Dinner and a Draft

John BradleyBy John Bradley. John Bradley is Assistant Director of the Writing Studio and Senior Lecturer in English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Before joining Vanderbilt’s faculty this fall, John was the 2011-2012 Interim Associate Director of the UW-Madison Writing Center, having also worked as a tutor there for many years as he finished his degree in Literary Studies in the UW-Madison English Department.

Today Nashville, Tennessee, is known the world over as Music City, USA. However, long before it was the cradle of country twang, Nashville had another moniker. The local cluster of colleges and universities led some to dub Nashville “The Athens of the South,” a reputation that sprang up far back enough to influence the city’s decision in 1897 to build a full-scale replica of the Greek Parthenon. For the moment I’m withholding judgment on its Athenian nature as I slowly learn more about this town better known for its honky tonk, but across the street from Centennial Park, where you can still visit the reproduction of the Parthenon complete with its 42-foot statue of Athena, you’ll find Vanderbilt University, which I am lucky enough to call my new academic home. It’s here as Assistant Director of Vanderbilt’s Writing Studio that I’m contributing to a vibrant campus community and applying so much of what I learned 595 miles away (but who’s counting?) in UW-Madison Writing Center on the 6th floor of Helen C. White Hall.

Athena Parthenos of Nashville in all her gilded glory

Athena Parthenos of Nashville in all her gilded glory

As I prepared to write this post, I wondered if I should write about some of the differences I’ve experienced so far in my move south as I’ve traded a center for a studio. I’m still wrapping my head around numerous small changes from my time in Madison: At the Writing Studio, our consultants (instead of tutors) meet with clients in uniform 50-minute sessions that they schedule fully online. It takes some getting used to. And, of course, one of the biggest changes is the opportunity to work closely with our staff’s fantastic mix of undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of academic backgrounds, including a number of talented creative writers in Vanderbilt’s MFA program. (And, yes, our clients can bring creative work to the studio, as well!)

In the end, though, I don’t want to focus on those comparisons (although I’ll be happy to talk more about whatever might interest readers in the comments following this post). At least in part, that’s because I’ve been actively trying to dial back the part of my brain that constantly wants to compare and contrast in order to focus more on simply learning more, week by week, about my new setting, new institution and new context for doing this work that I feel so strongly about. And in that light, I want to use this post to share a little about one of those new things I’ve experienced here (new to me, at least): a event series I have the privilege of coordinating called Dinner and a Draft.

Dinner and a Draft
You write and write for their courses. Ever wonder what your professors write about, or what their writing processes are like?dinner-and-draft-poster

Multiple colleagues of mine here rank Dinner and a Draft among their favorite Writing Studio programs. The format of Dinner and a Draft, held twice each semester, is beautifully simple. Hosted by the Writing Studio, Dinner and a Draft involves a small group of Vanderbilt students (usually 12-15) dining with a faculty guest to discuss writing. Putting the draft in Dinner and a Draft, the faculty guest shares a sample or two of her or his own work (we encourage works in progress or before-and-after views whenever possible) and discusses the crafting and revision of the piece, often comparing it to other ongoing writing projects or other kinds of writing. All the while, as dinner and discussion proceeds, the students are invited to ask questions and reflect on their own experiences as writers.

I’ve had the pleasure of facilitating two of these dinner discussions so far with help from the Writing Studio’s English Writing Fellow (actually a position split between two graduate students in the English department), and I would categorize both evenings as good food and great conversation. Ideally the conversation flows organically and informally according to students’ questions and interests, but some prep work helps us make the most of the discussion. We sit down with each faculty guest in the days leading up to the event to chat about what makes an effective writing sample, to give them a sense of what the discussion will be like and for us to get to know them a little as writers. Then, based on that meeting, we prepare questions, just in case, that can help us keep the conversation moving and keep everyone involved. But so far, between the generosity of our faculty guests and our inquisitive students, I’ve been able to keep my role to a happy minimum.

This is not at all what a Dinner and a Draft dinner looks like.

This is not at all what a Dinner and a Draft dinner looks like.

We strive to host faculty from across the university, and in recent years faculty have included professors of political science, music, and electrical engineering, just to name a few. Our drafts this semester have included multiple stages of a History professor’s op-ed published on Slate.com (the first draft was over twice as long and dramatically different, though no less compelling) as well as passages from the preface to a book on the racial dimension of schizophrenia diagnoses in the 1960s. In both cases, student responses ranged from open admiration to questions such as How do you settle on a topic? How long were you working on this one writing project? What would you recommend to someone who wants to learn to write like you? How do you suggest finding a writing community for yourself?

