UofL Writing Center

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Time, Talk, and Attention to the Individual Writer: How Learning Happens in the Writing Center

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

Every year I spend much of my August telling people about the University Writing Center. I go to a number of departmental and college orientations and resource fairs so I can offer an overview of our services. I tell people that we work with any member of the UofL community on any kind of writing at any point in the writing process. I talk about dscn2185our various writing groups, writing events, and the workshops and retreats we offer. And I describe, briefly, how we don’t edit papers for people, but work with them to discuss the strengths and weakness of a draft and come up with strategies for revision that will make the writer stronger yet.

Yet, I usually have only about 15 minutes to talk, at best, at these events, so I don’t get to explain much beyond that. There are any number of things I’d like to be able to say, but with the start of the new academic year, I want to take a moment to focus specifically on a few values and approaches that we have in the University Writing Center that both set us apart from other parts of the University and create distinctive learning experiences that keep people coming back to make appointments with us. These are all ideas we spent the day talking about at our start-of-the-year orientation this past Thursday.

People, Not Just Pages: We work with writers, not just on drafts. We’re not an editing service that marks up a draft with “corrections.” Instead, our focus is working with a writer to provide that person with suggestions and strategies that help the writer make the draft in question stronger, but also offer the writer ways to write more effectively in the future. We remember that we’re responding to a person, not just a set of pages. Such an approach also means that we work in dialogue with writers, listening to their concerns, offering suggestions, and emphasizing that the best learning comes from such cooperative and collaborative approaches.

Location, Location, Location: We can start with writers where they are. In a class full of students instructors have to make assumptions about what the students know and start from there. Being able to work with writers individually means we can find out what they know, what they want to learn, and adapt our responses accordingly. The reality is that no writer is always a strong or weak writer. Competence and confidence depend on the writer’s familiarity with the genre in question, whether you’re a first-year student or working on a doctoral dissertation. We tailor our teaching to the individual and the context.

Time Is On Our Side: Unlike conventional courses, we’re not bound by the limits of a 14-week semester. Our timeline for learning is up to the individual writer. Some writers make multiple appointments with us during a given writing project (writers can make up to three appointments per week). Some make regular, standing appointments each week was they work on a longer piece, like a dissertation or book. Others we see from time to time during their years at UofL. The point is, we can keep working with a writer over the course of college career and our approaches to teaching and learning can take the long view and not be truncated by the semester schedule. Such an approach, again, means we can focus on teaching the individual, not just fulfilling a course syllabus.

Learning, Not Grading: When we sit down with a writer, our focus in on helping that person write more effectively, not coming up with an evaluation of that writer that

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University Writing Center Staff, 2017-18

reduces it to a number or single letter. Taking this approach allows writers to be more honest about their struggles and more willing to explore a variety of approaches knowing that an approach that doesn’t work won’t result in a failing grade, but just having to try again. In the Writing Center the response of the reader is what matters, and in that way reflects more closely the reality of writing in daily, non-academic contexts. What’s more, research on motivation – and research on grading – overwhelming demonstrates that instrumental reward systems such as grades diminish both internal motivations and learning. We offer a learning environment that emphasizes individual learning, not group assessment, and that makes the learning and motivation that much stronger.

Writing Matters in the World: We’re committed to cultivating and sustaining a culture of writing on campus and in the community. Our writing groups (Graduate, Creative Writing, LGBTQ), our community work and workshops, and our events (Banned Books Week, Celebration of Student Writing, International Mother Language Day, among others) are all done with the goals of supporting the writing that people do, but also reminding people of the important work that writing does in their lives and in the world. Toward that end, we also value and emphasize the role of writing and literacy in advancing and advocating for equality and social justice.

Regardless of your political views, it’s hard to argue with the idea that these feel like tumultuous times. But, as my father once said, “Education is an optimist’s racket,” which means I can’t look at the new faces on campus and not feel hopeful. We are excited to  open our doors at the University Writing Center to begin another academic year and remain a positive force for UofL writers and their writing.

 

Writing is Contagious: The Dissertation Writing Retreat and Building a Community of Writers

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

It’s hard to shake the mythology of writing as a solitary activity. Over and over again, people talk about writing as something that geniuses do in inspired isolation. Yet our annual Dissertation Writing Retreat demonstrates each year what much of the research in the Rhetoric and Writing Studies shows, that successful writing is also very much a social practice. Sure, at some point a writer types out the words that convey individual thoughts. Before and after that moment, however, the power of community and

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Writing at the Dissertation Writing Retreat

individual relationships can be essential to a writer’s success. The powerful presence and influence of others is at the core of our approach to our Dissertation Writing Retreats, and why we think they have been so successful for the past six years. There are two ways, in particular, that the social aspects of writing come into play during the week.

 

Writing is Contagious

Sitting in a room full of people writing inspires people to write – and to keep writing. There is an energy and accountability that comes from committing to writing, and to staying in your chair and working through the obstacles you might bump into as you write. Every year people tell us how the energy and focus of working in a group of writers propels them forward with their dissertations. Many writers also find the sense of mutual accountability helps them be productive with their writing. In addition to the Dissertation Writing Retreat, we will be continuing to provide the opportunity for accountability with our weekly Graduate Student Writing Groups this summer (for more information click here).

