UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the month “October, 2012”

Collaborative Relationships: Multiple Sessions and Extended Projects

Brit Mandelo, Consultant

While the majority of our sessions are one-offs—a single meeting with a client, or multiple sessions each on a different piece of work—there are also, occasionally, larger projects extended over many meetings: thesis work, research projects and the like. Though I appreciate and enjoy all the sorts of work I do in the writing center, I’ve found that these can be the most rewarding and intriguing sorts of partnerships. The process of collaboration is distinctly different when it’s extended over several sessions with the same goal in mind; a space opens up for an authentic and often personal relationship to develop.

When a client comes in for several appointments each week, slowly working through an entire long project with me, I not only get a sense of their personal interests, academic interests, and writing style, but also of their deeper-seated needs and expectations. The dialogue that we can then develop—balancing theoretical and structural concerns over one week with usage and style concerns the next, for example—allows room for flexibility and intense collaboration that a single fifty-minute encounter can’t have. In some sense, this is just really obvious: of course working with someone for six hours is more intense and allows for more connection than working with someone for one hour. In another, I think there’s something more intriguing going on when it comes to issues of identity and communication.

The first session with a client often consists of a “feeling out,” be that first session the only one or not. The client and I aren’t yet familiar—I can’t be sure where their strengths lie, or their weaknesses, or what their concerns are (the ones they’re willing to acknowledge out loud, and the ones they aren’t). So, we end up working out a lot of that communicative background while discussing the writing in question. There’s work being done below (or above?) the level of the client-as-writer; we’re often also learning how to communicate as two individual people with distinct skills and needs. As we all come from unique identity positions, with significant differences between each of our roles within the university, engaging in that process of “how to talk to one another” is essential before productive work can begin. Sometimes it takes five minutes, but sometimes it takes the whole session as we come together over a piece of writing.

However, given even one more session on the same piece of work—when we’re both already familiar with each other and the project in question—much of the proverbial throat-clearing and the sounding-out process that opens a first session have already been taken care of. Often, we’ve had a chance to work through structural and theoretical concerns with the piece, too, if it’s shorter. That second session on the same piece allows us to dig deeper, answer further questions that might have developed in the interim, and slip into a more comfortable space with each other. Multiply that by a few more meetings, and the collaborative opportunity consistently develops into a real relationship based on the writing, but also on each of us as individuals with specific needs and skills—which we’ve had several chances to fit together, like puzzle pieces, for the most productive possible arrangement. After having this happen reliably several times, I now wish that more clients would make several appointments for their projects, so that this same comfortable space could develop between more of us.

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Writer’s Block: Getting the Monkey off Your Back

Katelyn Wilkinson, Consultant

In my consultations recently, there has been an influx of students stuck on what they perceive to be step 1 – getting words on the page. It’s true, sometimes the hardest part of writing a paper is that first sentence. Writer’s block is not limited to freshman or English majors, either; it’s one of those universal problems nearly everyone will experience when trying to complete a project or put words on a page. It’s vicious; the monkey that leans over your shoulder, poking you in the back and yelling “Think, think, THINK!” as your synapses continue firing blanks. While there is no foolproof way to avoid this phenomenon, I have, through my academic career, come across several strategies I have found to be helpful in countering both critical and creative writer’s block.

Brainstorming
Writer’s block can occur at any stage of the writing process. The worst moment often happens when you’re given an assignment and can’t think where to begin. Rather than let writer’s block derail your project before it’s even begun, I have found that a great way to get past this is to brainstorm. Classmates, professors, and even coworkers can be great sounding boards to bounce ideas off of. In fact, one of my favorite functions of the Writing Center is that it offers the chance to brainstorm with consultants who have different interests, which can encourage you to approach your topic in a different way. Talking to those who have a different insight into your particular assignment or project could give you the jumpstart you need to start writing.

Research
Most students, when asked to write a research-based paper, understand the importance of citing sources that can back up their claims. However, what some don’t realize is the power of research to break through writer’s block. Whether you’re writing a 10-page essay or a poem, research into your field can often reveal new strategies or pose questions you might never have thought of on your own. For instance, when I’m working on a creative piece and find myself unsure of where to go next, I will often head to the poetry section of a library or bookstore and begin reading. More often than not, this research into what other poets are doing makes me think about ways I can address certain topics or utilize different writing techniques in my own work. Critical research can serve a similar function. Online journal articles can not only provide you with information, but their citations can also lead you to new sources about your topic. The ideas that can be generated by research are endless.

