UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the month “February, 2013”

Academically Speaking

Mandi Strickland, Consultant

“Can you say that…more academically?” I hear myself asking a student and pointing to a specific passage. She is writing an analytical essay, and there is a shift in the tone of her writing. She has slipped from the learned, written language of the institution, into her own dialect. I am reluctant, because I do not want her to think that her ideas are not clear. But, I tell her anyway, knowing that she’d thank me for the better grade if it came to that.

Basic linguistic theory tells us that within the educational system, access and continued desire for access based on propensity for success is based on socioeconomic status, which is, in turn, based on the degree to which the social dialect adheres to standardized English. Basil Bernstein demonstrates this by evaluating the use of “elaborate” and “restrictive codes” in speech. Middle class children are more likely to use elaborate codes, which is the code preferred by the schools. Elaborate codes provide contextual information, while restrictive codes are context specific. Restrictive codes used by working-class children are judged by the educational system as inadequate; they do not provide the contextual information that the institution seeks, despite that they may be communicating the same information.

Linguistic problems are societal problems—the disparity between social dialects and standardized English reinforces social inequality. Bloomfield argues that social hierarchy mimics the linguistic hierarchy: “The higher the social position of the non-standard speaker, the more nearly does he approach the standard language.” The student is ranked based upon her capacity to adhere to standardized English, her fluency in the language of power.

MandiWith this knowledge in mind, I advise my student to make changes to her paper. I tell her, “What you have here is OK, and your message has been communicated. I get it. But, here, now and in your future as a student, you will be expected to speak ‘academically.’” I wonder, should I tell her that this is the language of patriarchy, or that speaking academically is active in the maintenance of social inequality? That she, as a minority, will have to adopt the language of the majority in order to be a social success?

Instead, I walk the fine line of helping the student to remain true to her social identity, while also doing the best that I can to provide her with tools needed to reconcile this identity with the language of the academy.

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Silencing the Dissertation Demons

Jennifer Marciniak – Assistant Director of the Virtual Writing Center

JenniferMAs a PhD candidate I have a lot of demons. For the majority of my doctoral career they have been there. They come to me in the form of voices –professors, colleagues, family members, even people who have no idea what it takes to undergo such a momentous task as a doctorate. Usually these voices are picking away at the back of my brain reminding me: “Only a week left before the rough draft is due, what the hell are you doing watching another episode of The Walking Dead when you have nothing for your lit review!?”  These voices started popping up during the initial two years of coursework. These annoying, lizard-tongued declarations always found me during that final push before the final papers were due. And they were loud. Overbearing. And, sometimes, overwhelming.

Even so, those seminar class demons do not hold a candle to those presently lording over my dissertation. As I begin this foray into the prospectus, which is the proposal or introduction to the dissertation, these demons are much nastier, and seemingly much less controllable. I say this because a dissertation is nothing like a seminar paper. You are not bound by (significant) deadlines like in a seminar class. Therefore, it can be much more difficult for people like me who need structure to hold themselves accountable. These demons are not harping on about deadlines. That’s small potatoes. These voices are a lot more destructive and vicious, creeping around in your psyche as you battle writer’s block saying, “You have no idea what you are doing. What are you even doing in this program? You are a complete failure.” And I can tell you from experience – and the blank pages that should be my prospectus – that it is hard to listen to this rhetoric and not start believing it.

So, I started looking for help. What I found is that I am not alone with dealing with these demons. I knew that to a certain extent, though.  I am part of a cohort of seven doctoral candidates dealing with the same issues, but it’s nice to see it in writing that you are not a complete botch on the academic landscape (like my demons tell me every day). The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill has resources for dissertation writers like me who need some consolation during this mammoth undertaking. One of the most beneficial resources they offer is a handout called “Silencing Your Inner Critic.” The information provided was a bit shocking – it was like they had a microphone inside my head and were recording the demon voices as they ridiculed me mercilessly. I think many writers going through a similar situation would benefit from an understanding voice, so I thought I would share this self-help resource here. It starts out with questions and bulleted “critic” voices. While UNC-Chapel Hill uses “critic,” I changed it to “demon,” as I thought it more appropriate for the way I hear them in my head:

What is your demon’s greatest fear?

  • That you’ll sound dumb
  • That you’ll disappoint a mentor
  • That you are an academic impostor
  • That you are not enough of a genius
  • That you won’t get a job
  • That you’re missing something within yourself (you aren’t talented enough)
  • That you’re missing something in the research (you didn’t find the famous article)
  • That you’re not worthy to make your claim
  • That your idea isn’t significant enough

When does your demon speak most often?