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Small -Group Discussion on Structuring Dissertation Chapters

Another way we support community during the Dissertation Writing Retreat is through conversation. Every day we break for small-group discussions about various issues of dissertation writing (How to Interpret and Respond to Committee Comments, Ways to Structure Chapters, Strategies for Self-Editing, How to Approach Literature Reviews). These conversations not only help with issues about writing, but the chance to hear from other writers with similar concerns – and different suggestions – reminds all the writers that they are not alone and that all writers need support. Then we break for lunch and have time to relax and socialize – also a valuable part of the writing process.

Relationships and Motivation

The other social aspects of writing that are invaluable during the Dissertation Writing Retreat are the relationships that develop between the writers and the University Writing Center consultants with whom they work during the week. Each writer is paired with the same consultant and they meet each day to talk about drafts, writing processes, organization, or just be a sounding board for ideas and brainstorming. The research on

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Vasiliki working with Rachel

writing and on motivation (including my own) shows that supportive relationships that offer constructive criticism, but also respectful listening, provide writers with the strategies and motivation to move forward once the retreat is over. What’s more, the consultants also learn from the writers, and that reciprocity is one of our key values in the University Writing Center.

The Dissertation Writing Retreat, while a lot of work for us at the University Writing Center, is one of my favorite weeks of the week. I always leave inspired. But, rather than tell you more of my thoughts about it, here are some reflections from the writers and consultants who made the day possible.

Writers

Katie Adamchik, Sociology. This week was what I needed to boost my productivity. The retreat designated time and psychological accountability for me to focus on my dissertation. The workshops and consultations helped me organize my work and gave me strategies for moving through issues that come up along the way. I appreciated being surrounded by a community of people working toward a similar goal – we commiserated, supported, brainstormed, and celebrated together. I highly recommend this to all students!

Cortney Armstrong, Microbiology and Immunology. The Dissertation Writing Retreat has been an invaluable week for me. Coming from the health sciences campus, I thought I would feel like a fish out of water, however, I was pleasantly surprised with how comfortable I felt and how productive I was. No matter what field or discipline you are coming from, this retreat will be of great benefit for you! Not only was I productive on my dissertation (I completed a chapter this week!), but I was also productive in using the tips and skills I needed to plan for writing the remainder of the chapters for my dissertation. It was a wonderful week spent with a community of brilliant peers, all who are focused and pushing towards the same goal, finishing! I highly encourage all graduate students to apply for this retreat and come prepared to be astonished with how valuable it is and how much you will accomplish. I can’t thank the Writing Center enough for giving me this opportunity!

Lily Assgari, Psychological and Brain Sciences. My experience in the dissertation writing retreat was nothing short of amazing. It was incredibly helpful to sit in a room with the intention to write for hours a day with little to no distractions. Our community of writers supported and encouraged each other. We would discuss our issues and share

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Lily working with Jessie

our experiences daily. The accountability of having to talk about what I was had accomplished kept me motivated. The tool and tips that consultants suggest helped make a daunting process more manageable. While the week was definitely exhausting, the experience is well worth it. For the first time, I can honestly say that I am looking forward continuing to write. I would definitely recommend the dissertation writing retreat to any student that needs to write a dissertation.

Corey Boes, Social Work. My time spent at the Dissertation Writing Retreat was invaluable. I am in the very early stages of organizing and writing my dissertation and being able to learn different writing processes and strategies from my daily consultations and even from the other retreat goers was extremely helpful. The daily break out discussions were informative and helpful. They covered topics that were relevant both immediately and as I make progress through my project. I hope to be able to carry forward with the great writing momentum that I was able to gather through my time spent here this week.

Vasiliki Kosmidou, Entrepreneurship. I highly recommend the Dissertation Writing Retreat to everyone. It is very hard to summarize in a few sentences how valuable it has been for my dissertation progress. I came to the Retreat while still collecting my data, so I was able to use my time efficiently to write up my methods section and organize the overall structure of my chapters. Beyond the sense of accountability and community, I found extremely useful the small group discussions which gave me strategies for restructuring my dissertation for other purposes, such as conference presentations and journal submissions. I have also learned a lot from my writing consultant, who provided very useful feedback on my writing and resources that I could use beyond the writing of my dissertation. Lastly, as a graduate student, I always struggle during the academic year shifting my focus between research, teaching, writing my dissertation along with my other responsibilities. As a result, I certainly appreciated that the Retreat offered me not only an encouraging working environment, but also the luxury of writing for 8 hours every single day. By doing so, it has helped me build momentum and exceed my writing goals. Thank you for this wonderful experience!

Xiaohong Li, Bioinformatics and Biostatistics. Thank you so much for providing me and other students with such a great opportunity for writing our dissertation in the workshop. During the workshop, I can devote my time and concentrate on writing my dissertation. Working with the consultant in the workshop is also very helpful. I also enjoy chatting with or listening to other graduate students talking about their writing experiences in graduate school. Taken together, it is a wonderful experience and really speeds up the process for achieving my Ph.D. degree. I would like to recommend it to other Ph.D. students.

