Category: Academic Writing

What Seems Inevitable?

 Ian Hays, Writing Consultant

   A couple months ago I was playing poker at my friend’s new apartment. He and his girlfriend met at Vanderbilt, and we were celebrating because she’d just passed the bar. As the evening grew thin and wine continued to flow, our thoughts and the topics of conversation grew broader and more existential. Eventually we found our way to higher education, with my friend ruminating “what if we’re the last generation who will have the conventional university experience?” 

His concern is fair. If COVID has done one thing, it’s shown that in the internet age, there’s no good reason why most types of work must prescriptively happen in an ordained location. If you have the connection, it really doesn’t matter where you’re doing what you’re supposed to.

On its face, this sort of development seems entirely positive. Frankly, being able to do my Writing Center work from wherever I am has allowed me much more time to attend to the things that I should, if I’m being healthy and moral, attend to; things like my family, or my mental health. 

But this development—this untethering from the workplace—has also forced a magnifying glass upon the necessity of many institutional conventions integral to the generation of wealth. Last semester, for example, my brother was forced, abruptly, to leave Cuba, where he was studying abroad. For months all he could talk about was how excited he was to go, and when he arrived messages poured in about the therapeutic nature of being in a place like that; one where (in spite of a looming material circumstance we would qualify as massively underprivileged) there is social cohesion; one where even “the enemy” doesn’t need to worry about healthcare. 

When the disease struck he was ripped home, and spent the remainder of the semester negotiating with his, admittedly reputable, university. All told, he ended up receiving a 10% refund. A 10% refund for a full semester’s tuition, one spent in a place where higher education is free. 

That 10% number carried over to this year, because, still, all of his and his peers’ classwork has been forced online. Speaking with my father, he posited: “I guess this is how much [my brother’s school] actually values getting to use its facilities, or being within handshake proximity to all the ‘experts’ they employ.”

What my father and my friend were getting at is clear: if tuition has nothing to do with the physical experience of university—if that part of the equation, for example, is valued at 10% of a figure higher than a year’s average household income—and if literally all learning can take place online, then what the hell are we paying for? 

But this reevaluation—this disturbing reification of that arbitrary nature of institutional life—doesn’t stop at university. If you really think about it, superfluous structures meant to generate wealth are everywhere, and—it seems—they’re always one crisis away from being dispensed with. 

Thus, it can seem very sensible to believe that constant dissolution is inevitable. For those of us within the humanities, this kind of thinking is par for the course. 

Almost daily I wonder about why it is I’ve decided to go down this path, to learn about expression, and the infinite variability of the human experience. What the United States values at the monetary level is clear; we want products you can hold in your hand, we want to improve material comfort, because comfort is easy to measure and because everyone wants it. We “care” about exploring the human condition, but if you can’t illustrate on a graph how it is you’ve contributed to capitalist wellbeing—or if that wellbeing, and how much you’ve contributed to it, varies from person to person—you’re not going to get paid. 

It’s been said before that the great sin of putting earring-potential first is that what motivates action is superseded. Institutions can no longer put their primary purpose first. University, for example, is about learning, it’s about helping students learn how to think about the world; but as long as students pay for college—and as long as that money is integral to administrative functioning—the real goal of the institution has to be to keep students paying. Now COVID has made this process seem all the more untenable. 

But I want to suggest something. 

Years ago I was listening to a debate between Steven Pinker and Alain De Botton on progress. As is usual, Pinker’s argument centered around the notion of material progress, and he had numerous metrics to illustrate how far we’ve come. But he made another, more philosophical point, one meant to be divorced from any such graph. He spoke about nuclear weapons, and about how, for 80 years, it has seemed we’re always one mistake away from nuclear winter. “This is true,” he said, “but yet, still, even after the cold war—even after mass nuclear proliferation—no more weapons like that have been used against people. It’s seemed inevitable, but it’s never happened.”

The other day in class my professor spoke about how, while there is upheaval within the humanities, the discipline soldiers on; that this upheaval is actually a wellspring of creativity, an  important decoupling from the rigidity seen elsewhere. My professor is right. We were discussing New Criticism, attacking the prescriptiveness of what I perceive to be call for a more methodological approach to criticism; one meant to insulate the humanities from the march of capitalist progress which would—according to their camp—inevitably render the humanities a hobby in the face of harder subjects like physics and biology. 

But that’s never happened—years ago it seemed inevitable, but it hasn’t. Even as philosophical schools written expressly in opposition to codified rule sets—in opposition to things like objectivity, and truth—have become more mainstream, the humanities have not dissolved. 

Now is a moment of immense unsureness for millions. It’s a moment where nothing is certain, where it seems every pillar we might attach ourselves to is crumbling at its base. But when we look upward from our screens, we see that many things which will inevitably fail, haven’t, and at the practical level really won’t. Last year, for example, consumption of “traditional” media was higher than its been in years; now that’s a discipline everyone has been sure will die any minute now.

