How do worlds end?
In a supernova flash, or a whimpering flicker?
Which world ended today? Just a small one, as I finished my last writing conference at the USP Writing Centre yesterday, at about 3pm. It did not dawn on me until midway through the session, as I laboured to explain what was problematic in a freshman’s essay draft on human trafficking in Singapore, that this was perhaps the last time I would be working in this capacity.
Of course, I dramatize, because life would be dreadfully dull otherwise. We have the responsibility to decorate our own gardens, after all; only we can weave myths out of our seemingly mundane lives. And it what a strange little journey it has been, working as a Writing Assistant in the Writing Centre of the University Scholars Programme (USP).
I first signed up to be a Writing Assistant at the end of my freshman year, with little idea of what the job entailed exactly. They were calling for people who had done relatively well in their freshmen writing seminar to help. And, although I’d had little experience previously with vetting people’s essays, I thought it was quite a good way to earn some pocket money, while learning about the finer mechanics of essay-writing, by teaching others about the same thing. Even then, I was aware that I had a small gift for writing, and I genuinely wanted to share it. Seeing good friends (often in the Sciences or Engineering) struggle with writing lengthy academic papers reminded me of my JC days, when I had been hurled into the deep end, largely without help, to learn my APA from my MLA. I didn’t want anyone to go through that kind of darkness again, if it was possible.
So I knew I had a mild talent (if talent is indeed the word) – but it arose at that time largely from intuition. I know certain sentence structures and phrases sounded right; I just didn’t know why they worked.
I remember my interview for this little job, and the senior writing assistants (WA) looking on in amusement at my attempts to “help” them, as per the interview instructions. Back then, unequipped with better essay-writing vocabulary, I spoke continually in metaphors in a desperate attempt to help people with their essays. The essay is a house, I remember hastily trying to explain, and your introduction is a roof. And you need a roof, I intoned, otherwise what’s going to happen when it rains? Since then, I’ve gotten better at my metaphors.
These days, I use the hamburger as a metaphor.
Days in Writing
Working at the Writing Centre will never make you rich, in case you’re wondering. You earn perhaps four to six times more per hour if you went out to work as a tuition teacher. If money is what you’re looking to earn, this place at the USP Learn Lobe is not where you want to be applying to. It’s a good way to earn some pocket money, I suppose.
There were other things that I’ve picked up in my time here, however. Granted, it’s a nice room with pretty comfortable sofas (and quite a choice selection of teas and biscuits, I must say). But this place wasn’t just a comfortable place to chill out and earn some “easy” money at.
Being a Writing Assistant is not necessarily an easy job. You have to attend training sessions in the holidays. On a normal work week, you work about 2 or 3 one-hour shifts. That doesn’t sound like a lot, of course. But then again, each hour is effectively a fully focused hour, listening as attentively as you can to a student writer, and the problems they have with their essays, or their writing, or their Writing modules. Then you produce a report you have to upload for future reference: what did you do that day? How would you evaluate this session?
Being a WA is not always an easy job. On good days, you have students who already know what they don’t know, and simply need you to read through their drafts, to see if they “make sense”. Or it’s a brainstorming session where you’re exploring a myriad options with the student writer on what they can write about. Tangentially, through the essays of student writers, you learn about an eclectic array of issues, from cosmopolitanism to narrative theory to moral relativism to utilitarianism.
On not-so-good days, you have students who don’t know what they don’t know, and you try to break it to them as nicely as possible that they may have to overhaul their entire papers. You try to piece together some meaning from fractured grammar, all the while remembering that these are frightened, exhausted kids who had never written a two-thousand-word essay in their entire lives.
And on bad days, it’s like the postmodernist philosophers (but sometimes the combo stacks higher) have invaded the room: because all meaning flees the essay drafts, the conversation, the consultation; you’re no longer sure if “all interpretations are valid” or it’s just your freshman who has simply lost himself in his own tangled webs of readings and jargon, or you have. On some bad days you try to rein your frustration in: at professors of writing classes (at least, that’s how the module was described to the freshmen who unknowingly enrolled) who never bothered to teach terrified freshmen how to craft an introduction nor a conclusion; at the painfully steep learning curves these brave, crazy freshmen have to endure. Where is the Justice in that, you wonder.
