Great writing – a terrific goal, but our local liberal arts university sees it as just the ladder. The goal is to write a new narrative for majors steeped in creativity and commentary during an era dominated by science, engineering and technology.
“How do we identify achievement and celebrate the contribution of the more traditional liberal education?” asked President Joseph Sheley of California State University, Stanislaus, sitting in his sunny office. “That education, no matter what the major is, includes competencies, skills sets that should make any graduate a good citizen, good employee and a leader at some point.”
The answer, university faculty decided, was through excellence in writing.
“Good, competent writing can influence decisions and move forward an organization,” Sheley said. “Most of what we do nowadays, in an information-driven society, is find what things are changing and analyze what they mean. It’s wrapped up in good, competent writing.”
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The university’s lofty vision comes with down-to-earth supports, an online initiative with tips and resources to improve student writing. This ladder has rungs.
Greatness Relies On Writing, called by its acronym, the GROW Project, came about through collaboration of faculty and administrators, Sheley said. The site includes videos and links to helpful (and free) online guides, a citation app and the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, with personal tutors and the Grammar Gang blog.
Sheley foresees a day when the site could include student feedback, a virtual writers’ group critiquing online posts. “It could be a place where they can link up, evolve their skills,” he said. “You just have to develop a reasonably thick skin and learn from it.”
It already has a hashtag, #StanWrites. The resource is open to the community, and Sheley hopes high school students will take advantage of it.
“How do you really come prepared, so you don’t hit a wall when you get to college? Writing is just one tool, but it’s a huge one,” he said.
“My message to the students is to work at it. Writing is an art that takes a lifetime to master. If you don’t work on it, you really are shortchanging yourself.”
Sheley speaks of writing as an indicator of many subskills. “Competent writers are going to do better. When it comes down to two equal candidates, the better writer gets the job, gets the promotion,” he said. “It’s value added, and it truly will open doors for them.”
He wants Stan State graduates to be known for strong writing, even in an era of tweets, texts and videos. “Writing skills are precision skills,” he said. “You’ve taken the time to think it through.”
Sheley’s message resonates with a Stanislaus State alum who spends much of every day scribbling notes and tapping a keyboard.
To be clear, I never planned on a liberal arts career. I had two years of college calculus and differential equations under my belt before walking away from engineering to graduate in economics and wind up in the family business. My grandfather, Lowell Jessen, was a small newspaper publisher whose ownings included a half-stake in The Turlock Journal. My mom, Diane Chittock, worked for the United Press International wire service in San Francisco and later covered Turlock city news for the Journal.
I had printer’s ink in my blood. But I’m a writer because I work at it.
Writing for hours every day means lots of practice, which helps me get faster. But to get better takes a long, hard critical look at what I’ve written and admitting it could be better – livelier, pithier, less conventional. It could have bolstered a statement with data, could have paused a moment to let a key point sink in.
Every time I talk at a school about being a writer, it brings up the humbling point that this is a craft we can all do well. It just takes determination, practice and a reasonably thick skin.