Outstanding Major Award
Benjamin Zender, 2012
What It Means
Benjamin Zender describes his first Writing course as “scary, rewarding, and thrilling.” That course, a Maymester creative nonfiction class with Professor Minnie Bruce Pratt, taught him to approach his own writing differently. “It was just so freeing,” Benjamin says. “For the first time I was typing furiously without hitting the backspace key a million times. And by the end of it I had produced things that I was proud of and that spoke to me.” Benjamin soon declared a major in Writing & Rhetoric, and in 2012 he became the recipient of the Carol Lipson Award for Outstanding Major.
Currently a Senior Administrator in the Forensic and National Security Sciences Institute at SU, Benjamin hopes to someday become a professor in the humanities. His ideal position would be interdisciplinary in nature, and he says that the interdisciplinary aspect of the Writing & Rhetoric major was part of what appealed to him. As an undergraduate, Benjamin took courses in Writing, Communication & Rhetorical Studies, and LGBT Studies, among others disciplines. He even took a few graduate-level courses, and he notes that the opportunity to “work up” to the graduate level made him care more about his writing and more excited about academia in general.
Benjamin attributes some of his success as a student in the major to the opportunities that he was afforded through his coursework. In WRT 340, for example, he acted as the design editor for Intertext, which prompted him to learn a number of graphics programs and taught him to become a stronger leader. Working under Professor Eileen Schell in the Distinction Program, Benjamin spent two semesters creating a thesis-length project. In the first semester, Benjamin gathered materials and explored different ideas; in the second half of the program, he wrote and revised his thesis, which seeks to make connections between queer communities and hipsters, ultimately presenting a conclusion about ironic self-fashioning. Benjamin found the experience incredibly rewarding, especially because it yielded sources and approaches that “have a life beyond the distinction program,” and he hopes to return to them in the future.
According to Schell, Benjamin achieved success because of his desire to challenge himself and those around him. "Benjamin is intellectually curious, passionate about ideas, and wonderfully adept at posing questions and entertaining different perspectives," says Schell. "In the distinction class, he was always ready to explore ideas, ask questions, and look at his work objectively to assess what he needed to do to push it along. He also was incredibly generous and helpful in commenting on his fellow Distinction student Meghan Donohue's thesis. He encouraged Meghan to challenge herself, read more, write more, and take intellectual and artistic risks."
As an undergraduate, Benjamin was active in planning CARR: the Conference on Activism, Rhetoric and Research. He served on the core committee of the joint academic and community conference, which appealed to him because of the way that it bridged the gap between the two worlds. “The Writing Program’s mission mentions that it is helping to build citizens that are going to help the world in certain ways,” explains Benjamin. “The philosophy of the conference reflected the values of the Writing Program really well, and it was an exciting and ambitious project.”
But Benjamin says that it was the faculty in the Writing Program who really provided him with the opportunity to achieve his personal and academic goals. He found that the faculty members genuinely enjoy their work with students: “Again and again, every single professor I had in the Writing Program was so supportive, and they were really into learning from their students. Teaching was important to them, and research was important to them, but they never thought of those things as in conflict.”
With mentorship from Pratt, Schell, and Margaret Himley, who now serves as Associate Provost for International Education and Engagement, Benjamin found himself attending his professors’ office hours in order to engage more deeply with the course material, and those conversations helped to guide him and lead him toward opportunities. His professors would get excited when he tried to make course projects his own and took control of his own learning. Instead of viewing that as a challenge to their authority, Benjamin says that his professors thought, “Wow, this student really wants something out of this class.”
Benjamin encourages current and prospective Writing & Rhetoric majors to consider the range of opportunities that the major presents and to find ways to tailor the experience to their own unique goals. And he emphasizes the importance of developing an identity within the major and working with the faculty to achieve one’s own objectives while also meeting the degree requirements. “If you do that from the beginning—if you understand that that freedom is an opportunity that is specific to students in this program—then when graduation comes you won’t have any difficulty explaining what it means to be a Writing major.