by Joe Labriola
I recently sat down with Stony Brook University’s Undergraduate Student President, Ayyan Zubair – before his speech to the campus community about the recent ending of DACA – to discuss the role of writing, rhetoric, and effective communication as a student, activist, and emerging global citizen.
What do you think the value of writing and rhetoric is for students across academic disciplines?
I have a lot of friends who are pre-med – I’m a math and economics major. And if you can’t write, you really can’t speak that well either. For example, whether you like Obama or not, you can’t deny that he’s a brilliant speaker. And why is he a brilliant speaker? Well, he’s able to write. I’m actually reading his book right now, The Audacity of Hope. His story’s amazing. I’m waiting for his next one after being president – to see how his mindset changed over time.
And without the ability to write, how are you going to function in society? The ability to make an argument – whether that’s with LOLs or higher vocabulary – it’s essentially the same. Sometimes it’s better to use more informal text, but the ability to write is the same. If you can write, you can express your thoughts eloquently whether with LOLs or not.
How do you use some of the writing and rhetoric skills we covered in our class? Academically? Professionally? Personally?
I’ve always liked to write and read. What I’ve started to do is when I read opinion articles of The New York Times, or especially something like the Wall Street Journal that I might disagree with, I’ll email them saying, ‘While I agree with this, this, and this, I also feel this.’
I’ve also always found that writing is immortal in a sense. We’re still reading the words of those who died millennia ago. But our conversation right now will be lost to history – unless you write it down. No one will ever know what happened, unless you write it down.
What skills and understanding do you feel like you’ve gained from studying writing?
Our writing 102 class teaches you the skills to help you as a writer. You can see a marked improvement. The best writers read a lot, but they also write a lot. And if you don’t write, then how are you going to get better at it? You can watch all the basketball you want, but if you don’t practice free throws, you’re not going to get better at them. I’ve acquired these skills – rhetorical strategies and philosophies – and now for me in the past couple of years I’ve tried to implement them in things like my speech here.
And things like this [my speech] – where people value my opinion – whether they agree or disagree with them, it’s pretty cool. Especially being someone who’s felt marginalized, one, because I couldn’t speak that well growing up. And then, me being Muslim, so not feeling completely home at school, and kind of not having my opinions heard. So I really enjoy writing – I’m just as passionate about it now as when I was running, probably even more so.
How do you see the lessons you’ve learned from WRT 102 serving you in future endeavors?
My goal – for this year especially – is writing for a larger audience. I love writing op-eds and I can write for my Huffington Post blog or on Facebook or whatever, but I’d like a bigger medium like Newsday. And hey, if the New York Times comes calling…
I also want to write novels. Maybe after my LSAT. Have you seen Fresh Off the Boat? I’ve always wanted to remake that from a Muslim point of view – to expose people to what a Muslim family is really like.
I’d like to start a podcast too. My idea is like a “President’s Corner” type thing to highlight different people on campus, like the captain of the football team, or a professor who just published a paper. I don’t want people living by my opinion, but me being in the position I’m in as president, it could be really interesting. Also having a platform of, say, college democrats and college republicans to have a discussion. Let’s talk, you know?
You used to have an excuse: Oh, the big media outlets won’t let me in; the big newspapers won’t let me in; the big T.V. companies won’t let me in. But now, you can just record a podcast and post it on Youtube. You can write a book and self-publish. You can build a following yourself.
Any advice to your fellow classmates on the lessons that you’ve learned from writing and rhetoric – both in the classroom and out in the world?
Know your audience. Like the speech I’m giving today: it’s not one steeped in policy or minutia – it’s all about emotional connection with people. The dreamers especially. Speaking to them and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to stand with you.’ And that’s important.
An added benefit of writing – and writing well – is you become more organized. If you write a piece and don’t make an outline, you’re just rambling to a certain extent – unless you have some sort of mental or physical outline. I remember our research paper outlines helped a lot because you have to say, ‘Okay, paragraph one is about this, and so on.’ And because of this type of organization I was able to transfer that skill. It even carries over into time management, like ‘today I have to do this, I have to talk to these people, about this issue’ and how to order it. I think that’s invaluable. I mean, what’s more important than communication?
Writing is a process. Trial and error. But you have to focus on what is done right as well as how to fix mistakes. Like what I wrote here in my speech: ‘The dream that in America our dreams can only be limited by our capabilities, not our circumstances,’ that’s a concept I had in my head of using this idea of a ‘dream’. I didn’t know how I was going to use it. The first draft was not good, but eventually I worked on it and found the right way – but just having it in my head wasn’t doing anything.
My recommendation to other students is to write as much as possible. But that’s for anyone really, whether in your diary or blog or whatever it is, and get as much quality feedback as possible. I always want diverse feedback. In writing it’s imperative.
The beauty of rhetoric, literature, and truly great works of writing is that every word, every syllable, and every intonation is there for a reason.