UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the month “July, 2013”

In Search of the Perfect Paper

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

Ashly_Version_3While working with a fellow writer this weekend, we started discussing the desire for the “perfect paper.” As each of us pour ourselves in dissertation chapters, we often unreasonably hope that the response to our drafts will be something along the lines of “This looks great; start on the next chapter”—or some other kind of confirmation that we are done with that piece and can move on. This desire is something I believe that my writing students and the many clients we see in the Writing Center are familiar with. It’s more than wanting to know that you did a good job. It’s wanting to know that you did the best job and that you can be released from further labor on a piece that certainly demands a lot of physical and mental effort. Bronwyn Williams posted earlier this year about the intensely personal aspect of writing, and how that connection—even to a writing that is seemingly impersonal—makes receiving feedback difficult. So we continue to yearn for the “perfect paper.”

The conversation this weekend forced me to wonder what the perfect paper look like. How do you know when you’ve achieved it? The most common answer seems to be that this essay would, above all else, receive no marks, nothing to mar the masterpiece the writer has created. It requires no response because it is beyond reproach. This conception of the perfect text is reinforced often in classrooms by tales of red ink and grammar-meanie teachers. Almost all of us have a story of getting back a paper that was “torn apart” by a grader, had more writing by the teacher than the writer, or had a seemingly scathing and long note attached to it. What if though, just to venture out on a limb for a moment, that the unmarked, pristine essay was not actually the “perfect paper.” I know, I know—it’s outlandish, but bear with me for a moment.

When we write, it’s always for an audience, even if that audience is just the writer herself. Writing communicates a message. It may or may not be personal. Either way, it aims to connect with the reader, to invoke a response in or from them. Writing can be compared to telling a story. If you share an experience with another person, you expect that they will demonstrate that they heard you—hopefully with words, but even a nonverbal recognition could satisfy you in some cases. If we accept that this is also be true about writing, then the “perfect paper” is not at all clean and empty of feedback.

The “perfect” piece of writing is covered with commentary from the reader, and that commentary verifies the power of your writing. It proves that your work connected with your reader, made them think, and made them want to share those thoughts with you. That feedback might be in praise or it might be contradictory, but it recognizes you as a writer worth communicating with. Isn’t that the kind of respect and recognition that we all want?

The pristine perfect piece is definitely a myth, but unfortunately the comment-filled version of perfect writing can be just as elusive. While the pristine piece is a myth because it ignores an important aspect of writing, the marked up piece is rare due to very real and practical factors. When you submit a piece to your boss or your teacher, their focus is often on improving or fixing perceived errors. Their lives are filled with many demands and priorities that can make the ideal response, which takes time and focus, sometimes difficult to achieve. For this reason, when we receive comments on a piece of our writing, especially comments that address both our text’s strengths and weaknesses, we should truly appreciate our reader and our work. It’s the closest we can really get to the perfect paper.

While the Writing Center still works under time constraints, remember that we are here to help you experience this ideal version of the perfect paper: one that receives earnest, focused feedback from a reader who wants to engage your ideas and your work. And, when you find a good reader, whether in the Writing Center or among your colleagues/mentors, remember to value them and their feedback as they help you craft and re-craft the perfect paper.


A Reminder to Myself: Seeing the Bigger Picture

Amy Nichols, Consultant

AmyI don’t know what it is about the summer – perhaps that bit of extra flexibility in my schedule has turned me towards the philosophical – but I recently had an interesting consultation with a student that left me thinking. We worked together on some organizational and grammatical changes to the paper, but had a bit of free time left at the end of the session. On the spur of the moment, I asked where he was from – he had a lovely accent, but I had never asked. He told me he was from South Sudan, and we had a great discussion about our respective home countries.

This experience started me thinking more carefully about the students I meet every day. They represent people groups from all over the world, from all walks of life – and I know that part of my training is to recognize that. But, and perhaps because of that training, it can sometimes be easy to break a patron down into an “eastern” or “western” writing style, into the component parts of their writing.

Before I was born, my dad was involved in a terrible car wreck that left him needing multiple surgeries. He was heavily sedated but remained conscious while hearing the doctors talk about fixing his hip the next day, “just the way you’d talk about fixing a car.” And I have to ask myself – do I, in some ways, reduce these students to the things in their writing that I can help them “fix,” and does that help or hamper my ability to do so? For doctors, I imagine that (at least in cases of trauma) focusing on what you can improve is an important mechanism that lets you do your job efficiently and effectively. And my father didn’t criticize his doctors for reducing him to his component parts – by doing so, they were  doing their job. But for my very different work of helping writers improve themselves, reducing an entire person to whether their writing meets certain criteria might interfere with being able to see the very things (their own creativity, the way they articulate ideas verbally rather than on paper, etc.) that will let them improve.

