Category: graduate student writing

On Words and Images

Amanda Dolan, Writing Consultant

When re-curating the bookcase visible to my webcam, I initially hid all comics and graphic narratives behind horizontal stacks of traditional novels. Considering how generally beautiful the spines of graphic novels are, I don’t think this layering was a result of an aesthetic instinct. I was almost definitely conceding to the idea that stories with images are fluffy. And though I enjoy similarly described pets appearing in other Zoom backgrounds, I didn’t feel totally comfortable featuring reads perceived that way in my own. 

Now, nearly a year later, these books can be seen bowing a middle shelf, and I can be seen, metaphorically, going to bat for them this baseball season. I have the writing center to thank for this. Both the UWC staff and writers have taught me the extent to which language transcends words, and the value of, I guess, communicative syncretism. Writers or colleagues and I will talk about things like the weather or even planetary energies not out of awkwardness or eccentricity but because such topics are strangely good starting points for thinking and communicating. Basically, it’s very natural for people to reach to make concepts work together so they can communicate a little more clearly (think emojis and storytelling). And writing center pedagogy, as a technique focused on communication, embraces that type of syncretism by defining and upholding the center as an inherently social space where writers and consultants bring their own unique knowledge and life experiences. 

Embracing this pedagogy alongside the fact that a lot of sighted people experience the world by contextualizing words and images together has me not only defending comics as literature, but also advocating for drawing as a natural extension of the writing process. It’s common, accessible, and effective to make meaning and record our worlds through visuals, and I personally started drawing pictures in my essay and class notes to combat lockdown-created memory issues. Whenever my brain has a flicker of an idea but is reluctant to fully enter analysis mode, I either make a quick semiotic square or caption a small drawing to revisit when I have the patience and mental capacity to puzzle out my thoughts. If you are interested in trying to use image as an avenue for developing scholarly written communication, consider starting with a semiotic square or a map —or even try drawing items that stand out from a text you need to analyze. I’ve also found that quickly drawing items or settings can be beneficial for immersing myself in a piece of creative writing. This method shouldn’t become fraught or have anything to do with how well you think you can or cannot draw —it is just another way to engage with complex ideas before tackling them through words. 

How We Talk to Write: Reflecting on the Speaking/Writing Connection

Nicole Dugan, Assistant Director

For the last several years, I’ve spent most of my days talking about writing. I’m often speaking with writers in writing center sessions or with students in my first-year composition classes, but sometimes I’m talking to myself. While working on this post, I spent the first hour or so talking through my ideas as I mapped them on paper and reading aloud sentences as I drafted them. Without all of this speaking, the writing process often feels like slogging through wet cement for me. Lately, I’ve been fixated on this connection between the written and verbal. Writing and speaking are irrevocably intertwined for me and for all of us. 

Writing cannot happen without speaking. Language is expressed through the modes of speaking and writing, and these modes “are mutually informing” (Sperling 53). This connection isn’t always underscored in the teaching of writing, and often we develop resistance towards writing because we see these two modes as disconnected from one another. Most of us do not speak in perfect Standard American English, and our dialects reflect our rich, diverse cultures and backgrounds, not the uniform language we read in scholarship. As we enter academia and professional spheres, we are often told we cannot write like we speak. This repeated maxim–which tells us we must learn to write in a way that is not of ourselves–introduces anxieties and tensions into the writing process, leaving writers of all backgrounds feeling conflicted and overwhelmed. Our languages are so closely tied to our identities that writing can sometimes feel like a challenge to our self-expressions, especially in an academic setting. 

I often turn to speaking when writing is challenging. Sometimes it’s because of a deadline or assignment or maybe writer’s block, but regardless of cause, talking helps me gain insight and inspiration. I often see writers experience this, too, as we work together in sessions. While talking about writing is a cornerstone in the writing center’s mission and work, we don’t always make this connection explicit in sessions or in our own writing processes. Traditional face-to-face sessions and live video chats rely on the verbal in order to develop the written. (Even asynchronous written feedback takes on a conversational tone.) Writers are encouraged to talk through the assignment, their progress, their concerns, and how they feel about the writing. Even though the goal is to improve writing skills and the text at hand, we leave the page behind to just talk first. We read drafts aloud during sessions to create a space of aural collaboration in discussion and revision. All of this talking helps to build, clarify, and revise ideas and communication. Deemphasizing the physical text allows us to bring attention to speaking’s role in the writing process. This invites writers to explore and discuss their writing verbally without the anxieties and tensions of writing “correctly” or even accurately. 

