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Archive for the tag “feedback”

How I Write: Dr. Chris Brody

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.

Dr. Chris Brody is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Louisville School of Music, where he coordinates the first-year sequence in music theory and aural skills and teaches graduate courses in music analysis. In addition to his work teaching and researching music theory, he is a classical pianist and performs often.

Dr. Brody’s research is on music from the 18th and 19th centuries, centering on Baroque music and the concept of musical form. His articles are published or forthcoming in outlets including Journal of Music Theory, Music Theory Online, A-R Music Anthology, and BACH: The Journal of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute.

Location: Louisville, Kentucky

Current projects: Several articles—in various stages of progress—on music theory and music analysis

Currently reading: Always fiction, lately a lot of nineteenth-century novels on audiobook during my daily commute.

1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?
I mainly write academic articles and talks in my specialty of music theory. These are different from writing for a broad readership, since a whole background of knowledge and terminology can be assumed. I think the basic challenges of being clear and engaging are the same as in all writing, though.

2. When/where/how do you write?
First, I’m a big fan of the UofL Writing Center’s Tuesday evening Faculty and Graduate Student Writing Group—it’s so nice to spend a couple of focused hours each week writing in the company of others. Otherwise, I write when my teaching schedule permits. The further along I am in a project, the easier it is to squeeze little bits of work into spare moments; starting a new project takes bigger blocks of time and mental space.

3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?
For me, distractibility often comes from routine and familiarity. I often find I can enter a more focused mindset by introducing any tiny element of novelty into my routine. Sometimes this means writing on my iPad or longhand when I ordinarily use my laptop, or even just using a different font (seriously). At other times it means finding a new place (on or off campus) to sit and work, away from my office or my living room. I do prefer quiet, and you will never catch me writing in a coffee shop! Since I write about music, I can’t always have music playing while I’m writing, but I sometimes listen to Music for Eighteen Musicians or anything else beautiful and repetitive.

4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?
I love to outline and never write anything, of any size, without an outline for it. For some kinds of writing, the article can literally be written by replacing bullet points one by one with sentences or paragraphs. Even when I don’t write directly from the outline, it’s indispensable for organizing my thinking.

5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
Robert Paul Wolff makes an analogy between humanities writing and storytelling that resonates with me and the kinds of things I write. Wolff tells his students that they’re ready to write a dissertation (or an article, etc.) when they can tell him their argument as, essentially, a story with beginning, middle and end. We often argue for the value of having someone else read your finished writing; this pre-writing phase is also a great stage of the writing process at which to involve trusted colleagues, talking through the “story” of your argument until it flows smoothly and convincingly.

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Finding the Strategies, and Confidence, to be Stronger Writers

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

If you’ve ever heard someone from the University Writing Center talk about what we do here you’ve likely heard them say that our goal is to do more than help a writer simply “fix” a current draft. We also want to provide ideas and strategies to help that person become a stronger writer in the future. Some of these suggestions are nuts and boltsdscn2185 suggestions about organization or revision or grammar and usage. Yet we also believe that writing well involves more than just mastering a set of skills. The writing processes we use, as well as how confident and motivated we feel to work on a piece of writing, can be crucial to how successfully any writer navigates new writing challenges.

Talk to many university students – or, quite frankly, most people in the culture – and you will hear people say things such as “I just can’t write,” or “I’m not a born writer.” After years of unproductively harsh criticism, rather than constructive instruction, they have internalized a belief that there is some kind of hidden magic to being a good writer, and that they don’t have it. The truth is, that writing well takes time, practice, failure, revision, advice, and is an ongoing, life-long learning process for all of us. There are simply no “born writers.”

In recent research of mine, I have been focusing on what makes people feel anxious about, or confident in, their reading and writing abilities at a given moment. Put more simply, what makes a person feel literate at one time and not another. Many factors facilitate or obstruct such a feeling of agency for people. A new technology can make writing suddenly much easier, or can make previously simple actions complicated and confusing. A teacher’s response to a writing assignment can be dismissive and discouraging, or offer encouraging suggestions for revision that make a writer feel that success is possible.

