From the Archive: Reflections on Dinner and a Draft (Spring 2009)

By Erin Bradfield, former Graduate Writing Fellow

The aroma of burritos, rice, and tortillas wafted down the hallway.  As six o’ clock approached, a group of students gathered at the Writing Studio in preparation for our session.  I had invited Professor Jonathan Neufeld to talk about his writing process over dinner.  The students in attendance ranged in ages and interests, but many were familiar with Professor Neufeld from his aesthetics courses in the philosophy department.  Prior to this event, I was also familiar with Professor Neufeld.  As a graduate student in philosophy, I attended his job talk; I audited several of his courses; and I see him on a regular basis at our department’s colloquia series.  With all my philosophical experience with Professor Neufeld, I still had questions:  What is his writing process like?  How does his writing relate to his pedagogical style and the content of his courses?

In most academic settings, students turn in papers to professors in order to gain insight into their work and to receive an evaluation.  Over the course of their college careers, undergraduates write many papers in many different subject areas.  However, it is rare for professors to present their writing to students as part of their courses.  On occasion, professors give lectures in their home departments or at conferences, in order to share their work with other scholars in their field.  However, this doesn’t serve to bridge the gap between professors and students; often it widens it further.  As a result, the writing done by students often remains disconnected from the writing done by professors – even though they share a common enterprise.  Both aim to communicate their ideas clearly through writing, even if the level of scholarship differs.

And so Dinner and a Draft was born from a sense that we students often wonder what a professor’s writing is like, or what he or she writes about.  Have you thought about whether or not your professors struggle when embarking upon a new project?  Have you considered what their end products look and sound like?  Many of us have pondered such questions, but haven’t had the opportunity to pursue the answers.  Dinner and a Draft allows students to reflect upon writing processes and habits through a dinner conversation with a guest professor.  For one of the first Dinner and Draft events, I invited my own professor, Professor Neufeld.  I wanted to begin this series of conversations about writing with someone I knew well.  In this case, although I was the facilitator of the discussion, I was also a student participant.  This seemed an appropriate place to begin, since Dinner and a Draft is about the convergence of goals and perspectives in an event in which students and professors get to think together about their own and each others’ writing processes and products.

Dinner and a Draft creates a spirit of community among its participants.  Part of this is due to the collective reading of short drafts contributed by the guest professor.  We read together, eat together, reflect together, and ask questions together.  In an ideal session, the conversation happens naturally; we proceed organically from topic to topic.  It feels as if we are all at the family dinner table, except that instead of talking about the issues of the day, we talk about issues of writing, and the topics therein that interest us most.  At the Dinner and a Draft event this February with Professor Brooke Ackerly, one of the participants echoed this sentiment by stating, “There’s something wonderful about gathering together for discussion over food.”  In my mind, Dinner and a Draft is the 21st Century equivalent to the 18th Century Salon.  Dinner and a Draft brings faculty and students together to share their processes, concerns, and questions.  I hope you’ll join us for dinner sometime soon!