“The writing was my safe space,” shared one of my former students, Selena Park. “It was healing for me.”
Park was one of 19 students enrolled in my Fall 2019 writing course at Texas Women’s University (TWU), the last semester of relative normalcy before the pandemic uprooted the higher ed landscape.
In college writing classes, it’s not uncommon to read essays interrogating psychological disorders, misogyny, racism, and the deleterious effects of homophobia that have impacted students’ lives. What is novel is the upward trending interest in writing about personal traumas brought on by the pandemic.
More than ever before, college students are writing about uncontrollable feelings of anxiety and depression. Our students are grieving the loss of loved ones due to COVID-19 while others are failing out of school because they struggle to learn in online environments. Worse yet, reports out of The Chronicle of Higher Education confirm what students are cautiously sharing with writing instructors: Young people are being domestically and sexually brutalized by partners at higher rates, thereby making it difficult for them to persist in their studies.
This news shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. We know from recent crises in our nation’s history that rates of sexual violence tend to increase as a result of state- and nationwide emergencies, but we haven’t learned any better. Sexual assault reports increased by 45% during Hurricane Katrina, and just a few months into the pandemic, Harvard Medical School reported that 40% of rape crisis centers had seen an increase in services provided since the pandemic began.
Economically disadvantaged students are dropping out or unenrolling from Texas universities at unprecedented rates — 3%, to be exact, which will result in major long-term deficits. The drop-out rate for two-year colleges is even worse at 8%, but with new research correlating successful performance in first-year writing courses with increased retention, now is the time to fund college writing programs like lives depend on it, especially at minority-serving institutions (MSIs).
If you think that the average college student isn’t stressed, consider a study conducted by the nonprofit Active Minds, which found that in Fall 2019, 39% of college students were experiencing a significant mental health issue and that suicide was the second leading cause of death among college students. The same organization surveyed 2,086 students in April 2020 to find that 80% were reporting that the pandemic was negatively impacting their mental well-being.
The college writing classroom offers a critical vantage point. Not only can writing instructors reach out to students in crisis or on the verge of dropping out, but writing also provides students opportunities to externalize difficult emotions they might not be able to if lacking access to professional counseling.
To be clear, as an assistant professor of English at TWU, I never attempt to counsel students, but I do monitor student mental well-being and do report personal safety concerns. What I am deeply committed to doing for my students is cultivating a classroom where writing about difficult experiences feels therapeutic instead of taboo.
Make no mistake that writing is therapeutic. Several studies confirm that a regular writing practice buoys the emotional well-being of anyone who picks up a pen. In one study from 2017, clinical psychologists randomly assigned 45 patients to a positive writing intervention group and 44 patients to a control group. After four weeks of positive writing, the intervention group “had significantly lower depression scores than controls” and made better use of the emotional regulation strategies they were instructed to use. In that same year, psychological trauma researchers used expressive writing treatment to improve the self-images of women who had been sexually abused as children.
To be sure, not all public universities are anticipating a budgetary slash, but state schools that haven’t been gobbled up by one of the six university systems are feeling a bigger-than-normal pinch. It hurts worse for MSIs like TWU, where the purse strings are being pulled tighter each month. Writing program administrators like myself are working night and day to manage heavy teaching loads brought on by budget cuts while still conducting high-quality research that might help us serve our students better in this “new normal” crisis scenario we find ourselves living in.
It’s time to send a message to the Texas lege. Modest investments in college writing programs will pay big dividends later. If we care about the next generation of college grads, let’s fund college writing programs so that all students matriculating in Fall 2021 can find an equitable, supportive path forward in higher education.
We don’t need another fancy climbing wall. We need to invest in the development of writing programs that have been supporting students from the start of this pandemic.
Dr. Jackie Hoermann-Elliott teaches in and directs the First-Year Composition Program at Texas Women’s University, where she advocates for increased student support through ongoing assessment and professional development efforts on her campus.