Although Dinner and a Draft is open to students at all levels, when we have a waiting list of registrants, as we frequently do, we give priority to first-year students. Some of my favorite moments from dinners so far have involved first-year students, who early in the evening spoke openly about the difficult transition to college writing, oozing amazement and gratitude following a frank discussion of the ways a faculty member can struggle with drafting and revising, too. Our focus on that particular student population also reinforces a key campus partnership near and dear to Dinner and a Draft’s heart: The Writing Studio’s longtime host for Dinner and a Draft is the dean of Vanderbilt’s living and learning community for first-year students, who generously welcomes us into his dining room and joins in the discussion.

That’s what I love about Dinner and a Draft: It brings so many parts of our campus together over dinner and around writing. It humanizes the writing process while introducing students to the writing lives of their professors (and allows faculty a chance to present themselves as writers in a way that may have never done in the classroom). One Vanderbilt graduate student who, I believe, helped start this event series called it an attempt to create the 21st century equivalent of the 18th Century Salon.

Thoreau, hanging out on my office door, instead of helping writers find our temporary location in the basement of Calhoun Hall

Thoreau, hanging out on my office door, instead of helping writers find our temporary location in the basement of Calhoun Hall

As a relative newcomer to the Dinner and a Draft program, I know I still have a lot to learn about it in the coming semesters, about the different shapes it can take and the different directions our conversations can go. But I know enough already to recommend this event format to anyone who thinks something similar might be a hit at their institution. I look forward to your responses and questions in the comments, and I’ll be happy to discuss any aspect of this post in more detail. Thanks for reading!

7 thoughts on “Dinner and a Draft

  1. This sounds like a wonderful event, John, and like one that would go over well back here in Madison, particularly in some of our dormitory locations. I’m curious: Has there been any particular piece of advice (or observation, or commiseration) that seems to have gone over particularly well? I’d love to know more about the connections made among these groups of writers.

  2. What a great post and a wonderful program, John! I would love to try something like this on our campus – how do you recruit faculty for this? Is it well established enough that you have faculty approaching you? And how far in advance do you pre-circulate the writing?

  3. Thanks, everyone.

    Leigh: I’m not sure one piece of advice sticks out for me as much as the sense students get that their professors do the things we all encourage them to do: labor over multiple drafts, seek out readers, and generally struggle with the challenges of writing as much as they enjoy it. One professor impressed the attendees with the lengths he’s gone to improve his writing for non-academic audiences–his advice in the end, however, boiled down to working really head. Another got students to start helping him think about where and how to start his next writing project, since he admitted he was a little stumped at the moment. It was a fun exchange.

    Taryn: To my knowledge, we aren’t having faculty approach us yet (but I have had enthusiastic offers to participate again). We approach faculty who have a strong reputation for teaching undergraduates (information we gather by word of mouth, by who receives teaching awards, and so on). And for both the events this fall, we have kept the writing samples small enough that everyone could read them during dinner. Participants skimmed the sample one evening, and we read parts of the sample aloud as a group in the other evening. As I understand it, samples have been pre-circulated at times in the past, but we generally want to avoid students thinking of this as an event that involves homework.

  4. Wonderful post, John! I enjoyed it very much to get an insight into your new work. I love the idea of the dinner and a draft, it sounds great. Who is cooking the dinner? I was thinking you should create a book: recipes for writing mixed with recipes for dinner. I would buy it! I was working on my research about successful implementation of writing centers today, and actually I was writing about the importance of food in writing centers – your post proves this once again.

  5. Dear John (I never get tired of writing that),

    I was spending some time reflecting on productive ways that we could foster a more lively, engaging culture of writing at our university. Then I remembered your post, John, and I thought, surely I responded. I had not.

    Your post provides a great activity, a great cultural happening at your university, that revolves around writing. I want to bring this activity–Dinner and a Draft–and find a way to adapt it to our university, and like your post says, with a particular interest in fostering engagement around writing for the First Year Students. I’m encouraged to steal boldly from your great example. I’m equally encouraged to forge our own campus traditions in the hopes of promoting a deeper appreciation of writing, and composition more broadly, as a vital part of our campus culture.

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