None of this is original thinking, of course. One of the first things we were taught at the beginning of last fall was to pay attention to students’ emotional well-being – if someone is crying because their paper is due in five hours but they’ve been away at a family funeral, the first focus is on that total person, on helping them get to a point where they can work on the paper. But in the rush of appointment after appointment and juggling life and schoolwork, it’s easy to begin to have a kind of surgical focus on papers and organizational structures. It’s easy, in short, to forget that key idea – that in front of me there is a human being with a complex existence outside of our interaction, and that paying attention to who someone really is can help me be a more effective writing consultant.

Join the Fight; Become a Writer

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

Ashly_Version_3By 2013, the Order of Words—of letters even—could no longer hide the fractures running through its structure. Some words remained strong by latching on to other words to create powerful cultural phrases. Other words adopted new meanings, or they went under penknife for to add or remove letters. Some particularly unfortunate words just fade and disappear; their ghosts haunting old pages and high school students.

In the beginning, the deteriorating words were blamed on the infamous kids-these-days and new-technology. Well intentioned figures like Twitter and Facebook were turned into evil villains. They were accused of stealing letters, breaking down the cornerstones of complete sentences, and misusing punctuation! Evidence of their positive effects on word-smithing was covered up or ignored.

While language academies and even some teachers fought to hold onto the old Order, other recognized the vitality possible in the changing letters and words. Many knew that some words had been lurking in the shadows of the order and hoped these words would add a new texture to the tapestry of available communication. Leading this fight was the Caped Word Smith. No, not the caped Will Smith—Word Smith.

The mission of our loquacious hero was to forge new paths for young words who were just trying to make a name for themselves and to protect them on their journeys from the dreaded Grammar Meanies. Word Smith would traverse the many interconnected strands of the World Wide Web standing up to grammar bullies, but always trying to show them the way to acceptance and better understanding. She even appeared in the printed worlds of Newspapers and Books. On the most anticipated occasions, Word Smith visited students in their classrooms to share with them the possibilities of Words, Letters, and Punctuation—spreading love and appreciation in all their young hearts.

Of course, not all young words always behaved responsibly—sometimes staying out too late or hanging around with the wrong letters or words. With an eye to the future, Word Smith would encourage them to look inside themselves to find their true path forward. She would challenge them to think about the places and times in which they could be most effective. Did they really belong in this status post, or did they aspire to the offices of textual bureaucracy? She helped them see and seek their dreams.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing Word Smith did for the world though was the creation of the WordCorps. The Writers of the WordCorps were just everyday people who knew the power of Words but also that Words should not be boxed in and controlled. They worked to spread the respect for Words and their ability to change over time. Writers were encouraged to choose their own genres and locations for sharing the WordCorps message. Some worked with those old vilified figures—Twitter, Facebook, and Texting—to rebuild the world’s understanding of how new platforms can inspire growth as opposed to destruction. Others wrote longer texts that they shared with their classmates, coworkers, and friends—always aiming to use Words in new and effective ways. Adventurous Writers even took words into videos and other formats to give them a new kind of movement.

While the WordCorps makes good progress, they always need more Writers to spread the message. It is the dream of Word Smith and the WordCorps to enlist everyone into their organization so that all Words can reach their full potential without fear of bullies or meanies. Will you fight with the Caped Word Smith? Take up your keyboard, your pen, your pencil, whatever you need—and fight the good fight for the Words and Letters and Punctuations! Will you join us, will you be a Writer?

The Places We Write: An Unfinished List

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

Ashly_Version_3Last week, BookRiot—one of my favorite blogs for literary discussions—posted about the places people read: under a tree, at the beach, in a coffee shop, you know the places. For each place, author Jonathan Streeter rated the aesthetic appeal. For example, reading under a tree is highly aesthetic given its “classic appeal” and prominence in paintings, books, and other forms of art. (Reading “on the throne” was least aesthetic, for obvious reasons.)

Streeter’s blog post got me thinking about the places we write. Much like reading, the cultural conventions around writers and how to write are strong. For centuries, the idea of the writer conjured up images of solitary, often disagreeable, and socially inept individuals (arguably, usually men). Even now, these characteristics often persist. We see it in movies like Shakespeare in Love, where the inspired William Shakespeare runs to his small cluttered apartment to scribble down lines of his upcoming play, or in Stranger than Fiction, where Emma Thompson’s character is portrayed as difficult to get along with. On-screen or in-book writers who frequent coffee shops are just as likely to be seen as solitary. Bronwyn Williams and Amy Zenger offer more critical and thorough insight on this in their book Popular Culture and Representations of Literacy.

Given that this view of writers persists, despite repeated evidence that when we write our content most often comes from interactions with other texts and other people, I want to consider today the places we actually write.