Keri Mathis, Rhetoric and Composition. The Dissertation Writing Retreat gave me the designated thinking and writing time that I needed to make significant progress on my dissertation. I especially appreciated the structure of the morning writing time, discussion groups, and afternoon consultations. I left each day knowing exactly what I needed to do for the next day’s writing and left the retreat with tips for how to sustain my productivity

Jeanelle Sears, Social Work. Participating in the Dissertation Writing Retreat provided me a cognitive and physical space of accountability that was so needed after months of stagnation. It also came at the perfect time, as my committee was expecting a draft of my early chapters in only a few weeks following this retreat. I came in on Monday morning with a ten-page conceptual paper and am leaving with more than 30 pages of drafted material and a solid outline for how the rest of the chapters will evolve. I appreciated not only the quiet time for independent writing, but also the camaraderie of fellow students and the writing center consultants. Both equally advanced my thinking about this project overall, and offered smaller strategies I can engage in for editing and organization, including leaving some things alone in the short-term. After all, the best dissertation is a done dissertation, and I have new energy to get mine over that finish line.

Jaime Thompson, Social Work. The Dissertation Writing Retreat at the U of L Writing Center has been refreshing and motivating. It is indeed a “retreat” as it allows you to purposefully withdraw from the hustle and bustle of your daily life to devote an entire week to writing and learning.  I highly recommend it to any Ph.D. student wanting to join a community and feel supported in the process of preparing your dissertation project, no matter what stage of the process you are in.

Consultants

Layne Gordon, Assistant Director of the University Writing Center and Ph.D. Student in Rhetoric and Composition. This week I was once again reminded of the power of talking through our ideas even as we’re struggling to form them. I think we still imagine the academic as someone who works in isolation–sitting in a room, at a computer, generating ideas that spring from her head alone. But this image ignores the fact that we need other people to talk to about our ideas and to encourage us when we’ve struck something good. This week, I learned every day from the writers I was working with because we shared so much as we were talking through their dissertation projects. For example, one of the writers I worked with this week came up with an excellent metaphor for her dissertation–nesting dolls. While talking about the scope of her work, she said it felt like she was starting with the baby: she had a very clear problem and research site in mind, but she had to find all the other contexts and conversations that surrounded that smaller, situated, local issue and describe those other contexts in her introductory chapter. I have found myself thinking about this metaphor all week, particularly as I have been working on my own dissertation prospectus. It has been so valuable to think about the conversations I am contributing to as nested. This metaphor encompasses so much about both the struggle and the excitement of creating a dissertation project, and it exemplifies just one of the many ways that my conversations with other writers this week have shaped how I’m thinking about my own work.

Rachel Gramer, (just completed) Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition. The Dissertation Writing Retreat has helped me think about how easy it is to internalize academic and dissertation writing practices (and rather quickly). So much of what I could offer as a tutor came from my recent dissertation writing experiences, which include but also transcend the immediate acts of writing words on screen or page. I was glad to share my experiences about the diss writing process, working with committee members, and the larger purpose of the dissertation in academia, in specific fields, and in graduate education. Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this week has been the privilege to create conditions for dissertation writers to feel heard and affirmed in their struggles and triumphs. It was such a pleasure to confirm for graduate student writers that yes, all writers make these mistakes; yes, all of us struggle with these issues; and yes, your writing is good, is clear, and is progressing. And yes, your ideas and contributions to your field are salient and needed–and writing your dissertation is the beginning of sharing your thoughts and findings with others, not The End.

Jamila Kareem, (just completed) Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition. This summer marks my second year at the Dissertation Writing Retreat. As a consultant this year, I found that working with Ph.D. students in Sociology and Social Work exposed me to ways to examine my own work through new theories and methodologies. When I completed the retreat as a participant, I learned the importance of conversing about my own work to understand how it appeared to others. This year, I relied on the importance of understanding others’ work so that our experiences—personal, professional, and scholarly—may help each other through the research and writing process as we all continue in this field of academia.

Jessica Newman, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing and Ph.D. Student in Rhetoric and Composition. As the assistant director for graduate student writing, I have spent much of the fall and spring semesters speaking with graduate students about their prospectuses and dissertations, but it was not until working at the dissertation writing retreat that I had the opportunity to truly see the writing process in action. Over the course of each day, the sounds shifted from the silence of 14 writers hard at work to the hum of the discussion groups to the noise of the writers at lunch, talking about dissertations and anything but, and then back to quiet as the day ended with writing and reflection. As a Ph.D. student in the early stages of her dissertation, I found it motivating and heartening to see this community form in just a few short days, to see writers sharing strategies and emotional support. I myself learned a lot that will help me as I move forward in the dissertation process.

The Writing Center: Every Step of the Way

Kevin Bailey, Consultantkevin-b

The spring semester is drawing to a close.  Tensions are high, schedules are full, and it seems like there’s no way on earth that all the work that needs to get done will ever get done (at least not on time).  Of course, it will get done, though; it always gets done.  And when it does get done, there’s a feeling of exhaustion, followed by a moment of relief, and then, within a matter of days, an overwhelming sense of – “What now?”

