Undergraduate Perspectives

Undergraduate Column: Showcasing Writers on Campus through the Writers of Mason Project

The Writers of Mason, a online project initiated by the Mason Writing Across the Curriuclum program and based on the popular Humans of New York book and Tumblr site, attempts to capture the diversity of writers and their experiences on campus. Each profile highlights the writing experiences, projects, and philosophies of students, faculty, administrators, and staff. I began working on the project in late fall of 2016 when I was hired by WAC director Michelle LaFrance. It has been a wonderful experience to learn how to use a camera, put together profiles, and showcase each individual writer through this project.

Since the first weeks of this work, we have published 20 profiles on our blog. But, the team has completed 45 additional profiles (readying them for publication) and taken 64 photos of participants, but creating an interviewee’s profile takes time and patience beyond the initial interview and photograph. Because we are striving to showcase a human experience, we spend a good deal of time making sure that all the details are exact. Each profile moves through a series of stages: after we set up and conduct the initial interview, we take the photograph, transcribe the interview, select the quotation to publish, and add any necessary finishing touches on the photo before editing and publishing the profile.

At the beginning of the project we drafted a script of eight questions. These questions included, “Do you think you are a good writer?” and “What feedback, negative or positive, has stayed with you about your writing?” These questions are open ended to allow for an interviewee to provide an authentic response. For example, when the interviewee is asked if he or she is a good writer, we often see members of our community hesitate to claim the title of “good writer.” People tend to shy away from calling themselves that, and will respond with, “I’m a competent writer,” “I’m a strong writer,” “I write well enough for my field,” or “I have been told that I’m good writer.” There have only been a few participants who have openly agreed that they are good at writing.

There is only one other question that has triggered such a strong response: “What feedback negative or positive has stayed with you about your writing?” This is my favorite question to ask because you can get an answer about something that happened in elementary school or something that happened during the interviewee’s college years. When a person recounts how he or she received feedback, they will share intimate pieces about that memory, both good and bad. This intimatacy and honesty is something we aim to capture during our transcription process. These are stories that all writers have in common. Writing is hard work. Most of us have had a couple of knocks along the way and, when we end up working with a mentor, we are often changed as writers, thinkers, and people.

While transcribing the interviews, a unique sense of the person who lived the story is center in my mind. The aim when we trancribe is not just to catch the exact words an interviewee has said, but the way that person has said it as well. To do this, I have to pay attention to the way people are speaking, capturing a sense of their speaking patterns in order to truly create an image of that person. People do not always speak in complete sentences. There are pauses in their speech, or sometimes there are no pauses at all. This leads to our inserting commas and using other forms of punctuation to accurately represent the pauses, inflections, idioms—all the things that allow journalists and creative writers to recreate the way a person speaks.

To transcribe all of the interviews I use a software program called F5. It has the basic controls of any transcription program, but F5 has a side bar that I can program with short cuts to help my transcribing go faster. I will code certain behaviors and sounds, like ‘I’ for being incomprehensible or ‘R’ for being a long pause. The transcription of the interview is the easiest portion of creating the profile. Once the transcription is done, I move on to selecting the quotes so my editor can choose the final quotation that best fits the photo. Sometimes there is a moment during an interview where you just know which quote you will select. People say interesting things naturally. Most often the quotes that are selected are when people seem to feel most at ease during the interview. When you are interviewing a person, the interviewee has a certain apprehension that fades away during the interview process. That is the moment when you know you’ll have a good quote. There are other times when I have no idea what quote I will use from the interview. That is when transcription of the interview becomes so much more useful. When you reread the interview, the quote you need, that you thought you didn’t get, is right in front of you. The criteria for a strong quote is that it grabs your attention, you remember it when you look away from it, and it stirs a reaction in you.

In my opinion, the hardest part of this process is getting the photo. The photo needs to be sharp, pop with the right amount of saturation, and provide that ‘wow’ effect. It has been a journey to get there. Taking a photo is more than just point-and-shoot. There are a lot of factors that you have to take into consideration. The ones that have been the most challenging for this project are time and lighting. When I go into someone’s office and conduct the interview, I only have about 5 minutes to get a good photo. If I can, I will stop by that person’s office before the interview so I can adjust my camera settings. This way I am able to take a quick and decent photo. Most of my time for the project is spent processing photos. I was once told that if you cannot see the individual’s eye lashes, then your image is not sharp enough.

After the interview is transcribed and the photo finished, the editor chooses the quotation to publish. We look for quotes that offer a unique perspective on writing, funny or interesting anecdotes about writing, and helpful tips that writers would find useful. We want the quote to reflect the over-all interview, and this means looking for the story that is hidden in the snippets of responses we’ve collected. The quotes are often pulled out of context, so it’s important that they are able to stand alone. The editor aims to preserve the personality of the interviewee through their voice. By preserving these details, the quote is strong, can stand alone, and lets the reader get a sense of the person as a writer.

Mason’s Writing Across the Curricuum program argues that campuses are, at heart, communites of writers. Everyone at Mason writes. They send emails, turn in papers, write reports, draft technical documents, edit books, communicate via texts, memos, and forms, and write reviews of other people’s writing. The writing that each individual does captures his or her story and perspective on writing. Writing is a grow-as-you-go process, and the Writers of Mason shares this within our community. In showcasing the diverse writing community and culture here at Mason, we are able to think more as studnets, teachers, and leaders about the role of writing in our work and in our complex lives. It has been great fun to meet people, talk to them about their writing, and to learn about the many different ways members of our community write. We look forward to talking to you, if we have not already.