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Archive for the month “September, 2013”

Imagining and Developing Writing Centers: A Reflection on SWCA-KY 2013

Dan McCormick, ConsultantDSCN1636

What does a writing center look like?  Does it look like rows of tables and desks?  Couches?  Computers and projectors and marker boards? Does it look like Legos and Play-Doh and glass walls and Ab-Ex décor?

The Noel Studio at Eastern Kentucky University does.  This was the site of the SWCA-KY Statewide Fall 2013 conference, which I attended on Friday September 20th along with the rest of the U of L Writing Center delegation.  Fitting that we should spend our day in a space that brings that aforementioned question to life, because broad questions of what a writing center looks like—in terms of space, technology, methodology, and campus finance—were on everyone’s minds.

The view from above Noel Studio at EKU

The view from above Noel Studio at EKU

Our ADs Adam, Ashly, Jennifer, and Jessica delivered a presentation on the U of L Virtual Writing Center, which serves students and faculty via email consultation or video chat.  The description of our online pedagogy was not new to me, but it was really cool to hear staff from other centers weigh in.  We discussed the challenge of identifying and addressing each writer’s needs without seeing a face or hearing a voice. (You can read more about our VWC here.)

Participants discussing approaches to virtual consulting

Discussing approaches to virtual consulting

In another session I attended, we discussed research questions on topics such as why students visit writing centers, how to increase visitor numbers, and how to best measure writing centers’ success.  I spoke to one man who was part of team in the process of developing a writing center at Hazard Community and Technical College in Jackson, Kentucky; we discussed how a writing center can best serve the needs of students from disadvantaged economic backgrounds who are interested in trade-programs, nursing, and technical writing.  The conference administrators encouraged all of us to develop our research ideas and submit abstracts for the SWCA regional conference in February 2014.

The conference’s keynote was a conversation with Kentucky singer/songwriter Daniel Martin Moore and EKU-alum/producer Duane Lundy, who discussed the collaborative aspect of creativity.  Along with a few songs, Moore shared his thoughts on what makes for the best time and space for writing.  If you’re in a hotel room in Costa Rica and the muse descends, Moore said, it’s time to clear your schedule and focus.  Lundy, on the other hand, described the importance of creating a safe environment for experimentation and creativity while making records at his studio, Shangri-La.  The two agreed that sometimes it’s best to take hold of whatever creative spark the situation offers, and sometimes it’s best to engineer the space and atmosphere to your advantage.  They also discussed how technology has made the process of creating music much easier—that could mean smart phone recording apps, pitch-shifting programs, and even moveable walls.  Drawing parallels between collaboration in the music studio and collaboration in the writing studio, Moore and Lundy emphasized that all creativity has its genesis in the bridges that art builds between people from different times, communities, and experiences.

SWCA-KY '13 Keynote Presentation

SWCA-KY ’13 Keynote Presentation

In sum, I found that writing centers all over Kentucky are asking the same question—what should a writing center look like?  How does technology fit in?  How can we ensure our place in the university’s budget?  How do we meet the needs of students from all economic backgrounds?  And, perhaps most importantly, how do we change the perception of a writing center from fix-it-shop to build-it-studio?  At EKU, it looks like comfy chairs and bright colors.  At U of L, it looks like iPads and an increasing online presence.  What does it look like at your writing center?


The Dreaded Comma

Jacob Robbins, Consultant

Here at the Writing Center, we religiously emphasize addressing the needs of the writer over the needs of the writing.  In an ideal session, the written work serves only to illuminate the so-called “higher order” needs of the writer such that we can directly help the writer improve not just the piece itself, but also the strategies he or she employs.  However, as any writing consultant with a modicum of experience knows, one must often wade through a great deal of apprehension about “lower order” concerns before broaching larger concerns.  So many students’ attitudes (including my own) about writing are saturated and informed by the red, deleterious ink of overzealous instructors.  By virtue of my past instructors’ methodology, I knew what I was doing incorrectly long before I knew what I was doing well.DSCN1622

There are a great number of relatively minor mistakes whose over inflation causes anxiety in writers of all stages.  Perhaps the greatest offender, though, is the failure (perceived or real) to use commas correctly.  The number of students who come to the Writing Center seeking guidance on comma usage tells me that I am far from alone when it comes to my difficulties.  Their papers bear corrections scolding their comma use, but rarely point out when the student has correctly utilized commas, giving them little understanding of their mistakes.

In fact, it is difficult to outline the rules of comma usage because the term itself is a misnomer. Laws do not govern comma use; rather, it is governed almost exclusively by convention.  Correct comma use was never legislated into the English language.  Instead, we depend on those who came before us to point the way, and a larger academic community to affirm these revered progenitors.  As such, there is no such thing as incorrect comma use in the strictest sense.  This is not to say that incorrect comma use is by any means impossible.  However, achieving this understanding helps us think of commas as tools of effective communication, rather than obstacles to it.   This small, semantic piece of information has helped me a great deal in my struggle to overcome the fear of comma misuse, and sharing this with those I tutor seems to help them in much the same way.  Indeed, my experience leads me to believe that reading aloud best helps with understanding comma use, and is certainly far better than barraging students with technical jargon which I barely understand myself.  Along with helping the student recognize their own voice, reading aloud is necessarily an exercise that indicates pauses throughout when the student naturally stops to breathe.  Pointing these out to the students as opportunities to separate their ideas with commas and let the reader breathe help make comma use far less intimidating.

