UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the tag “motivation”

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.

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Finals Stress: You’re Not in This Alone

Carrie Mason, Consultant carrie-m

It’s about this time when you’re starting to freak out. Deadlines and commitments and all that heavy, heavy, jazz. Caffeine consumption is at an all-time high, sleep at an all-time low, and you’re not even sure if you took time for lunch. There. Is. Too. Much. To. Do. The four (or ten) page essay starts to feel like a full length novel, and the book you desperately needed isn’t at the library and you thought you had time for an inter library loan but it turns out you don’t and now you’re hoping Google Books has it as a preview and then you realized that you forgot about the one page reflection piece over some book you skimmed and then the professor talks about the in class exam you also forgot about and your mom called to say that your grandma misses you and you should call her.

Stop. Breathe. Relax. You can’t do anything if you’re thinking about everything. And that’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn.

It’s almost impossible for me to multitask when it comes to research and writing or any kind of homework, really. In the past, I’ve been able to obsess about a single project, conquer, and move on. It doesn’t seem like that strategy will work particularly well this go around. There are too many assignments due at the same time. Perhaps you’re finding yourself in the same boat. Whatever battle plan you’ve used before, it isn’t working now. Maybe you found that out at midterms and now these last assignments are even more daunting. Regardless of how it happened, you realize the boat has sprung a leak. Man overboard. But you can’t abandon ship. And neither can I. We have invested too much to give up now. We are actively working toward our dreams, to better ourselves, and the pursuit of something much greater than an in-class exam. So, knowing the journey has its rough parts, I offer some tips that might help keep us all afloat until we hit the winter break shoreline.

  1. Coffee is not water and you should drink less of the bean juice and more of the h20.
  2. Don’t let school work take away your sleep. Not only do we turn into incorrigible creatures when we don’t sleep; we don’t do better on our assignments either.
  3. Energy drinks are also not water.
  4. Breaks are good for your mind and soul and sanity.
  5. Focus on a task for half a day, take a substantial break, and then switch tasks. This can help you gain progress on multiple projects (this is my current method).
  6. Eat real food.

I wish I had more things to say that would be encouraging and provide step by step instructions for end of semester success. But this is all I got. I could say start earlier, but I think we all already know about that. In fact, we probably already know most of the things I’ve suggested. I certainly didn’t learn them all on my own. And I think that’s the greater lesson here. You–whoever you are–are not the only one who is drinking way too much caffeine. You are not the only one who didn’t get a book in time. You are not the only one who forgot to eat lunch. You are not alone. Finish Strong.

The Long Haul: A Procrastination-Proof Writing Process

Michael Phillips, Consultantmichael-p

Rewind about two months.  Your professor has distributed the syllabus, and you notice that the culminating writing project in the course is a long one, we’ll say 8-10 pages.  But it’s not due until December, so you may approach it in an out-of-sight-out-of-mind way.  That kind of thinking may have been appropriate or even necessary then, but as we approach November, you probably need to start thinking about this assignment.

As unlikely as it may seem, we’re at a pretty critical stage of the semester.  Midterms have passed, and finals aren’t for about another month.  A lot can happen in that month, and if you have a couple large writing assignments due around that time like I do, a lot should happen.  What I want to illustrate in this post is how I approach larger writing assignments and the writing process I employ to complete those assignments.  I understand everyone has their own way of jumping into writing projects and their own writing processes.  However, I feel it’s a helpful practice to engage with and think about how others tackle these kinds of projects.

Prewriting or searching for an interest

Sometimes in these longer projects, your professor may provide a very specific, narrowed prompt for you to explore.  Often, though, the prompt will be open-ended and up to you to decide what to write about.  When I find out about a longer assignment toward the beginning of the semester, I personally take a mental note to keep a look out for subjects in the class that resonate with me, regardless of the specificity of the prompt.  I register this mental note in order to approach the assignment with a subject that I know I can commit time to.  I’ve found when I have no attachment or personal connection to a topic, my writing suffers because I’m demotivated to think about it critically.  My writing isn’t the only thing to hurt in this kind of instance: my grade on the assignment is resultantly lower.  So, throughout the first part of the semester, I try to engage with the material in the course that piques my academic interest.

Discovering a general topic

Usually, I try to find several topics that interest me in the first couple of months in a course.  I attempt to find as many as possible for two reasons: to make connections between them and to give myself as many options potentially to write about.  I make notes throughout the semester about which class discussions and which readings are most interesting to me, and from there I catalog questions I can consider answering in the writing assignment.  To give a concrete example, as an undergraduate student I took a senior level Philosophy of Aesthetics course.  I was an English major, and this kind of course was both out of my field of study and my comfort zone.  However, throughout the semester, I found the philosophy of Immanuel Kant on art to be interesting.  Additionally, in that same semester I came to appreciate the film Drive.  Resultantly, I connected the two and completed an admittedly compelling body of writing.  So this example fits in the context of my thinking about writing.  Continuing, once I’ve found a general topic or connection of topics in an academic or social issue, I turn to the next step of the process.

