Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Lesson I Learned in History 601

Writing my History 601 Final Paper was an eye-opening experience. After having completed Hist 301 during the final semester of my undergraduate program (It was supposed to have been done during my first semester in upper division coursework and as a transfer student I had not been informed), I was ready for the super-heavy, reading-laden trench work of 601. The semester went fairly well as we read various works, including That Noble Dream by Peter Novick and The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg. We learned about the development of the profession of History and how we were to embark on a mission to educate the world about humanity and all of its glories and follies.

For my final, I chose to write a paper on The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, by Iris Chang. Of course, as I had done the entire semester, I waited until the last minute to research and write my paper. We were reading books at the pace of one a week; with work, children and a needy girlfriend occupying most of my time, I was forced to read the books in one or two days. I am a quick reader. Although digesting the information, interpreting it, formulating an argument and selecting passages for support and evidence are more than simply reading a text. I needed more time than I was allowing myself for each assignment, and the 7/10 that I was consistently earning never quite pierced the veil of my brain and translated to the raw 70% that would eventually become a B, which led to a lower average than I needed to maintain in order to remain in good standing within the graduate program.

So there I was, one week left to write my final paper, and of course life did not slow down to accommodate me. I did not use enough sources and one of the ones that I had selected was known for being written by a very lousy example of a historian. I would have known that, had I done more research and examined more sources. I look back and recall the large stack of books I used for my history 301 paper and I can’t understand why I didn’t think to do the same with Hist 601. I remember making three or four trips to the library looking for sources for my 301 paper (Which was on the relationships between Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt and Truman during WWII) and I even bought one book for 25cents as an additional source. Somehow, that commitment wasn't there for hist 601. Was it hubris? Was I so full of myself after being accepted into the Master’s program that my academic standards became inexplicably lax? I believe so. I was forced to face the truth: I hadn’t only let myself down; I let down every professor who wrote a letter of recommendation for me as well.

I learned a very valuable lesson in Hist 601, and that lesson is that no matter how skilled we might be the effort has to accompany that skill and be infused into every work. The first great job you do, regardless of the form, format, field, etc., sets the bar for the future. Each assignment should improve on the previous one in any way possible. Each subsequent piece of work should include no less effort than the one before it. Following this ideology, I have been able to produce high-quality work even when the subject matter fails to mesmerize me. I realized that if my standards drop, then so shall the rewards. And frankly, I want platinum medals, not bronze ones.
Thursday, June 13, 2013

Friday, March 8, 2013

Well, time sure flew again.  A 28-day week just passed! Concrete proof of what I was talking about in my last post.

I'm sure it could be therapeutic to some blocked or cowed writers to read about my trials with academic writing, the way lots of people write about their addictions, lives of crime, experiences of abuse, years spent in underground radical cells on the right or the left, sojourns on other planets after abduction by aliens, etc., etc.  We're supposed, first of all, to admire these people for their courage in speaking out in spite of the shame, humiliation, or simple sliminess they must feel.  Then, of course, we can find hope and reassurance in the fact that someone has overcome a large obstacle to attain success in life, if success is measured by getting a book deal and possibly appearing on Oprah.  But by far the majority of readers obtain solace--and a bit of pleasure--from knowing there are people so much worse off than they are.  Well, I doubt if I'm going to get on Oprah (Is there still an Oprah to get on? [I mean an "Oprah," of course]) with sordid tales of writer's block, so maybe I'm not going to go down that path after all. 

But it's not all bad. Oddly enough, one of the few things I write easily and am willing to share is poetry.  Some of it is frivolous, what in the old days was called doggerel verse (see below), but most of it has some political or social message I'm trying to get across.  In addition to poetry, I have found that I am good at letters to the editor, opinion columns for newspapers, political policy statements, and, unfortunately, eulogies.  I believe that these types of writing work for me because they're based on inspiration--almost all the ideas come unbidden into my head; they're too short in duration and too urgent in timing to allow for my insecurities and complicating tendencies to kick in; and I believe they say something that is important enough to me--or to someone--to risk embarrassment from others' reactions.  Unfortunately, my scholarly writing has none of those characteristics, even the third one. Hence the difficulty, which I now understand is just going to be with me for the rest of my days.  (Sorry, you might have been hoping for something more reassuring from my testimonial.)

But let's end on a lighter note:

Life without Parole

I learned grammar
In the slammer
Hoping to prove
I had a studious manner

I tried to absorb it at a rapid rate
To get the parole board to soften my fate
But in, on, and at didn't change their decision
‘Cuz you can’t end a sentence with a preposition.

(Apologies, of course, to those who have more direct, non-humorous experience with the above-referenced system.)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Reflections on Writing

I am going to try to add something here every week. I have made promises like this to myself before, and generally find that SOMETHING quickly intervenes to take my resolve or my attention away. But let’s live--and write--for today.

I suppose it’s a bit risky to discuss my personal relationship to writing when I am the director of a writing center.  I am expected to be an exemplar of the good writer, and admissions of doubt or shortcomings may lessen my credibility.  On the other hand, I imagine it could also be reassuring to students who themselves struggle with these issues to know that one can write, at least up to a point, even with some shortcomings.