Culture, material conditions, language, and many other factors shape all writers’ perceptions of agency. All of these external influences result in experiences, emotions, and memories that also shape such perceptions. My research on how these factors influence student writers took place in part at the UofL University Writing Center as well as with students in the United Kingdom and Kazakhstan, (the book is titled Literacy 9781138667112Practices and Perceptions of Agency: Composing Identities). In this research, I drew on research in psychology and neuroscience, as well as other fields, to understand how writers’ sense of confidence could vary dramatically from one context to another and how that affected their abilities to write successfully. A student could write well in one course, and struggle in a new course, even in the same major, when facing a new genre. Another student could excel at writing at work, but not at school. Each experience creates a different emotional memory that will influence how that student both thinks and feels about a similar writing situation the next time it comes up. Research in psychology on emotion, memory, and motivation, illustrates how important the kinds of response we provide as writing consultants and teachers is to the ways in which students approach their writing.

At the University Writing Center, we have incorporated some of the ideas from this research into the ways we work with writers. We are developing strategies that help writers approach revision, even substantial revision that will require a great deal of work, with more confidence in their abilities to do such difficult work, and more internal motivation to complete the work. One key part of this approach is helping writers understand that their struggles and anxieties are not unique to them, but typical of all writers, from first-year students to famous novelists. We sometimes take the time to talk about how learning anything is first a struggle, but one that they can work through. Writing is not an innate gift, but a learned activity that gets better with practice. That knowledge alone, research has shown, can result in significant changes in how willing student writers may be to put in the hours and effort to improve their work. We both give students strategies for improving as well as talk to them about how, like all writers, they have strengths, challenges, and the abilities to keep learning.

My research is just one example of the ongoing research about writing and the teaching of writing that takes place at the University Writing Center. We are, as our mission statement points out, “committed to being part of ongoing scholarly conversations about the teaching of writing.” You can see this research reflected in work that Cassandra Book, our Associate Director, did on our Virtual Writing Center, or by the publications and graduate student projects that you can find listed on our website, or the conferences at which our staff present each year. An essential part of being a research university is the idea that we should use our research to contribute to knowledge in our field and enhance the educational experiences of our students. We’re looking forward to the start of the spring semester and to helping all writers find the strategies, and confidence, that will offer them the chance to express their ideas as clearly and creatively as possible.

Good Enough is a Shot in the Dark or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Revision.

Christopher Stuck, Assistant Director of the Virtual Writing Center

Every once in a while, I stumble upon an article Christopher Stuckabout writing that really sparks with my own experience and struggles in getting words on the page and then turning them into something worthwhile. A lot of my writing time is spent worrying about that first reader and how they will react. As such, I struggle with getting the first draft out, caught up in making it finished on the first go. From teaching here at the University of Louisville and at the University of South Carolina before that, plus working with writers in the University Writing Center, I know I’m not alone in this thought process.

We know it’s bad for us to get into the editing while we’re writing. We know nothing is finished on the first try. But we don’t want to show that we don’t quite have it down right to start, either because we don’t want to be embarrassed or because we don’t want to edit. Good enough isn’t good enough, but we want it to be.

Last week, the University Writing Center posted a link to “The Book He Wasn’t Supposed to Write,” an article published in The Atlantic, to our Facebook page and Twitter feed. Written by author and journalist Thomas E. Ricks, the article details his hidden struggles in writing his latest book and the dismay he felt in the editing process.

He worked on the book for three years and when he finally submitted it to his editor, his editor hated it. Ricks says “Partly, I was crushed. But even more, I was puzzled. How could I have been so off in my perception of my manuscript?” Ricks’s book wasn’t a true first draft, but this was the first time he had sent it out for reading. He was sure of the way he had written the manuscript, but “What [Ricks] had sent [his editor] was exactly the book he had told [Ricks] not to write.” Ricks rethought and revised the book heavily, transforming what he already had, the work he had already done, and added a lot of things he had initially discarded. Through revision, it fell into place, and he ended up with a much better book, even in his own opinion.

