God in the Essay
by Kristen Smith

From the writer:One of the main tenets in the Peer Tutoring Practicum is that we, as tutors and consultants, are always gaining knowledge as our experience grows. "God in the Essay" is a reflection on the moral and ethical dilemma I found myself in after two tutoring sessions, both of which focused around religion. I wrote this essay as a way to share my insights into the question of Godís role in academia and the challenges that this causes for a tutor.

From the teacher, Bruce Pegg: Kristin Smithís "God in the Essay" describes one of the most difficult moments any consultant can face in the Writing Center. Itís a moment when, face to face with a living, breathing writer, we realize we do not share the writerís world view, a view his or her audience may well find problematic. Working with a writer at that moment requires a delicate blend of tact and negotiationówe cannot change the authorís paper or opinions, and we should not want to, but at the same time we have to demonstrate for the writer how others will take up his or her ideas. In writing center literature, narratives such as this are powerful and instructive tools (see, for example, the monthly "Tutorís Column" in The Writing Lab Newsletter). Kristinís piece, like others in this particular genre, seeks not to provide a definitive answer to the problem, but instead to describe the thoughts that go into a consultantís decision-making process when moments like this occur.

From the editor, Jen Wray: As a student that has visited the Writing Center for consultation, I have never considered how hard it is for consultants to keep their personal opinions out of the evaluation of the writing. When it comes to the topic of God and religion, people are extremely touchy. As you will read in this piece, the consultant took to heart and mind the idea of God in the essay, and wrestles with it to this day.

  I started a few months ago as a peer tutor in the Writing Center. Before I was allowed to engage in a session with a student, I received basic training that covered everything from ESL to graduate students and low-key essay to controversial essay topics. I felt especially confident about my ability to handle the controversial topics, as I am a psychology major. Regardless of the topic, aside from extreme topics such as the support of the Unabomber or a validation of the Holocaust, I felt able to be objective about a paper. However, that was before I encountered God in an essay.

  On Fridays, I work an hour and a half in the Writing Center and the time is typically divided into three half-hour blocks. On this Friday, I was scheduled for my normal three appointments. My first session was with a female student, whom I will refer to as Laura. Laura was working on an essay for her application to the Woodrow Wilson Institution, a summer program for college juniors hosted at Princeton. The application essay instructed the applicant to write about their academic and career goals in retrospect to their life. In addition, they needed to write about how the summer program would help them achieve those goals.

  Lauraís main goal for the session was to have me check over her grammar and sentence structure. Being the perceptive peer tutor I am, I informed her that we consultants are not here to proofread. The consultants are there to help her become a more proficient writer and by extension, help her create a better paper. After explaining the purpose of consulting, she and I went through her paper together, and it quickly became clear to me that Laura was a strong writer. Her imagery was vivid and her paragraphs flowed seamlessly into each other. Indeed, apart from a few awkward sentences, there was only one thing that bothered me about the essay. God was there.

  As Laura recounted specific examples of her life that related to her desire to shape public policy, she talked about how her faith helped her through the troubles she faced. I am Catholic myself, but while I was able to understand where she was coming from, I questioned whether or not God and by default, religious beliefs, belonged in an essay. After mentally wrestling with the question, I finally suggested to Laura that perhaps her paper would be more relevant if she linked the examples from her life together by explaining how they shaped her career goals. I told her that I could see her faith was important to her and that I was not suggesting she take it out entirely. I was only suggesting that she shift the focus from her faith to her goals. She agreed with me and made some changes while I looked on. The final draft answered the questions set forth by the application in a more clear and concise way. Laura left, thanking me for my help, and I settled back to wait for my next appointment.

  My next student, also female, who henceforth will be known as Megan, was ten minutes late. This allowed me plenty of time to consider the place of God in an essay. Laura was able to improve her essay by making her faith a less predominant theme. I did not need to debate the place of religion in an essay, because it was necessary for the focus to be shifted away from Laura’s faith in order to produce a better text. Nevertheless, Laura’s essay had not been an academic one, but rather a personal statement. If a student identifies themselves predominantly by their religion, a personal statement written by them is likely to focus exclusively on that religion. However, how does the audience fit in? Any admissions board is bound by law not to discriminate based on religion, but how will they react when all they have to judge a student is their application and a religious personal statement? Even the most open-minded person has some subconscious preconceived notions attached to the various religions. So when it is permissible for God to be in an essay?

  When Megan finally showed up for her appointment, we only had twenty minutes left in the session. She was unable to print her essays, so we worked on the computer. Megan was an ESL student, originally from Sweden, and she was working on two essays for her graduate school applications. She was concerned about the organization and clarity of the essays.
The first essay was intended to explain why she chose to pursue a career in environmental science, as well as to detail any work experience she had related to the field. I read the essay aloud, and it was obvious Megan did not quite understand the essay question. The essay leaped about, going from her environmental role models (Rachel Carson) to her desire to balance having a family and a career. The reasons why she wanted to pursue this career and the work experience she had were barely covered. I suggested she expand those two areas. I gave her the option of working on this essay in more detail or switching over to the second one. She wanted me to read the second one, and I knew I was in trouble before the document even came on the screen. It was saved as "The Lord’s Essay."

  Megan intended for the second essay to be a personal statement and immediately, I found myself again wrestling with God’s place in an essay. She had chosen to open the document with a Bible quotation. When I questioned her about this, she said it was only for inspiration, and she did not intend for it to remain part of the essay. The essay itself was a touching piece about how Megan had come to this university and found God. She converted her religion and chose environmental science as a way of working for God, by restoring the Earth to its natural state.

  This essay placed me, quite frankly, at a loss. I could feel myself losing my objectivity, since, even though I am Catholic, I was uncomfortable just reading the essay. Luckily, for me, we were running out of time. Therefore, I addressed only the highest priority, which was her organization. I suggested she sit down with the essay question in front of her as she was writing, and make sure every paragraph linked back to that main question. I gave her my email address, in case she wanted to send me the revised papers, and then ended the session. I had one more session to go before I could relax, but it was with a repeat student and compared to the previous two sessions, it was easy.

  My peer editing class was on Tuesday, and I wrestled with the religion over the weekend. The only thing that was clear to me was the difference between the two papers. Laura’s essay used the theme of her faith solely as a linking device and its downplay did not harm her essay; rather, it made her stronger. However, Megan’s second essay revolved around her conversion and the effect on her life. It would seriously weaken, perhaps even destroy, the essay if she would downplay her conversion. When Tuesday finally arrived, I explained the basics of the sessions and described my conclusions as the following: God was mentioned in Laura’s essay, but He was Megan’s. The reason I had gotten so uncomfortable reading Megan’s essay was because where I come from, you do not proofread the Lord.

  My professor shared a story about a student, whom he had been helping with a personal statement essay. The student had written about when she had been raped. The essay was so powerful and emotional; the student was unable to read it aloud without breaking down into tears. Although it was a strong, well-written essay, it invoked emotions in its readers that were not comfortable ones. He said that in cases like this, where the subject matter could be viewed as controversial, it is important to consider the audience. An essay like Meganís, while perhaps not appropriate for mainstream universities, might be suitable for an application to a private Christian college. Therefore, the question is not whether or not God belongs in an essay; it is when He should be there.

  It is a question entirely open to debate, as every proposed audience is open to interpretation. Indeed, it is a complicated situation. As mentioned before, Megan was originally from Sweden. The attitudes we as Americans have towards religion may be completely different from what she is used to. Her perception of her audience may therefore be faulty. If we had had more time in our session, it would have been my responsibility to bridge the gap between her perceptions of her audience and the actual reality of that audience.

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