Don’t Fear the Outline: It’s Really Just a Helpful Sidekick

Jamison Huebsch, Consultant

Outline is an unusual word in the world of writing; in normal usage it suggests a lack of substance, a mere shape of something larger. We use the word because it is supposed to represent the shape of things to come in our work. Yet in the process of writing an outline can sometimes feel limiting, because it can be a commitment to a direction for an essay or story. An outline can be a big help in the early planning stages of writing however, and I would like to share a few tips I’ve picked up on creating an outline. The first tip is not to stress out about an outline, because it is supposed to be a helpful map and not a constraint.

Imagine it like this: you are deep in the middle of a paragraph, and have put your best ideas down on the paper but you still feel like it’s a bit of a mess. Where do you go next? Pull out your trusty outline you made earlier and let it guide you. You can review the important concepts you wanted to cover, see what the next topic you planned to discuss, and then you are right back on track without any wandering about. The key is what you include in your outline, to give yourself guidance later.

Let’s start with two important parts of the introduction: the audience information, and the thesis. Your introduction is usually the best place to clue your reader into information they may not know but is important to your topic. You should note down anything you feel you might have to explain such as technical information, acronyms, or concepts. In creative works you might consider a character’s back-story or important information about where the story takes place. Not everything you write down in the outline has to be used later. If you writing a creative work you may not need a thesis either, but it is still a good place to record your original plan for the plot. If you producing other academic work however, you will definitely want a thesis. There is lots of help available on making a good thesis, including on the Purdue OWL, but as long as it summarizes the central point of your paper well you are on good ground.

The next section is sometimes referred to as the body, but I like to think of it more like a skeleton. You want to get the central ideas of your work sectioned out, and then you can break them down into smaller easier to plan steps. So pick major concepts and give each one its own section. In a creative work you might list the scenes you plan to write, so you can get a feel for the shape and flow of the plot. In a class paper you could review the major topics or issues related to your argument. If you have already done your research for the paper, an outline can help you space out your citations and ensure that you cover everything important before moving on to the next source. You want the sections to follow each other in an order that makes sense, so by looking at it in the large scale abstract you can better see where you might need transitions added to your text.

When you have covered all your main points and noted all the important details to your paper it’s time for an ending. Regardless of if you call it a conclusion or an epilogue, a good work leaves it reader with a proper send off. This is your last chance as a writer to leave a good impression on your reader. Luckily a conclusion in an academic paper is like a mirror of the introduction: you review the important points of your argument briefly, and similar to your earlier thesis it DSCN1642should contain a clear and concise statement of your position. Creative writers are still stuck crafting sappy endings or killing off everyone’s favorite characters, but that’s the job you signed up for. Either way you’ll know by now if you followed your earlier road map or set off into the unknown, but at least you brought directions.

I hope these few short tips about outlines help someone out, and don’t forget that you can come by the Writing Center. We not only can help you with brainstorming and planning your first outline, but with all the fun stuff that comes after. Good luck with your writing!

How to Get Unstuck: Ways to Start Writing and Tips to Keep Going

Alex Clifton, Consultant

Writing is hard. Starting any kind of writing—or keeping it flowing—can be so difficult. Very rarely do people get out what they want to say on the first try. I should know; I just drafted the opening sentence of this blog post five or six times, going through wildly different options. It can be challenging to figure out what you initially want to say, and even harder when you feel like giving up after one or two paragraphs because the words just aren’t coming. Here are some tips to get you writing and keep you writing!

If you have trouble at the beginning of a writing session because you are thinking too much about other homework, life problems, cat pictures, etc., freewrite for five to ten minutes. It doesn’t have to be anything sophisticated; just grab a notebook and write down everything you are thinking, as it comes to you, for that short period of time. Afterwards, you’ll have cleansed those thoughts from your brain for the time being, so you can get down to working instead of wondering whether or not you’ve cleaned your aquarium.

Occasionally, you might struggle to find a topic to write about. It might help to make a list of things you are interested in or want to mention in your essay. This can be especially helpful with personal narratives or persuasive essays. For example, if you’re trying to think up concrete examples to support your idea that fish are the best pets ever, you might make a list describing the pros of keeping fish as pets, another list about your experience keeping fish as pets, and another list with all the facts you know about fish that might persuade someone that fish are great. Again, these thoughts do not have to be organised perfectly; list-making is just another way to get you thinking about what you want to write about!