Dorm/Home: Most people who are expecting to be doing consistent writing or studying have a space in their home to work. For many students that place probably their desk in their dorm room. Others who aren’t living in dorms might have an office in their house, or just a desk. Personally, most of the writing I do at home I do in my kitchen because my table is big enough to spread out any books or notes I want to look at while I write. Plus, the food is right there.

Cafes and Bookstores: It makes sense to begin here since I’m currently sitting in a Barnes and Noble Café. While plenty of the other customers are reading, there are at least three other people writing in some form, and based on observation over time, I’d say this is not unusual. I generally prefer coffee shops, but the town I’m in is small and doesn’t have a café that accommodates hours-long customers. The upside to coffee and book shops is that those of us who need to “get out of the house” are able to be productive while still seemingly engaging with the outside world. Plus, there’s always people watching or small talk if you get stuck or need a break.

Libraries: Libraries have always had a particular atmosphere for me: quiet, studious, quiet. You may be getting a sense of why I prefer the coffee shop, but many people love the sense of focus and the lack of distraction that libraries can offer. Plus, many students living on-campus can make temporary homes and offices in the libraries at their universities. In fact, the University of Louisville’s Ekstrom Library is currently renovating to offer more of these spaces. The benefit of being in library, of course, is that if you need to look up a book or an article, you’re already there! I love wandering through the stacks. And, Ekstrom Library also houses the University Writing Center, so if you have any writing questions or want to walk-in for an appointment you don’t have to go to another building—just to the 3rd floor.

Writing Centers: Speaking of the Writing Center… Of course, most of our work is helping students with their writing in consulting appointments, but we also have computers and tables where people can just come in and write. This was one of the important benefits of our Dissertation Writing Retreat, every morning participants had at least four hours to just write before meeting with a consultant.

This list is certainly preliminary and subject to my own experiences. Where else do you write? Where is your favorite place to write? I’ve been known to write on my porch, on an airplane, and even in my car—though not while driving! If you aren’t bound by place, what things do you need to write? Let us know in the comments!

Volunteering: An Important Way to Share Your Literacy Skills

Michelle Day, Consultant

MichelleA few months ago I finally decided to pursue volunteering with the Center for Women and Families (CWF), something I’d thought about for years but for various (good and bad) reasons had never gotten around to doing.

To my very pleasant surprise (and sort of by accident), I connected with two CWF staff members who invited me to become part of a reading/writing group they’re starting with some people who are receiving services from the Center. I’m beyond thrilled and humbled to have the opportunity to use the English skills I’m learning to work toward a cause I care very much about—ending intimate partner violence and sexual assault and supporting those who have experienced it.

But now, it’s got me thinking. My last blog post on June 17 was about improving personal statements in preparation for grad school applications. To be sure, I spend a lot of time talking to students about how they can improve their writing in pursuit of further education or a job, an obviously valuable task. Yet I can’t really remember ever advising students about how they can use their writing (or other literacy-related) skills for volunteer work, which is often easier to find and obtain than employment or graduate school admission.

There are many reasons people seek out volunteer work. For me, it was a combination of things. As a Christian, I believe making sacrifices for the good of others is one of the most important things Jesus did and taught others to do. My role at the CWF will also allow me to practice writing/teaching differently than I do at the Writing Center or in the classroom. Plus, it’s a nice way to bring balance to an often-hectic schedule of mostly work/school activities.

Other volunteers might have similar spiritual/moral or practical reasons. Some people might volunteer because the issue they’re involved in has personally affected them or because they want to connect with people who have similar values. Other people find volunteer work in general rewarding or feel a personal moral obligation to help others. Still more volunteers want to learn new skills or do some professional networking.

Whatever the motivation beyond the impulse to serve, people who are skilled in literacy-related practices can find ways to use those skills to satisfy the volunteer impulse in their local communities. Here are a few literacy-related opportunities you can check out around Louisville:

The Center for Women and Families offers services to (male and female) survivors of intimate partner abuse or sexual violence. You can volunteer to be an English tutor and help individuals practice their English speaking, listening, and writing skills.

  • The Backside Learning Center at Churchill Downs seeks to provide education, life skill resources, and community to its works. Volunteers can teach or tutor in a variety of subjects, including English skills.
  • Portland Promise Center is a faith-based community development center in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood. It offers opportunities for
    volunteers to tutor kids.
  • Brooklawn Child and Family Services — a residential, therapeutic treatment center for youth with behaviorial/emotional issues — also has opportunities for volunteers to tutor in a variety of subjects, including English.
  • Kentucky Refugee Ministries is the Kentucky state refugee resettlement office at which volunteers can tutor in English/ESL.

You can find other similar volunteer opportunities by searching on websites like Metro United Way or Volunteer Match.

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