In the Writing Center this fear, for me, has been pronounced. I’ve found it hard, often, to really allow myself to get “into” the work. I love what we do, but I’m afraid that if I permit my passion to swell, that if I lose my peripheral vision, the next time I look up it’ll be because the cart I’ve been riding in has lost the momentum to move. It’ll be too late when I realize what we do is fading away. 

But that’s simply paranoia speaking, and nothing more. Last semester I walked into a room, for the first time, covered with art, and a poster at the front with a picture of the whole space packed with people diligently working on their craft. I’ve never seen such a thing, and I’ve worried that’ll never take place again. But then I look at the figures—about how we’ve actually had a pretty good year in spite of everything—or at the fact that even within a capitalist machine, the confluence I spoke about earlier—between institutional purpose and practical goals—is alive and well in the Writing Center.

New Year’s Resolutions and Writing for Personal Development

Zoë Litzenberg, Writing Consultant

It’s finally December (also how is it already December?), and I’m excited for the year to end. No, it’s not just because I am ready for 2020 to be over (though I am), but also because I am a big fan of the Fresh Start Mindset. The FSM is when, because of a marked change, like the beginning of a new year, everything seems newer, more possible, and thus one finds themself more hopeful and willing to make changes. This feeling is a widespread phenomenon during the New Year’s season: the numbers vary, but a quick Google search and several polls will confirm that roughly 50% of adult Americans set New Year’s Resolutions. After the year we’ve had, I think — more than ever — I am absolutely aching for a Fresh Start. But, in my experience, it’s more often than not that an FSM doesn’t really lead to lasting change.

We all have that friend that refuses to make a New Years’ Resolution because “No one ever follows through on those things anyway”; maybe that friend is you!  I certainly felt that way for a long time, and with good reason. The same statistics that point to half of America setting goals put those goals’ success rate from only 7-10%. Maybe some of us have seen the episode of Friends “The One with All the Resolutions” (S5E11), where Ross gets stuck in leather pants, and the rest of the cast engage in similar, if slightly less embarrassing, hijinks? Or Pam, in an episode of The Office (S7E13), when she makes a poster board with everyone’s New Years’ Resolutions to help motivate them towards their goals? An avid viewer might recall that the episode culminates in Kevin shoving the butt-end of a stock of broccoli in his mouth and later threatening to “never eat a vegetable again.” At this point, broken resolutions might even be called a trope of the modern sitcom — narratives where, in 30 minutes, everyone transforms from hopeful and energized to deflated, having abandoned their goals but slightly more “realistic” as people. Isn’t it interesting that in many of these cases, their goals are set on a whim, written in pen or placed into a bet, and then treated as an all-or-nothing enterprise that, once broken, is lost forever? In short, goals are often shown to be products of a (quick) decision that either will or won’t be good, and, in turn, we goal-setters either will or won’t be a success.

Oof. Who would like that type of pressure??

I offer that hoping for personal development and having New Years’ Resolutions are not necessarily wrong, bad, or unrealistic. What can contribute to their success or failure is precisely what goes into a great piece of writing: research, planning, feedback, and revision. We might easily understand how academic writing and projects benefit from those components, so why is it difficult to treat our personal development this way? Maybe because personal development is, indeed, personal: we are so close to ourselves that we forget to take some time to evaluate who we are and make a reasonable path towards self-development. Personally, what first shifted my mentality towards goal setting was finding the resources of a popular life-coach Michael Hyatt, who taught “SMARTER” goal setting(2013). The SMARTER acronym encourages reflection and writing as a way to set and achieve challenging goals. While this is certainly not the only resource that can help articulate lasting goals, it is one of my favorite reflective matrixes. It’s in retrospect that many of the connections between this framework and healthy writing habits become clear.

What if goal setting, just like how we treat writing here at the Writing Center, is a process (an ongoing and recursive pursuit) and not a product (a one-time decision that either is or isn’t good)? What is accomplished in this reframing? I think that the answer is more than just “goals”. When we view writing as a process rather than a product, we can learn to craft a more fruitful, fulfilling, masterful practice that is kinder to ourselves and others. The same can be said about personal development, even including New Year’s Resolutions. At the writing center, our goal is not just to help you do well on writing in course assignments, though we do enjoy and train for working within and between disciplines! We want to share our knowledge of and passion for writing as an enabling, empowering experience and help you become a better writer and thinker (and now, goal setter!). Are you someone that struggles to keep your New Year’s resolution? Write it down and visit us. 

The following includes questions and prompts I made that you might think over, talk through, write about, and use to inspire goal setting for this well-earned New Year. I hope that you catch this Fresh Start mentality and ride it as far as it’ll take you, and I hope you feel welcome and encouraged to use writing and reflection as a process that will take you further than you ever thought you could go.

Research:

  • How would you describe yourself, and how might your friends and family describe you?
  • Have you taken any personality tests or diagnostics like the Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, or Strengths Finders? What have you learned about the way that you best work?
  • What makes a New Year’s Resolution stick?
  • Reflect on a time that you set a goal that you were able to accomplish. What made it happen? Now think of a time that you didn’t accomplish a goal; what do you think went wrong?

