“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.
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.
It would be easy to start this post by talking about all the things that are different this year in the University Writing Center, from online tutoring to adapting to daily lives of masks, disinfectant, and physical distancing. Yet, by this point, we are all familiar with those aspects of daily life. Instead, I want to focus on the continuity of this year in the University Writing Center. This past week, our new consultants met for our orientation and began to plan for the year ahead. Just as in years past, this year’s new consultants are a talented, dedicated group of graduate students who are eager to start working with UofL students, faculty, and staff to provide them with feedback and strategies that help them become stronger and more confident writers. Our consultants remain committed to helping writers at every stage of writing – from brainstorming to revising drafts – and with every form of writing, be it academic, professional, or personal. And, as in the past, we plan to work collaboratively with writers, listening carefully to their concerns and working together to create plans for revision to make their writing more effective and engaging. Some things don’t change.
As you can imagine, however, we are making some changes to adapt to the pandemic. The most significant change is that all our appointments for Fall 2020 will take place online. We have two kinds of appointments from which you can choose – live video chat or written feedback. A live video chat is a real-time video chat with a consultant. Our live chat format, which is part of our online scheduling system, includes a video chat capability and a shareable digital whiteboard where both the writer and consultant can make notes on the draft. Live video chat appointments allow for conversation between the writer and consultant. Written feedback appointments are asynchronous. Writers upload a draft and receive a typed, written response by email. All our appointments are 50 minutes long. Before your first appointment, visit the our website to learn more about the two appointment types to decide which best fits your needs. http://louisville.edu/writingcenter/appointments-1.
Tips to Make the Most of Your Online Appointment
The online appointments we are using this year may be new to you, and so here are a few tips to help you get the most out of the experience.
When you make your appointment: For all appointments, the more you can tell us about the assignment, and your concerns, the more we can help you. It it a huge help to us if you upload a copy of your assignment prompt to your appointment form when you make your appointment. If you don’t have a prompt to upload, please tell us everything you can about the assignment or writing task you are working on. Along those same lines, the more detail you can give us on the appointment form about your top concerns about your draft, the more able we are to respond effectively to those concerns. If, rather than just list a few words, you can write a detailed note about your concerns, we’ll be better able to give you suggestions and advice to address your concerns. It is particularly important to provide detailed information and writing prompts for written feedback appointments, because the asynchronous format means we can’t ask you direct questions.
As you revise your writing: If you’re not sure where to start in using the written comments to revise your draft, we recommend out handout on “Using Written Feedback When Revising.” You may also find our other handouts that cover writing strategies from writing introductions to citation to grammar and usage issues helpful when revising.
Other Online Resources to Help You with Your Writing
In addition to our appointments, do keep in mind that we have a wide range of online resources to help you with your writing that are available to you at any time..
We have Video Workshops on issues such as citation styles and formatting and how to use sources effectively.
We also have more than 35 handouts online with advice about writing processes, grammar and usage, strategies for approaching different parts of a draft, and more.
We also have Writing FAQs that cover the kinds of questions that come up often in our work and offer you suggestions on how to approach common writing situations.
We will be using our social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Our Blog) to post ideas and resources about writing, and some things just to brighten the day.
Unfortunately, we have had to suspend our usual fall events, such as open mic nights and panel discussions about writing. We look forward to resuming them when we can so safely.
Flexibility, Patience, and Caring
One other crucial thing that has not changed at he University Writing Center is our commitment to treating all UofL writers with respect and empathy. We are writers, just as you are, and we are living through unnerving and stressful times, just as you are. We know that getting through this difficult time will require flexibility, patience, and caring, on all our parts, and we commit ourselves to those values in working with all writers.
We look forward to working with you in the weeks ahead.
Every May since 2012 the University Writing Center has held a Dissertation Writing Retreat during which we have welcomed a group of doctoral scholars into the Writing Center for a week focused on writing and talking about writing. It is one of the highlights of our spring and one of the great pleasures every year is the way a group of individual scholars who have never met before coalesce into a community of writers. I had always thought that part of the recipe that helped that happen was the physical presence of the writers in the University Writing Center space. Talking with other writers, sharing lunch, and even just being in the same room writing together, created an environment in which a supportive community of writers developed, and often carried on well after the Retreat.
When we knew six weeks ago that in-person events would no longer be allowed on campus this spring and summer, we decided that we would go ahead with the Dissertation Writing Retreat as a virtual, online event. While there was much to work out
about logistics and planning to make this change, one of our concerns was also whether we would be able to foster a sense of connection and community in a virtual retreat.
Still, we planned the Retreat to have essentially the same elements as before. The Retreat offers writers working on their dissertations time to focus on their writing and the chance to get feedback on their writing and to talk about issues connected to dissertation writing. In this year’s Retreat, as before, we provided daily, individual writing consultations for each writer. In addition, each day had morning and afternoon check-in meetings to set goals for the day and talk about accomplishments. We also had daily small group discussions at lunchtime about writing issues such as structuring a dissertation, staying motivated, responding to committee feedback, and writing during a pandemic. While the elements were the same as in previous years, there is no doubt that the dynamic was not always the same. Even so, what did not change is that people were still engaged and excited about working and talking about their projects and had productive weeks, both in terms of what they wrote and in terms of refining their writing processes and strategies. By the week, everyone was tired, but part of a community of writers. This year’s Retreat illustrated that it is the commitment and openness of the people involved that determines how a community will grow, more than their physical proximity. It was heartening and exciting to see.
The credit for the success of the Retreat, as always, goes to the hard work of the writers – 14 doctoral students from nine different disciplines – as well as the hard work Cassie Book, our Associate Director, and all of the University Writing Center staff who planned and took part in the week. In addition, our thanks go to The Graduate School for once again providing funding for the Retreat. My thanks to them all.