And the answer to that question is different for all of us.  Perhaps you’re finishing your first year of college and making plans to take more difficult coursework next semester.  Or perhaps you’re jumping straight into summer classes.  Maybe this is your final semester before graduation and you’re preparing to enter the job market.  Or maybe you (like me) are gearing up to teach for the first time in the fall.  These are all big and potentially scary changes.

It can be daunting to consider all the work that lies ahead.  No matter what stage of your academic career (or life) you’re in, new obstacles are always going to stand in your way and new responsibilities are inevitably going to take up your time.  And I can’t in good conscience recommend you put these things out of your mind.  It’s important to plan.  It’s important to look ahead and approach your “What now?” with confidence.

The point I’m making, I think, is that even though your workload may increase and you’ll take on larger projects, you will always be able to adapt to new challenges, especially when resources like the Writing Center are around to help you along the way.  One of the many mantras I’ve memorized from my time tutoring over the past year has been: “We’re here to help with any writing project at every stage of the writing process.”  This phrase is usually applied to the standard college essay, and by it we tutors often mean we can help regardless of how much of said essay has been written.  We help to brainstorm topics for papers that have not yet been started as readily as we discuss strategies for revision on papers that are mostly finished.   But this same mantra can be slightly repurposed to say “We’re here to help with every step of your writing career,” and it would remain equally true to the Writing Center’s purpose.

The Writing Center can help in a big way with every one of those “What now?” scenarios I mentioned earlier.  If you have a summer project you want to work on, the Writing Center is open for consultations during the summer.  If you’re entering the workforce or applying for positions, you can set up an appointment to construct or review your CV, resume, or personal statements.  If you’re teaching next semester, you can bring in and receive feedback on your syllabi and lesson plans (something I’m already making plans to do).

No matter what’s next for you, you’ll be writing.  And no matter what you’re writing, the Writing Center can help.

“Can someone hold my hair while I word-vomit?”

Michael Phillips, Consultantmichael-p

Recently, I found myself in a pickle.  I put off a research paper until the last minute (guiltily), partly because I didn’t really know how to get started and partly because I didn’t really know what to argue.  I’d already conducted practically all of my research, but I didn’t know how to make my contribution, my part of the scholarly conversation, novel or interesting.  I was bogged down by my own self-consciousness and insecurities about the topic, trying to grapple with whether I would sound academic or formal enough for the assignment’s requirements.  What pulled me out of that slump, that inability to get my ideas out onto the page, was a critical stage of the writing process that I’d forgotten to employ: word-vomiting.  One of my professors introduced this non-committal, helpful practice that can enable the writer to produce their best possible writing.  Word-vomiting, for me, is a lot like freewriting but with one critical difference.  While freewriting is a good exercise to employ to start writing about anything, word-vomiting can be much more direct, much more specific to a certain topic, to get the writer to start unpacking and flushing out ideas particular to that topic.

So how can you best engage with this strategy?  I suggest compiling whatever materials you’ve gathered through the research part of the process, like your notes, primary sources, secondary sources like scholarly articles / books / journals relevant to your topic, etc.  Once you have these resources and have familiarized yourself with them, I recommend putting yourself in the most comfortable position to get your thoughts about your topic onto the page.  Whatever kinds of thoughts you have about the topic, both significant, and insignificant, personal and impersonal, communicating those thoughts in whatever way will help you locate what aspects of your topic you find most interesting or compelling.  This stage of the writing process is so important for this very reason; I’ve skipped out on word-vomiting altogether in the past, and I’ve found myself writing at length about an argument that doesn’t inspire me.  When I’ve historically found myself in that position, the writing stage is both grueling and seemingly interminable.

Word-vomiting is also important because it puts you in a much better position to sift through ideas you’ve already fostered rather than having to generate entirely new ideas when you’ve already begun writing the paper.  It’s so much easier to cut ideas or synthesize ideas you already have on the page than it is to create new ones as you’re executing the writing of your paper.  When you’ve exhausted the word-vomiting stage of the process, you’ll realize a lot of your ideas just don’t work or don’t fit into this assignment.  They’re still important, though!  And they may have a place in a future assignment or a future scholarly / creative endeavor.

Research papers are hard, and finding your position / stake in a research paper can be even more difficult. If you’re looking for other ideas about how to get started your can check out our Writing FAQs and ideas for getting started with digital project. But with this helpful strategy of getting your ideas about a topic onto the page at whatever pace, of word-vomiting whatever you think or feel about that topic, you may find your research paper may be just a little bit easier or smoother to execute.

Evaluating Sources in the Age of “Fake News”

Melissa Rothman, Consultantmelissa-r

Alternative facts, fake news, disinformation, propaganda…despite their recent step into the spotlight, none of these concepts are by any means new phenomena. Nonetheless, the recent stir in the media has even caused the Oxford Dictionary to name “Post-truth” the word of the year for 2016. Many have pointed to the ever-increasing availability of information in our digital age as the cause of our current skepticism, but publicity stunts and sensationalized media date back to the early stages of mass publication. In 1809, Washington Irving is perhaps one of the earliest cases for knowingly fabricating “fake news,” placing a fake missing person’s advertisement in several local newspapers for a Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker just prior to releasing his first work published under this pseudonym. Tabloids such as “Star” and the “National Enquirer” have stared back at us from the supermarket lines our whole lives reminding us to question the validity of printed news. Even in academia, the notorious “Sokal Hoax” serves as a cautionary tale illustrating the value of close reading. However, despite the apparent prevalence of misinformation in our world, we should not slide into the nihilistic view that truth is relative. In fact, this recent heightened interest in the validity and soundness of sources has fostered a necessary awareness of misinformation. Likewise, there are several strategies available for evaluating sources.

