UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the month “April, 2013”

Giving Thoughtful Feedback, or The Challenge of Being a Reader

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

Last week, our director Bronwyn Williams wrote about the anxiety many writers feel when they share their work with others. In the Writing Center, consultants often hear about those anxieties. Part of our work is to help writers develop the confidence and positive self-perception that lessens those anxieties. Reading Bronwyn’s post made me think, though, about the other side of the situation: the pressure a reader can feel to offer insightful and productive feedback.

Ashly_Version_3Bronwyn mentioned that he was nervous to send his post to his assistant director, me. I was just as anxious to offer him feedback and suggestions. I mean, he is the director (both of the Writing Center and of my dissertation), and he has been writing successfully for years. While my nervousness is informed somewhat by those facts, it is more so the result of my belief that giving thoughtful feedback is a demonstration of respect—for the writer, the text, and the relationship between the writer and the reviewer.

As Bronwyn explained, writers often feel as though their work is a part of themselves. This is important for readers to remember because their feedback has the potential to shape the writer’s perception of his work and his self. Many of us are familiar with the overly critical grader that has marked up our writing to the point where we wonder why we bothered. This is one of the many places those writing anxieties come from. But many of us are also familiar with the feeling we get when a reader says, “This is good” or even “great” but doesn’t give any examples or mark any places on the text. It gives the feeling that the reader didn’t even bother to really read it. In this case, we may be left wondering, “How do you know? Did you even read it?”

This is why thoughtful feedback that is supported by examples from the piece is so important. It sends the message that the writing is important and valuable; it is worth the time of everyone involved in the creation of that piece. As a reader, I’m trying to discover the main goals of a piece of writing and how the content in the version I’m reading is supporting those goals. I consider as I’m reading what could be elaborated on or what might be missing in the writer’s effort to achieve those goals. Also, I want to be sure that I’m considering the writer’s anxieties—if the writer is unhappy with his piece, why might he be feeling that way? Sometimes those nervous feelings originate outside of the text, but sometimes a writer knows something isn’t quite working in the current draft but can’t identify or articulate the problem. I want to help the writer identify those places so he can revise them for the next draft.

It is my hope as a reader that these kinds of responses communicate to the writer that I appreciate the leap of faith he has taken in letting me read his work and that I take his work seriously. That can be a tall order for a reader sometimes, but it is the challenge that writing center consultants rise to every day they walk into work. As nervous as it may make us some days, those of us at the University Writing Center find it exciting and inspiring to be included in the crafting process of so many writers’ work, which some of our tutors have already discussed in previous posts.

While writing center consultants are always aiming for thoughtful feedback, it can sometimes be difficult to do in the 50 minute sessions we offer, especially with longer texts. There are some things clients can do to help consultants give that thoughtful feedback. The main thing is helping us become more familiar with their writing. Some ways to do this are to help us understand the context for the writing (the assignment, the class, etc), to tell us their goals for the piece, and to share their concerns. Also, we cannot stress enough the value of visiting the Writing Center multiple times. By doing this, as Brit Mandelo has discussed before, the client can find a consultant that he works best with, and they can develop a relationship that allows more time to focus on the writing in each session.

Ultimately, Bronwyn’s post and the process of giving him feedback made me think about the collaborative process between writers and readers. Often readers are anxious like the writer, even if those feelings develop for different reasons. In some ways, that anxiety is productive because it encourages the reader to be more invested and encourages the writer to be more open. Together these perspectives lead to better writing and better individual pieces.

Writing, Nerves, and Gaining a Sense of Being a “Writer”

Bronwyn Williams, Director

A student in a secondary school in a small town in England tells me that it gets harder to write when he knows there is a grade hanging over the assignment.

A graduate student at an English university, at work on her Ph.D., talks about how anxious she feels while waiting for a response on a dissertation chapter she has sent to her faculty director.

A faculty member, with many published books and journal articles, asks me to read a draft of a chapter for a new book she is writing, but admits that to do so makes her nervous.

??????????This semester I have been away from the University Writing Center, though issues of writing and supporting writers have not been very far from my mind. I am writing this from England where I am currently on a Fulbright Research Fellowship at the University of Sheffield. I’ve been visiting classrooms in colleges and secondary schools here, and talking with students and teachers about the challenges – and opportunities – they find in writing and reading. The fellowship has offered me the opportunity to spend the spring conducting research in a new setting, and the chance to meet and talk with new faculty and graduate student colleagues.

