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Archive for the month “May, 2013”

Write, Talk, Repeat: Reflecting on the Benefits of Our Second Dissertation Writing Retreat

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

Last week our former Assistant Director Barrie Olson wrote about the anticipation and promise of participating in our second Dissertation Writing Retreat (DWR). After a long, restful weekend and some reflection, it seems that the DWR delivered on nearly all its promises. Like Barrie, I participated in the retreat as a consultant, but as a dissertation writer myself, I found it helpful on multiple fronts. The biggest benefit of participating in the retreat, though, was being able to work with other graduate students both inside and outside of my field. The Dissertation Writing Retreat may be all about writing, and involve a good deal of writing, but talking about the writing helps to solidify the meaning of all that work, especially with those who aren’t familiar with the work.

Since I’m at the early stages of the dissertation process, my direct experiences may be somewhat limited. Nevertheless, between working with many different dissertation writers over the years and my own experiences, it seems that articulating the dissertation succinctly is one of the biggest challenges. In my own graduate program, we’re often advised to develop multiple versions of our answer to the question, “What is your dissertation/project about?”: ranging from an “elevator” version to a 15-20 minute version. Condensing an approximately 200 page project into a brief description isn’t all that easy when your brain is filled to the brim—maybe over the brim—with theories, research, examples, and other data that is “essential” to understanding your project. And, believe me, it all seems essential when it’s your project.

Working with two different students from drastically different disciplines (one in the Humanities and one in the hard sciences), I found that the feedback that they most often needed through the week was to write what they were explaining to me in sessions. That seems so easy, doesn’t it? All writers know it really isn’t as easy as it sounds. You often need someone else to spot the gap in your writing and tell you where you aren’t explaining something. It isn’t always about missing information though. Maybe your verbal description of your project really emphasizes a particular aspect or connection in your project, but you only have one sentence or a paragraph in 30 pages about that aspect. A good listener and reader can help you find those disconnections between what you’re saying about your writing and what’s actually happening in your writing.

Ashly_Version_3What’s really inspiring for someone like me is that those conversations are not just helpful for the writer. Having these conversations with two DWR participants helped me realize why I was having such difficulty drafting the introduction to my own dissertation. I’ve been writing pages and pages leading up to the point that I always begin with when I talk to people about my project. When I realized this during the retreat, I thought to myself, “Well, duh. That’s the problem.” Reaching that “duh” moment isn’t always easy though, and I’m sure that it won’t be the last one I have before this whole dissertation is written.

Fortunately, for all twelve participants in this year’s Dissertation Writing Retreat, these kinds of conversations were not limited to the one-on-one consultations we had each afternoon. Each day around lunch time, we also offered short workshops about the dissertation process, including writing the literature review, managing time and production, working with committee members, and developing support networks. In addition to hearing from some of the writing consultants, we also benefited from the insight of Dr. Stephen Schneider and Dr. Beth Boehm. The participants found the workshops especially helpful because they offered the opportunity to ask questions about the dissertation process generally but also to receive project-specific feedback from those who were currently working on their dissertation and those who had already completed one.

With all this praise in mind, it seems a little suspicious that I would claim that the retreat delivered on almost all its promises. Based on this post and the feedback from our participants, what could possibly have been missing? Technically, you’re right; it wasn’t missing anything it promised. Yet, as ambitious scholars we’ll always want more of a good thing. More time to write, more time to work with others on our writing and on our projects. More free food. We are still students after all. Thankfully, many of our participants said they would return to visit the Writing Center to work on their projects. And hopefully, we will all be inspired to create these kinds of supportive writing groups beyond the structure of the Writing Center.

That’s our dream, and this year was one more successful shot at achieving it.

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Another Year, Another Dissertation Writing Retreat

Barrie Olson, Dissertation Writing Retreat Consultant

Around this time last year, I wrote a post discussing both the success of the Writing Center’s first ever Dissertation Writing Retreat and the way that it helped me to re-envision writing center work. This year, as another Dissertation Writing Retreat is about to get underway, I find myself thinking about it in yet another new light because this year I’ll not only be a tutor but also a dissertation writer. In fact, I am writing this post as a well-deserved break after writing the first 1,800 words of my own dissertation.  Yes, that’s right—1,800 hard-earned, mulled over, highly scrutinized words. Words that came after doing a classroom ethnography over the course of the spring semester, after transcribing over 27 hours of classroom discussions and interviews, after reading through thousands of pages of student papers and homework assignments. Honestly, in the grand scheme of everything I’ve read and looked at just to prepare for those 1,800 words, 1,800 suddenly feels pretty small and insignificant. The mounds of data—transcript notes, papers, and memos—makes me feel like this dissertation might never be written. Where do I start? How do I begin? Then again, in the face of those questions, 1,800 words suddenly feels like the accomplishment of the century.

