In the midst of students having more trouble getting a job after college, choosing a major that is more practical such as economics or computer science seems to be the route these days. With students so focused on something that is applicable, one of the main attributes of a liberal arts education becomes lost: writing. Though Brandeis University requires students to take writing intensive courses and makes sure they have a writing background, it is the last thing many students want to do. Fortunately, there are a number of scholars and writing enthusiasts at Brandeis that support students’ journey to becoming better writers.
On Wednesday afternoon in the Alumni Lounge, Prof. Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman (ENG) and Prof. Jasmine Johnson (AAAS) sat down for a discussion on the writing process. The event is part of the “Writers @ Work” series by “Writing @ Brandeis” and is co-sponsored by the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. It was moderated by Gina Pugliese, a current Ph.D. student writing her dissertation and also teaching an African and Afro-American Studies course. Every seat was filled before the start of the event. There were a few professors who came, but most of the seats were taken by students. It was delightful to see a group of students interested in the event.
In the beginning of the discussion, both professors were introduced. Jasmine Johnson is an assistant professor in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies and the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies department. She received her Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from UC Berkeley and served as the postdoctoral fellow in African American Studies at Northwestern University. Now, Johnson is working on her manuscript about the industry of West African dance in the United States and Guinea. Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman is an associate professor of English, African and Afro-American Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She has published and lectured on a variety of topics from the relation of sexuality and social order in New World slavery to the impacts of Civil Rights retrenchment on black family formation and function in the current, putatively “post-racial,” moment. She has received many fellowships, including the Ford Foundation and the W.E.B Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. She is also currently working on her second book called “Millennial Style: The Politics of Experiment in Contemporary African Diasporic Culture.”
They both talked about their love for writing and how they try to fit it in their busy schedules. Johnson doesn’t like to write in long, constraining blocks. She said, “I find it rare when I have lots of time to write, even when I do, most of those times I never write. I try to snatch moments where I can and honor an idea when I have it, rather than necessarily sitting down trying to get it all out.” Abdur-Rahman says she tries to write whenever she can as well. She said, “I do like to be available for the moment, it’s important to devote time and space for the writing. My dissertation was probably written around the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. It was my inaugural experience and in some ways still with me. Writing during those hours when people are sleeping, there’s a quiet time that feels productive.” When both were talking, their writing habits felt easily relatable to many students. We make time for the things we enjoy.
Their sources of inspiration derive from a variety of sources. It was interesting to hear that Johnson still likes to write letters, rather than using email to communicate. She felt as though the words can be expressed more deeply and create a better connection with people. Writing letters may even help her develop more ideas. They also both like to share their ideas for books with other people, as writers usually have their own inner circles to share work with. The main source of inspiration, however, is through reading. It is reading and always wanting to engage in text that originate their desire to write. Johnson emphasizes looking for expression, which she does by reading a lot of fiction. Dancing is also a source of inspiration for Johnson since it displays expression through a different source: movement. A source for Abdur-Rahman is simply the pursuit for an answer, and “wondering what are the kinds of questions that matter now.”
After they answered a few more questions from Pugliese, they both read excerpts from the books they are currently working on. It was pleasant to hear their firm grasp and command for the English language. It makes one realize how important it is to be able to write and communicate well, something that gets lost in students’ pursuit of a practical education.