Ricks concludes his article, “Most art has a public face—music is played, paintings are displayed, plays are enacted, movies are filmed and often watched by groups. Books tend to be more private, from one person’s act of writing to another’s act of reading. Most mysterious of all is the hidden middle stage, the offstage act of editing. Yet sometimes it can make all the difference.” For me, this is much like the work we do here, as students and academics. Even with an audience in mind, whether it’s an editor, a professor, or a specific group of people out there in the world, there feels like mystery in the writing process. No matter how many times we go through it, no matter how practiced and sure of ourselves we get, the private acts of writing and revising tend to stay private.

Even the few of us who truly love to write fret and worry and make writing hard for ourselves. Rethinking and revising your work after getting the raw materials down on the page in a rough or first draft can counteract some of the mystery, making the whole process easier. Be willing to cut, scrap, rethink, reshape, rearrange, and rewrite. It may seem like more writing, but it’s easier writing.

Find that trusted friend or trusted professor and have them help you by reading and commenting on your work (most of us are willing) or come to the University Writing Center and work on it with us (all of us are willing). But most of all, trust yourself to get words on the page and shape it up later. Learn to stop worrying and love the revision.

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.

 

Feedback Isn’t a Snowflake: Handling Revision Anxiety

This weeDSCN3615k, consultant Karley Miller shares her strategies for navigating multiple (and sometimes conflicting) pieces of writing advice.

My last writing project took me a month to revise. I set a goal to have revisions completed in a week, used that week to think about getting started, then spent the next three weeks stressed about not having met my own self-imposed deadline. Did someone say writing is a process?

Since I sent my revised draft off to receive more feedback, I’ve had some time to think about the source of my revision anxiety. Feedback. It’s potentially the most important, and confusing, and anxiety-inducing thing (for me, at least, and maybe you too). So, feedback is important (you’re writing for an audience, right?). Not only is feedback from one person important, feedback from multiple people, if possible, is even more important. Feedback, especially from multiple people, can be confusing. Each person comes to a piece of writing from a totally unique perspective. No two people are completely alike—neither is their feedback. This isn’t to say that feedback exists, from each source, as its own special snowflake of insight, but the differences in opinion are large enough to create, like, anxiety frostbite if you spend too long scrutinizing them. Maybe that’s a stretch, but sifting through feedback in order to improve a draft can be stressful, which is why I want to share, with anyone who has been kind enough to read this far, my favorite new piece of writing advice (not claiming it as my own, rather it has probably existed since our ancestors scratched petroglyphs into cave walls, and only just now reached me): writing is much about learning when to listen and when not to.

This is not to say that revision anxiety is cured by seeking feedback from two different people and deciding, after reading their comments, that one person doesn’t know what they’re talking about. It is to suggest, however, having a little faith in your own purpose. By the time you’ve received feedback from multiple people, you’ve spent hours turning your thoughts into words on a page. I don’t believe you can write a sentence without some idea of what you’re intending to communicate. This is where learning when to listen, and when not to, comes in. If you have a clear idea of your argument, or your story, or your sentence, for example, not every single word of feedback is going to help you better communicate that idea. For example, if I write, “Feedback isn’t a snowflake,” and you say, “This makes no sense,” I’m not going to change my idea (because I am, at this point, very wedded to the idea that feedback can be compared to a special snowflake but is not, exactly, one), but I might, in my blog, try very hard to explain it because your feedback let me know that I was unclear, and I, myself, am able to understand that this sentence is a stretch. If I can’t explain it, maybe I should cut it.