In all of these settings, one of the common things I have noticed about how people talk about reading and writing, is the anxiety that often emerges when it comes time for someone else to read what a writer has written. Regardless of how experienced, or how confident, these writers may be, there are always some circumstances that make them nervous about the way others are going to respond to their writing. Maybe the piece they are writing is going to count for a large part of a course grade. Or perhaps the writing is exploring new ideas or a new genre in the piece she is working on. Or maybe the writer has been told in the past that he is not a good writer and he has come to believe that judgment. For whatever reason, when we put our writing out for others to judge we understand that we are being judged on part of ourselves – our ideas, our identities. No wonder we feel nervous.

Visitors to the University Writing Center often talk to us about feeling similar anxieties. Some people feel they have to apologize for the quality of their writing before a session begins and we’ve even had a chance to read the draft. It’s no longer a surprise to me when I read the writing of someone who has told me that her writing isn’t very good, and find strengths in the writing which the student has begun to doubt are present. Then there are the writers who feel their struggles with writing are a confirmation of the negative judgments of past teachers, when, in fact, their problems are more about having to learn to write in a new genre or about unfamiliar content. At the Writing Center we are always honest about the issues a writer has to address to produce an effective piece of writing. Yet we are also honest about recognizing writing strengths that students may not believe they possess. One of the great pleasures of working in the Writing Center, is seeing our consultants not only help writers with their immediate concerns, but also give them a new perspective on their identities as writers

One of the insights that has become clearer to me through my research this spring is how important it is to have a self-perception of competence and agency in order to be a successful writer. While a set of skills is, of course, important, students – and faculty – who doubt those skills or question their power to demonstrate their abilities, often find themselves unable to complete writing projects successfully. Unfortunately, in our system of education where short-answer, high-stakes testing has become the dominant measure of competence, there is less and less room for thoughtful, nuanced writing, even at the university level. Part of what we provide at the Writing Center is a space where writers can receive honest, constructive response without high-stakes judgment. It is, in many ways, one of the purest learning environments on campus. In this learning space, we can often help writers both with their immediate writing projects, but also help them rethink their identities as competent, confident writers.

Does this mean that that we can make all of a writer’s anxieties disappear. No, I can’t promise that. (Full disclosure: I’m nervous in writing this and sending it off to my assistant director for her feedback and then publishing it online – and I’ve been writing professionally for more than thirty years. The nerves never completely go away.) What we can do, though, is offer strategies to help an individual handle new and unfamiliar writing situations effectively. And sometimes, in the course of offering these strategies, we also help students develop a more positive, and more productive, perception of themselves as “writers.”

Uncommon Resume Tips, Or How to Get that Extra Edge

Meagan Ray, Consultant296447_10150311659961933_2008970366_n

Hey friends, it’s time we talked about resumes. With summer approaching (and it truly is approaching, regardless of how much more work one has before getting there), it’s a natural time to start working now on a resume for summer jobs or internships with a later date, or to begin applying for fall positions. It can be a daunting task, but here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way that aren’t necessarily given as conventional advice. This isn’t a comprehensive list of tips; they’re some of the things I’ve noted aren’t usually included on the resume checklists I’ve found.