Planning:

  • What are your current priorities? What are your future goals? Are your priorities and goals in alignment?
  • How might you categorize your weekly or reoccurring work in the Eisenhower Matrix? Do you find that you often put off important work for urgent work?
  • What has worked well over the last year for you? What hasn’t? Why?
  • Where would you like to be this time next year — be that physically, mentally, spiritually, relationally, academically, professionally, or even literally?
  • If you had to choose three goals that you’d like to accomplish this next year, what might they be?
    • How might you break down your goals into sub-goals which can be tracked and accomplished quarterly? Monthly and Weekly? Daily?

Feedback:

With a trusted friend, family member, mentor, or even one of us at the Writing Center, you can ask the following:

  • Could this be considered a SMARTER goal (Hyatt, 2013)? If not, how might your goals be revised so that they meet the spirit, if not the exact specifications, of this framework?
    • Specific
    • Measurable
    • Actionable
    • Risky
    • Time-bound
    • Exciting
    • Relevant

I have one more piece of advice I’d like to offer before this blog ends: write down your plans. Look at them often as a reminder of what you are working towards. And for goodness sake, write them in pencil! If this year has taught me anything, we need flexibility in our plans and grace towards our mistakes.

Happy New Year, and Happy Writing!

References

Hyatt, Michael. (2013, June 14). The beginners guide to goal setting. Michael Hyatt & Co. https://michaelhyatt.com/goal-setting/.

Kwiatkowski, Andreas. (2011). Introducing the Eisenhower Matrix. EISENHOWER. https://www.eisenhower.me/eisenhower-matrix/.

Permutations of Passion: How Writing Helped Me Grow

Ian Hays, Writing Consultant  

Passion is what makes an artist wake up in the morning. It’s the gas in the tank, the fuel rod in the reactor. If you’re the glass half-empty type, passion is akathisia—chronic, subjective restlessness—forcing you to attack whichever medium is gripping you by the throat, if only so you can go to sleep that night.

This is what I’ve been told, anyway.

When you enter the Writing Center you can sense the passion. The room is bookish, nestled in the library—there are computers and paintings wherever you happen to look—and in the back of the first room sit two professors, enjoying their domain. I’ve heard rumors of years past, before COVID, where you couldn’t enter the WC easily because there were so many consultants hard at work with their students.

Most of my colleagues have expressed that writing was the first thing they felt good at; that writing is the cornerstone of who they are. I find this a bit alien, since the past five years, for me, have been an exercise in re-evaluation. An exercise in re-forming my identity.

For the first twenty years of my existence Baseball was my passion. During these formative experiences I relished in mornings when I didn’t have to wake up early and hit the field. On the days when I did, I’d be cranky, and in the car I’d list every reason from soreness to apathy to quit. All that would change, though, when I pulled up to the field and smelled the dew, or looked out into the depths of whichever cornfield I was in, to see the fog floating upward as it does during cold and humid mornings of early spring.

When I’d open the passenger door of Dad’s car, and he’d turn off Neil Young—the artist of choice to soothe my nerves—and the first audible smack of ball hitting glove pierced the calm, all of the nerves and soreness and apathy melted away; I was in my domain, and my domain was poetry.

Years later, I still feel frisson when I catch a game on cable, in the same way my heart flutters when I catch a glimpse of an ex. The passion, to its fullest degree, is gone, but the grooves left on my soul remain; I am one of pavlov’s dogs; my heart conditioned to leap even though the bell has long since passed.

Much like love, one’s relationship with passion changes as he or she grows. The first time you feel passion, like the first time you feel love, is blinding; it dominates your thoughts, what you’re passionate about defines who you are.

For years, my answer to the most important question — “who are you?” — was always an immediate — “Baseball player” — because that’s who I thought I was. I’d had mentors in the past tell me I was good with words and that I should cultivate an interest in writing, but I never did. I thought about it a bit, in earnest, but back then I was blind—Baseball would be what chose where I went to school, it would fund my life, why would I consider anything else?

And then it happened; late fall, 2013; I got a call from our head-coach to come take a seat in his office. After I sat and looked back into his mechanical gaze he said what no one ever wants to hear: “you know the thing you’ve worked toward your entire life? Well that ain’t gonna pan out, sorry.”

I shuffled outside, for the first time bereft of the walls and strictures which provide the shape any functioning life needs.

For four years I walked aimlessly, doing just enough to get by. I loved my English classes, sure, but not in the blinding, awe-inspiring way I felt about ball. For years I was just fine, slinking along assuming identity after identity—fraternity member, creative writer, landscaper, print-shop employee—hoping one would stick. None did.

I love to write, but it never felt as good as executing the perfect pitch, or of squaring up the ball so nicely you don’t even feel it rattle the bat—it just flies outward, forever. Maybe my problem was that I’d forgotten how much work I’d put into Baseball; once you’ve gotten good at something it’s hard to remember approaching it with apprehension. By that point I’d transferred home, and was living with my parents again.

