If writing is merely putting thoughts down on paper, why do so many people find it so hard, even after spending 12 years in required English classes throughout elementary and high school?
Governors State University’s Laura Muthler White thinks she might know the answer.
“A lot of us have only ever received negative feedback, like ‘this is awkward,’ or ‘this is a dangling modifier,’ ” she said. “I think we learn better with writing when people show us what we’re doing right.”
In class, White provides plenty of encouragement, an approach that seems to bring students good results. “You give them something to build on that they can add to. I’ll say, ‘Yes, and to make this even stronger, you can use a transition and then your reader will totally be with you the whole time,’ ” White said.
She also makes sure students choose topics that intrigue them. “I’d guess 99.9 percent of students say, ‘I like to write when I know something about the topic, when I feel comfortable with a body of knowledge or want to research it.’ ”
Students clearly appreciate White’s efforts, awarding her the 2018 Distinguished Honors Program Mentor award. “It’s a real privilege to be a teacher when they trust you with their writing,” she said. “The classroom is an interpersonal experience and I try to adapt to what the students need. It can be demanding, but seeing what they do with their education is impressive,’’ she said.
White joined GSU in 2010 as an adjunct instructor; she’s now full-time and teaches creative writing as well as first-year composition in the Honors Program. In 2014, she helped guide the university’s first group of first-year honor students in presenting at the Honors Council of the Illinois Region Spring Symposium. In 2018, White was named faculty advisor for the student literary publication, Reconstructed.
GSU Newsroom: What made you want to be a writer?
White: I loved to read as a child. I didn’t write a lot as a kid, but I’d get great feedback when I did. Other people helped me figure out that I had talent in this area. I had some great teachers, and friends who liked to read the stories I wrote. By the time I was done with high school, I knew I wanted to study English in college. I had a voracious appetite for stories and literature, and college really showed me that world. I loved language and loved words. I majored in creative writing, literature, and Spanish.
GSU Newsroom: How did you put your degree to work?
White: I wanted to do so many things. I wanted to be a social worker, so I got a job at a hospital as a translator and helped people apply for public aid. I wanted to be an editor, so I worked in the marketing department of a small university. At Penn State I worked at the publications department and got to write many things for a large university. I especially liked working with its health services department on campaigns to educate students about binge drinking and sexual health. I liked working with designers and seeing what happened when they put my words into print.
GSU Newsroom: What’s most interesting to you about teaching?
White: I’d always wanted to be a teacher, too. I started teaching at Penn State while I was working on my MFA and I really liked it. I began teaching here online 2010 and taught in the first-year writing program when we became a four-year university.
When I walk into a classroom, I’m not teaching the curriculum, I’m teaching the students. Who are these people and what do they need? Sometimes you have a class of introverts who need to work by themselves and the class is very quiet. Then you have other classes where people need to talk a lot. Every class is different. That’s what I’m good at—figuring out who my students are and how can we make this work for them.
GSU Newsroom: What do you enjoy about your work with Reconstructed?
White: I love creating opportunities for GSU students to share their creative work and experience the work of their peers—whether at an Open Mic event or by publishing in our journal. We have so many talented writers and artists here who may or may not be taking classes together, so I hope Reconstructed continues to be a community, a space where they can connect.
Look for the print edition of Reconstructed in the spring. To view it online, visit Reconstructedjournal.com