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[CC Image courtesy of The Public Domain Review  on Flickr]

To begin with, there are several research guides available on the web. Ekstrom Library even has a list of strategies for evaluating sources here. It includes questions of context, authorship, and credibility that are useful for evaluating any type of source, but is specifically geared toward academic works. However, sometimes we want to use data from outside scholarly databases.  There are tons of tips online for building digital literacy, but I’ll break down these lists into the cliff notes version that we college students know and love.

Here are some strategies:

  1. Consider the Source. Questioning an author’s motivation should be second nature to every college student by the time they graduate. There is no such thing as an agenda free text. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For instance, this blog post was written with two main goals: 1. To please my wonderful boss (*note the potential motivation of sucking up with my adjective choice). 2. To supply you guys with a handy-dandy tool for evaluating sources. But always be aware that some agendas are a bit more nefarious than others, particularly when you get into the realm of politics.
  2. Look for Evidence. This could be cited explicitly in the article, provided at the bottom of the page, or embedded in hyperlinks. But if the author is stating something as common knowledge, that…well…isn’t common knowledge, approach with caution.
  3. Fact check, Fact check, Fact check. Below I’ve listed some links to some great sites for this, but while they certainly do try, they can’t cover every piece of information available on the web. Luckily, if you have a question, our Reference Assistance and Instruction department is fantastic asset for questions like these.
  4. Pay Attention to Images: By now, pretty much everyone should be aware of the magical abilities of Photoshop. However, did you know that Google has a reverse image search that can help trace where else an image has appeared online? Find the original source can perhaps help identify the reliability of the image. Likewise be aware of charts and graphs. They can also be appropriated to distort truth…even when using real data.
  5. Check the URL. URLs ending in .edu and .gov are inherently trustworthy, but still continue to consider the source to identify possible partisan biases. During my undergrad I was told that .org was more trustworthy than .com. However, while there was a time when getting a .org meant you ran an actual organization, today anyone can get this type of domain. Also, beware of URLs designed to intentionally mislead you by using other organizations’ names. For example, ABC.com.co, is a fake news site mimicking ABC.com.
  6. Be Aware of Your Own Biases: Part of providing a convincing argument is showing that you’ve thoroughly considered all opposing viewpoints. The only way to do this is to read AND consider opinions from other people’s perspectives. They may not change your point of view at all, but in considering them you are enabled to form a stronger argument in support of your viewpoint.

Fact-Checking Sites:

Self Care and the University Student

Brooke Parker, Consultantbrooke-p

The ins and outs of the university can be stressful and anxiety inducing for many of us, particularly at this point in the semester. While Spring Break’s brief moment of relaxation has left us, our final exams and seminar papers are fast approaching. It’s easy to forget that engaging in self care is just as important as the writing and studying you’re doing.

As someone with a mental disability, self care is a really familiar and helpful concept to me, but this is certainly something every student can benefit from. The term “self care” refers to anything you yourself can do for your own physical or mental health. And while both physical and mental health are tied to each other, I’d like to emphasize self care’s benefits for emotional and mental well being in the university.

So, what does self care look like for a student? According to Psych Central, self care is individual and looks different for everyone. But they do provide some helpful suggestions:

  1. Think about what activities make you feel relaxed and write them down. For example, walking my dog, painting, and watching Rick and Morty with friends are all activities that make me feel calm and relaxed. So, I try to engage in them regularly.
  2. Schedule self-care moments on your calendar. Or, set an alarm on your phone to take breaks from writing or studying. I like to take frequent breaks when writing to decompress and give my mind some respite. In fact, I took a break will writing this post to take a hot bath, which is another helpful de-stressing tool.
  3. Get your self care in when you can. While some of us may be able to lock down a self care schedule on the calendar (I have a really hard time doing this), the rest of us can sneak in self care when a moment frees up. My colleagues and I often take turns laying on the couch in our consultant room between sessions—catching naps or just moments to close our eyes when we can.
  4. Take care of your physical health as well. This is something I’ve had quite a hard time doing this academic year. I often feel like I don’t have the time to go for a run or attend an hour long yoga session. However, even walking your dog or doing light stretching can be acts of physical self care that can also help you destress.
  5. Know that its ok to say no.  I grew up with a mother who never said “no” to her clients, and I saw how quickly she burnt out during the week because of this. Making sure not to overextend yourself is important. You’ve got enough on your plate as a student—don’t feel bad if you want to or have to say no to something.
  6. Keep checking in with yourself. I keep a bullet journal to track my state of mind each day. If my anxiety is high or I experience a dissociation, I will write about it. This allows me to find trends in my stressors so that I can recognize and avoid/navigate them in the future. I’ve found this to be one of the most helpful aspects of my own self care.

