Co-Creating Communities

Sharon Zuber is the 55th recipient of the Jefferson Award. Photo by Stephen Salpukas.

Receiving the Thomas Jefferson award has given me an opportunity to reflect on the tradition of “community” at William & Mary that has made my job possible.

I’ve been known to confess that I liked college so much that I never left! Why?  I value the spaces – the physical, intellectual, and spiritual spaces – that define our College. In this W&M Community, we are given an opportunity to grow, to thrive, to embrace tradition while redefining and revising that tradition in dynamic ways that often cross disciplinary boundaries.  One example of this process is how the COLLege curriculum builds on and re-visions our Liberal Arts tradition, encouraging us to think in new ways, and one of these spaces is our own Writing Resources Center.

When working on the documentary about the Gloucester, VA, watermen, I learned that a Chesapeake Bay blue crab molts as many as 20 times before reaching maturity.  As learners and educators, we also go through “moltings” – growing and shedding old ways of thinking, working through feelings of discomfort and resistance.  The W&M community provides a place for us to take risks, to experience different cultures, a place that values innovation and critical thinking and encourages collaboration.  At its best, our community gives us a safe space, like the writing center, to try on new ideas and be vulnerable – laying a foundation for our future.

Some of you may choose academics, but every person here has the potential to become a co-creator, a designer, within your chosen communities – those of your family, the workplace, and around the globe; you can do this by building into these spaces support for creativity, compassion, and social justice.

If you do, you will be following in the footsteps of W&M alums who are continuing their education on Broadway stages; at Standing Rock; in the Peace Corps; being thoughtful, supportive partners and parents; coaching and playing sports; producing events and documentaries; and even directing writing centers.

I am proud to be a part of this W&M community and thankful for all of the people who have given me an opportunity to continue to grow and learn!

But I want you to know – I’m still molting.

Thank You.

Writing as Hospitality

consider-before-buying-home-hp-origOne of the most inspiring consultations I have ever had was with a senior science major who wanted to talk about a graduate school essay. I promised I would help her as best as I could, but as a sophomore majoring in two liberal arts fields, I was not that familiar with specific standards for post-graduate STEM applications. As she began to read, I feared that I would not know the right questions to ask her.

It turned out that I didn’t need to know any technical aspects of her field; what she wrote about was not the practice of her science, but the moment she fell in love with it. As she took me through that moment and wove it through her undergraduate experiences, I found myself grinning. I could feel the authenticity in her voice, both the one I was hearing and the one I was seeing on the page. I was overjoyed that she shared her passion for science with me during that hour, and it made our conversation mutually constructive and exciting. She had invited me into her thoughts, and I felt honored to have received the invitation.

One of the hardest, yet most rewarding parts of writing is our desire to portray ourselves truthfully on the page. To pick the perfect arguments, phrases, and words that will make us say, “Yes, that’s me. That’s what I need to say.” In that sense, when we have gone through that process to the best of our abilities and have someone else read our work, we are sharing a piece of ourselves with them. We are inviting them into the world of joys, sorrows, loves, conundrums, and other thoughts and emotions with which we contend everyday.

My science major consultee awed me not only with her words, but also with the trust she placed in me. Reading others’ work, and sharing our own, deepens the empathy and trust inherent in our interpersonal connections. This thought has crossed my mind many times throughout my time in the WRC; in the past semester alone, I’ve read about marine science and international social justice, Socrates and the French Revolution, accounting and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and many topics in between. The diverse conversations and worlds that my fellow students have shared with me are proof of the beauty and bravery of the writing process. Collaborating on a piece opens up new forms of truth and opens our minds to receive them.

When we share and receive writing, we may not know what worlds to expect. Yet we can always honor the invitations and appreciate their design.

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To Obsess is to Progress

Question-GirlDuring my first upper-level creative writing course, my Poetry Workshop professor commented on a progress report, “You often write about your obsessions.” Most of my poetry is reflective of my personal experiences of gender, race, and family dynamics, but I had never thought of any of these things as “obsessions.” My professor intended for his statement to be a compliment, and I thought about it for a long time after reading my report and then adopted it into a mantra of sorts: “write about your obsessions.”

I have interpreted his words to mean that I constantly write to explore my interests, whether conscious or unconscious, and to seek out information that is important to me. I now use this idea of writing about obsessions to guide both my creative and academic writing.

In the context of creative writing, it is easy for me to identify personal experiences and aspects of my identity as topics for my poetry. Most kinds of writing serve the purpose of exploring a topic or finding some kind of resolution to a question or problem; creative writing is arguably the most personal way of accomplishing this purpose. When I apply the concept of writing about obsessions to my creative work, I usually end up with more questions than answers, which is preferable, because they get me thinking. I ask myself questions like “Why is this idea or theme significant to me?” “How can I best convey my feelings about this obsession?” and “Am I obsessed with this idea, event, or person in a good or bad way?” Identifying my underlying motivations for any given poem helps me feel more connected to my work and makes for clearer writing.

Writing about obsessions is also applicable to academic writing, though in a more abstract and constrained sense. Whenever I have to write a paper on a topic I am not particularly enthused about, I take time to think about what I want to know and how that may relate to the assignment. When I find the answer, I have an easier time writing the paper because I can investigate a question that satisfies some obsession of mine, however superficial it may be. It seems like a stretch to find something you’re obsessed with in, say, a Biostatistics research paper, but the point is to avoid limiting yourself.  Thinking about obsessions goes a long way in pinpointing your own interests and making the writing process more meaningful and enjoyable.  

Obsessing in this sense is more about writing the work that you would want to read.


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