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Behind the Scenes at the Virtual Writing Center

Cassie Book, Associate Director

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As the University Writing Center’s (UWC) Associate Director, I’m always interested in ways to move from practice-based questions to research and practical improvements. The goal of a recent research project was to improve the overall Virtual Writing Center experience for both writers and consultants. During my day-to-day experience in the UWC, I noticed that some writers (the students, faculty, and staff who use our services) had difficulty locating Virtual Writing Center appointments on our online schedule. The “Virtual Writing Center” broadly encompass our website and synchronous (live chat) and asynchronous (written feedback) online tutoring. We offer both forms of Virtual appointments to Distance Education students and those who cannot visit for a face-to-face appointment. In addition to noting that some writers couldn’t find the Virtual Writing Center appointments on our online schedule, other writers accidentally scheduled a live online chat session when they really wanted asynchronous written feedback on their draft. These were not trivial issues. If not corrected, they result in a writer not getting the help they wanted or losing valuable appointment time.

I developed a research project based on “user-experience” (UX) methodologies that would allow me to investigate where the breakdown in usability and/or communication occurred. The most important reason why it is important for writers to be able to successfully use the technology writing centers employ is accessibility. For instance, in physical writing center spaces, stairs leading to an entrance could be a barrier for a writer using a wheelchair or crutches. In online spaces, the clunky setup of online scheduling systems could create barriers to accessing writing centers. Understanding how writers use our UWC’s online scheduling system would help us redesign elements of the system to make it as welcoming and usable as possible for all potential users.

To understand how our website and schedule confused writers, I recruited six UofL students who have never used the Virtual Writing Center and conducted usability tests and interviews. A “usability test” is not really a “test;” it simply provides scenarios for study participants to undertake (such as, “schedule an appointment in the Writing Center; you want the kind of appointment where you do not physically have to go to the Writing Center”) while a researcher (me) observes them. My follow-up interviews asked the students to discuss their perceptions of the scheduling process and the website. Finally, also I observed three Virtual Writing Center consultants as they worked and conducted a focus group about their use and perceptions of the technology. I collected and analyzed the data on the usability tests, interviews, observations, and focus group to create a picture of what was happening “behind the scenes” of the Virtual Writing Center. For example, to analyze the usability test data and interviews, I simply looked for patterns. One pattern I noticed was that most participants did not stop to read the instructions on our website before attempting to schedule an appointment. My data overall showed me how consultants and writers used the technology, which was valuable for me as an administrator wanting to improve their online experiences.

After I analyzed the data, I developed a list of recommendations for changes to the website and scheduling system based on my findings. We’ve already put in place several improvements! These include: redesigning the Appointments webpage using icons and new resources, such as a new Frequently Asked Questions about the Virtual Writing Center. We also added disclaimers and visual clues on the Appointment page and online schedule to grab writers’ attention to let them know where to find the Virtual Writing Center schedule (see below). We changed the names of the Virtual appointment types to more logically descriptive names. Now the choice between “Written Feedback” and “Live Video Chat” in the Virtual Writing Center is, we hope, clearer. We also revised some of the training for our Virtual Writing Center consultants to ease their anxieties about using technology to communicate about writing. If our consultants aren’t 100% comfortable with it, we can’t expect the writers to be.

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The revised announcement on our Ekstrom Library location schedule, which uses visuals to capture users’ attention.

I would like to make two points to conclude. First, I believe that integrating user-experience perspectives into writing center practices benefits both writing center administrators, to make more informed design decisions, and writers, to more easily access centers. Writing centers (alongside other entities in education) can get easily excited about a new innovation or tool, but we need to also think critically about the impact on students, especially in terms of accessibility. Writing center theory already values writer-centered practices and user-experience studies build on that foundation. Second, a major tenant of user-experience research is that it should be ongoing, so our work is not done! We will continue to collect data on how our writers and consultants use our technology and use those insights to make adjustments to practice.

This research was funded by the Christine Cozzens Research Grant from the Southeastern Writing Center Association and will likely appear in more detail in a future publication.

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Writing Places and Spaces

Jeremy Dunn, Consultantjeremy-d

You’ve picked a paper topic, done some research, and now you’re ready to begin writing that term paper. Or maybe you’ve just struck on a bit of inspiration for a new poem, or a short story—maybe even the next great American novel. There’s only one question left: Where do you go to write?