But then it happened. On a whim, after a semester with my favorite professor, I decided to audit another of her classes—it was on the essay as a genre. I’d been beating my head against the “creative writing” wall for a long time, and had convinced myself I wanted an MFA; completely fruitless. In the class we read essays by many important contemporary writers, one of which was Fail Better by Zadie Smith; an essay I recommend to anyone who loves to write but can’t seem to get their butt in the chair. By that time I could string sentences together, I could craft stirring imagery, but my lack of being able to coherently produce a story, or a poem, was—I thought—just another example of how this skill wasn’t for me.

In her class we always wrote with another student in mind; we’d talk before each assignment was due in order to “figure out” who exactly we were writing to. It felt like good-walls were raising around me.

One of the students I wrote with was an economics major—she was getting a minor in English, that’s why she was in the class. Our discussion was about capitalism; about how any abstract concept can become a form of currency in a capitalist system. The essay born from that conversation was titled Love, Money, and Appearance; it was about how my first relationship was defined by looking good on the internet. For the first time in years I felt energized, I felt like I wanted to push through the difficulty to get to a finished-product.

Before the class was over I’d applied to MA programs—and here I am.

When you’re young every experience assaults you, because you haven’t had many of them. Like love, fear, anger, anxiety; passion—true guttural passion—decreases over time, our threshold numbed by an endlessly expanding compendium of experiences. Everyone remembers their first love, how powerful it felt, and how difficult it was to let go. And everyone remembers the stark realization that love might never feel that good again. It’s disturbing, and sad, but important.

For years, I messed around because I expected that I’d find something so powerful, so enthralling, out there, that it would be impossible to ignore—I’d feel it like I felt for Baseball. But that hasn’t come. What has comes in flashes, brief moments of clarity, which allow me to write a paragraph or two which make sense, that feel great; cleanly expressed. I’ve decided that’s what life is, and I’m okay with it; bouncing from moment to moment, now motivated more by the heft of duty than the expectation of passion.

This is why, when I have those moments, I cherish and act on them; because it’s rare when they come. Working in the Writing Center, being asked each week to write and write—to help students with their writing—about research topics, theory; opinion; has illustrated, to me, that even if the passion isn’t always there I can keep pushing, and when I do, I always uncover enough to keep chugging along.

For the first time in awhile—thanks to the WC—I feel some security in who I am, even if that security is quieter and more mature.

The Influences Behind My Writing

Ayaat Ismail, Writing Consultant

How do you write? What’s your process? Is there something that inspires you? Has your writing changed?

I like to think that my writing process is always adapting, mainly whether I am writing something creatively or academically. When I am writing creatively, I typically listen to music that influences my mood, which in turn affects my writing. If I’m drafting a short story or a longer one, the music I choose helps set the tone for that piece of writing or that scene/chapter. When I am writing sad scenes, I listen to Daniel Caesar, Ella Mai, and H.E.R., but when I write about more uplifting parts of my story, I listen to music like BLACKPINK or Panic! At the Disco.

On the other hand, when I write academically, I typically listen to ambiance music, which helps me focus on the information that I am trying to incorporate in my writing. I have been working on a paper for my Queer Victorians class while simultaneously listening to Victorian ambiance music that has helped me set the mood for my writing process for that specific paper. My process has adapted as the semester has unfolded. 

However, before I begin the immense task of writing (which involves opening Microsoft Word and staring at its white and intimidatingly blank screen), I have to brainstorm/outline. I must scribble down my thoughts, whether they are coherent or not, because from this usually stems some of my best work. I usually jot things down on the notes section of my phone, blank pieces of paper that are shoved in a bag for me to remember to look at later, and even my hand. I find that inspiration hits me at some of the most inconceivable times, and I do not rely on my memory as a reminder. I struggle, as many do, with the task of putting all my fragmented and incomplete thoughts and ideas into actual sentences, which is why the brainstorming process for me is the best part of the writing process because it enables me to run wild and free with my pen. When I write freely in this stage, I have no audience in mind or target to reach; I am writing for myself. 

Before starting this semester, I spent the past year working on some creative writing pieces, and I found myself falling in love with writing in a way I never have before. I could not believe myself as I was writing for fun and started to carve out time for myself on a daily basis to write a new chapter or edit pages from the previous day of writing. I felt overwhelmed by this new sudden urge to express myself in a genre of writing that I had only ever read. Reading was my escape, but somehow along the way, I found myself turning to writing more and more as time flew by.

When I am writing creatively, I set a goal for the week on how much writing I seek to accomplish, which helps me stay in a creative headspace. I had never had a time of the day that works better for me but noticed when I wrote in the morning, it was more bland writing as opposed to night writing, which had me writing more profound and emotional pieces. To this, I adapted my writing to evenings while I did more of my editing in the morning. I also found myself needing fresh air after a couple of hours being cooped up in my room after staring at my inner thoughts thrown on the screen before me. 