While this is in no way a comprehensive list of ways to take care of your self during these last stretches of the semester, I hope these examples provide a starting point from which you can construct your own, unique approach to self care.

I’d like to add to this list taking advantage of counseling services. While self care is certainly beneficial to everyone, some students (including myself) have mental disabilities for which the structure of the university isn’t always as understanding. Counseling services can be a space in which we find that understanding. Further, coming to the Writing Center when you’re overwhelmed with an assignment or just don’t know where to begin can help relieve the stress you are feeling. Our consultants know that, for many, writing can be a stressful activity, but we are here to provide you with the tools to help you confidently (and hopefully less stressfully) navigate your assignments.

There’s More to Life than School

Carrie Mason, Consultantcarrie-m

This weekend my fiancé and I traveled down to my home for some family time. I’ve done a little schoolwork, but not much, and this blog is the last thing I’ll do. I’m learning a slow lesson: school work – or even regular work – does not define my life. It is just a part. I enjoy academics, but it’s not the most important part of my existence.

You see, the thing is, on May 27 I’m getting married. There’s a lot of stuffs that go into this wedding planning and most of it I hadn’t even thought about before being engaged. And since I live with family in Louisville, while my fiancé lives in an apartment with friends, we also have to find a place to live. But I’m not writing this blog to talk about all the things that I have to do, I’m sure you also have tons of things you also have to accomplish.

What I am saying is that sometimes school just needs to take a back seat.

Don’t misread me, doing well in school is still a good and right goal; it would be foolish to abuse the privilege and skimp through the semester. However, it is infinitely more important for me to continue building a deeper, stronger relationship with my fiancé as we work toward marriage.

You see, dear reader, life is not all grades and articles and books to read. There is more than an essay exam. There are trees to see and flowers to smell. If I get straight As in every class and write the most profound papers, but I fail to cultivate lasting relationships, then I have wasted time. And if I end my academic career with institutional laurels, but have a mind full of demerits because I did not take time to care for myself, then I am worse than when I started.

So, dear reader, take care of yourself and your relationships. Keep working to achieve your academic goals, but remember there are other parts of life that would be unwise to neglect.  It’s hard to learn and remember, because right now everything seems to be on the very top of the to-do list, but remember, the academic accomplishments are more enjoyable if you have people to share them with. Besides, an essay exam only lasts about an hour anyway.

Growing as Writers through Journaling

Jeremy Dunn, Consultantjeremy-d

Now and then writers I work with in the Writing Center ask me if I know of any tips to help them improve their writing. I find that offering cogent suggestions isn’t always easy. Perhaps part of my difficulty in offering “easy” tips to improve writing lies in the glacial rate at which my own writing seems to progress, and it’s difficult to imagine easy fixes for the challenges we face as growing writers. Still, it’s important to acknowledge the desires of writers (myself included) who earnestly want to know what they can do outside of things like going to the Writing Center to help them develop their craft. So, here goes my attempt at mustering a nugget of writing advice: First, if possible, allow yourself to let go of the anxiety to “improve” your writing. Second, keep a journal. In this post, I’ll try to explain my reasoning for these suggestions.

We seem to live in a goal-oriented age full of sensationalized bullet lists for self-improvement. For example:

  • Seven steps to lose 30 pounds in 30 days
  • 10 habits of highly successful people
  • Three ways to live a longer, healthier life
  • 17.6632173333333 quick tips to becoming a smarter, stronger, better looking, wealthier, more well-liked human being

Jeez.

I resist trying to make writing advice fit this mold. While I think we can take measures to improve our writing, I’m afraid the goal of simply “being better” at writing sometimes eclipses the importance of writing itself.

But in the university, where students often equate writing with assessment, a goal-oriented approach to writing seems nearly unavoidable, perhaps even natural. I often hear things like “I want/need an ‘A’ on this paper” from writers I work with. To be honest, I think the same thing while writing my own papers, even as I tell myself grades aren’t the point of writing. As writers in the university, we are writing in what we perceive as high-stakes environments where, for better or worse, assessments and credential-getting come into play. We value GPAs as means to keep scholarships, advance professionally, and measure our performance. However, I would like to suggest that by writing in situations where we can suspend quantifiable goals, we might give ourselves a better opportunity to grow as writers at a more organic pace.

Give up goals of becoming better to become better? How does this work? While my suggestion is admittedly based on personal experience rather than extensive research, I will venture to defend my suggestion by showing what writing in a journal—a venue divorced from assessment—has done to help me progress as a writer.

I’ve kept a journal, writing with varying degrees of regularity, for years. Outside of required writing for school or the odd freelance job, journaling represents my most consistent writing and has generally been the writing I’ve enjoyed the most. Over the years, keeping a journal has given me the chance to write about whatever I’ve felt like writing about, free from the pressure of formality or worrying about an audience. My entries tend to be pretty mundane, often just recordings of a day’s events, but I think writing routine journal entries has helped me become a better writer over time. To explain my thinking here, I’ll try to draw an analogy between writing in my journal and playing soccer. There’s a connection eventually, I promise.