Taking a Break
When all else fails, never underestimate the power of stepping away from the page. Take a walk, step outside, get a cup of coffee – whatever gets you up out of your chair. Taking a break from your writing is often the best thing you can do for it. In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, he finds that intense amounts of studying have the same effect on the body as prolonged periods of exercise – it causes glucose levels drop, which lead to exhaustion. Unless something is done to replenish these levels, your brain’s computing power will not remain at its optimum level. Even though studying is important, maintaining balance between work and play is even more so. So, when you feel you’ve exhausted every avenue trying to break through your writer’s block, walk away, take a deep breath, and eat a piece of chocolate. Chances are you’ll come back to your writing and be more than ready to tackle it.

For other tactics to keep the monkey at bay, check out some of the strategies students from all over the world have found successful: http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/university_of_venus/tips_for_fighting_writer_s_block

Communication Breakdown: What’s Words Got to Do with It?

Amanda Strickland, Consultant

Before beginning work at the University Writing Center, tutors attend a mandatory human resources orientation along with other new graduate teaching assistants.  As expected, I learned about workplace issues and protocols,where to go when I need x or y, and how to react in crisis situations. One fact that I didn’t expect to learn, however, came very casually. A presenter was encouraging us to utilize face-to-face discussion in order to resolve workplace disputes, “If you can avoid it, don’t use email or text messaging. Communication is only eight percent words.”

She repeated herself to “drive home the point,” and my first reaction to her statement was situational: Yeah, you know, you miss so much in a text message. I always try to resolve issues in person. I scribbled down the statistic underneath the heading of my notes, which is mostly doodles and a few minor to-do bullets. It wasn’t until a few moments later when I was hit by the weight of the implications of this statement. I had completely agreed with her as she said this, thinking of times when text messages or notes to friends had been misconstrued. Thinking deeper, I blushed, pulling my canvas bag into my lap. I scanned the room for other dubious onlookers; each of the doe-eyed students remained completely unfazed. Unhappy with the lack of connection, I decide that the other English students must have attended earlier orientations and now the room is full of number-people and scientists.

I am beginning my professional career as a writer through graduate studies in English, and one of the first piecesof information sent my way is completely devastating to the livelihood of writers around the globe. When we sit down to write something, aren’t we trying to communicate with our readers? Does this mean that the writers of the world are 92% ineffective at communicating? Floundering, I assume that a smart-looking font can account for at least one percentile of efficiency–this gives us 9 percent.

For the next few days I descended into an obsessive search for an answer to the communication question. Of course, a quick Google search alleviated many of my worries. Many scholars argue that this statistic was a gross exaggeration of experiments which originally sought to prove the importance of body language. Nonetheless, the facts remain that messages come across more effectively when the producer and consumer of knowledge or information are in the same room, especially if they are engaging in dialogue. As authors, we are rarely in the same room as our readers. Even when we turn in papers to our peers or teachers, we will not be there to defend or explicate our work to increase the efficiency of communication.

These concerns led me to two valuable conclusions. Written word is, after all is said and done, sacred. It cannot fly away or deny its locality. Because of this permanence, authors are likely to ponder, edit, revise, delete and start over until all of the words are in their right place. In writing, it is possible to evaluate what is left out against what is included. Poets spend years debating line breaks and lovers spend hours on end writing letters.

In contrast, spoken word is ephemeral. It can’t be shared with friends in certainty; it relies on the undeniably untrustworthy memory. It’s rash and abrasive; it doesn’t hold the capacity to self-edit.

The element of reflection in writing allows an author to communicate with such precise specificity that the 92% margin for error is nearly obsolete. The written word gives the audience an opportunity to invoke imagination and creative interpretation within the bounds of a writer’s specificity. Why else do great orators write their speeches before stepping in front of an audience? Albeit, such profound writing is a challenge, but it is something that we write, converse and read about everyday through our formal and informal studies and our work.

The way I see it, this statistic is a friendly reminder to be a more conscientious writer, which I would like to extend as a challenge. Fellow writers, word on the street has it that we are drowning in the pool of efficiency rankings. Considering that it is no longer important but necessary let’s make every word count–I know how much we all hate to be misunderstood 😉

High School and College Writing Conferencing: Some Similarities

Amy Nichols, Consultant

As I think about my experiences as a college-level writing tutor so far, it’s impossible not to compare it with one of my previous jobs. A few years ago, a rural Kentucky high school gave me the chance to be a part-time writing coach, working in partnership with teachers to give students more individualized writing instruction. I jumped in, all passion and no knowledge, and spent a year learning, breaking up the occasional fight, and teaching lessons in everything from how to write a complete sentence to how to best present oneself in a college admission essay.