I had to prepare myself after some time away for the mental battle ahead of me. Taking time away from the screen also helped my mental health. There were times I found myself utterly exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically after multiple days of consistent writing. Taking breaks in my writing helped me regain my energy and, in the time, away from my work, helped reveal new perspectives on areas I was stumbling with or when I had total writer’s constipation. 

Though my writing process is not new nor unique, it is my own. And through reflecting on some of the points I have written, it is understandable that many may view this as completely chaotic. And to that, I say that’s fine. Every writer has a different style of writing and has various things that influence them in their process. Remember, whether your writing has a specific process (any writing you do is a process in some way), or you have no particular routine, your writing is your own. The habits, strategies, etc. that you perform in writing are unique to you and the path you take to find one is completely your own.

Writing by Delighting

        

Demetrius Minnick-Tucker, Writing Consultant

“Gollum threw himself backwards, and grabbed as the hobbit flew over him, but too late: his hands snapped on thin air, and Bilbo falling fair on his sturdy feet, sped off down the new tunnel. He did not turn to see what Gollum was doing. There was a hissing and cursing almost at his heels at first, then it stopped. All at once there came a blood-curdling shriek, filled with hatred and despair. Gollum was defeated.” (Tolkien, 87)

         This is a scene from The Hobbit, written by J. R. R. Tolkien. In context, a Hobbit finds himself in a cave, separated from his friends, with a little, hungry creature named Gollum, ready to eat him if he didn’t solve his riddles. Thankfully, the Hobbit solved the riddles, escaped the unnerved Gollum, and eventually, found his friends. However, as a writer, reflect for a moment. What provided the scenes dramatic nature? Grammar. Tolkien includes six commas to slow down the scene.  He carefully uses the colon — a prelude to the dramatic outcome of the scene. And lastly, he uses the period to drive home the scene. These are the simple beauties of grammar within a model text. Our breath stops for a moment, like Bilbo’s, as we await his escape or demise, and in the process, we are delighted.

         This scene is useful for our main concern: As teachers, what moves can we make to unite teaching grammar and student learning? This question is scrutinized by the best in the field, yet a solution seems elusive. Often, grammar is taught in moves that simply request the  regurgitation of information. However, when our “bright” writers come to writing samples, the findings are disheartening. Students writing shows no sign of improvement and as new students come in, the cycle continues. In the article, Reconceptualizing the Teaching of Grammar, Weaver asserts that learning “seems to be most enduring when the learners perceive it as USEFUL or INTERESTING to them personally, in the here and now.” It seems that Weaver is asserting that we should teach grammar indirectly, through means of delight. Whether reading of the boy who lived or the Sonnets of Shakespeare, both are avenues of delight for a variety of students, proving useful for our ends as teachers. As I reflect, I am reminded of my freshman year in college. My English 102 Professor, Dr. Amy Crider, challenged us to find writers we admire and work on imitating their writing style. As English 101 and 102 courses have a knack for creativity, my interest was peeked. Thus, my search began. As I discovered beautiful writing, writing became more alive to me. “How did Flannery O’Connor paint a world that was darkly comical? How did J. K. Rowling create such gravity in the final scene? What would happen if I remove the commas from this paragraph? Let’s consider syntax.” All these questions bubble up, but why? Indirectly, Dr. Crider was using my delight in model texts as a means to teach grammar. I argue as instructors, we ought to take the same road. Learning the  conventions of grammar is inherently grueling and full of mystery, yet, when we provide students moments to see grammar through lenses of delight, their stance changes.

         In another article, The Case for Rhetorical Grammar, Micciche states “This intimacy with the language of others can be an enormously powerful way to impress upon students that writing is made and that grammar has a role in the production.” Micciche’s claim reiterates the usefulness of model texts. In short, when students analyze model texts they are delighted by – novel, poem, paragraph – a productive space is created for teaching grammar. Why? The student is no longer focused on distant formalities that are required of a sentence. Instead, they are delighted, entering the world of the author, and hungry to figure out how the author made that delight erupt into their reading experience. And notice the subtle change, it is intimate, no longer distant. The writing is beautiful, humorous, or full of wit, and the student is left wondering “how did they do that?” A teacher happily responds: “The writer made intentional choices with their words to bring that effect. Now class, what would we have lost if they didn’t understand the uses of grammar?” As we can see, now students disposition towards grammar changes, as they have become focused on replicating the grammatical moves of writers, because they were required? No, because they were delighted. Grammar is no longer seen as mere conventions and formalities, but the freedom to create beauty. As students push into that reality, I suspect, the teacher to beam with a quiet triumph. Why? The teacher has brought them to their goal: Learning.

Patience and Productivity: What I’ve Learned About Writing and Working During the Pandemic

Spenser Secrest, Writing Consultant

Everyone knows that writing is difficult. And writing, especially creative writing, has become quite difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. Writing during the pandemic has posed several different challenges, and this still feels unusual to me. Every aspect of our lives has seemingly been interrupted or altered due to the outbreak of COVID-19, so why should writing be any different? For me, writing during the pandemic has become more difficult because there is no end in sight and every related action becomes increasingly polarized in the news each week. Writing is the last thing I can think about right now, and access to support networks is gone. While the pandemic has posed a unique challenge, it also offers us the opportunity to help us grow, hopefully both as writers and as people.