The question seems simple, but sometimes the answer isn’t. Over the years, I’ve had to do a lot of writing, and one factor that has turned out to be crucial for any writing project I’ve undertaken has been my writing environment, the physical places and spaces I inhabit while writing.

Researchers have taken an interest in how material environments and writing tools can aid or inhibit writing. In a study of how college students’ “composing unfolds materially through space and time in a mobile culture,” Stacey Pigg observes, “While the materiality of academic writing easily slips under the radar, how students access and incorporate places and technologies in composing habits outside classrooms may be one of the most important determinants of their success within them” (271). In other words, the places where we write, and the technologies we employ in our writing (i.e. pen and paper, laptops, desktops, typewriters, stone and chisel, etcetera) constitute foundational elements of the composing process.

Indeed, as examples of famous writers illustrate, writing is often a ritualistic, idiosyncratic process deeply rooted in particular environments and surroundings. Mark Twain reportedly wrote while lying in bed. Dylan Thomas had his writing shed where, legend has it, his wife would lock him up each day to ensure he got some writing done. Similarly, Virginia Woolf sometimes wrote in a toolshed she had converted into a “writing lodge.” Sir Walter Scott apparently liked to compose poetry on horseback.

I find other writers’ writing places and spaces interesting and inspiring, but not all of us have access to a cozy writing shed overlooking rolling English hills—or a horse to sit astride, if you’re interested in that sort of thing—while we write. So where do we turn to carve out writing spaces for ourselves?

Perhaps the local coffee shop. As Pigg suggests, “Informal public spaces such as cafés, coffeehouses, and commons areas serve as commonplace productive locations for many writers” (261). Pigg further explains that such environments often provide Wi-Fi to support mobile laptops, or in-house desktops in commons areas. These spaces thus offer technological access in addition to “clean space” where writers can concentrate on their projects (261).

Public spaces help many writers write, but they are not ideal for everyone. A quiet-seeking introvert at heart, I’ve learned that coffee shops—even library study areas—are not great writing spaces for me. I’ve tried to write in such places, only to realize I don’t really feel comfortable in them, or there’s too much going on for me to focus. Consequently, I’m unable to do much writing in those environments. Though the café or common area are good work areas for many, I’ve discovered that I do better by writing in my bedroom at home. There, I have a small, worn desk and lamp that help me settle into writing. The environment is a quiet one where I feel comfortable and able to focus (most of the time). In addition, writing at home better accommodates my idiosyncrasies. For example, while I write, I like to take breaks to stand up and pace around a bit, a practice I’m not exactly comfortable trying in a coffee shop. I also like the convenience of being down the hall from the kitchen if I want a snack or a drink of water, or in case I feel like brewing some coffee or tea. In short, at home in my room I simply feel a greater sense of quiet and am consequently able to get more writing done.

All of this rambling is simply to say that if the coffee shop helps facilitate your writing, or the park bench, or the library, or maybe a room at home, go there and write. If you find you’re stuck in a rut, consider seeking out a different writing space for a while and observe whether or not the new environment helps you break through your writer’s block. We all have to write somewhere. Learning which environments are most conducive to our writing practices can help us demystify writing and develop our composing processes in productive ways.

Works Cited

Pigg, Stacey. “Emplacing Mobile Composing Habits: A Study of Academic Writing in Networked Social Spaces.” CCC 66.2 (2014): 250-75.

 

Learning Out Loud – Using Speech in the Writing Process

melissa-rMelissa Rothman, Consultant

It’s getting to be that time of year. Temperatures are dropping, the leaves are changing, and the mild weather beckons us to venture outdoors for a whiff of that fresh fall air. However, for college students, fall marks the approach of another type of season, one that is riddled with anxiety and dread…crunch time.  Due dates for final papers are right around the corner, final exams are in sight, and yet while we are just beginning to feel that mid-semester lull, we are painfully aware of the need to begin planning for these end-of-semester requirements. However, while it is awfully tempting to procrastinate, I would suggest that now is the time to kick our homework habits into a new gear and I have a few strategies to help you through the writing process.

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CC Image Courtesy of Marcie Casas on Flickr

If you’ve been to the Writing Center, you know that we always ask writers to read their drafts out loud. There are many reasons that we’ve adopted this as a common practice. Thinking about our life experience with language and communication, most of us will notice that we have far more experience with speaking and listening rather than with reading. So in many ways, hearing drafts read aloud allows us to approach the writing process in forms that we are much more familiar with.

