be the emotional reality for many students. The article titled “The Anxious Child and The Crisis of Modern Parenting" explains the rise in anxiety among young people over the last 10-15 years. Journalist Kate Julian writes “Anxiety is, in 2020, ubiquitous, inescapable, an ambient condition. More than a quarter of all doctor visits in America now end with a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication such as Xanax or Valium.” Julian explains that some anxieties children naturally grow out of. However, she says that studies are showing that children who have mental health problems today are having a harder time growing out of anxiety than kids in decades past. Here her explanation of why this is happening:
“The everyday efforts we make to prevent kids’ distress---minimizing things that worry them or scare them, assisting with difficult tasks rather than letting them struggle---may not help them manage it in the long run. When my daughter is in tears because she hasn’t finished a school project that’s due the next morning, I sometimes stop her crying by coaching her through the rest of it. But when I do, she doesn’t learn to handle deadline jitters.”
Julian explains that children today need to learn to cope with their anxieties by slowing facing their fears. She ultimately lays the responsibility of this problem at the parents who often shield or protect their kids from their fears. Julian argues that one of the best ways for young people to overcome anxiety is for them to slowly face their fears, “the goal of exposure is to desensitize you to these things and also give you practice riding our your feelings, rather than avoiding them.” I anticipate that many students will be coping with anxiety who step onto college campuses. This will fall at the feet of college professors to navigate their own mental health. I’ve already seen it happening. Julian’s article aligns with the behavior and conversations I’ve had with my students. It also aligns with the topic choices my students make.
English teachers can offer a place for students to face topics that might be preventing them from thriving later in adulthood. Again, we want to ask “what content or topics will college freshman benefit from writing about the most?” If students can face personal problems that are difficult, it will help them self-educate about their own problems. This will obviously help them become stronger professionals 10 years from now. But even more so, English teachers could help students answer questions that will make them better parents, husbands, wives, and community members.