Apprenticeship program gives students real-world writing experience

Just a few weeks into the spring semester, junior English major and creative writing minor Elizabeth Richardson was given an ambitious task: Plan and lead a specific social media campaign for SafeKidsStories, a web initiative created by Lorene Cary, a senior lecturer in the Department of English in the School of Arts & Sciences.

It’s just one of the many real-world experiences Richardson is getting to tackle as part of the Bassini Writing Apprenticeship Program.

“I am researching every day and constantly trying to think outside the box, to think about who I am trying to reach through this project,” Richardson says. “It’s also helping me gain problem-solving skills.”

The apprenticeship program, which is run out of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, was founded in 2003 with support from University alumni Reina Marin and Emilio Bassini. It’s an active learning initiative in which students acquire skills and gain knowledge by working directly with a writer on his or her current project. Each apprentice receives one course credit (English 199) as part of the program.

Since the program started in mid-January, Richardson has met every week with Cary, a best-selling writer and activist, who provides feedback and often assigns new responsibilities. Cary has two apprentices this semester—the other is Kaitlin Moore, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences who’s planning to major in English with a creative writing focus.

Moore’s initial work has focused on writing stories for SafeKidsStories about forward-thinking initiatives evolving out of Jubilee School in West Philadelphia, such as a recent silent march held by the middle school-aged students.

“Serving as a Bassini apprentice has been so rewarding already,” Moore says. “It has been an opportunity for me to help people, to share their stories. It’s good work, work I believe in.”

Cary’s goal to have her apprentices get “a real experience of hustle” is coming to fruition. That is, Cary says, “what writing is all about.”

The experience has been similar for Maya Arthur, a sophomore English major, and Divya Ramesh, a senior majoring in psychology and Hispanic studies with a minor in creative writing, who both are working with mentor Rachel Zolf, a poet and scholar who has recently moved to Philadelphia from Canada and now serves as community partnerships developer at Kelly Writers House.

Arthur and Ramesh are helping Zolf develop creative writing workshops in the Philadelphia community. For example, Arthur is working on a program specifically for LGBTQ youth, and Ramesh is developing a workshop for foster children.

“I want them both to come away with a broader sense of what writing can do in the world and what it can’t do, and what they have to offer,” Zolf says. “I believe that everyone can be a writer, and I’m trying to teach them about how to cultivate voice in a range of workshop settings.”

By the end of the semester, Ramesh hopes that she and Arthur will have developed a two-month long workshop curriculum.

“I hope that I can take this curriculum and the lessons that I learn wherever I go after graduation to start a workshop like those that Rachel envisions,” Ramesh says.

Having creative freedom and being encouraged to explore different directions has been a highlight of the program, says Hannah Judd, a junior music major. Judd is an apprentice for Herman Beavers, a professor of English and Africana studies and graduate and undergraduate chair of Africana Studies.

Beavers has tasked Judd with doing archival research on life in 19th-century Ohio, especially around Cincinnati, which provides the setting for Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Beavers is working on a series of poems on two of the characters who disappear from the novel on the first page—he wants to tell a tale of what happened to them.

“I realized quickly that I needed to know more history about where they were, what it was like,” Beavers says. “I need enough detail to push the poems in a way that feels authentic.”

Judd is writing reports on what she finds in newspaper stories, advertisements, editorials, and more, being sure to describe the way journalists and public figures used language back then.

Beavers says that he encourages Judd to write, and write often, because “you have to write a lot of bad stuff before you can write good stuff.” He says he’ll read anything she turns into him—“it doesn’t matter what shape it’s in.”

“It’s so important that younger writers can count on older writers to be open to sharing with them about how it is they do what they do,” Beavers adds. “They shouldn’t mystify the process. At the end of the day, it should be demystified.”

Writing Apprenticeship