In the early stages of the writing process, we are mainly concerned with getting our ideas written down on paper before we forget them. There is of course an ordering process that goes on in our brain while this occurs, but it is often unique and idiosyncratic, and unfortunately all of this background information of how we came to formulate these ideas is often left out of the paper.

 

 

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CC Image courtesy of Simon James on Flickr

Being a listener of our own writing can help tremendously in spotting these gaps. Do to the unique cognitive experience of reading we tend to fill in a lot of the “gaps,” especially when we are reading our own work. Think about it. How many times have you proofread a piece multiple times, and still found typos, misspellings, and faulty punctuation? Our brains have a way of correcting our mistakes for us. They know what to expect, so they fill in the correct information for us. And this goes beyond the mere mechanics of the written language. As readers of our own work, we also have a way of filling in other types of gaps, ones that are crucial to filling in the background information that enables our work to make logical sense to other readers.

There is a ton of data that we, as the writers, take for granted that the reader may not know or pick up on. For example, have you ever used a quote from a text and expected it to speak for itself? Then you found in a second reader’s feedback that he or she was unsure about what you were trying to say by using that quote. This is because we understand that quote from a different perspective. Unlike the reader, we are privy to the context surrounding it. We’ve read all of the lines leading up to that quote. Likewise, we saw what the author did in the following sentences. And while the quote itself may seem like an exemplary statement of the purpose of the piece, we as outside readers need that surrounding context to make sense of it.

As listeners of our own work, we are bypassing some of those cognitive fill-in processes that occur when we read silently, and are able to evaluate our text from a new communicative standpoint. Reading aloud helps us hear the ways we have mapped the order of ideas in a paper and evaluate how well it makes sense. Since we are evaluating it from a spoken standpoint, we are able to identify more quickly when something “doesn’t sound right.” Transitions that may seem obvious when we are reading are brought out in the open and we are able to hear when we shift ideas too abruptly.

Likewise grammatical errors are easier to spot such as when we forget a word, or form awkward sentences. Sometimes our sentences are too long, or we repeat words and ideas too often. Reading out loud is one of the most powerful proofreading techniques available for spotting these types of errors.

Listening to our work can also be the most effective tool for evaluating the tone in our work. Sometimes, in reading aloud, we find that we are way too casual or chatty and we can question whether or not we are portraying ourselves as an authoritative figure on the topic. Conversely, we can also question if we are being too formal. Listening allows us to gain a bit more of an objective standpoint. It enables us to hear the possible ways that outsiders interpret our work.

So, now that I’ve fully convinced you of the awesome benefits that reading aloud offers, you can read through some of my quick tips for how to go about it.

  1. Use a hard print copy

Hard printed copies not only allow a refuge from the mind numbing glare of the laptop screen, but when we read on paper, we can follow along with our finger. This helps us to avoid skipping over things that we might read on through when looking at a screen. Likewise, if we get hung up   on specific areas, we can underline and mark up the margins so that we can return to them later with a fresh perspective. This can really speed up the revision process.

  1. Try to read at a moderate pace

This will not only give us an authentic feel of our “voice,” but it will also allow us to see how the ordering of our ideas work and may highlight areas that need better transitions. Conversely, reading aloud slowly may allow us to mimic the mental processes that occur when we read silently, thus filling in those cognitive gaps that are missing in the work itself.

  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff

All too often, we as writers spend a great amount of time on fixing minor errors such as spelling and grammar, but in the end it’s all about the content and how well you present it in a comprehensible fashion. You can have a perfectly polished paper, but what’s the point if the ideas aren’t relevant or don’t make sense? Likewise, if you’re reading a powerfully written piece that really appeals to you as a reader, are you really going to discard it as nonsense due to a few silly comma splices? I’m not saying that editing for errors is not important, but this aspect of revision should always be saved for the final stages of the writing process.

  1. Have a friend read for you

Beforehand, tell them to read it exactly as it’s written, mistakes and all, and also have them read the entire piece without stopping. This way you can really get a feel for how your paper will be interpreted by others. Likewise, while someone else reads it, take notes on a separate piece of paper.

  1. Do a reverse outline while your friend reads

Reverse outlines are great for interpreting the ordering of our own work. If someone else reads aloud for you, it frees up your hands to quickly jot down the main gist of each paragraph. After they are finished, you can see how the flow of your topic operates, and perhaps identify areas of weakness, repetition, or ineffective ordering.