Growing up, I loved to play soccer. I spent hours each week in the backyard kicking the soccer ball around. These hours were unstructured time spent doing something I liked to do. I had no clear goal and generally was not consciously striving to get better, but as successive soccer seasons rolled by, I began to see that my time spent playing soccer in the backyard was helping me become a fundamentally better player in organized games.

When I think about the journaling I’ve done over the years, it occurs to me that in many ways my journaling parallels my time playing soccer in the backyard. I started writing in my journal simply because I sometimes felt like writing something down. Beyond that, I had no real goal. For instance, I might take an evening walk, and there would be something special about the walk—something in the cool air, the way the sun sank behind a nearby ridge, some memory that came to me as I experienced everything—that would make me want to write about the moment, that would inspire me to try to find the best words I could to describe the experience. I might return home and write a short journal entry about the walk, not as a conscious exercise in writing, but as an attempt to pen down an experience I wanted to remember. Writing would, I hoped, help me find the words to do some glimmer of justice to the experience. Trying to write about various events in my life in short journal entries turned out to be a fair amount of writing practice and helped me become more comfortable with writing in general.

Journaling hasn’t turned me into Shakespeare, but the practice has helped me grow little by little as a writer over time. My journal is a place where I’ve tried on different hats as a writer, a place where I’ve recorded funny episodes, random thoughts, or events from perfectly unremarkable days spent working and running errands. I’ve written through times of happiness, melancholy, frustration, and transition. I’ve written simply to write. Free from the fear of assessment or judgment, I’ve experimented and played with writing for years outside of any formal writing assignments.

As we continue to negotiate new genres, assignments, and challenges in academic settings, perhaps something as simple as journaling at night before bed could go a long way toward making us more practiced writers. Journaling offers us the chance to get to know our own voices a little better and, just maybe, can make us a little savvier in our writing when we meet the next writing project coming down the road.

Effective Ways to Boost Your Confidence as a Writer

Jessica Winck, Assistant Director

“Before you read this, I just wanted to say, I’m not a good writer.”

I hear this confession from college students often, from freshmen to graduate students, at this university and others. I wonder where this confession comes from. Maybe we are expecting someone to criticize our writing, so criticisms hurts less if we admit that we’re “bad writers” up front. But mostly, I suspect that the confession comes from specific experiences that have led us to believe that we aren’t good writers. In turn, we probably have diminished confidence and less incentive to engage in opportunities to improve our writing. ??????????

I want to put forward the possibility that confidence, as much as any “skill” or strategy in writing, can influence everything from how well we do on a paper to how we feel about ourselves.

One of the benefits of working one-to-one with college students in the University Writing Center is that I get to learn about people’s experiences in education and elsewhere that have defined their views about writing. There are a few confidence-diminishing experiences that college students frequently share with me:

Receiving low grades on papers. Over time, we start to wonder if these grades aren’t telling us something about our ability or even our potential. Grades, as important as they are, offer only one (and sometimes a very small) piece of information about our work as writers. Students might receive a low grade after writing a paper on something that does not interest them, only to receive a higher grade after writing a paper on a topic that interests them very much. We always have the potential to meet expectations, but how we realize that potential can change from situation to situation.

Let’s also be perceptive to the moments when a lower grade is an invitation to revise a paper for a higher grade. Even if you aren’t invited to revise, it can’t hurt to ask your instructor for the opportunity. You might be surprised by what you can accomplish after receiving some advice and revisiting a paper you feel did not go well.

Still smarting from that one thing a teacher once wrote on our paper. Criticisms of our writing, even ones we received a long time ago, can still affect our confidence now. What if we can both take these comments seriously and put them into perspective so that they teach us something instead of close us down? A few things to remember about feedback from teachers:

  • College instructors regularly read, grade, and respond to hundreds of papers over a semester. Sometimes harsh-sounding or poorly-worded pieces of feedback result from the need to provide as much feedback to as many students as possible within a certain amount of time. Plus, it can be really difficult as a teacher to communicate in one written comment just how much we really do want to help.
  • Is there a substantive takeaway behind the wording of the feedback you receive? For example, the feedback “Jessica, this paper is not where I expected it to be at this point” doesn’t have to mean that I’m not a good writer and can’t meet expectations. Instead, it might tell me something about how I plan the papers I write and whether I understand the challenge behind the assignment. If it’s hard to see the substantive information behind a comment, ask to visit your instructor during his or her office hours so that you can hear more about the feedback.
  • But what if the teacher was just being mean? It’s possible, but attempting to read your instructor’s mind will most likely lead you down an unproductive path. Our energy is better spent paying attention to what we can learn from any piece of feedback.

Receiving the same criticisms over and over. Hearing feedback about my comma usage from different instructors might tell me that I don’t know how to use commas and am therefore a bad writer – so why try? Or, I could use this feedback to do some investigating about comma usage. Look over feedback you’ve received in the past. Is there a pattern in these comments? There is a big difference between “being a bad writer” and “not always seeing or remembering that commas typically go after introductory phrases in sentences.” Write down the aspects of your writing that teachers have pointed out. Now you have a checklist. (You’re definitely not a bad writer when you can engage with your own challenges.) Use this list when you write papers for other classes. Also feel free to bring the list to the University Writing Center when you have your next paper to write.