Moral of the story? All feedback should be taken into consideration, and applied only after you are sure making the change won’t alter your message. Unless, of course, feedback makes you reconsider your message (argument, etc.). In which case, good luck, and the Writing Center is here to give you even more feedback on a new and improved message. Although, as you can see, it’s a process for everyone (very seriously considering revising this blog about feedback/revision to exclude the snowflake comparison, although now I’m thinking the winter theme works nicely with the change of seasons).

You Can’t Teach That: Facilitating Discussion on Tutor-Writer Rapport?

DSCN3709Amy Nichols, Assistant Director

As one of the assistant directors at the writing center, I have the opportunity to teach two lessons in Bronwyn’s “Writing Center Theory and Practice” course, where our graduate consultants receive training during the fall semester. Recently, I facilitated one of our class discussions around “Student-tutor relations in the Writing Center.” Writing center sessions can include wildly varying levels of language and disciplinary expertise between both tutors and writers, making relationship-building critical to successful communication. In addition, rapport is also a crucial (and under-discussed) part of being a successful student, employee, or person generally.

Building individual relationships, particularly in professional settings, is a complex and deeply contextualized activity, and most of what I know about it is instinctive, built on trial and error over time. Because of this, I had a difficult time planning our lesson. For our discussion, I ended up choosing two recent articles from the journal Language and Education: Cynthia Lee’s (2015) “More than Just Language Advising: Rapport in University English Writing Consultations and Implications for Tutor Training” and Innhwa Park’s (2014) “Stepwise Advice Negotiation in Writing Center Peer Tutoring.” Lee’s focus on individual elements that go into building a relationship and Park’s discussion on how to deal with minor disagreements helped us find a way in to this difficult-to-teach subject.

Lee’s framework pulled from discourse and rapport scholarship to detail descriptions of the kinds of behaviors that we often take for granted: greetings, small talk, qualifiers/mitigation devices, open-ended questions, first-person plural pronoun use, and praises/related forms of encouragement (436). Saying hello and chatting about unrelated matters tend to be givens in social interaction, but they can also help ease the tension when two people don’t know one another well. Qualifiers such as “maybe” or “perhaps” and open-ended questions such as “Can you tell me more about your goals for this project/assignment?” help build understanding and ease discussions around disagreements. First-person plural pronouns like “we” and “us” are helpful in creating a more team-oriented work environment during sessions, while encouragement and praise help build confidence.

I don’t know about the consultants (feel free to comment!), but it was really helpful for me to have a conversation about those elements of a writing center session that often go unrecognized and (seemingly) unnoticed, but which can make a real difference to the success or failure of a session. For example, a few of our consultants shared that small talk tends to make them uncomfortable, particularly if students responded to small talk by discussing their frustration with particular assignment or situation, while another shared that she sees such situations as an emotional opening to help writers address their concerns. Understanding a variety of approaches to such small interactions and the rationale beneath them gave me more resources for interacting with a variety of personalities.

Park’s article details the ways in which advice resistance is a negotiated construction for both the tutor and the writer. She discusses the steps that resistance, acknowledgment, and resolution move through within sessions, and I thought her work might prove a helpful springboard for discussing the ways in which we negotiate advice resistance in our own sessions. We did discuss ways that we tend to navigate through (or around) resistance during our discussion. One of our consultants commented that, while she was aware of her own intentional practices in navigating resistance, she had not thought about the fact that writers might also follow certain linguistic formulations in constructing their resistance, such as saying “Yes, but what I was really trying to do there was….”. We also discussed the ways in which people from different classes and cultures might navigate resistance more or less directly than the examples in the article, which led one of our consultants to ask a very helpful question about balancing a knowledge of intersectionality (every person is different) with strategic approaches to consulting (we have to apply concrete strategies to our work).

Ultimately, I enjoyed our discussion, but I would love to hear some comments. Consultants, how did the session go from your perspective? Colleagues (and that includes you, too, consultants), how would you/do you encourage productive discussion on building relationships/rapport during writing center sessions? Writers, what kinds of discussions have been most helpful to you in moving your writing forward?

In Search of the Perfect Paper

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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