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CC Image courtesy of Miguel Angel on Flickr

Now, fellow luddites such as myself may respond to my next suggestion with a familiar mantra: “Technology Arrggh!” As students we all have a precarious relationship with our laptops. Beyond our loathing of Blackboard’s counterintuitive interface or our frustration with the shortcomings of Microsoft’s grammar and spellcheck program, most of us have had that moment in our academic career when we’ve gone on a writing binge, trying to complete a paper at the last minute, and the unthinkable happens; our computer crashes and we lose all of our hard work and have to start from scratch. I myself have come dangerously close to pitching my laptop through my living room window multiple times. However, technology does have its benefits too when not driving us to the brink of madness. One of these is the text-to-speech software application that allows our computers and other devices read aloud for us.

Some of us may be uncomfortable allowing others to read our work in the early stages of the writing process. In the Writing Center, many of our new clients begin a session by warning us that they are “not good writers” showing how self-conscious they are about their work. But it’s important to know that all writers struggle through the writing process with his or her own particular hurtles, and no one sits down and just completes a perfect draft in one sitting. Everyone has their own unique struggles with the writing process, and one of the fastest and most effective ways for working through those issues is by working with others. Likewise, the University Writing Center offers a safe and supportive environment for doing this. However, sometimes there are other obstacles such as time-constraints or scheduling conflicts keeping students from taking advantage of this helpful resource. This is where text-to-speech software can help. While technology can never completely fill in useful feedback that only human interaction can offer, it can enable us to read our work in alternative ways that can substitutes some of the helpful practices we perform in the Writing Center.

There are several web-based applications that allow computer and other devices to read texts allowed for you.  However, I’ve found that some of these are very glitchy while other more operative ones can be expensive. You may not know this, but Microsoft Word actually has one built right into its program, and as an English major, I’ve had tons of experience with it and found it to be a pretty effective tool in the revision process. At this point you are probably asking “where is this handy tool and how do I use it?” Well, below I’ve included the steps for activating and using Word’s speech-to-text program.

 

1. Click the “Customize Quick Access Toolbar” arrow in the top left-hand corner of the screen.

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2. Click “More Commands.”

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3. In the “Choose commands from” list, select “All Commands.”

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4. Scroll down to the “Speak” command, select it, and then click “Add.”

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5. Click “OK.”

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6. Now the text to speech icon is available for as a quick access tool.

After you have added the Speak command to your Quick Access Tool Bar, you can have your text read to you by highlighting the portions you want to hear and then clicking the “Speak” command icon. If you want to hear your entire text read through, simply press “Control a,” and word will highlight your entire document before you select speech. If you are in the earlier revision process, where you are still organizing your ideas, I recommend you follow along by ear, and take good notes on a separate piece of paper, by either reverse outlining, or just simply jotting down ideas. If you are in the later stages of the writing process, I recommend reading along with your eyes, and pausing the application to correct punctuation and spelling errors.

But it’s important to remember that everyone’s process is different. You may be the type of writer that can’t move on until you correct minor errors along the way. This is fine so long as it’s not handicapping the flow of your process. Remember that while the lower order concerns will have to be addressed at some point in the writing process, it may be a more practical approach to save them for the final stages of revision. Remember, we often end up cutting, or completely revising entire chunks of our writing with an eye towards content. So you may end up spending a whole lot of time revising something to make it grammatically correct, only to find that that section ends up getting removed altogether. Regardless, do what works for you.

What does OWL mean to you?: Creating New Web-Based Resources for the Writing Center

Cassie Book, Associate Director

The University Writing Center is always open to improving our online resources and services for on campus and at-a-distance students, faculty, and staff. Currently, we offer virtual tutoring, a robust website, social media, (this) blog, and several online resources such as our Writing FAQs, but we understand that technology and student-needs push us to revise and add. I recently had an opportunity to research Online Writing Labs (OWLs) and reflect on our center’s online resources for a graduate course in Online Writing Instruction (OWI). Moreover, as a project for the course, I developed a new resource, a video workshop, “Writing a Literature Review,” to add to our current collection of six video workshops. This blog describes my development process and briefly connects it to research on OWI and OWLs.

I choose to create a video workshop on literature reviews because it is a logical need for graduate students. Moreover, the Writing Center already has an established in-person workshop on Literature Reviews, co-hosted with the School of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies (SIGS). While we (humbly) think our in-person workshops are great, it is inevitable that some students are unable to attend due to timing or access to campus. Some students’ learning styles may also be better suited to a video with pause, rewind, and captioning tools. So, it makes sense to create online, access-anytime video workshops. However, creating online resources that also are accessible and not just a one-way stream of information (imagine: videos with talking heads or a 100% lecture-based course), is not the easiest task. I’d like to share how pedagogical goals, technology, and accessibility needs shaped the final product of the video workshop I created.