  • While you are writing
  • Before you sit down to write
  • After you’ve drafted something
  • While you are doing things unrelated to your project
  • Anytime, anywhere

Whose voice does your demon resemble?

  • A parent
  • A teacher
  • A smarty pants

I originally put an asterisk (*) by the bullet points that I hear most often from my demons, but realized afterward that I put an asterisk after every single one of them. So I deleted them. My demons pop up to tell me how much I suck as a doctoral student pretty much all the time. When I am washing dishes, cleaning out the closets, folding laundry. I am constantly thinking about writing, but also constantly battling reasons why I can’t sit down and do it. Because of whom my demon voices resemble, I am shell-shocked into silence because of the fear of sounding dumb, disappointing people, and basically being inadequate. But what now? UNC- Chapel Hill does not leave you hanging. They provide do-it-yourself questions to help you battle these demons:

  • Where might constructive criticism help you in the writing process?  Who might you consult for constructive criticism and when might you schedule that consultation?
  • In what other situations does your demon speak up?  How do you respond to your demon in those instances and move forward?
  • What might you say back to your demon when he/she pipes up?

While I will not divulge what I say to my demons (it’s inappropriate for a public forum), I think there is definitely something to be said for consulting someone outside of your committee for assistance. Many university writing centers offer dissertation workshops, or “boot camps,” that aim to get participants on a schedule. The overall goal is to jump start the dissertation and get the participant writing while providing simultaneous feedback. Some workshops are designed for those who are just starting the dissertation, while others are for those who are finishing up and need support with chapter revisions. Other workshops are designed to assist participants throughout an entire semester, sometimes two semesters, providing a more rigid schedule, as well as communal feedback.

The University of Louisville Writing Center held its first dissertation writing “retreat” in May 2012. I was one of the writing center consultants working with participants finishing their dissertations. For five days I worked with two doctoral candidates on chapter revisions. It was exhausting work, but at the end of the week there was significant progress. And, reportedly, a silencing of the participants’ own demon voices.  Since the retreat was so successful, The University of Louisville Writing Center will offer its second dissertation writing retreat in May 2013. The retreat, which caters to students from all disciplines, allows students to write, revise, and rework their dissertation chapters during the course of each day. Participants also have the benefit of one-on-one help with a writing center tutor as well as group activities with other participants. Those interested in participating in the workshop must have an approved dissertation proposal or prospectus, completed (or nearly completed) the data material gathering process, the approval of their dissertation advisor, and the commitment to writing each of the five days of the retreat. Applications for the retreat must include a copy of the proposal or prospectus, a one-page cover letter indicating why the retreat will be beneficial, and a letter of support from a faculty advisor. Deadline for applications is April 1, 2013.

For more helpful (and encouraging) tips from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Writing Center like “Silencing Your Inner Critic,” visit their website.