Being a “good writer” has a couple of different meanings.  One is that a person can create a “good” written product.  The meaning of “good written product” also is subject to various interpretations, but for the present time, I mean that the writing is clear, grammatical, thoughtful, and to some degree interesting, even entertaining.  Both the content and the vehicle by which it is expressed are pleasing.  By that standard, I can safely say I am a good writer.  However, writing is also an action, a process.  So a good writer can also be a person who writes fluently, efficiently, and perhaps even gracefully.  However, there are not many people, if any, who actually do write like this.  Certainly I am not one of them: in regard to process, I am a bad writer indeed. 

In any case, it’s not clear that being graceful or fluid alone is desirable.  After all, graceful runners, swimmers, etc., are rarely praised for their form if they are not competitive.  It’s only when they are winners that we may stop and notice their technique, e.g., Michael Jordan and his gravity-defying flights toward the backboard.  His method might have been noteworthy under any circumstances, but it would not have been praiseworthy if he did not also sink baskets as he “flew.”  (Graceful dancers might be seen as a counterexample, but they still would not be considered praiseworthy if their movements did not result in an artistically satisfying performance when joined together into a piece.)

I, at any rate, have a horrible writing process.  In fact, it is so bad that it often prevents me from completing the writing projects I begin. To continue the sports analogy: I have always been a terrible runner and swimmer, and this is due in no small part to the fact that I have limited lung capacity because of asthma, and consequently get winded within minutes.  Although I had never thought of the parallelism until just now, I would have to say that something akin to mental asthma winds me within a short time when I try to write. 

That may be enough for one day’s entry.  Over the coming weeks, if I have the courage, I will detail some of the obstacles that I encounter when I try to write.  I will also be talking about more objective things, such as composition theory, tutoring methodology and research, and the issues non-standard speakers face when they strive to write in the university environment.  I will assume for the time being that I am writing for myself, to myself.  We will see if any comments come in to disturb the tranquility that comes of this belief. 


Monday, January 28, 2013

Writing Center opens for Spring 2013

The Writing Center is up and running and again. This semester we have new undergraduate workshops and, for the first time, graduate workshops. We are trying to zero in on the skills that students need most to write successfully at the university. It's a moving target! To see what we've latched onto this time, visit our workshops page at our website.

We had all-day training for all campus tutors on Saturday, January 26.  I ran this along with my colleagues Maureen Dupont, who runs the Math Lab, and Hilary Comerchero, who runs the Language Learning Center.  In keeping with my ongoing efforts, I again stressed the importance of minimalist tutoring--the idea that less is more.  And, in addition, that more is actually less.  We looked at research by Michelene Chi and her colleagues that indicates that tutees do as well with tutors who are instructed to explain less as with tutors who explain a lot--which is, of course, our natural predisposition as tutors.  In fact, tutees show deeper learning (defined as the ability to transfer learning to new contexts and make inferences) when there is almost no explanation.  The reason for this is that self-explanation seems to lead to the deepest learning.  Tutors, accordingly, should interact with tutees in a way that prompts these self-explanations.  Explanations coming from us tend to interfere with that process.

Friday, September 7, 2012

This is Jeff, the Writing Center director. We've just started a new semester at the Writing Center. September 4 was our first day open.  Business has been relatively brisk for this time of year--a good sign.  We are doing more outreach and advertising this semester.  I would say it has had only minimal effect so far.  We are having "open house" for our first two weeks of operation.  Students can get a pen with our unit logo and can sign up to win a Writing Center T-shirt. On the front, it has a cute dinosaur (a "thesaurus"--I am not making this up and I did not make that up; the shirts had been designed and printed before I arrived) uttering the word "Word". To the best of my knowledge, only a handful of students have come by to avail themselves of this opportunity.  And though many students have come through as part of class visits (see more below), so far, only two students have filled out the card to try to win the T-shirt.  I guess "Roget" (yes, they named him before I got here, too) is not as cute to others as he has come to be to us.  But he is rather lovable, even if he's somewhat sketchy--literally. He's shown below.

At the same time, we have visited, or had visits from numerous classes.  There are certain "intro-to-skills" courses on our campus: Among them are GEW 101 for writing and GEL 101 for study skills and orientation to the university.  My tutors (we call them "consultants") and I visit many of these classes to introduce our services, or receive visits from these classes in the Writing Center to do the same thing.  One of my goals for this year during these information sessions is to help new students understand that we need their participation in the process of helping them write.  A typical student who has not yet begun to understand the "depth" of the writing process will come to a tutoring session with desires such as "Please check it over for me," or "Make sure it flows OK," or "Tell me if this makes sense."  It's not just that these requests don't allow us to get a clue about how to help the student; it is the very fact that a student thinks that such goals are relevant to a paper that signifies his lack of understanding of the writing process.

