UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the month “November, 2012”

What my psychologist taught me about the Writing Center…

Sam Bowles, Consultant

I recently had an encounter that really helped me understand and appreciate the experience clients visiting the Writing Center often have.

I have always been a student looking to take advantage of the full range of services offered on a college campus. I always get my flu shots. I have participated in group exercise classes and in fitness assessment and planning programs. I have even regularly scheduled massages when they are being offered through campus health services. So when I was starting to get stressed out a few months ago, signing up for an appointment with a psychologist (another free service provided to students) made perfect sense.

I went into my first 50 minute session (coincidentally the exact length of the sessions we offer in our Writing Center), fully expecting that I would lay out my problems, the things that were causing me to stress or worry, and then I could sit back and let the psychologist—the professional—do the rest. He would identify my problems, the root of them in particular, and then tell me the fixes for them. I was in for a surprise, though. The session didn’t exactly go as I had planned.

He asked a lot of questions. It seemed as though every time I presented something I thought needed work, every time I laid something out wanting him to tell me the solution, he responded by asking more questions of me. “Well, what do you think?” “Why do you think that makes you feel that way?” “How do you think you could make that part of your life less stressful and therefore more enjoyable?”

In all honesty, I started to get a little frustrated. This session was requiring a lot more thinking and work on MY part than I had expected. After all, HE was the professional, not me. It was in the middle of that first session that I had an epiphany: I looked up at my psychologist and said, “Oh my gosh, this is like the Writing Center for my life.” He was a little confused at first, but I explained.

I ultimately came to thoroughly appreciate the methods of my psychologist and found our sessions to be very valuable. He equipped me and empowered me to identify and deal with the stressors my life. But that initial session finally enabled me to fully empathize with the experience of many writers when they visit the Writing Center for the first time.

All of us who work in the Writing Center have observed the frustration of clients who come in with expectations and pre-conceived notions of what they think we do and how they think we do it. It’s not at all unusual for clients to think they will present their papers, and we—the professionals—will fix them while they sit back and watch. It’s not at all unusual for clients to become frustrated when, instead, they are met with probing questions and challenges to think deeper. However, just as my psychologist demonstrated patience with me as I came to understand the process, I often have to be patient with clients as they wrap their minds around our methods. We want, as our mantra goes, not only to fix a given paper but to improve the individual writers with whom we work, but we cannot forget to empathize with clients as we help them understand not just how we do what we do but also why we do it that way.

Writing without a Net: Ways to Start a Paper without an Assignment Sheet

Daniel Conrad, Consultant

When gearing up to write a paper, your greatest tool is likely to be an assignment sheet. These treasures, handed out in stacks by our benevolent professors and T.A.s, include valuable information regarding assignment details. These handouts offer our teachers an efficient way to answer perianal questions about the work such as content, length, scope, focus, and format. As demonstrated by a previous post, the ability to read an assignment sheet can unlock many of the mysteries students encounter during the writing process.

Unfortunately, a time will come when your dutiful professor has elected to let you fly solo. Without the aid of an assignment sheet, you will be expected to yield a work equally as impressive as previous, more structured work. Without the assignment sheet, the boundaries of a paper seem unidentifiable. What should I write about? What course should my argument take? What sort of sources should I use? The questions, all equally as gravitous and pressing, begin to mount, and suddenly the guidelines lain out on assignment sheets, which had previously seemed arbitrary and restricting seem much more comforting. Students without assignment sheets often seem to be floating around aimlessly in the space of the assignment. Luckily for students specific to the Humanities, there are strategies, questions ask in order to help anchor one’s self, even in the absence of the tethers of our assignment sheets.

How did this text affect me?

Close reading also provides great jumping-off points for developing a conversation. Was there a moment in the text which seemed especially potent, or had a certain rhetorical or emotional effect on you? Did this text remind you of anything you have read or seen in another context? Teachers develop courses with specific objectives and place texts together to stimulate certain conversations. If you see something interesting, run with it!

What is the history behind this text?

Time period is a great way to position a text. Authors, the socially aware people they often are, know a lot about art, culture, politics, religion, and so on. It is likely that they have been influenced, or at the very least, in conversation with significant events and conversations going on during their writing process. What were the big social questions when this text was written? What sort of society was the author living in?

What is the author doing here?

The relationship between the author, narrator, and the reader is always an important one. Is our author different than our narrator, or are they the same person? How does the relationship between the author and narrator affect the way we understand the story? Are the people telling the story reliable? What is their tone? How are they using language? Are they being manipulative, or do they have the reader’s best interest in mind? The way the author positions himself, his narrator, and his reader all play key roles in the delivery of a story, which in turn changes the way we read into events and characters. Discussing the ways this influences our reading is often a fruitful endeavor.

Which “Big Questions” are here?

Things like Truth, Ethics, Gender, Reality, Freedom, God, Power, Capitalism, War, and Consciousness are inarguably tough nuts to crack. The commonality between these topics is how difficult it is to come to a resting answer on anything. These questions are all intensely difficult to write on in any definitive way, which is precisely why so many authors write on them extensively! Your paper might not have the scope (or likely a distant enough due date) to answer any of these questions within, but it certainly can contain a discussion of the way the text in question addresses these huge, looming questions. Look at how the author encounters these questions for an interesting reading of a text, but be careful to avoid the temptation to try to solve the puzzles. Most of these questions have outlasted thousands of years of rigorous philosophical and humanistic debate. It is unlikely an answer will be found in a five page paper.

