Sarah Marsh: AU College Writing Professor

For many first-year students at American, the start of freshman year brings many exciting things. Meeting new friends, moving into your dorm, meeting your roommate and exploring AU and D.C. One of the many requirements of being a freshman here at AU is to take College Writing, one of the two classes known as a "university requirement" here. The college writing requirement starts with a basic college writing class, where students learn writing skills that they need to suceed in college, and then in the spring they take the "College Writing Seminar", where they are offered many different seminars about different topics, and they are able to choose a class about something that really interests them, or on a topic that they might not have heard about before. One of the new seminars being offered this semester is "Writing Better", which is taught by Professor Sarah Marsh. The class is focused around the topic of illness, both mental and physical, and students get to read many different novels about this topic, as well as write some papers on it too. Professor Marsh is incredibly excited to be teaching this class, as both she and the class are brand new to AU, so she is the very first one to teach it. Having explored some of the content taught in this class as a graduate student, she hopes her students learn a lot. 

Her Campus American University: What does the title of this seminar "Writing Better" mean?

Sarah Marsh: "Writing Better" actually has two meanings. The primary goal of the class--beacause it is a writing class--is to teach students how to become better academic writers, and to join academic conversations with greater facility. But, "Writing Better" is also intended to invoke the idea that language always is involved in the ways we think about the human conditions of illness and healing and death. The class takes seriously the idea that we use language to structure those events. I like teaching this class, because almost everyone has been touched by some story of illness, so I think it gives students a way to enter the academic conversation through some kind of personal experience.

HCAU: What kinds of texts will you be using for the class?

SM: We begin with the work of Arthur Kleinman, a physician and anthropologist who wrote an influential book in the late 1980s called The Illness Narratives. As he explains in the book, he realized when he was treating two patients (one was a very young burn victim who was was seven years old, and then an older woman who had lived most of her life with syphilis after having been infected by a service member during the first World War)-and as Kleinman was treating those two patients, he realized that the way they told their stories of being in pain from a burn or the experience of living a whole life with the stigma of syphilis told him a lot about their experience of being unwell, which goes beyond a mere diagnosis. Kleinman's argument is that clinicians and their family members can better care for those who are unwell if we understand the ways that people tell stories and use language to describe their illness.

HCAU: Did you get to pick the texts used for this class? If so, how did you pick them? If not, who picked them? 

SM: Yes, I picked all of the class texts. I drew a lot of the class texts from my graduate work in Literature and Medicine. When I was a graduate student at UNC, I convened a pilot course in the undergraduate humanities called "Literature, Medicine and Culture", and so I've used at AU a lot of the texts we read in that class. In addition to the Kleinman, we also read texts from Atul Gawande, who is a surgeon and regular contributor to The New Yorker; he writes a lot about health care in this country, and epidemics, and treating patients when there's always a degree of uncertainty in medical practice. We also read parts of a book by Perri Klass called A Not Entirely Benign Procedure, which, in part, is about how medical students' ways of speaking about illness changes as they take their medical degrees. We also read sections from Susan Sontag's famous work Illness as Metaphor. Those are the big ones.  

HCAU: What kinds of essays and papers will students be writing in the class? 

SM: Students begin by writing an exploratory essay about an illness narrative they know about--and the idea is to think about the way this particular illness narrative represents not just a biological event, but a social, cultural, and historical event as well--it's this notion that illness has meanings that are not only biological, but that extend further into other lived experience. In the second assignment, students have to write a prospectus for their final research paper, where they first lay out an argument for their paper, and then in the second section discuss how they'll structure the argument, and then in the final section of the prospectus, they talk about source materials that they'll use to make the argument. The final assignment for the term is a research paper, and the broad idea is for students to make an argument about why their illness narrative is important. 

HCAU: Seeing as this is the final part of a students' college writing experience, what do you hope students gain from taking this class?

SM: My first goal in teaching this class is for students to take away strategies for joining academic conversations, and thinking about big ideas like race, sexuality, gender, nation, ethnicity-all these human categories that we're so invested in talking about as academics. I also hope that students take something away from the actual content of the class. Because illness is such a pervasive condition in our historical moment, I do hope that studentstake with them an understanding how illness is not just a diagnosis, but an event with social and cultural meanings we can use to better understand and often help suffering people in a compassionate way. So, there is a moral element, I think, to what I'm doing. 

HCAU: What advice do you have for future first-year students who are trying to decide which seminar to take but aren't quite sure which one is for them, since all of them are so different and new ones are constantly being added? 

SM: I think my first piece of advice would be to think about what compels you about the world, and based on that curiousity, take a browse through the course catalog and see what's on offer. Now, it may be that there's nothing in the course catalog that coheres with exactly where your curiousity lies. But, there's a second strategy I would recommend, which is to pick something new; pick something you don't know anything about. I'm so sure that my colleagues in the college writing program are putting together excellent courses that I don't think students can make a bad decision. 


Cover Image: Author property

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