So, as is so often the case when dealing with students at developmental crossroads, we have to ask whether explaining and modeling the behaviors associated with a particular level of awareness can propel students to the next necessary developmental level.  For some students, the answer is probably yes.  For many students, perhaps most, the answer is no.  A student who is not developmentally ready will not be able to perform as if she were.  In fact, she may not even be able to grasp the significance of the explanations and models we provide.  Thus I worry that in the name of "educating" unsophisticated students about how to have a useful tutoring session, we are only convincing them that there is no viable pathway available to them for getting help with their papers.  A student who needs to know, "Does my paper flow?" needs the answer to that question, and needs a place to find an answer to that question--or at least believes so.  In reality, a good tutor can draw out of that student some important and relatively well-formed concerns--but only if the student feels comfortable enough to walk in the door.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Study in Stress Elimination: Final Papers Edition - Jenna J.

It’s time for final papers! (Cue the panicked screams! Cue the nail biting! Cue the all-nighters in front of your computer!) Final papers can be intimidating due to their increased length and high level of mental involvement. However, you don’t have to go into freak-mode when scrambling to complete them. You can do it (with limited sanity-loss) by setting goals, establishing organization, and revising thoroughly.

Goal-setting is important when faced with a large task such as a lengthy final paper. Start at the beginning. Do you clearly understand the prompt or assignment? If not, communicate with your professor or classmates until you do. Next, decide what approach you will take to the assignment. When picking a topic or text to discuss in your paper, remember to pick something that interests you—this will help you stay engaged while writing! Keep setting small goals as you form the paper. Today, write your thesis. Tomorrow, make an outline. This weekend, research. Next week, write and revise. Keep on track so you don’t get overwhelmed!

Staying organized will also help you ease stress when writing your final paper. Make a list or outline detailing your topic or argument and the key ideas you want to address. When finding sources, think about which articles you will use to accompany each key point. Keep track of quotes, page numbers, and citations so that you can find them easily while writing your paragraphs. When thinking about organization within your paper, look at your outline to see whether you may benefit from a logical, chronological, or other form of “flow.” Constantly referring to your list of key ideas can help you stay on track while writing and eliminate the tendency to write off-topic and waste time.

Finally, make time for revisions after writing your paper. Get it all out in the first draft—sit down and type your ideas as they come. This can help break the barrier between you and the blank page as well as give you something tangible to work with. Once you have words written, you can revise. Re-visit your thesis and outline. Did you go off on a tangent? Does your logic flow in an understandable manner? Did you say everything you wanted? Consider your language—something that you wrote informally at first may be re-worded for an academic context. If some areas of your paper seem too weak, consider bolstering them with more in-depth thinking and sources. This strategy can also help if you are short on pages. Enhance your paper with more “thinking” and “information” rather than “B.S.” Read your paper out loud to identify too-repetitive words, areas where sentences could be varied, and grammatical errors.

Final papers may be different than “regular” papers, but staying calm and applying familiar writing strategies can help diminish their terror. Good luck to everyone; happy writing!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Talk it Out - by Brandon Y.

Talk it Out
Talking to Yourself to Improve your Writing

            There you are. Writing your paper. Oh man, it’s looking good. Words are flowing out of your head like stupidity from Jersey Shore, like babies out of Kate Goslin. As Justin Beiber is to 10-14 year old girls, so you are to words on a page. But, then with no warning, BAM! You can’t think of the right word! What’s that word?! You know, the word for... Darn! Your life changing essay has just become a distrait disaster! 
            Finally, when you know you’re not going to think of the right word to say, you turn to the person closest (or yell across the house to your little brother), “What’s a word for…got it!” Wait, what just happened? You didn’t have the word. Now you have the word. What went on in between? Answer: You talked it out. But, why did saying it out loud help?
The reason talking it out helps your writing is because the majority of your communicate is verbal, so when you speak out loud about what you’re trying to say on the paper your mind can make the connection easier. So, though you may feel like a crazy person, talking to yourself isn’t a bad idea if you get stuck easily when writing. Here is a little chart to help you see the process:

Now, let me explain how this might work in reality. Thinking involves the cognitive process of generating ideas that you want to write about. You can be thinking about your science report, history assignment, essay question, how to word your thesis statement, or how to conclude your paper. Eventually, no matter how much you think about our topic, you’re going to need to put the pen to the paper or fingers to the keypad. But, sometimes you just can’t think of how to write what you’re thinking. It just doesn’t seem to come out correctly on the page. Or you just can’t think of anything else to say. That’s where talking comes in. Talking involves the use of vocal chords to express, usually through words, what you wish to communicate. You can turn to a friend and start telling them what you’re trying to say. Or, if no friend can be found, just start talking like someone else is there. Try to explain to your invisible audience what you want to say. You will be surprised how clearly and eloquently the words come out. You may feel a funny pulling a Russell Crowe from A Beautiful Mind, but if you get past your insecurity about sanity you will produce some truly beautiful writing.
            I want to leave you with steps you can take next time you get stuck on your paper and can’t seem to write anything else:
·         Think about what you want to say
·         Turn to the closest person to you, and say out loud what you’re thinking
·         Or, if no one is available, imagine someone(s), and tell them what you’re thinking
·         Write down what you just said. If you forgot what you said, say it again!

So, if you get stuck writing a paper this semester, give this process a try. This isn’t a rule
to be obeyed, but a guide that you can follow. Trying including talking in your writing process, and let us know if it helps!