What happens when you bring together a group of gifted students in a writing class, almost all of them dedicated to the “STEM” disciplines? What can they teach us, what can we learn from them, about writing and the teaching of writing? Of course such questions constantly inform our work as writing instructors at MIT, yet we don’t often explicitly ask them. However, reading through the essays for this edition of Angles provoked us to step back and think a little harder about these questions.
What we’ve come to recognize is that the approach our colleagues in the STEM disciplines generally teach, and ask of, our students isn’t a bad one at all for us to teach, and ask of, our students in writing classes as well. What’s that approach? It starts, we’d say, with an eye and mind trained to perceive what is truly there in the world, a dedication to precision and accuracy, and a willingness to follow an inquiry through to the end with all the hard work it takes to get there. Ultimately, it’s an honesty of intent—not always neutral, but committed to putting the facts first and to building our collective understanding from there. And we’ve found that when we encourage our students to practice something like this approach as writers—no fancy footwork, no summoning of reluctant muses required—the results are generally gratifying. We hope, as you take a look at the essays in this year’s Angles, you’ll agree.
No doubt these student writers can be ambitious, even grand in what they take on, launching with massive questions like Sam Moore’s “What is mass?” or Christian Cardozo’s ultimate, cosmic question, “What is the scheme of the universe?” But they steer clear of the grandiose. They may embrace the abstract, but as they guide their readers towards a deeper understanding of how best to conceive that abstraction, these student writers take on the role of good teachers themselves, rooting their explanations in the observable and specific—in Moore’s case asking us to contemplate the weightiness of a bowling ball or in Cardozo’s case taking us back to perhaps the most elemental question of all, the one the cavewoman must have asked staring up at the vast starry sky: “What am I looking at?”
We think you’ll recognize too that all these writers are dedicated to uncovering and clarifying the truth, often on the cutting edge of a scientific inquiry which could dramatically improve our lives, as in Clare Liu’s “The Truth about Stem Cells” or Dalia Walzer’s “Our Guts, Our Bodies, Ourselves” or Minyi Lee’s “Anorexia: A Matter of Life and Breadth.” But they’re also brave in their commitment to clarifying the truth about difficult aspects of their own lives, as in Sebasthian Santiago’s “Curtain Call,” Faaya Fulas’ “Transition,” or Brendan Chang’s “Whatever It Takes.” They have fun, too, while seeking the truth about such things as the underlying machinations reshaping a sport—in David Christoff’s “The System”—or their own affinity for old stuff—in Alex Leffell’s “Beautiful Rust.” In general, they like rendering their own internal experience carefully and specifically, rooting their depiction in the sensory, as Annie Kuan does in “Mangoes,” Cheng Dai does in “The Escape,” and Sarah Osmulski does in “Silence.” And they are equally adept at looking intimately at what is front of their noses, with careful and specific rendition of what they see, as in Michael Holachek’s “The Maze” and Therese Santiano-McHatton’s “Ode to Bob Marley.” Truth intrigues them wherever it’s found.
So, yes, this approach which we see so consistently at work in these student essays might be summed up as an integrity of mind and spirit born of a commitment to understanding the world as it is—or at least some particular part of it–then making best use of what can be learned by sharing it with others. We think an insistence on this integrity of approach—this attention to the truth of the world we live in and our relation to it—may be more essential now than it’s ever been.
We would like to thank Dalia Walzer, our editorial assistant, for her great editing and organizational skills. We would also like to express our gratitude to Rebecca Faery who helped launch Angles and served for many years as a board member and editor.
Karen Boiko Lucy Marx Cynthia Taft