The original workshop I created used Zaption (an open access video platform, which is now defunct); the video is now on YouTube. The video is approximately ten minutes of video-recorded PowerPoint slides defining a literature review and offering strategies for research and writing. As you might expect, it has an audio voice-over. The visual components are are text, images, animation, and captioning. An interactive component is multiple-choice and open-ended questions that appear on the screen periodically. These questions do not have correct answers; instead, they ask the audience to connect a concept to their own context, provide customized suggestions, or jump to a more relevant section of the video. I also created a text-only script to accompany the video link on our website.

Though the learning outcome for the workshop is fairly straightforward, that the audience understand the conventions and components of a literature review as part of a larger project, simply presenting decontextualized information is not a good teaching strategy, regardless of the setting—an on campus or online classroom. Kelli Cargile-Cook, professor of English and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech, argues for pedagogy-driven online education in contrast to technology-driven. Even in an online space, content delivery should be more interactive, “similar to dialogic onsite classrooms” where “instructor and students provide course content” (59). Our Writing Center staff present in-person workshops with interactive delivery, but the nature of the online, accessible by anyone at any time, video workshops makes the issue of real-time response, impossible for the medium. Originally, hosting the video on Zaption allowed us to insert interactive questions into the video. Although Zaption was intended as a venue for self-paced quiz-based courses, I created more of an interactive space by creating questions without “correct” answers.

Because it was important to have a script as a component of my final project, I began drafting and story-boarding in a Google Doc. After I completed a draft, I moved to PowerPoint because I was preparing to create the video with audio voice-over. I thought I had a good script draft before moving to PowerPoint, but I encountered issues such as repetition and text-heavy explanations. I wrote as I would informally speak, not as I would present key words and concepts on slides, ideally using movement, images, and figures to demonstrate concepts. I moved back and forth between the PowerPoint and the script, making sure that both covered the same material. For example, the description of the purpose of literature reviews, in the script was: “A literature review has two related purposes. First, to evaluate existing research related to your topic and second to position your argument within the existing research.” Adapting this to PowerPoint, I employed a “SmartArt” graphic and an animation to show the relationship between the two purposes. A balance with several citations appears with the first purpose as the slide’s title. Then, the second purpose appears in the gap between citations (fig. 1).

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Figure 1. PowerPoint slide four. The slide first appears without the box “2. To position your argument within the existing research.” The arrow indicates how the text moves onto the screen.

I tried to build in access into the design from the beginning, as Sushil Oswal, in “Physical and Learning Disabilities in OWI,” recommends. Oswal directs teachers and course designers to, “Always place accessibility at the beginning of all planning; it should remain an integral part of all subsequent course design and delivery processes” (282). I created a text-only script to include as a link next to the link to the Zaption video on our website, but I adapted the text script to exclude references to what the audience might be “seeing” on screen. I also used YouTube’s closed captioning feature, which allows me to type the audio and auto-sync the timing. For the ten minute video, it took me about 45 minutes to create captions. I also had multilingual users in mind because there are many international graduate students at the University of Louisville who visit the Writing Center.  In “Multilingual Writers and OWI,” Susan Miller-Cochran recommends “that instruction in writing should be clear, and that oral and/or video supplements also should be provided” (298). I explained the purpose and objectives clearly at the beginning and summarized them at the end, which should be helpful to most all learners.

Although I designed my video workshop, “Writing a Literature Review,” with the tools and intentions I outlined here, that does not mean that the outcomes will be as I anticipated and carefully planned. Usability studies with OWLs, such as Allen Brizee, Morgan Sousa, and Dana Driscoll’s in their research with the well-liked Purdue OWL, remind OWL developers that users are the ultimate authority to the effectiveness of a learning object, tool, or lesson. To complicate matters further right after I completed the project, Zaption announced that it was bought out and was shutting down. The availability of tools, especially free open-access tools, is a reality for OWI and OWL. Losing Zaption is not good news for us if it happens that the Writing a Literature Review workshop is well-liked, but, as I mentioned, we now host it on You Tube and preserve most of the dialogic nature of the video.