The number of possible entrances to a paper is astronomically high. Papers can take on any number of potential courses, as demonstrated by the unfathomable number of books, papers, lectures, and modes of discourse which populate the Academy. There is no shortage of ways to approach writing a paper — that is certain. Still, for those of us who prefer a bit more guidance – a target to aim at – these strategies offer a way into a text when the safety net of an assignment sheet isn’t available.

What to Do with Revision

Scott Lasley, Consultant

In terms of writing stages, many of my clients visit the writing center with concerns involving the revision process, particularly after less than stellar peer-revision sessions and being stuck in the “I don’t know where to go with this” stage of writing.  In reflecting on these particular clients, it seems especially important to breakdown this behemoth of “revision.”  What does it mean to revise?  How to we go about it when approaching a deadline?  Why should students even bother?  Some may be simply focused on getting a grade and being done with the assignment, so what can we, as writing consultants, do?  My hope is that by answering these questions with what has worked for some of my clients, this breakdown of revision will offer some new strategies for all writers, young and old.

How to Approach It?

One of the biggest issues students seem to face with utilizing revision is knowing where to start.  Sometimes a professor may provide students with a marked-up copy of their rough draft as a means of revising before turning the paper, but that may not always be possible.  The best thing you can do is to breakdown revision into manageable pieces.  A good question to ask yourself is what areas need to be focused on?  Is my thesis in need of revision?  Is organization the issue?  By setting up a game plan for what particular areas to revise, the actual task of revising a paper becomes less daunting and far more doable, especially if that ominous deadline is looming over your head.  If you are uncertain of what areas to really focus on, have a fellow classmate or friend read over your draft.  By looking at the feedback they provide, you can narrow down which areas to focus on as you revise.  It’s also a good idea, if possible, to focus on one particular aspect at a time.  For example, you may work on making your argument more clear one day, then work on developing your ideas another day.  Regardless of how you approach it, the important thing to keep in mind with how you approach revision is to have a plan and keep things focused.

Developing a Habit of Revision

  1. Know the terms or create your own: Just naming various aspects of your writing that need improvement can be especially helpful not just in identifying what specific area you want to focus on when revising but also in giving you power over that aspect because you know what to look for in your work.  It also helps to know the names of various aspects of writing, such as organization, thesis, clarity, comma splice, etc., in order to articulate your concerns when asking someone to read through a piece of your work.  While the terminology isn’t necessarily a vital part of the revision process, it does help make sense of all of the potential areas to be addressed.
  2. Have a list or guide handy as you work through your paper: By having your personal “check list” of revision, you can not only keep yourself focused on which specific areas you want to tackle, but it also gives you an easy guide to refer back to in case you find yourself getting overwhelmed or distracted by lower-order concerns.  In some ways, having a revision list is like having a map, giving you the directions to reach your destination while giving you a landmark to return to if you have to stray a little bit to make note of something unexpected.
  3. When in doubt, refer to the prompt: Professors usually have key words or “hints” in their prompts, such as what expectations they have, page length, formatting style, number of citations, and material or questions that should be addressed.  This can be a great tool to use when coming up with a revision plan, especially if you’re unsure where to get started. 

Above all else, revision should be a practice that is done out of choice rather than obligation.  Obviously not all writing assignments will be equally valued, but developing strategies and ways to make revision useful and intriguing can not only flesh out and strengthen your writing, but also give you the opportunity to make a piece of writing you’re especially passionate about the best it possibly can be.  Happy writing!

How to Analyze a Writing Prompt

Lauren Short, Consultant

Before you can start with that snappy opener that draws your reader in, you must first learn to decode the writing prompt. While this may seem like an ordinary task, I’ve seen many students who are overwhelmed by the amount of information included in a given writing prompt. They all seem to ask a similar question: How do I know that I’m including everything the professor wants? Luckily, there are a few questions you can ask yourself to aid in the process of understanding your professor’s expectations.

What type of paper am I being asked to write?

Narrative: A narrative essay asks you describe a personal experience.
Persuasive: A persuasive essay asks you to make an argument, or to persuade your reader. In addition to providing examples and support about your own argument, you’ll want to consider the opposing viewpoint’s relevance and explain why your argument makes a stronger case.
Expository: An expository essay typically asks you to compare/contrast two things or explain a cause/effect.

What sort of information do I need to include?

More than likely, your paper is going to call for research. How many sources does your professor ask you to include? Do the sources need to be varied? Peer-reviewed? One of the best places to start brainstorming is through research. Once you read an academic opinion on the topic you are writing, you’ll begin to understand the viewpoints in which you agree and disagree. You probably have a good idea of what you want to say, you just need to find sources that support your argument and examples that illustrate your point.

Who is my intended audience?

Considering your audience will help set the tone of your paper. If you are to assume a common reader, you will probably need to take a bit more time introducing your topic and explaining its significance. If your professor would like you to write ‘to the academy’ then you can probably omit redundant summary and spend more time talking about why your argument is significant instead of what your argument is.

Decoding a writing prompt can be a bit like translating a foreign language. You might feel like you have the gist of the assignment but there’s always that feeling that something might be missing. I encourage all writers to go back to the writing prompt once they have finished with their drafts. Make a list of the professor’s expectations and see if you can find them within your paper. If you’re missing something, go back and revise. With a little effort, you’ll get to make a satisfying check mark next to each expectation.

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