Hearing a lot of criticism and no praise.

Sometimes, in the effort to give constructive feedback, teachers can leave out feedback on what you’ve done really well. If feedback seems disproportionately critical, consider asking your instructors what they think you’ve done well in your writing. You might be surprised by what you hear.

If you carry the belief that you’re just not good at writing, think back to the moments and experiences that have led you to this conclusion, and consider the tips I’ve mentioned for thinking of your own potential as a writer in a different way. I bet you’ll see that your initial conclusion was a hasty one.

Deciphering Common Keywords in Assignment Prompts

krLkVHxgMsFkNv4LINjN3Cl8hBIX9jAteOz45mo8cdoTara Lawson, Consultant

When we are new to academic writing, we seem to have a common struggle: deciphering the prompts that professors give us. It is such a pervasive problem because many of the words are so similar that it is quite difficult to tell the difference between them. After all, how is a synthesis different from compare/contrast? The purpose of this post, therefore, is to define many of the common keywords in prompts.

Analyze: For an analysis, professors are looking for an interpretation of the evidence. Although this is not quite as opinion-based as an argument is (see below), analyses do use your opinion. When given this prompt, you are expected to draw conclusions from your interaction with the text; in other words, are you making connections between the evidence you are provided with? For example, a sociology student can analyze relationships between high school seniors across the state in order to come to a conclusion about Kentucky identities within that age group.

Argue: Many students often feel like they cannot put their own opinions into their writing, that they must recite facts and the opinions of other scholars and hope that their own opinion somehow leaks through. However, with an argument, professors want to know your opinion! In fact, they are looking for it. They want proof that you have done unbiased research. Therefore, you will need to provide evidence (statistics, facts, statements from scholars). You will also want to have a debatable claim that you defend. For example, when asked to argue the effect of the French Revolution, you could answer with “The French Revolution was a failure because Napoleon’s reign as dictator only reinstated the type of harmful monarchy that the previous King had represented.” The rest of your paper would then be focused on proving this statement.

Compare/Contrast: Although these words are used simultaneously, they actually have different meanings. To compare two or more items means to find similarities between them. To contrast them means to find differences. So to compare and contrast dolphins and sharks, one could say that the two animals are similar because they both live in the ocean. However, they are different because dolphins hate sharks, and will ruthlessly attack them and leave them for dead. Also, sharks are terrified of dolphins because dolphins have murderous tendencies.

Describe: Remember back to those exercises in middle school, where you had to use your five senses to describe your personal oasis. For academic writing, it is similar, but broader. It does not have to be reliant upon the senses, although it can be. An art student can describe the monochromatic coloring of a painting by talking about the oppressive emotional weight the color blue exudes in the work. A science student might have to describe the interior of a frog precisely, so that other scientists can mimic his/her work.

Define: This is to tell what a concept means. Usually definitions are shorter than the other keywords presented thus far. It can be as short as a single sentence, or it can be the length of a paragraph or two. Usually you will be asked to define a concept that can have several definitions, such as culture or feminism, because the professor is looking for your personal definition.

Discuss: This word is slightly different from explaining something, although they are very similar. However, a discussion tends to be broader and less argumentative. You may not be required to reach a definitive conclusion, but instead to map the connections between certain ideas. A discussion is usually present in literature reviews, like when the writer maps the progression of an academic conversation using the arguments of other scholars.

Explain: Why do you have to know what an explanation is? The answer to that question is itself an explanation. Essentially, an explanation is answering the question “why?” It can also cover the other common questions (how, what, when, and where). Why should you know this information? So that you can explain what you know to your reader and hopefully communicate with them more effectively (and maybe make better grades in the process).

Summarize: A summary is telling the reader what knowledge they need to know in order to understand what you are telling them. For example, if I wanted to highlight a scary moment in the TV show The Walking Dead, but my audience had never watched the show, I would need to summarize it. I could do this with a statement like “the show is about a group of people trying to live in a zombie apocalypse. They have to keep traveling in order to survive and find a safe place to live.” A summary is different from a definition because a summary is more in-depth. Additionally, a summary tells the audience what happened in the work, not what the work actually is.

Synthesize: A synthesis is a concise and more focused version of compare/contrast. It looks at very specific sources, and extracts the most important information from them as it relates to a specific argument. In other words, if I am writing a research paper about the murderous nature of dolphins, I would not need to state the similarities between sharks and dolphins. However, I would want to look at multiple sources focusing on the nature of dolphins. Do the sources answer my question? Do all  of the sources disagree with my hypothesis? How does this impact my overall argument? If dolphins only exhibit murderous tendencies towards sharks, perhaps they do not have an innate homicidal nature, but they are instead attempting to re-enact the feud between the Montagues and Capulets.

Although this post does not cover all of the keywords used in prompts, it may help with some of the most common. Additional resources are also available for all students. The University Writing Center is a free service where graduate students are dedicated to addressing your writing concerns. Also, it might be helpful to talk directly to your professors — as the creators of assignments, they will be able to let you know if you are meeting the requirements.

Finally, writing is tough, but know that you always have a support system at the University Writing Center. Good luck!

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