So, what do you think? Do you like the interactive questions? Do they get you thinking? Or are they distracting? Your recommendations can be helpful to us as we move forward with refining our online resources, so please comment here or email writing@louisville.edu with suggestions!

Update September 30, 2016: The Zaption workshop was moved to You Tube. The blog as been updated to reflect this change.

Update November 1, 2017: The YouTube video now has over 11,000 views!

Works Cited

Brizee, Allen, Morgan Sousa, Dana Lynn Driscoll. “Writing Centers and Students with Disabilities: The User-centered Approach, Participatory Design, and Empirical Research as Collaborative Methodologies” Computers and Composition 26 (2009): 107-121. Print.

Cargile-Cook, Kelli. “An Argument for Pedagogy-Driven Online Education.” Online Education: Global Questions, Local Answers. Eds. Kelli Cargile Cook and Keith Grant-Davie. Farmingdale, NY: Baywood. 49-66. Print.

“FAQ: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions.” Zaption. Zaption, 2016. Web. 16 May 2016. (https://www.zaption.com/faq)

Oswal, Sushil K. “Physical and Learning Disabilities in OWI.” Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction. Eds. Beth Hewett and Kevin Eric Depew. Fort Collins, CO: WAC
Clearinghouse and Parlor Press, 2015. 253-289. Web.

Miller-Cochran, Susan. “Multilingual Writers and OWI.” Foundational Practices of Online
Writing Instruction
. Eds. Beth Hewett and Kevin Eric DePew. Fort Collins, CO: WAC
Clearinghouse and Parlor Press, 2015. 253-289. Web.

 

Make Word Work for You: Four Tips for Navigating Digital Writing Spaces

Alex Wasson, consultantalexwasson

As a graduate student, I often have numerous documents open on my computer for simultaneous editing. These documents are precious, the empty vessels into which I pour my scholarly hopes and dreams. I rarely give credit to the vessel (for me, Microsoft Word) for its ability to do more than just store all of my text. In fact, I pay no attention to the program unless disaster strikes; an unsaved document, a poorly formatted works cited page, or a pesky APA title page heading can derail an entire weekend or even an entire semester. So I thought I would take a moment to thank our digital writing spaces, whether it is Google Docs, Notepad, Microsoft Word, blogs, email, or anything in between, for all the good times we have together. To express my gratitude, here are four tips for navigating digital writing spaces.

1. Microsoft Word’s Brainstorming Feature

Did you know that you can easily create a brainstorming web on Microsoft Word? Double click anywhere on the screen and the cursor will follow you, allowing you to use the screen as if it is a whiteboard (see here for specific instructions). This feature is extremely helpful when mapping out ideas at the beginning of projects.

2. Visual Modes- Read, Print, and Distraction-Free Screens

If you are a visual person like me, switching up the screen presentation for reading and for editing may inspire a mental distinction between the two tasks. Many digital writing spaces offer a variety of different screen views. Microsoft Word, for example, provides read mode, print layout, and web layout screens underneath the view toolbar selection. In addition, if the toolbar itself is a distraction, you may hide it by selecting Ctrl+F1 on older software or the tiny arrow on the right side of the toolbar. An unobstructed view of the screen may just be the trick to jump start your writing assignment.

3. Reference-Keepers

Reference managers such as Mendeley and Endnote are fantastic tools that store all your citations in one place. This storage is extremely helpful when working on large research projects, and it integrates well with writing programs like Microsoft Word.

4. Graph Generator

I am not a numbers person. I am also not a master at Microsoft Excel. Therefore, when I am in need of a graph or chart in my writing project, I turn to the built-in graph feature embedded within Word and other writing programs. The graph feature offers step-by-step help and provides many different chart type options for your specific needs. A graph or chart can be a great asset to a project which compares two or more ideas.

One last note – SAVE whatever you are working on right now. Do it. Email it to yourself, keep a flash drive, upload it to the mysterious iCloud or type it on Google docs. Your future self will thank you.

Five Strategies for Citation Management

ElizabethdeanElizabeth Dean, Consultant

Quality academic writing draws from the ideas of others, so giving credit to previous authors is an important part of your writing process. Citation styles such as MLA, APA, and Chicago are designed to place your ideas in conversation with other scholars. Using others’ ideas with effective citation grants you credibility as a researcher and helps you establish your place within your field of study.

However, citation styles may seem complicated and overwhelming. Many students feel stressed by the rules and regulations. Here are some strategies to help you manage your citation during a writing project.