Payment in Kind
Being a Writing Assistant isn’t easy on some days, but the job pays for itself in other ways, in little things. I’ve never been a businessman, and reading the jargon emanating from the startup scene with a critical eye fills me with a vague horror. So the profit margin has never been a Key Performance Indicator for me.
I blame this on my parents, who never felt that their individual careers were as important as the kids they raised. I blame it on my parents too, who gave me ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ to read at the tender age of 14. The story of a university professor who filled his dying days with laughter, love and light made me decide early in my adolescence that money could not be the main indicator of my success in life.
I think this has bled into my time as a WA, because although ten dollars an hour is not much, I have felt so much richer for having worked nearly three academic years in this position. I have been ‘paid’ in the connections and friendships forged with freshmen and juniors over the years. I have been ‘paid’ with juniors coming up to me with wide smiles on their faces – in the lifts, in the Dining Hall, in the corridors – telling me that the essays I had once helped them with turned out alright, or better than alright. And that in itself would have been payment in its own right, sufficient for me, if not for the fact that we live in a monetary society which does not subsist so well on goodwill.
Cynical as I often am, I speak from lived experience in saying that the joy of being a WA has been in the act of helping, of giving. In the look of relief at having a point finally clarified. In the loosening of lines on an exhausted face when you tell them their essay actually makes sense, or reads smoothly. In the glow when you tell them the little things about their writing, which you liked, which they never thought was there, which they never thought they were themselves capable of. It was in being a WA then, in the act of giving a little of my time and effort across these three years, that I was also given a piece of myself to be proud of: that I was capable of giving light, and of lightening someone else’s load, if only momentarily, with some of the talents which had been given unto me.
Because you can’t have a hamburger if you don’t have the bottom bun!
A conclusion restates and summarizes. On a more tangible level, it reminds the reader what you as the writer had set out to do in your Introduction, and how you have achieved this throughout the course of your 2000/4000/15,000-word essay. You want to show your reader that you have indeed achieved, conclusively, what you set out to prove, or what you set out to argue. It sends the reader off nicely and politely, and closes the door for the reader after he leaves.
Save a previous post taken from my Senior Seminar ePortfolio, I have rarely waxed lyrical about my time as a Writing Assistant in USP. In part, this is because it is a rather boring job. Editing essays isn’t a particularly hilarious occupation, and the horror stories often happen at the sentence-level, if you don’t count the criminally painful jargon employed (or deployed) against hapless, unwitting freshmen by the likes of Appiah, Harman or Brink.
But to borrow the words of Catherine from Wuthering Heights, this job has been a “source of little visible delight, but necessary”. In helping people to hone their writing and sharpen their conceptualizations, I have also picked up many things in the process. Being a WA isn’t just about knowing what is/not a shitty essay. It’s also about how to listen, how to speak to people, how to couch your criticism so that people will still be willing to listen. It’s also about learning how to listen – not just to arguments used, but the weariness/panic/fear/joy in a student writer, when s/he comes to the Writing Centre for help.
As my last university semester draws to an increasingly definite close, my sentimental side helplessly romanticizes every ending. At 3pm yesterday, one of the little corners of my USP life flickered, and finally went out. You wouldn’t have noticed if you weren’t looking; and I almost forgot the significance of the moment myself.
But three academic years listening and helping student writers with their writing have also shaped and moulded me in turn. Again, the only words on my tongue are “thank you”: because I have made some pocket money along the way; because I have learnt (largely by teaching and repetition, partly by negative example) what works in a tight, compelling piece of writing; but mainly because of the juniors and the friends I have helped and won along the way in this little journey. I am glad then, that three years ago, I took a little jump.
A teacher once told me that it is not only about making the right choices; you also have the responsibility to make the choice right. In this instance, I am glad that I have made that choice write.