Researching and understanding relevant scholarship

At this point, which typically happens for me about a month before the assignment is due, I’m feeling pretty good.  I very loosely understand what I want to write about, and now it’s time for me to acquaint myself with the scholarship already out there.  The reason I approach this research portion of the process at this time is because I’m not too familiar with my topic yet, and my objective for the assignment is still malleable and subject to change.  Research at this stage is really important to me: my original line of thinking about the topic will either be strengthened or challenged, which I realize are both potential and necessary outcomes.  If I find in this stage that my loose topical interest has either been too thoroughly researched or, conversely, totally neglected in scholarship, I then consider refining the subject I want to write about.  Usually, though, my topic after becoming acquainted with scholarship in the area is bolstered and ready for execution.

Getting my ideas out a.k.a. the rough draft

This stage might be the hardest for me.  I frequently find myself too critical of the execution of my ideas in writing, and as a result the process is slowed tremendously.  To combat this grueling self-criticism, I remind myself that the first and roughest draft can be changed entirely before the submission of the final draft.  In getting my ideas out, I like to draft a loose outline to provide some semblance of a framework for the assignment.  This practice allows me integrate relevant scholarship into my draft, and it also relieves some of the stress of finding a template off which I can direct my ideas.  I understand how confining the outline can be, but I personally see its value in helping me organize my ideas to flow in the form of a draft.  Once my outline is in a position I’m comfortable with, I transport my ideas into the draft.

Proofreading, revision, and the final draft

With arguably the most difficult part of my process complete, the revision stage is a time for polishing and coming to terms with the submission.  Here, I’ll suggest some strategies I employ to engage with creating my final draft.  First and most importantly, I read my writing aloud.  Like Melissa alluded to in last week’s post, speech in writing is hugely important for me.  Not only do I literally write out loud at times, I also find revising out loud to be integral to my writing.  Reading what I’ve written allows me to hear how my ideas are expressed, further affording me the positions as both writer and reader.  I’ll go ahead and plug the Writing Center here.  The Writing Center, though effective for the writer at any stage of the process, is especially beneficial at this part since it offers an external and honest peer-evaluation of the delivery of your ideas.  If something didn’t sound right, or if something could potentially be stated more clearly, the consultants there relish the opportunity to let you know.  Politely, I’ll add.  When I’ve completed these steps regarding the final drafting stage, I usually feel comfortable enough to boldly and confidently submit it.  It’s time to move on and forget.  Right?

Postwriting and its applications

Though it’s indeed time to move on to other pressing assignments, it’s certainly not time to forget.  At this stage, I’m glad I’ve submitted the project, but I look for ways to think about what went right in this particular process and what could be improved.  I ask myself necessary questions at this stage: did I wait too long or not long enough in formulating my topic?  Was my use of scholarship compelling?  Did I give myself enough time to execute my ideas effectively in the drafting stage?  These are just a few examples of the questions I ask myself in order to improve my writing for the next time I write.

I’ve found this process to be particularly helpful in my writing.  I hope you, too, can find similar success without the headache of waiting until the last minute!

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.

The 5-Step Process for Writing a To-Do List

Kristin Hatten, Consultant

Alongside the crisp autumn air and the leaf mosaics covering the ground come final projects, long research papers, and tests galore. In short, it’s crunch time, y’all. So, you may ask, how do we manage our time so we can get our work done and maybe have a little itty bitty bit of fun, too? The answer is a to-do list! Some people may argue that writing a to-do list seems like an activity that only requires halfway conscious thought; I beg to differ. To-do lists not only keep you accountable, but they can actually do wonders for the confidence you have in the work you do.

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If you’re struggling to figure out where to begin, follow these 5 easy steps and you’ll be a to-do list making, reading, writing, studying machine!

1. Include Tasks You Have Already Completed

If you are feeling particularly overwhelmed, write down tasks you have already completed and go ahead and cross them off. Now, I know this may sound a little ridiculous—okay, maybe a lot ridiculous—but it will allow you the feeling of continuing rather than starting a list. Starting is often the hardest part of any project or goal. (Let’s be real, why would you start being productive when you can watch an entire season of Parks and Rec on Netflix in one sitting?) But alas! The future you calls and begs you to do your work, do it well, and do it without pulling all your hair out. If you frame your to-do list in a way that shows that you have already taken the first step towards being productive (even if it is hanging up all your clean laundry or scooping the kitty litter), continuing on to the next task will be just that…a continuation rather than a dreaded beginning. Also, when you’re stressed and you feel like you’re barely staying afloat, marking a task off your (seemingly never-ending) to-do list can be a serious cathartic experience.

2. Write Down the Items in the Order You Intend to Do Them

So, I know this seems like work before starting on the actual work, but you will thank yourself later. Assigning a logical order to your list gives you the opportunity to ease yourself into the work. There are many ways you can organize: start small and build from there, begin with your least favorite subject so you can get it out of the way first, or start with the larger project if you feel like you’ll be productive earlier in the day. Obviously, the way you tailor your to-do list is entirely up to you, but take the time to actually organize it into a logical set of tasks so you’ll be more likely to get into—and stay in—the groove of things.