Although the act of writing is usually thought of as being done in solitude, which can, obviously, be done during the pandemic, this still feels as though certain aspects of the writing process are being left out. I have always viewed getting feedback as a vital part of writing – from friends, colleagues, and peers,for any piece of writing that I do, whether that is a piece of academic or creative writing.  While emails, texts and other forms of long distance communication have been beneficial, this is still not a substitute for discussions of the piece as a whole in person with someone whose thoughts and opinions I value. Even this very blog post, I intend to have someone proofread.

            The COVID-19 pandemic has affected other aspects of writing as well. It is now much more difficult to write with anyone and in any public space. Although these difficulties are the result of measurements taken for our safety, knowledge of this fact does not make these challenges any less difficult to work with. In fact, knowing that some people have openly violated such measurements has, for me, at times, made focusing on the prospect of writing all the more difficult. When thinking about how the pandemic has disrupted life and how long it has lasted, to see or hear of someone openly not care about precautions for one’s own safety, as well as the safety of those around them, can add another topic of distraction from any activity, including writing of any kind.

            Creative writing can also function as a therapeutic act. However, as the pandemic has continued, with no end in sight due to the U.S. government’s current administration’s lack of leadership on this issue, this raises the question as to what writing during the pandemic can accomplish, as the pandemic is still ongoing and all of the trials and tribulations will continue, even after one has finished writing something. If writing can be seen as a potential way to come to terms with something or to make sense of something, what can be accomplished when the circumstances keep changing due to the pandemic?Ideally, any act of creative writing would provide some form of catharsis, even if the difficult circumstances under which that writing was produced continue for the foreseeable future.

            Working as a Writing Center consultant for the first time, I have found that, despite any technological issues and doubts that the writers have had with their writings, they still desire feedback from the consultants. This has shown, to me, that all writers value feedback, even if this feedback is for assignments and academic writing. Something that I had not expected was that working with other writers, from a variety of different areas, and in different stages of drafting, has improved my own academic writing skills.  I’ve found that working with other writers can be beneficial to both the writer and the consultant. As a consultant works with a writer to improve their draft, so too does the consultant’s understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of writing.

            Finally, since I have been in graduate school, I have found patience to be the greatest asset to writing during the pandemic. Whether this be patience with technology working or patience in waiting for inspiration in writing, the pandemic has shown that patience is an incredibly valuable character trait to have during this time. The pandemic has led to us all making adaptations in our work and patience is a necessary component when learning something in an environment that is new to everyone. Additionally, developing more patience is something that would seem to be only to one’s benefit. Hopefully, everyone has developed more patience since the outbreak of COVID-19.

On Distance and Embodied Writing

Amanda Dolan, Writing Consultant

Prior to the pandemic, I wasn’t very attentive to the body’s role in writing. Because of my background in both visual and performing art, I largely saw the world as impressionistic. This perspective carried over into my literature studies and ultimately led me to consider writing a predominantly mental discipline. I found myself not only fixating on ephemera and reminiscence within my research, but also only writing to articulate, recreate, and relive the past. Worst of all, I idolized and sought —always unsuccessfully— an incorrect/reductive/harmful conception of the notorious, transient “flow state”. 

I realized just how skewed my perception of the flow state was shortly after lockdown began. Time drastically slowed down, but that effortless focus never occurred and I almost entirely lost the urge to write (certainly academically). For years I had written about and through nostalgia, but strangely I could not put pen to paper during the first several weeks of lockdown even though these were so filled with nostalgic feelings. 

I now think this initial inability to write stemmed from confronting the fact that, contrary to my long-held belief, the space/time separating our memories from the events in our lives is perhaps the least tragic form of distance. Many, even those of us who previously felt loved ones were reassuringly distant, started to wish for nearness. Naturally, this physical distance and the resulting virtual interactions made embodied experiences much more important for a significant percentage of the population —myself included. Like many others, I started spending more time exercising, cooking, and residing outdoors. These healthy habits, however, were joined by the new (to me) practice of doomscrolling. Even though this latter habit is often ultra destructive and the former are generally quite beneficial, I noticed a commonality between all of them: immediacy. While doomscrolling isn’t as directly an embodied process (although the anxiety it frequently creates can definitely pull you back into your body), it is certainly similar to one as it’s also a matter of immediacy —instead of distance. 

Because the libraries were closed, I started going through my backlog of owned books. One of the books I finally (“finally” as in “the English version was published in 2009”; this was one of my first quarantine reads) got around to reading was Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The book discusses the reciprocal relationship between running and writing, and, although I am not much of a runner, it provided a lot of insight about distance versus immediacy and embodied writing. I realized after this read that because writing was, for me, so much about processing impressionistic, past information, it naturally became difficult to write during a time when (because of uncertainty) all most of us could do was preserve information in a largely unprocessed state. I think this inclination to preserve the feeling of ideas before we understand them contributed to the increased interest in Twitter (and, consequently, doomscrolling) during this time. Of course some —or even most— of this pull to social media was a result of needing incessant communication for the sake of connection, but I think the immediacy of semi-unprocessed information was oddly comforting during a period marked by physical distance. 

