How do writings like “Letter’s From Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr, and "Facebook, Emotions, and Identity" by Elana Premack Sandler help in the growth of a writer?
How does interacting with other writers in the form of critiques and peer reviews help influence you in your development as a writer?
What elements of the writing process can be improved by peer reviews and reading influential essays?
The authors of the two vastly disparate letters or posts specified in the student’s question sat in very different milieus when penning their respective pieces. Elana Premack Sandler was almost certainly sitting in a nice furnished office or in her well-appointed home when she wrote her article responding to a colleague’s column regarding the effects of Facebook on the psychological demeanor of its users. Her post, “Facebook, Emotions and Identity,” reflects her concerns about the negative influences of social networking on teenagers and others who may have approached Facebook seeking positive reinforcement but who have seen their sense of social alienation actually exacerbated through negative feedback and even from cyberbullying. Her brief posting references similar explorations of this topic by others in academia. Sandler begins her post as follows:
“A few weeks ago, I wrote a post called ‘Does Facebook make us sad?’ A brilliantly-titled piece on Switched.com, ‘Facebook Makes Us All Sad Because Everyone Is Happy But Us,’ inspired me to think about my own experience using Facebook as well as the impact of the social networking site on our relationships off-line.
“In the weeks since, I've seen quite a bit of media coverage of Facebook's impact on psychologicalhealth. One piece, written by my friend Stacey Shackford for the Cornell Chronicle, examined research being done at Cornell on Facebook's positive influence on college students' self-esteem. Another, an AP piece by Lindsey Tanner, says there might be such a thing as ‘Facebookdepression’ experienced by some teens.”
Sandler closes her column by expressing her appreciation for the increased attention this subject is receiving:
“I think it's great that the ubiquity of Facebook is being addressed by academic researchers and the American Academy of Pediatrics, who now have their own set of social media guidelines . . .”
Forty-eight years earlier, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., sat in a dismal jail cell in the deepest part of the Deep South and penned an open letter to eight white Alabama clergymen who had expressed their reservations about King and his colleagues in the civil rights movement’s decision to travel to Birmingham, Alabama, for the purpose of organizing peaceful demonstrations against that city’s strict laws on racial segregation. In his letter, Reverend King systematically and articulately undermined any merit the white clergymen’s pleas for restraint may have had. Rejecting their suggestion that, as an outsider, his presence in Birmingham might make matters worse, King obliterated any notion that the cause of civil rights could be tackled incrementally, region by region. As he wrote in that letter,
“. . .I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Now, the question – how did the process of writing these two letters “help in their growth” as writers – is essentially impossible to answer without appealing directly to the two authors. What we can logically surmise, however, is that, for both individuals, the writing process was almost certainly cathartic. Both were appealing to colleagues in their respective professions, and both were appealing for a sense of justice and understanding. The topics and circumstances of their respective situations, however, are so diverse as to render any parallels specious at best. Sandler was engaging herself in an interdisciplinary “roundtable,” so to speak, concerned with the effects of social networking on teenagers the emotional stability of whom may not be sufficiently secure so as to survive the baser elements of Facebook’s users. King, on the other hand, was adopting a more confrontational tone because he and his followers and colleagues did not – could not – countenance the non-confrontational approach advanced by local white clergymen with no vested interest in a satisfactory (from King’s perspective) resolution of the problems that prompted King’s journey from Atlanta to Birmingham in the first place. For King, the process of writing his letter from his jail cell was almost certainly more self-fulfilling than Sandler’s very brief column.
To the question of how interacting with other writers and subjecting one’s drafts to peer review groups influences one’s growth as a writer, it is important to keep in mind the purpose of peer review processes. Certainly, for many writers, interacting with colleagues, mentors, friends, etc., helps in the mentally-demanding process of formulating and structuring thoughts. Most scholars or writers appeal to those around them whom they respect and trust for insights and editorial suggestions. The peer review process, however, is a different phenomenon. Rather than merely seeking input from others, peer review processes are academically rigorous reviews conducted by one’s peers for the purpose of ensuring intellectual consistency and appropriate displays of scholarship. In other words, does the article, book, monograph, etc., stand up to academic scrutiny? Critiques and peer reviews are an essential part of the academic process, and lend one’s product a far greater degree of academic and professional legitimacy. When our peers point out our deficiencies, for example, a failure to adequately support a questionable contention with displays of independent research, it facilitates the completion of a much more credible final product. Others can often contribute suggestions or ideas that seriously enhance the quality of the paper or book, and, that input can cause a fundamental reevaluation of an author’s premise, which can be emotionally painful, but which can prevent professional embarrassment down the road.