When we embrace the connection of writing and speaking, we begin to feel more liberated in our writing and the writing process. If we set aside the (un)spoken conventions and expectations we’ve picked up over years of writing instruction, we may find that inspiration, ideas, and understanding are not as lacking as we once believed. One way I do this in my own process is by talking out loud about my writing projects and recording these one-way conversations. There is no blank document and blinking cursor taunting me, and most importantly, this method helps me forget about the rules. I’m not slowed down by an inner critic telling me I can’t start sentences with conjunctions, cringing at misspellings or missing words, or asking me if what I’m talking about accomplishes the goal. Instead, I’m able to ramble and explore to my heart’s content. Currently, there are at least ten voice recordings on my phone pertaining to various undrafted and unfinished writing projects from the last several months. There are essay topics, outlines of research projects, and snapshots of creative writing sparked while driving home. I can listen to myself speak in colloquialisms, contractions, and fragments. Some of them are great, and some of them aren’t so great, just like with my written outlines and drafts. These recordings and their content sound like me though, unfiltered by the constraints of academic prose and audiences. Academic writing can feel defamiliarizing, as it often asks us to take on a different voice for the sake of a text and its message. Listening and talking to ourselves and others about writing helps to center our voices and can remind us that our words and ideas are always ours, no matter the context or guidelines. 

Sperling, Melanie. “Revisiting the Writing-Speaking Connection: Challenges for Research on Writing and Writing Instruction.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 66, no. 1, 1996, pp. 53-86. 

Self-Care Before Burning Out

Ayaat Ismail, Writing Consultant

Last semester, I struggled to set time for myself away from the world of academia. Which I’m sure isn’t a new concept for anyone. We all do this. We get invested in our education and consumed by doing and being our absolute best. The one thing that felt like a constant needle was poking me all semester and keeping me on my toes was writing, or at least the thought of writing.

Writing felt like this ever-changing entity that was somehow liberated from me, the writer. It is as if it was beyond my control. It could have been because of the various directions I was told as a writer to take, or it could have been the fact that I was writing at a level of college I had never written before, and with that came a whole new set of skills and stressors. 

And because of this, I felt like I was on the verge of insanity, barely functioning as a human being. I had put an unusual amount of anxiety and responsibility on myself because of this socially constructed notion that I should somehow reach this mold of perfection that is expected from us as students and as writers. But who really expects this from us? 

Nonetheless, we have many hindrances such as societal and familial expectations and considerably more scopes of demands that we can’t seem to shake. Yet, we never take the time to mitigate our troubles. It doesn’t have to be something huge and extravagant, just something to slow down the process of us becoming something hybrid between a zombie and a monster. I personally do not think it’s a good look on me. 

I feel like there has been a struggle to find a rhythm before this semester, yet I have pushed myself recently to give myself a little time and do this work of finding a balance. Some of the actions I have personally taken this Spring is to time manage my schedule better, so I have a day in the week where I don’t focus on any school stuff. This has usually become Saturday for me where unless I have work, I wake up whenever I please and indulge in doing nothing of importance. This break has provided me more time to focus on myself and regain some of my old self. The one where taking time away from school was acceptable. 

Here are some of the things I have done and may help you in your self-care journey:

  • Meditating or at least staring up at the ceiling until by mind goes blank
  • Reading a book for pleasure just because I want to (usually NA books…)
  • Catching up on some of my favorite TV shows
  • Learning to cook something edible (and not burning anything)
  • Spending time with family and being completely present
  • Watching White Chicks for the nth time (should I say more?)
  • Hiking/Walking with friends or family 

These are just small steps I have taken, as cheesy as they may sound, to help recenter my focus and take care of myself. Because honestly, there is only one me and one you, and we need to treat ourselves better. Not just physically, but we need to consider our mental health as we move forward and adapt to our evolving lifestyles due to this pandemic, which has a heap of issues itself and our journeys as writers and students. 

Somehow this has helped calm my nerves and even allowed me to find joy in writing again. It’s as if being detached from the concept of writing for a day somehow initiates a newfound love of writing. I found myself writing in the notes app on my phone and coming up with new ideas for stories I might pursue. I really do believe turning the off button for myself has improved my energy throughout the week and has allowed me to remove some of the walls that I have a built-in connection with being a student. 

So, whether it’s taking a day off every now or then or if you find an opportunity arise to something different, I say take the plunge and do it. Do it for yourself, for your sanity, and for your peace of mind. 

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.

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.

Good Writing Response Stays the Same: How We Will Work with UofL Writers This Semester

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

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 dscn2185University 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.

Writing Groups and Events

Our writing groups will continue this semester to provide a supportive and productive environment for UofL writers. This fall, all our writing groups will be meeting online through Microsoft Teams. Please visit our website if you would like more information about our Graduate Student and Faculty Writing Group, our LGBTQ+ Writing Group, or our Creative Writing Group.

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.

 

Building a Community of Writers – Wherever They May Be: Dissertation Writing Retreat 2020

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

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

DWR Day 1 2020
Our morning check-in meeting with all the writers.

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.