Cite as you research

You may find it helpful to create your citation as you read your sources. As soon as you finish reading your book, article, or other type of source, go ahead and create a bibliographic citation for it. This way, it takes less time to remember the information about your source. Writing your citations one by one is a low-stress way to gradually create your bibliography.

Set aside time specifically for citation

As you approach your final edits of your paper, read through it with a focus on citation. Make sure all direct quotes and paraphrases are marked with an in-text citation, and double-check the form of your bibliographic citations. If you plan ahead to set aside time for this purpose, you will be able to catch possible mistakes at the end of your process.

Take it one source at a time

If you find yourself falling behind with the citations in your draft, catching up can seem like a daunting task. However, you can go through your sources like a checklist and focus on one source and its place within your text. Once you have inserted the in-text citations and placed the source in your bibliography, move on to the next one. This strategy breaks up the task into manageable pieces.

Use online resources

There are several online resources with information about using specific citation styles. The University Writing Center has several video workshops that discuss plagiarism, APA, and MLA style. They also have handouts on citation and documentation. The Purdue OWL has sample papers and bibliographic citations. Citation management software such as Zotero and Endnote are available to help manage your citations over the course of a project. (Zotero is free to all users, and Endnote is available for free through U of L.)

Visit the University Writing Center

At the University Writing Center, our consultants can talk to you about your individual citation needs. We have copies of the official handbooks for many citation styles. We can help you understand the overall goal of citations in your paper and teach you even more strategies to help you enter into an academic conversation.

What can Shel Silverstein’s “Writer Waiting” teach us about writing?

Haley Petcher, Consultant 

I first read Shel Silverstein’s poetry when I was in elementary school. I loved his doodles, and I loved his rhymes. When I got older, I loved his cleverness. Silverstein could tell a good story in only a few words and could capture the minds and hearts of children and adults alike while doing so.

Maybe you’ve heard that Silverstein’s writing is childish or not up to par with the poetry greats, like Yeats or Shakespeare, but I’m here to show you that he can actually tell us quite a bit about writing. Let’s start by looking at one of his poems about a writer.

Writer Waiting Silverstein

The poem, paired with a sketch of a young child staring at his computer screen and waiting for something to happen, is very clearly about computers and writing. I don’t know about you, but often when I write, this is a pretty accurate representation of me. Even though I’m in grad school, I feel like a kid who has no idea what she’s doing, and sometimes I stare at the screen, hoping for a miracle.

We could go down many rabbit holes about using or not using “standard English” or about all of the rhetorical choices Silverstein makes in his argument that computers are actually not the key to writing, but this time we’re going to focus on the following:

  • What computers can and can’t do
  • Creative license in syntax
  • What the writing center can help you accomplish

The narrator says that he doesn’t “need no writin’ tutor” because the computer can do it all. It can check spelling by showing you the ominous red squiggly line and grammar by showing you the questioning green squiggly line. Sometimes these lines are useful and alert you of typos or sentence fragments. But other times they’re wrong. And sometimes they don’t catch the mistakes. For example, my computer did not use a green squiggly line for my previous two sentences, even though they are technically fragments. Those sentences are examples of using your “creative license” to make a point by putting more emphasis on the sentence.

Silverstein uses his creative license in most of his poetry. A few examples in his poem are, “It can sort and it can spell,/It can punctuate as well,” which the computer doesn’t mark but is a run-on sentence, and “(Just as soon as it can think of what to write),” which the computer does mark as a fragment. Both of these examples rely on their syntax to create the rhythm of the poem, or how we hear and read it. Try reading it aloud while paying close attention to the syntax. (Remember to use longer pauses for periods than for commas.) If Silverstein paid too much attention to the computer, he wouldn’t have been able to create this rhythm or achieve his meaning.

My favorite part of “Writer Waiting” is my second example of Silverstein’s use of creative license. It is the last line, which is in parentheses as if it’s an afterthought or something the narrator doesn’t want to admit. It reads, “(Just as soon as it can think of what to write).” Two words in this line are key: “it” and “what.” “It” puts an emphasis on the computer, while “what” brings our attention to the content of the paper, though the poem mostly focused on the mechanics, like punctuating and spelling. The computer, of course, cannot create the content for us, even though we want it to. Writing is not just about the tools you use; it is about you and your thoughts.