  • Spell out all your acronyms. Your reader will know that the “KY” or “IN” in your address means Kentucky or Indiana, but it’s always more professional to spell it out. That goes for the “Street” in your “St.” or the “University of Louisville” in your “UofL.”
  • Offer a projected graduation date if you’re still in school in your “education” section. Even if things are up in the air, it lets your future employers know where you stand and when you could potentially go full-time.
  • Unless your grade point average (GPA) is above a 3.0, leave it off your resume, unless your potential employer notes otherwise.
  • Giving your contact information is a good time to evaluate what your e-mail address says about you. Using a school e-mail is a safe bet because there’s not much of an opportunity for miscommunication. What sounds like personality can actually sound unprofessional to an employer, so keep the gonnagitcrunk@website.com or cutebubblyandsingle@website.com between friends, not employers.
  • You can note both your permanent address and current address if your housing fluctuates with the school year.
  • If you’re turning in a resume by hand, print it on resume paper, if possible. It’s more expensive than “regular” paper because it’s weightier, but it’s a simple step that can let potential employers know immediately how you’re willing to go out of your way to be professional. Or at least out of your way to get special paper. A whole box can be an investment, so if you’re only applying a few places, ask if you can buy it by the sheet at the office supplies store.
  • When noting how long you’ve worked at a location in your “job history,” note the month instead of the semester. Looking back on my old resume, I felt silly noting that I’d been a Resident Assistant (RA) in “Fall 2011-Spring 2012,” because not every employer is knowledgeable about the semester schedule and not every school’s semesters are identical. At my alma matter, our finals week was mid-May, whereas here, it’s the end of April. If applying to a job with someone familiar with Louisville’s scheduling, they wouldn’t be aware that I’d worked several weeks longer. It sounds silly, but there’s no room for error when noting months instead.
  • Another faux pas from my past resume (it haunts me even now) is how I assumed readers would know what certain activities meant. In listing extra-curriculars which may be unfamiliar to a reader, you may wish to note what kind of organization it is in parenthesis. For example, my campus’ theatre group was called the “Players.” Listing that I was a “Player” for several semesters doesn’t automatically translate to someone outside of my college’s circle. In editing my own resume, I’ve written “Players (theatre club)” in order to clarify.
  • Lastly, know your audience and know thyself. It’s unnecessary to tailor your resume to each opportunity, but knowing what kind of audience you have will alter your focus. For instance, when I applied to graduate school, I spent more time noting my involvement at my undergraduate institution, but when I apply for summer jobs, I plan to highlight my employment history rather than being a “Player.”

One of the hardest things to do as I update my resume is to hit the delete key, which is why this is the easiest advice to dispense. Know what is important in presenting yourself and what’s too old to keep. I was super involved as a high schooler, but is this necessary information for an employer considering how long I’ve been out of high school? It would be if I were a younger student, but at this point, it’s time to delete the 4-H awards I received when I was fifteen. I’ve got a theory that this is more difficult for younger students in my generation who have often been pushed to be involved in extra-curriculars in hopes of filling a resume long before one’s work history fills it, so deleting any line feels like deleting all the work spent earning that line. Editing my own resume has been hard, but I want employers to know the best me, who works in the Writing Center as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA), rather than the me who was in a club for one semester freshman year. (Sorry dear reader, it’s also the time of year for rambling about myself rather than writing papers).

Good luck!

The Importance of the Graduate Cohort

Alex Bohen, Consultant

AlexAs I began to brainstorm about what I wanted to discuss in my blog post I kept trying to remember what my first impression of the Writing Center was. I entered into the Writing Center for the first time in late August to take part in orientation. I remember seeing Dr. Bronwyn Williams, the director of the Writing Center, standing at the door welcoming everyone in and radiating an enthusiasm I was unaccustomed to at nine in the morning. Next, I saw Adam Robinson, assistant director, manning the coffee pot in a manner I would soon become familiar with. I continued to think back on that day and the next image that came to my mind was the myriad of strangers populating the rest of the room. These people were my new cohort and over the next several months they would become the greatest source of information and learning in my life. I have come to know that if I have a question my cohort is who to turn to for the answer. Having trouble helping a client? Ask the cohort. Wondering how clearly the thesis statement of your seminar paper reads? Ask the cohort. Not sure what classes to take next semester? Ask the cohort.

I want to focus on the cohort a little more closely. As a student and consultant in the Writing Center I can’t express how valuable my cohort has been to me. My only source of lament is that the cohort didn’t have more people in it. That is why I am incredibly happy to highlight and plug the Peer Mentoring program, headed up by two members of my cohort, Amy McCleese Nichols and Michelle Day. The program will pair new first year MAs with a second year MA who can function as the first building block for each student’s personal cohort. I think this is a great opportunity for all parties involved. New students will get an insider’s view on how to balance the stress of academic and personal life, as well as a familiar face at department social functions. Second year students get the opportunity to pass on all the helpful tips they have amassed after navigating one year of the program. I am excited to take part in this program and I hope that I can be as valuable to a new student as so many people have been to me during my first year at Louisville.

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