When working on a paper, remember that you don’t have to write everything in a linear manner—there is no rule that says you have to start with your introduction and plough through in the “right order.” If you’re really struggling to make a point, make a note of where you want it in your essay and then continue writing so you don’t lose your momentum. You can always go back and revisit different portions of your paper, and you might be able to rephrase your thoughts better after you’ve written another section.

Sometimes, it’s hard to get a rough draft out at all. One way to get you writing for blocks of time is to use an app like Write or Die (found at writeordie.com). Don’t let the name scare you: it’s a website that helps you write for however long you decide, be it fifteen minutes or an hour. It motivates partially through annoying you: on one mode, a loud pitch will play if you stop writing for too long, and on kamikaze mode, your work will begin to unwrite itself! (Kamikaze is an optional mode.) The great thing about Write or Die is that it gets you writing, and just writing, for however long you need. Think of it as freewriting for your paper; you can type in anything while you are drafting and then go back and revise it afterwards. It will help you get a draft out and may even add to your productivity, especially when you realise you’ve written for half an hour straight without constantly checking social media or your favourite news sites. I’ve found that using it has helped me learn how to write in chunks of time more effectively, so I can sit down to a half-hour writing session and get work done rather than just goofing around. (A word of warning: if you do use Write or Die, make sure that you copy, paste, and save your work in a separate word document—Write or Die will not save it for you.)

Finally, at the risk of sounding shamelessly self-promoting, come into the Writing Center! We’re here to help you with all of your writing needs at any stage of the writing process. You don’t even have to have a word on the page to make an appointment for an assignment. We can help you discuss your ideas and brainstorm possibilities, or we can read over what you have already written and help figure out where your paper will go next. Sometimes it just helps to talk it all out with someone who wants to hear about your ideas—and trust me, we definitely want to hear what you have to say.

I hope some of these strategies work for you. Try one next time you get stuck writing a paper and see if it helps!

Five Places That Make Writing Easier

Megen Boyett, Consultant

DSCN1655It’s the start of the semester, which means, it’s time again to think about research papers! I know, it’s only the second week, and yet, that paper looms ahead of you on your syllabus. It will not be ignored and it will not be denied, but it will be here in about 15 weeks. Worst of all, it’s going to need outside information and some advance planning, both things that a four-day caffeine binge during finals week won’t provide.

The worst thing about new semesters is that, once again, you have the opportunity to find out how little you know and how much you wish you knew. But take heart! The best part about new semesters is that they’re a new beginning! You’ve got time again to get things done right! And, better still, there are resources for you to use right here on campus. Here are five places to get what you need for those research papers and have a less stressful semester:

  1. The Writing Center, of course!

Are you unsure where to start an assignment? Do you need some help figuring out what it’s asking for, or what you should do next? Have you written as much as you think you possibly can on a topic, but only gotten halfway through the page requirement? Bring your assignment and whatever you have so far into the writing center. Sit and talk it over with us for a while (let’s say, up to fifty minutes). Believe me when I say, it’s oh-so-helpful to have someone to talk about your work with, especially when they aren’t giving you a grade at the end. If nothing else, you’ll leave knowing what questions to ask when you go back to class.

  1. The Research Lab at Ekstrom Library

You know the sources are out there! You just don’t know where to start looking, and it’s a little intimidating to wade through so much information on your own. Fortunately, the librarians at Ekstrom do have a good idea of where you should start. You can ask questions at the research desk (1st floor), you can set up an appointment to learn how to use databases, or you can even chat with a librarian online at http://louisville.edu/library/services/ask.html.

  1. Citation Databases

Does thinking about citation styles give you a cold sweat? Then, of course, ask your writing center consultant. We all have our favorite sites for citation help. One of the most commonly suggested is the OWL, or the Online Writing Lab at Purdue. It has quick links to citation style guides and plenty of examples. Another really good program is EndNote, which stores all your sources for you and formats bibliographies and in-text citations. Best of all, it’s free through the U of L library!

  1. Your professors

I have yet to meet a U of L professor who won’t make time during office hours for a student to talk about a paper. Your professors are valuable resources because, after all, they wrote the assignment. Not only can they answer questions about what they want you to do, they’re also good for helping you talk through ideas and suggesting potential sources. Put their expertise to use!

  1. The Writing Center, again

You’ve researched, you’ve drafted, you’ve cited to your heart’s content. You’re pretty confident that you know what your professor wants and even how to do it. Now it’s all (or almost all) down on paper, but you’re still not sure that your paper says what you want it to. Come back to the writing center and read your paper aloud with a consultant! Never underestimate the value of talking about your writing with a student who’s been trained to talk about writing. Being able to hear feedback before you hand in a paper not only gives you one last chance to make changes and turn in the paper you meant to write, it’ll with future writing assignments, too. (Plus, it’s really fun to talk about something you created with someone who wants to read it. Trust me.)

Here’s to a fabulous semester! Here’s to knowing what you’re doing and to asking when you don’t know! Here’s to caffeine headaches after something other than an all-night paper-writing-palooza, because, after all, don’t you have better reasons to stay up till 2 am?

Happy Writing!

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