It’s always best, though, to hear from the people involved about how the Retreat went for them. Here are a few thoughts from writers and consultants about the week.
First, the writers:
Aubrey Mojesky, Biology: During the dissertation writing retreat, I learned to be more intentional with my writing by looking at the function of a piece of writing, not just the content. The retreat also connected me to a community of writers with similar goals and an understanding of this unique and challenging project. The retreat allowed me to feel more supported in writing my dissertation, particularly during a very difficult and isolating time.
Diane Zero, Public Health: Thank you very much for this experience. I learned so much from my consultant; on how to improve the technical aspects of the writing process, and to see the big picture of my dissertation. Working with Liz helped me visualize the ‘so what’ part of the dissertation. It helped me articulate need for my proposed research and possible important changes in practice stemming from my work. Because of this, my dissertation is much improved. Since social distancing began, I have struggled as a student and as a member of the University of Louisville community. By the end of this week, both are back- I am excited to move forward!
Sunita Khanal, Biology: Dissertation Writing Retreat 2020 was very helpful to me. I participated in this retreat during my final semester. That’s why, I was a bit worried when I joined thinking if this will be supportive for me or will it just chew away my dissertation writing time. However, this retreat ultimately proved beneficial to me. So, I can say that you can participate in this retreat, irrespective of the phase of dissertation writing you are in. Even though the retreat was held virtually this time, writing center staff worked around the clock to make this a beneficial experience. Their dedication is not only seen in technical arrangements, but also through their eagerness to address any questions/concerns. Workshops held at noon as well as one-on-one consultation were very helpful and interactive. Overall, I had very productive week. Big thanks to writing center faculty, consultants, staff and all the team for the opportunity.
Greg Clark, Comparative Humanities: The Dissertation Writing Retreat was very helpful to me. The overall structure for the week and daily tasks allowed me accomplish important work. I will also be able to take skills I gained from the workshop and apply them to the remainder of my work on my dissertation.
From the consultants:
Megen Boyett, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing: I came into the week a little nervous about a virtual set-up. I love working with writers face-to-face and seeing the community that forms during the week. I knew that this week wouldn’t be that, and even though I said to other people “this will just be different; it’ll have different strengths,” what I meant was “this will be better than nothing.” In fact, a virtual retreat does have different strengths. Where the joy of an in-person retreat is the in-person community and solidarity, during the virtual retreat, I had a chance to connect deeply with writers as individuals. I saw their workspaces and discussed literature reviews as they fixed lunch for kids. Our talk about writing processes felt placed: rather than being in the writing center, which can feel like a “break” from the outside world, writers were in their homes, and so our discussions included the material things in their day-to-day lives, like mealtimes, toddler and spouse schedules, and nap breaks. Each person took the writing work of the week seriously, accomplishing astounding amounts of work in a five-day span. I wonder if, as they move out of “retreat” mode, it won’t actually be easier to implement the practices they started in this virtual space, having already done the work of integrating “real life” and intensive writing.
Rachel Rodriguez, Assistant Director of the University Writing Center: This year’s retreat, my third working as a consultant, was unique to say the least. In some ways, the retreat looked nothing like my previous ones, but in other ways, it felt like returning once more to a fitting conclusion to another academic year. Much of this year’s retreat was unprecedented, on both a global and a personal level. My writers were dealing with unexpected changes to their research plans and writing timelines because of COVID-19, and I never anticipated that as a consultant I’d one day help writers figure out how to discuss a global pandemic in the methods section of their dissertations. This year we were also working from home, which meant glimpses into the chaos of our quarantining lives. For me, this looked (and sounded, sometimes noisily) like the presence of small children, significant others, and even maintenance workers. Still, in the end, tutoring with a three month old baby in my arms to the staccato banging of construction workers re-roofing my writer’s apartment building resulted not in frustration or anger, but in patience, grace, and empathy. No matter the circumstances, these emotions always resonate in each dissertation writing retreat: writers learn the balance between endurance and self-care, and a community of emerging scholars both commiserates and lifts each other up. How wonderful that a retreat without a space or even the physical presence of others can still create that magic.
Olalekan Adepoju, incoming Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing: The Dissertation Writing Retreat was a satisfying experience for me (and my assigned writers) as it practically connected me to the varieties of struggles encountered during the dissertation writing phase of doctoral program. One of the many concerns that came up during consultations was the need to establish authorial identity in writing, which most graduate students struggles with because of the student-scholar identity crisis. Discussions between me and my assigned writers highlight that one of the possible strategies to resolving this is to consciously produce drafts that are written in active voice (even if such draft has to go through multiple revisions). We concluded that it is imperative to approach dissertation writing from this perspective as it will help to cultivate writerly confidence and establish authorial stance.
Aubrie Cox, Assistant Director of the Virtual Writing Center: For the virtual version of the dissertation writing retreat, writers were asked to write and post their daily goals and a recap each day. Any other year, this would be a verbal sharing, which created a sense of immediacy; however, as the week went on, it was powerful to scroll through and see the accumulation of everyone’s goals and accomplishments. They had created an archive and record of their work and experience throughout the week. Having worked with writers in-person during last year’s dissertation writing retreat, I saw the way lunch hour and breaks helped people to form bonds and connect. It was something I had worried would be lost this year–it’s hard to form fast bonds in virtual spaces–but every writer I interacted this week with commented on the sense of community and working together helped them to focus. I think it speaks to an innate part of what the dissertation writing retreat is–it creates a sense of solidarity, both among their UofL peers and in the writing dissertation process.