3. Keep A Logical Scope in Mind

This is absolutely, entirely, so, so important. As a new grad student, I am quickly realizing that making a to-do list is a lot like designing a large research project in that you have to be realistic about what you—as a human being without superpowers or seventeen arms—can accomplish in the amount of time you have. Even if you are making a to-do list for the weekend—which seems like a lot of time—it is still important to think about what you can realistically get done. One, this will help you plan for and prioritize the following week (let’s be honest, chances are that every single thing will not get done on the weekend), and, two, this will keep you from getting discouraged when you check off three or four items, feel great about your progress, and then still have an unending list staring you in the face. Time management, stress management, and keeping yourself sane in the midst of the end of semester madness has a lot to do with being honest with yourself, setting realistic expectations, and feeling like you’ve accomplished something.

4. Be Detailed and Specific

I know this is another moment where you’re thinking, “how much work do I have to do before actually doing the work?”, but again, you will thank yourself later. By “detailed and specific,” I mean, instead of writing down “read for English class,” write down what the individual articles are so you don’t have to go back to your syllabus a hundred times to remind yourself what article from Blackboard applies to what day in class. Also, actually looking at the upcoming assignment will help you know how much you can logically get done in that day (re: step #3).

5. Indicate When the Task is Complete, and Do It Like You Mean It!

The final step is my favorite step. Once you have made your detailed, logical to-do list, get out a colorful pen and go to town marking off, checking off, scratching out, or x-ing through the tasks you have completed. Like I said earlier—for me at least—this is such a cathartic experience. As students, who happen to also do things in regular life, it is easy to feel that we are completely sacrificing one thing in order to pay attention to another. While this demand is part of being a student, creating a to-do list that is manageable and well organized, and scratching through the completed tasks with a vengeance, allows you a well-earned feeling of productivity and accomplishment. Plus, when you can look at all the aweseome things you accomplished that day, you can feel better about entering into a little bit of personal time. So, when you get to crossing off that last task, go treat yourself and celebrate a job well done!

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!

Alternatives to Procrastinating

Jessica Winck, Assistant Director

Approaching the end of the semester can be a stressful time, and those of us who are inclined to procrastinate might feel especially anxious. I tend to believe that procrastination involves more than just actively avoiding work. It often relates to a writer’s sincere challenges with any of the following: understanding an assignment; feeling overwhelmed by the workload in college; worrying about whether s/he “has what it takes.” None of these is easy to deal with, and we know that avoiding work doesn’t help us in the long run. If you’re worried about procrastination, try some of these strategies:

Contact your instructor about any questions you have. This might sound obvious, but not everyone feels comfortable with this approach. What if my instructor will think I’m stupid, or that I’m not trying hard enough, or that I’m not good enough to be in this class? Meanwhile, confusion about an assignment prevents us from working on it. Email your instructor or ask to visit her or his office hours, which are set aside specifically for helping students address questions and concerns.

If you have a large assignment on your hands, consider breaking it down into smaller, more manageable pieces. How we see the task plays a large part in our approach to it. “Write a research paper” sounds like a scary and overwhelming task. Try talking to your instructor about how you can approach the assignment in parts. You can also go to the writing center and work with a consultant on setting some manageable goals for completing the assignment. These should be goals that you can reasonably meet in the amount of time you give yourself. You will get more done, and you will likely feel more confident about finishing the assignment.

Try setting a timer when you write. This might sound like an odd piece of advice, but it’s one I always stand by. I often use the Pomodoro method: write for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. Write for another 25, then take another 5. Writers who struggle with procrastination might find this method especially helpful. Over time, you start to notice that some tasks don’t take as much time and energy as you imagined. Tasks become less intimidating and more manageable. Plus, you don’t have to focus on writing for an indeterminate amount of time. If you grow tired or you need a coffee break, you don’t have long to wait; but for the time being, you write. Also check out what Alex Clifton, a writing center consultant, wrote about some online resources that help you keep writing in pre-set blocks of time.

DSCN1660Write with a friend or a group. Working alongside others can be encouraging, and it also keeps you accountable. My colleague Meghan Hancock and I often meet for the specific purpose of writing and working. It’s a great arrangement because we have a shared understanding that we write when it’s time to write (and yes, we set a timer). Since your classmates are working on the same assignment, ask them to join you. Though the time you make is for writing and working, it also presents the opportunity to get to know more people and to feel supported at the same time. Contrary to some of the received wisdom out there that good writers work independently without any help, you actually don’t have to do all this alone.

On that note, make an appointment at the Writing Center. We will be happy to sit down and work with you wherever you are in the process of writing. Plus, having specific times set aside to talk with others about your writing helps you stay motivated.

There are many alternatives to procrastination, and I hope you try some of the ones here. Have a great rest of your semester!

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