In closing, I just want to share what this shift away from distance and pure mental processes and towards immediacy and physicality forced me —with the help of Murakami’s book— to recognize about writing. Firstly (though these points are very much related), it relies on both the body and the mind, and it benefits from being fortified through physical activity/patterns just as much as mental. I actually achieved a proper (refer to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for this) “flow state” after developing small habits —like snacking, stretching, and playing very familiar music or white noise— that establish a physical, sensory space for writing. Secondly, the process is located in both physical and temporal spaces, whether immediate or distant. Although my interest in memory has returned since school has resumed, my academic writing/processed information can now be suddenly immediate —just as my prose/semi-unprocessed feelings can be distant. Together these two discoveries have, during a time of uncertainty and physical insulation, helped me value writing other futures —everywhere and all the time.

Writing in a Time of Uncertainty: Negotiating Anxious Thoughts Translating to Anxious Words

Emma Turner, Writing Consultant

Writing is hard. Most who write will tell you that. Those who say it is easy are either brilliant or lying. Writing is scary. Learning to write is often a series of trial and error, drafts, coffee, and tears (or that last part could just be me). Writing is vulnerable. When we write, we expose our innermost thoughts and feelings, and we reveal the inner workings of our mind. Writing is a process familiar to many of us, yet, in times of uncertainty, writing becomes uncertain too. 

Writing is even more challenging when it is done in the midst of social and cultural change. One finding their voice can be drowned out by the uncertainty faced in daily life. Learning to cope with living in a pandemic, living in the midst of necessary and justified civil unrest, and returning to a college campus where everything feels incredibly familiar yet unfamiliar is not conducive to creating one’s strongest work. Over the past several months, a feeling of increasing isolation and doubt has begun to take hold for so many. I’ve noticed even in my own writing the insecurity of current events bleeds through when pen is put to paper (or fingers put to keys, but you know what I mean). Mental health has become a feature we are acutely aware of. It is incredibly difficult to create a divergence between the anxiety of the everyday and the anxiety of writing. Despite the stress associated with the act of writing, it can serve as a practice that moves beyond the standard social construction of the act. Writing can be a tool that is incredibly reflective of the thoughts and sentiments of its author in a way that is liberating to the writer and impactful to its readers. Because of this, I choose to see writing as a positive instrument to utilize in times such as this when expression becomes a key in communication. I think, too, that this can be shown in many ways. 

Writing has many forms and functions, and there is a multiplicity of ways we can express our feelings through them. Outside of the academy, writing poetry, journaling, creating a piece of fiction you are passionate about—all of these and many more are forms of writing which can be employed. In these forms, one is able to explore their own emotional state and communicate it in a way that is legible to others whether this be through a number of poetic devices or through the experiences of a character. By participating in these artforms, one opens themselves to the possibility that others feel the same way too, and, perhaps, through expression the loneliness and fear that is ever so present can be overcome. 

Academic writing, too, is an opportunity to explore the margins modern society teeters on. Through research papers, personal narratives, and community presentations, we are able to explore the complex relationship between ourselves and the world we live in. Exploration can be demonstrated by researching important social justice issues and expounding on these through academic composition. Experiences within specific communities and as a certain person can be examined through narrative. Presenting relevant, important information through presentation is a subtle form of activism too. Each strategy one may take to address anxiety in academic writing approaches the issue from a different angle. The beauty of this is that there is no ONE way to do things. Ultimately, you must choose what is best for you. 

Although it is difficult to abandon our preconceptions of what writing is and how it traditionally functions, there is a certain power in the understanding of writing as a mode of catharsis and empowerment. In a time where things feel increasingly disconnected, writing is a mode that is universally linked. Largely, writing is an act of kindness. What you say when you write has the ability to impact how someone else views the world—or themselves. Be kind, and share your voice. 

Feel free to let those of us in the Writing Center hear your voice too. 

A Penny For Your Thoughts: The Real Value of Writing in a World That Prioritizes Capital

By: Chuck Glover, Writing Consultant

There is nothing capitalistic about the process of education for an individual. Education, of course, takes time, and time is money that could be well-spent. What is capitalistic is education’s outcome: the skills to participate as a cog in the machine that is society, and therefore attribute some monetary value to yourself and the economy. What happens between birth and that participation is simply preparation, to be completed as swiftly and mess-free as possible.

            These values — whether we like them or not — are internalized by writers. We write and rewrite until we find satisfaction, and maybe even eventually pride, only to look back on our work years later and feel embarrassed by it. We frustrate ourselves for not writing enough, or for writing too much of what we perceive to be garbage; we attempt over and over to emulate writers we want to (but can never) be. The problem lies in the fact that writing never stops being an education in and of itself. Writing relies on you being the best you are in the moment; and, because we are human beings who grow and learn and change, your best will vary day to day.  There is no equation to becoming the next Shakespeare. And, because writing also functions as an ongoing education, no writer will ever wake up and suddenly be the best they will ever be. (Even if they did, it’s not like they would know it.)

