Quintessential Kenyon: Student Life, Uncut

Becoming A Writer at Kenyon

Morgan Harden
August 4, 2017

I came to Kenyon with a single-minded focus on being an English major. During my first semester, as an initial step toward that goal, I signed up for an introductory English course, “Literature and Representation,” with the legendary Professor Mason. Within my first few days on campus, I’d heard stories about Professor Mason’s life-changing courses and exacting, analytical style. Even his appearance — glasses hanging halfway down his nose and a calm, confident gaze — made him a figure on campus. Everyone I spoke to encouraged me to take one of his classes, but they all shared one warning: prepare to work hard.

True to form, as we sat down on the first day of class, the first thing Professor Mason said was, “I’m going to challenge you.” I was excited to tackle the first essay prompt, which asked us to analyze how Rebecca Warren’s poem “In Creve Coeur, Missouri” communicates the limitations of photographic representation. I was determined to do well and spent several nights that week hunched over my computer constructing my essay. I turned in the paper with a smile on my face. Convinced I had written a stunning essay, I couldn’t wait to receive my grade.

One week later, Professor Mason stood at the front of the class with a stack of papers. I could feel my heart fluttering with excitement. But it fell like a rock when my essay landed in my hands. Without getting into the specific grade, let me tell you: my essay was completely covered with red ink.

I spiraled into a panic. I had never gotten such a bad grade in an English class, and I was crestfallen. Within five minutes, I had a new plan for my Kenyon career: I’d drop out of the class, quit pursuing English, and look into another major. It’d be fine, I reasoned. I walked out of the class thinking, “Writing isn’t for me, after all.” The first chance I got, I walked into Professor Mason’s office hours, armed with a drop-class form. I had it all planned out in my head: how I would thank him for his time and effort, explain my worry, and pass the form over the desk for his signature. Needless to say, the meeting did not go the way I had planned.

Within seconds of launching into my “why I need to drop your class” speech, Professor Mason put up a hand to stop me. “Is this about your essay?” I nodded in response. He refused to hear any more about dropping the course until we talked about the assignment. Professor Mason went through the paper with me, paragraph by paragraph, then line by line. We reviewed each one of his comments and suggestions. Throughout the course of our conversation, I completely forgot about the drop-class form in my hand and walked out of his office with a new determination. I rewrote my essay and focused my efforts on improving my writing. The class quickly became one of my favorites, and my essays improved steadily as the semester wore on. I even received an A on the last assignment (which I hung, un-ironically, on my dorm mini-fridge).

I know Kenyon’s reputation as a “writer’s college” can be pretty daunting. It makes it sound like every student is already a great writer when they step onto campus. But no one comes to Kenyon as a perfect writer. Rather, Kenyon gives students the support to develop into great writers across disciplines.

For me, at least, learning to write didn’t end with my first English class. In fact, becoming a better writer took the better part of my four years at Kenyon. But that first class with Professor Mason really set the tone for the rest of my writing career. I always approached my work with a critical eye for organization, specific language and textual analysis, but taking another course with Professor Mason pushed me to take the techniques and skills I’d learned to a new level. With each assignment, my confidence in writing grew and became one of my strongest skills.

Even as I left Kenyon, I thought back on my first-year self and how much my writing had changed. The day before graduation, I sought out Professor Mason at the English department farewell reception. I wanted to thank him for teaching me how to write and not letting me give up on my writing. As I started to express my thanks, he gave a slight smile and put his hand up, just as he had nearly four years earlier, saying: “You taught yourself, Morgan. I merely pointed you in the right direction.”