All’s Fair in Love and the Writing Center: Adapting to Unfamiliar Genres

Michelle Day, Consultant
At the Writing Center, we always say that we will work on any type of writing. Once, that even meant working on a love letter.
Since Valentine’s Day is coming up, I have been hoping I might get to tutor another lovestruck student (no luck yet). But I am now realizing that, having never read, received, or composed a love letter, I have little context for the conventions of that writing genre: how it should be organized, how it should be formatted (do college sweethearts expect a “Works Cited” page?).
Affectionate missives are not the only genre my Writing Center colleagues and I have little experience with. So why do we always ask clients to bring in anything and everything they’ve written and want help with? And how do we navigate unfamiliar genre waters?
Here, I’d like to draw on the expertise of some of my fellow consultants’ blog posts to show how I might approach tutoring a student on composing written declarations of love.
  • On January 22, Scott Lasley wrote about the importance of consultants seeking to learn from a tutoring session, rather than just teach. By being curious and willing to learn, he says, “we not only see what other writers are doing, but we also open our minds and by extension, our writing, to new areas of intellectual exploration.
  • On January 28, Katelyn Wilkinson wrote a post about how consultants who aren’t “creative writers” can still provide helpful feedback to clients who want to work on a poem, short story, or other creative work. She suggests that tutors first establish the goals of the writer for the piece and give feedback on specific places that do or don’t work toward those goals.
  • On February 4, Lauren Short argues that “just as we have a closet for getting dressed, we also have an arsenal of skills for writing papers.” She encourages writers to experiment with different techniques, genre, and language in order to find a unique writing style—a process we at the Writing Center would love to be a part of.
All of my co-workers’ advice plays into how I would approach tutoring a client on a love letter. Like Katelynn suggests, I would need to first know the client’s goals for the letter. Does the writer want the letter to sound polished and formal or more conversational? Does the writer know if the recipient reciprocates his/her feelings? How vulnerable is the writer willing to be? What is the ultimate message (besides love) that he/she wants to communicate? Asking those questions about rhetorical purpose can give me a framework for evaluating whether specific parts of the letter are working toward that purpose.
Second, I would need to take Lauren’s advice and hep the writer to work within his/her personal strengths and style. Writing in a way that makes the writer feel comfortable would be essential to drafting a heartfelt, natural letter, rather than one that sounds forced and uncomfortable. And, identifying some of the writer’s strengths might help him/her play to those strengths on future writing assignments.
Finally, I would need to remember to learn from and listen to the client. Pretending like I have a complete grasp on all genres of writing wouldn’t make me any more familiar with how to write love letters. So, it would be important for me to focus on my own strengths—examining the rhetorical effects of certain ways of writing—and let the writer be the expert on what the end product should look like
 Michelle
This is a much oversimplified version of the process we go through to provide assistance on unfamiliar genres, and there are likely a lot of other strategies consultants use. How do you approach tutoring on a piece of writing you’re not accustomed to reading or writing?

The Rhetoric of Style: Writing is Like Getting Dressed in the Morning

Lauren Short, Consultant

You greet the day with panic because you overslept. Again. All that matters now is grabbing your things and making your way out the door looking reasonably presentable to society. Even though you may be thinking to yourself, “I have nothing to wear,” you somehow find a few articles that do the trick. When it comes to drafting a paper, a panic similar to a missed alarm can be so overwhelming that you think, “I have nothing to write,” but you shouldn’t feel pressure to create your magnum opus the first time. When it comes to writing (and getting dressed in the morning) you don’t have to reinvent the wheel–follow a formula that works for you and feel free to throw on an unexpected accessory once in a while.

While at the university, generally everyone has to wear a top, bottoms, and shoes (or at least one would hope). A typical paper includes an introduction, body, and conclusion. Though forms of style and styles of writing will differ within specific contexts, you get the basic idea. If you’ve got an outline to work from, the next step is easy. What really makes our work special is the extras that we use to define ourselves, our style, if you will, just as each person has a distinguishing characteristic about his or her choice in dress. If you’re not sure what your strengths are as a writer, feel free to ask! Ask your friends, family, professors, or your trusty neighbors at the writing center. Realizing that you have something unique about your writing, be it your indelible voice, your penchant for creating an organized paper, or your strength for research.

Recently, a student came in hoping I could help check over his paper before he turned it into class. From the get-go, I noticed that he had an unmistakable colloquial voice about his writing. While some of his paragraph structures needed work and he needed to find relevant research to validate his claims, I was taken with the way he could turn a common phrase and make it sound appropriate for an academic paper. Some of his words needed updating, but for the most part, I didn’t want him to lose his voice. This student’s voice was like a perfectly-tied bow tie upon his paper.

Another student needed help brainstorming for an upcoming paper and seemed desperate to lock down a thesis statement. Her sources were in order, her notes were organized, and she was able to answer all of my questions, indicating that she knew what she wanted to write, but was afraid it would all come out wrong. Since this student had indicated her skills for organization, I tried to steer her in the direction of asking questions that would answer her writing prompt. We made a few organized lists that detailed what she wanted to express and were able to cross out extraneous details until we were left with a few concise statements to form a thesis. This student’s organizational intuition was a polished pair of pearl earrings to pull together the rest of her ideas.

LaurenThe overarching message here is that just as we have a closet for getting dressed, we also have an arsenal of skills for writing papers. One man’s strength is another’s weakness, so it just takes practice to determine what you need to work on and what you need to highlight in your writing. Remember that just like personal style, writing can be fun! Let it be the place where you show off your knowledge, entertain a crowd, or move someone to tears. Once you get the basics, feel free to play around a little. Write in a format you’ve never experienced before. Try coming from a different perspective. Mess with language. Because if we conform to a prescribed popular notion of what writing is, we will never develop anything new. Create a style all your own–and if you need any help along the way, you know where to find us…

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