At the University of Louisville Writing Center, things are a bit different. More of my sessions tend to focus on higher-order concerns, such as organization and the conventions of each discipline. I no longer regularly present students with prompts involving the inner politics of bull-riding or the finer points of vehicle maintenance to catch their interest, and I have not had to break up any fights so far. However, there has been some continuity in the lessons I have learned and am learning from both experiences.

Writers Need to Be Heard.

 At the high school level, this was something I learned very quickly. Students who complained that they “hated” writing often surprised me with their ability to articulate eloquent verbal arguments, even when they were unable to transition those thoughts onto paper. If I could shut off my own agenda long enough to hear their ideas, I could often use that eloquence of thought to help them create a writing strategy that would work for the individual, rather than always using something from my stock selection of handouts.

At the Writing Center, I’ve tried to keep this in mind, and have been surprised again, not by the fact that writers have amazing ideas, but that, when I really listen, it suddenly becomes easier to be creative in helping them articulate those ideas.

Expectations change.

I still hear students say, “I had a teacher/professor who told me *insert inflexible writing rule here*.” These sets of rules, these ‘do and do not’ lists for writing are truly valuable for the framework they give learning writers. A student cannot write a coherent argument about bull-riding if she or he does not know what it means to make an argument in writing in the first place.

 While these frameworks are beneficial, I’ve also learned that it’s important to know when to nuance these frameworks for writers who are ready to move on. Saying, “Well, your thesis doesn’t always have to come at the end of the introductory paragraph” can cause frustration if a student is still learning how to structure an essay. Given at the right moment, however, a student might suddenly understand not only why the rule was there, but also how and when to bend or break it.

Writing is Communal.

For many of my students at the high school, our sessions were the first time they had actually sat down individually to talk about their own writing process. For some of the writers coming to the Writing Center, the story is the same. When faced with a daunting assignment sheet, it is so easy to forget that writing is, at its heart, communication with a community.

I am still personally learning this lesson as I grow as a writer and consultant. The faculty and staff at the writing center and my fellow GTA’s are the strongest resources I have as I make my own transition into graduate studies and into helping writers at the college level. And perhaps this is the final lesson I feel like any writing center, wherever it is, at whatever level, is uniquely situated to teach: no one always has to write alone.

Writing Center 101: A Survey Course

Alex Bohen, Consultant

During my brief time working in the writing center, I have had the pleasure of working with many students from many different academic backgrounds. In my first few weeks of tutoring I saw a number of English 101 papers, all of which asking for an analysis of the rhetoric employed by visual ads. With this task I was given the opportunity to discuss the rhetorical building blocks of ethos, pathos, logos and kairos with students who were eager to learn and apply the topics. I was also given insight into potential uses of these rhetorical tools from the perspective of people who had not been influenced by in depth training, and this was eye opening. I have had the chance to read papers based on subject matter such as total mesenteric excision, functional groups in organic chemistry and learning based on cognitive psychological theory. Though I can’t say I am qualified to discuss these topics with due diligence, I am pleased by the fact that phrases that were once only jargon to me now made conversational sense. I have read papers arguing the merits of each of the stances held by candidates in the upcoming presidential election and because of that have in fact thought hard about political positions I held that I never before thought were up for debate. I have learned about societal ills like child and domestic abuse, as well as protocol for rectifying these ills, from papers written by students in the Kent School of social work. I have even gained insight into policing practices in Turkey.

While it is true that the writing center staff helps those people who attend sessions with various concerns, ultimately aiding in facilitating within them a more complete writing process, I find that I learn quite a bit every time I read through a paper. It is one of my favorite aspects of tutoring. Within the constraints of graduate school work, I find myself without much free time for independent intellectual exploration, and it has been incredibly interesting to read through papers on a spectrum of topics ranging from DNA coding and sequencing to The Secret Life of the American Teenager. To me, it has been as gratifying to tutor students as it has been to learn from them, and I look forward to expanding my knowledge as my work in the writing center continues. I have a group of physics students coming in for a session tomorrow; maybe they can explain string theory to me.

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