            Writing is so rarely about capital gain (if it is, it almost never starts that way). Yet, we continue to maintain capitalistic values when looking at our own. How many years has that novel been a work in progress? How long have you been struggling with that essay? How many times have you rewritten that poem? When we have not moved from Point A to Point B with efficiency, when we have not produced content we deem “good enough,” it is frustrating at best; a perceived waste of time at worst. Key word: perceived

            How do we change that perception? Well, the question we should really be asking ourselves is: why do we write? I write to feel joy. I write to inhabit new worlds. I write to feel heard, even if nobody else reads it. Maybe those aren’t the reasons you write; that’s okay, too. Whatever the reason, I think the key to engaging our students and ourselves in writing is to emphasize it as a process, not a product. Writing has inherent value because of the labor that was put into it — because of the voice that lies within it — because of the skills learned in its making. How exciting it is to see each new page as an opportunity to be better, as opposed to far more daunting steps to completion.

            We put so much pressure on ourselves to participate in our writing the same way we are pressured to participate in society: with blinders to the finish line. But, outside of the deadlines we face in academia and our careers, there is no real finish line to the writing process. You will never be Shakespeare. You will never wake up and suddenly be the best writer you will ever be. (Even if you do, you won’t know it.)

            So why, pray tell, do you write?

Writing Center Tutoring in the Time of Pandemic: A Focus on Written Feedback as a Conversational Space

By: Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

Writing centers, like many other private and public workplaces, felt the unprecedented impacts of the coronavirus pandemic as much of the work in the centers had to be readjusted for remote operations. In the wake of this pandemic and remote operations, writing center tutoring necessarily had to also take a different and creative turn to ensure that writers have a space to discuss their writing processes and concerns. Hence, instead of meeting face-to-face with consultants, tutoring was transferred online either synchronously (over videoconferencing) or asynchronously (via written feedback). Unsurprisingly, both approaches continue to record remarkable success as writers’ goals and concerns are satisfactorily addressed. It is, however, important to discuss the dynamics of the written feedback approach to ensure that both writers and tutors are maximizing the low-hanging opportunities this approach affords, especially seeing that it is the most used appointment option.

The written feedback approach, which mainly requires the tutor to read, review and provide written comments on writers’ draft bearing the writers’ concerns in mind, does seem to lack the dialogic exchanges that make for a typical, productive tutoring session. Nevertheless, this does not make the approach less productive. In fact, it appears that the peculiarities of written feedback in terms of its un-dialogic exchanges make the approach very effective in writing center tutoring. Written feedback approach allows writers to establish the writing concerns they require help with––as it would obtain in a face-to-face tutoring. (The appointment forms writers fill require that they provide a detailed description of their writing project and writing concerns). And this serves as the premise for the kind of conversation/un-dialogic exchanges the tutor engages in with the writers’ drafts.

In a discussion on how comments and feedback on writers’ draft can be viewed as conversational, Busekrus (2018) explains that the art of asking thoughtful questions is one significant tool for instilling a conversational lens in feedback. Questions like: “Can you say little more about how you managed this situation rather than just hinting at it?”; “I’m not sure how this sentence connects to the purpose of the paragraph. Could you make that connection clearer or move this sentence closer to paragraph 3, or what do you think?”; “would an example be appropriate here?” among others. Busekrus, quoting Kjesrud (2015), further describes conversational questions as including those framed as non-interrogative (give more information about this point.); leading (isn’t this approach too simple?); tags (The author does not give facts to support it, does she?); and open-ended (How does the author further this discussion throughout the book?).

A cursory look at these questions shows the tutor in a dialogic mode with an ‘imaginary’ writer as if it were a face-to-face interaction with the aim of extending the conversation to the writer for their thoughtful responses and opinion to the questions through revision. This goes to emphasize the point that, though asynchronous, a written feedback properly done not only helps the tutor engage in a productive exchange with writers (and their drafts) but also provides writers with viable nuances to help make revision to their drafts and avoid similar issues in subsequent drafts.

The written feedback approach, thus, provides a conversational space for both tutor and writer to converge and exchange valuable revision ideas: the writer, in their appointment forms, leads the exchange by pointing the tutor’s attention to primary areas of concerns while the tutor enters into the draft with these concerns in mind for their interaction with the draft, asking thoughtful questions. Since the success of the conversation depends greatly on how much detail the writer provides in their appointment form, it is recommended that writers are encouraged to see the written feedback approach as conversational.

As we navigate the unnerving period of this pandemic, written feedback approach seems to have afforded writing centers an opportunity of a different and creative approach for continuing in the task of producing better writers.

Work cited

Busekrus, Elizabeth. (2018). “A Conversational Approach: Using Writing Center Pedagogy in Commenting for Transfer in the Classroom.” Journal of Response to Writing, 4(1): 100–116.