UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the month “January, 2015”

Writing the Dissertation Is(n’t) a Lonely Thing

Jessica Winck, Assistant Director of the University Writing Center

As a representative of the writing center, I spoke this past weekend with some PhD students at the start of a dissertation writing camp. It was early in the morning and everyone had a cup of coffee and their computers open in front of them, ready to work. I looked around and remembered that dissertation writing can seem lonely, but when we think about it, we’re actually in good company.

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I’m not implying that being alone is never desirable or needed, or that we must lean on others for comfort every time we write. We have to admit, though, that academia can make students of all levels feel isolated sometimes.

One of the most telling examples of this isolation is how PhD students have the option of renting a carrel in the library while working on a dissertation. Carrels are these little closets with a small window on the door, a desk, chair, and an overhead light that beams down on the flat work surface. For me, a library carrel isn’t an ideal space for working on a dissertation because such a space can represent, in a spacial sense, what we might feel like overall as PhD students.

There are some important ways not to spend all our time working in a small closet, whether that closet is an apartment or a library carrel. I’ve written before on seeking out your peers for timed writing, say at a coffee shop. There’s a myth in academia that we’re not successful unless we do everything alone. In actuality, there are benefits to working with others beyond getting rid of our cabin fever: you can keep each other motivated while also building the habit of writing that will be useful for years. Beyond these benefits, when we give ourselves the opportunity to be in the same place as other interested scholars, we’re likely to activate those habits of mind that interested us in academia in the first place. On that note, take part in a dissertation writing retreat where you can experience week- or weekend-long scheduled time for writing, reflection, and one-on-one discussions about your work.

I want to put forward one more view on how we’re not alone in this work.

Working on a dissertation is a chance to focus on your particular interests, likely the ones that motivated you to become a member of your field. If you’re like me, you got into your field because you’re captivated by its view on the world and committed to working on its most pressing questions. Plus, you want your work to make a contribution. When you’re counting your words or pages and trying to meet deadlines, let’s try to think of ourselves as part of these larger discussions that are happening every day. Like the rhetorician Kenneth Burke said, these discussions have been going on for a very long time, and they will continue even after we’ve left them. Now that’s really something, to be part of that. Every day that we work on our dissertations, we stay a part of it.

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How I Write: Joe Turner, Professor of English

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers. The series will be featured every other Wednesday.

Our featured writer this week is Professor Joe Turner. Dr. Turner is new to the Department of English at University of Louisville. He teaches courses in rhetoric and composition and has research interests in the history of rhetoric, Roman and Medieval rhetoric, and Medieval literature.

joe turner

Location: Bingham Hall, 317D

Current project: An academic article on perceptions of style in the late Middle Ages – plain, direct speech and complex, ornate speech, and what a person’s speaking style revealed about their character, social class, and education. There was, in the Middle Ages as today, a mistrust of people who speak well: behind their glib words could be any number of motivations.  Because rhetorical training (similar to what occurs in our English 101 and 102 courses today) was central to medieval educations, and few people received educations, using rhetorical figures was a marker of high status and education.

Currently reading: Kathy Davidson’s Now You See It, as many graphic novels as I can get my hands on, and texts related to my research (such as the Poetria Nova, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales).

1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

I write articles, lesson plans, and short blogs (for my courses). In these blogs, for example, I outline the class’ structure and provide a digital record that students can review.

2. When/where/how do you write?

I write scholarship in my office and lessons/blogs at home. I find that my dog, Anya, is far too interesting for me to sustain work on any academic projects while at home.

I generally dedicate all day Tuesday and Thursday to writing scholarship. In the mornings I do my reading at home. First, I re-read my writing from the previous writing session. Then, I read a few articles/chapters that are pertinent to the article or the next section of the article. After that, I drive to campus and begin writing. If I get stuck, I normally start reading the piece from the beginning and try to chart out where I should go next.

3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?

Diet Coke. I have to have caffeine, and I don’t drink coffee. I also find that my office is conducive to writing in ways that my home is not.

4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?

Make a schedule and stick to it. I find that a dedicated space and a routine have become writing cues. Once I arrive in the office on my “writing days,” sit down and open my diet Coke, my mind automatically switches to writing mode. It’s become a habit and a ritual.

5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

My PhD advisor told me to write every day because once you stop writing, it’s easy to make excuses to continue not writing. Writing is a learnable skill like any other. It’s not something that some people have and other people don’t. The only way to learn a skill is to practice it, over and over, and to make conscious efforts to improve.

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