barrie_with_camelBut why the paragraph on my 1,800-word writing breakthrough? Because those 1,800 words have helped me to gain an even greater appreciation for the Dissertation Writing Retreat. Whereas last year I approached the dissertation knowing only what I’d heard from people who’d done it—that it was hard, that it was frustrating, that when it was over you couldn’t believe you were holding it in your hands—this year I feel like I get it a little bit more. I get why having several hours a day of uninterrupted time to write, surrounded by other people engaged in the same writing task, would be so helpful. I get why having someone else available to look at your 1,800 words that seem to make no sense and every sense at the same time would be valuable. Last year I understood the success of the Dissertation Writing Retreat as a tutor. This year, I am beginning to understand it better as a writer.

Admittedly, I am at the very early stages of dissertation writing. I know that I still have a great deal to learn about writing a dissertation—but that is what is so remarkable about the retreat. For a week, I will be surrounded by people at various stages, some just beginning like me, and others getting ready for the final signatures of their committee members. Each of these writers will have valuable strategies to share with me. What do they do when the data seems insurmountable? How do they overcome writer’s block? Obviously everyone is different and what works for one person may not work for somebody else, but exposure to varying strategies never hurts and too often, writing a dissertation feels like a solitary endeavor. The retreat makes it communal. Sure, I will have several hours of silence each day to type away to the sound of other people typing away. But I remember from last year the workshops, the quick snack breaks, extended lunch periods—all times when I can talk to other people about what they are doing and how they are doing it.

And while this is something I often do already (I am, after all, a writing center junkie who understands the value of frequent input on my writing), for the first time since I began my own research project, I’ll have people outside my field to converse with. I’ll gain valuable exposure to other ways of approaching research and writing, other ways of considering data and results. If my time in the writing center has taught me anything, it is that this kind of exposure is invaluable. I cannot predict the ways that this kind of exposure will broaden and even complicate my own thinking. I can only predict that it most certainly will. There is great power in moments like this, when methodologies and approaches collide. In my field, Rhetoric and Composition, some of our greatest breakthroughs have been the result of these moments—moments when we have “borrowed” methods from other fields, or applied outside theoretical frames and values to our own ideas. What better place to be exposed to that possibility then at the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

So it goes without saying that I’m excited for this next week. I hope to write, and write, and write some more. I hope to build, and change, and add to my 1,800 words. But I also hope to change my thinking, expand my strategies, and learn more about myself as a writer through the writing of my fellow dissertation retreaters. Who knows, it might even be fun…

Doing More than Microwaving Alphabet Soup: Tips for Getting Better at Cooking and Writing

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

On one now infamous afternoon many years ago, I decided to make cupcakes from box of cake mix. Following the directions on the box, I dutifully mixed the ingredients on the box: egg, oil, water. Everything was thoroughly blended, but I knew something wasn’t quite right. I looked at the cupcake papers in the pan and looked at the mix, then the papers again, then the mix. I was pretty sure the mix was too liquid-y for the papers. I checked the box again; everything on the box was in the bowl.

Still unsure, I called my best friend who regularly baked. She reasonably asked if I had followed the directions on the box. As I picked it up to read the directions to her, I realized the problem—as you, dear reader, likely already have. The cake mix itself was still in the box. I was too embarrassed to even explain what happened to my friend. I just told her I had figured it out and got off the phone.

Ashly_Version_3That’s just the most re-told story of my kitchen fails. Few remember the many, many nights I messed up Hamburger Helper. Or the time I scalded a pot when I set hot chocolate mix on fire. But since those days, I’ve learned a few things and can successfully finish both edible and enjoyable meals. I credit a lot of my growth in the kitchen to being a little more relaxed about precisely following directions, trusting my intuition a little bit more, and being ok with taking risks. It may seem odd to have such a food-themed post on a blog about writing, but my approach to cooking is somewhat influenced by my approach to writing—a skill with which I have considerably more facility and comfort.