Writing also does not have to be a solitary act. In fact, I think writing is more fun when you talk to other people about it. Here at the University Writing Center, we can help you decide if the squiggly lines offer the best choice, if you should deviate from the computer’s options, and if it’s the best time and place for you to use your creative license in writing to make your point. Most importantly, we can discuss your ideas for your paper. The writing center is here to help you not look and feel like the kid in Silverstein’s drawing.

5 Tips for Productivity: The Secret to Success

Arielle Ulrich, Consultant

DSCN1639Now that we’re nearly a month into the semester, you’re hopefully starting to get the hang of your classes. You’ve gone to a few classes, you’ve turned in some assignments, and you’ve probably just taken your first exam or written your first paper. This is the point in the semester where I typically lose steam because, after all, the end of the semester seems so far away. It’s not until later in the semester, when I’m struggling to write three papers at the same time, that I realize how much time I wasted at the beginning of the semester and wish I could go back in time and slap myself.

However, instead of starting to work on that time machine, I recommend something a little more practical (and doable): invest some thought into raising your productivity level. As a graduate student, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of utilizing your time in an efficient way. If you’re struggling to get all your school work done, it’s not enough to simply work harder, you also need to work smarter. Hence, I’ve put together some tips that should get you started and hopefully serve you well throughout the semester as you plan for success.

  1. Be honest with how you’re spending your time. Take a few days to track how you spend every hour of the day. By finding these gaps in your day and filling them instead with productive activities, you’ll get more done in the day without changing anything else in your schedule. I recommend using this sheet to track your time throughout the day:  http://getbuttonedup.com/tools2/free_printable_time_management_sheet_template.pdf
  2. To-do lists are a must. However, sometimes to-do lists can be easy to ignore if you add too many tasks onto it. I recommend a to-do list that separates your tasks into quadrants based on importance or necessity. Throughout the day, you work through the quadrants, starting with tasks that are urgent and important, and eventually move down to tasks that are neither. Using this method, you are sure to complete the most important tasks of your day without wasting time on busywork.tumblr_mz6f66jtzF1qdjs4ao1_500
  3. Use a scheduling tool like Google Calendar to remind yourself of exams, due dates, and meetings. By adding these events to your phone immediately, you’ll be able to schedule reminders so that you’re sure to remember the important deadlines for the semester.
  4. Don’t forget to take breaks! I often try to work for 30-60 minutes at a time, and then I take a 10 minute break to let the information settle in. Breaks not only give your brain a chance to rest, but they also increase productivity by ensuring that you don’t overwork yourself. If you don’t have a timer, you can use software to remind yourself to take breaks. Try a website like http://www.pomodoro.me/ that can give you desktop notifications.
  5. Lastly, seek help when necessary. If doing your homework takes hours and you’re still failing, seek out a tutor who will be able to give you study tips. REACH offers a range of tutoring opportunities as well as workshops on other college survival techniques. If you never seem to be able to start a paper, schedule a Writing Center appointment for brainstorming tips or to go over a draft. Never forget to ask other people how they stay productive!

I hope you find these tips helpful as you go into the rest of the semester. Happy writing!

How I Write: Jeffery L. Hieb — Engineering Professor

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.

hiebOur featured writer this week is Professor Jeffery L. Hieb. Dr. Hieb teaches in the Engineering Fundamentals and Computer Engineering and Computer Science departments in the J. B. Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville. Although he has a range of research interests, one area of specialty for Dr. Hieb is information assurance and security.

How I Write: Jeffery L. Hieb

Location: In my office or my office at home

Current project: A technical report on the availability and effectiveness of currently available industrial control system cyber-security technology for the Dams Sector.

Currently reading: What the Best College Professors Do, Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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

    a. Conference and journal papers
    b. Technical reports
    c. Letters of recommendation
    d. Grant and research proposals

  2. When/where/how do you write?

    a. In my office or in my office at home.
    b. Almost any chance I get

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

    a. I write on my notebook computer, and since I have it with me most of the time I can write almost anywhere.  I usually like to have a cup of coffee next to me when I write.

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

    a. When I have trouble getting started I like to stand up and talk about the subject matter to an imaginary audience.  Usually after 10 to 15 minutes I want to start writing down something I have said.

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

    a. The best advice I ever received was from Dr. David Shaner, my philosophy professor when I was an undergraduate.  He once told me: “Just throw up on the page, you can clean it up later”.  I have always found that helpful when starting to write something, it takes away the pressure of getting it right at the beginning, and acknowledges that rewriting/revising is part of the writing process, not what you do to fix or correct something you got wrong initially.

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?

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