Following directions was the first hurdle I had to conquer in the kitchen. It was the source of many of kitchen fails I mentioned above. I was so concerned with doing exactly what I was supposed to do that I would get things mixed up. I wasn’t considering the finished product. A lot of times, this is what happens when writers focus more on grammar or mechanics than the message they are trying to send. Worrying about the writing instructions governing the placement of commas, of which there may be too many to count, can keep you from finishing your sentence, your paragraph, your whole piece. Or, as was the case in my early cooking adventures, you can end up putting in too much of something, too little, or putting it in the wrong place. This is not to say that writing “instructions” like punctuation or grammar aren’t important, but they should act as guides and finishing touches rather than the main focus of piece. After all, you want to eat (or read) the finished product, not the individual ingredients.

Another important part of cooking and writing is trusting your intuition. Ever been half way through cooking a meal only to realize that you’re missing one or two ingredients? Maybe you’re better at this whole cooking thing than I have been (and sometimes still am). At times like these, you might just have to wing it and make an educated guess about what to substitute or leave out. Those small tweaks help make what you’re making your own special version—the makings of secret recipes. It’s not much different in writing, but the tweaking is more in regard to style than flavor. Writing style, sometimes it’s called voice, is often lauded as the extra bit that makes a piece unique. Often movies or other popular media suggest that this aspect of writing is some kind of gift good writers are born with. Really though, developing voice and style is largely about trying out new spices and flavors in your writing until you find the one and the amount that works. This means, after you’ve got the big pieces of the message together, pay attention to the details—add a little bit of this or that until it balances to be just right.

Whether you’re anxious about cooking or writing, relaxing the attention on producing exactly what the instructions or the instructors call for can be the first step in actually developing your style. That means taking risks, but without those risks it’s nearly impossible to get better at something. Sure, you might include too much of one ingredient and your reader or eater might object. Next time you can include less, or you can try something else. And remember, those rules that seem so strict are really just guidelines to help you make your version of piece you’re aiming for.

Taking a Moment to Revel in Spring Success

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

Ashly_Version_3It’s the last day of Spring 2013. We’ve made it! Well, in few hours we will have made it. If you’re like me, you’re already planning and getting anxious about what summer holds, thinking about how you’re going to balance play and work. As enticing as summer can be and as much as we may be anxious to move forward, the end of the semester is a good time to realize what we’ve accomplished in the past four months. Like many of the clients we see, the Writing Center staff have seen their hard work pay off this semester. We’ve seen our numbers rise across the board, we’ve enriched our outreach, and we’ve broadened the ways in which we can help people during sessions.

The Writing Center uses two main measurements to gather insight into our activity for the semester. First, after each session, clients receive a survey that aims to highlight what was helpful or not about the appointment, as well as giving their overall sense of the effectiveness of the Writing Center. We also calculate the number of appointments and clients we see each semester. The numbers this Spring are very positive. We haven’t calculated official counts for the combined Belknap campus, Health Sciences campus, and Virtual Writing Center, but just on the Belknap campus we have seen 770 students for approximately 1750 different appointments.  In addition, the Virtual Writing Center has been nearly full all semester, so we’re expecting even more impressive numbers. Further, our second Dissertation Writing Retreat—which we are very excited to offer again this year—had more than double the applicants as last year.

Our social media outreach has also broadened this semester. The number of visitors to our blog (thank you, readers!) has steadily grown—reaching over 500 in February and April. Similarly, our Facebook page has been active and well-received. Each of our posts are seen by about 50 people, sometimes reaching into the hundreds. Our Twitter, which we started this semester, has also been successful. We are very grateful for the support we’ve had in these spaces and look forward to growing success.

While I am especially proud of the social media numbers (that’s my project), perhaps one of the most exciting things we’ve done this semester is pushed ourselves to incorporate some non-traditional tools to help us and writers in appointments. Namely, the Writing Center purchased and began using iPads in some of our consultations, depending on their usefulness for the particular session. While we’ve written about our new iPads before, it has been exciting to have apps and web support at our finger tips rather than sitting at a large distracting computer or flipping through dictionary pages to find the spelling or precise meaning of a word. (Although, I’ll admit I advocate for the page-turning method myself.)

As we close our doors today on Spring 2013, these are just a handful of the successes the Writing Center has seen as a whole. In addition to these, our consultants have earned individual successes over the year, including completing their first year of the English Master’s program. We’re proud and grateful to have had them here for a little while, and we wish them luck (which they certainly don’t need) as they begin teaching in the Fall.

And, dear readers and clients, never fear—we return May 13th for Summer 2013! See you then.

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