Category: Opportunities

Beyond Following Directions: Getting the Most Out of Your Assignment Prompts

Liz Soule, Writing Consultant

Have you ever read the instructions for an assignment and felt totally stumpedLiz Soule

You’re not alone. Last semester, dozens of students came to the University Writing Center to talk with me about their assignment prompt. Given how common this issue is, I thought it might be helpful if I share some of my tricks of the trade. In this blog post, I’ll be sharing methods any writer can use to decipher prompts and demystify assignments. We’ll begin by looking at the different features of a writing assignment prompt. To do this, we’ll review an assignment prompt I received in my English 102 class.

For your analysis of fiction essay, you want to choose a story and provide an analysis of some aspect of the story (a character, a theme, a metaphor, foreshadowing, or catharsis, for example). Your thesis should state specifically what aspect of the story you are analyzing and then HOW you will analyze it. The body of your essay should break down into 4-6 supporting sections. The conclusion of your essay should place your thesis in a social context.

The first step to understanding any assignment is to understand the task at hand. To do this, we look at the assignment prompt for certain understandings. We should find out what actions we are being asked to take, how we should go about it, and what the requirements of our assignment are.

What am I being asked to do?

Looking at the first sentence of my assignment, it becomes clear what kind of paper I am writing: an essay about fiction. The question is, what am I to do in this essay? By looking for keywords in my assignment, I come to understand what action I’ll need to take. As you can tell by the words I’ve formatted in bold, there is a trend regarding the word analyze (and related words, analysis and analyzed). This tells me that the focus of my essay is to analyze fiction.

How do I do it?

How am I to go about doing this? My professor laid out some breadcrumbs for me to follow in the form of essay parts: thesis, body and conclusion. In the thesis, I should lay out what aspect I am analyzing (e.g., a theme), and how I will do it (e.g., evaluating key plot points). The body needs to include 4-6 supports, which means that there will be 4-6 body paragraphs, each including their own unique story-related evidence that supports my thesis. Finally, the conclusion has to tie my overall point into a social issue.

But what if you’ve gone through this process and you’re still not sure? What if the assignment instructions are vague or unclear? What then? Sometimes, you need to think a little deeper, beyond the instructions, and look to the outcomes. Although they might not feel like it in the moment, writing assignments aren’t meant to torture you. Professors assign them so that you can practice skills, and show what you know.

What are you supposed to learn by writing this? (What is the course supposed to teach you?)

One of the ways a professor might teach you about discipline-related information (e.g., concepts in sociology) in your course is through the process of writing. This is known as “writing to learn”. Essentially, it’s thought that writing helps us engage with ideas more actively than reading might. You might be putting concepts together through writing, or coming to understand a text or topic better through the process of writing about it.

In other cases, writing assignments are utilized to help students hone their writing skills so that they can tackle more complex tasks. Many assignments in English 101 and 102 both connect together and build upon one another. For instance, in English 101, you might be asked to write an argument, then summarize another’s argument, and finally write an argumentative essay. In English 102, you may analyze an artifact, which leads to an annotated bibliography, which culminates in a research project.

In both of these cases, you can show what you know by engaging as best as you can with the skills or content areas you are supposed to be learning. This not only help you complete your assignment, but will help develop your knowledge and abilities overall.

 What knowledge can you show through your writing? (What is your professor hoping to assess?)

This leads us to the other goal of writing assignments: student assessment. This might seem like an obvious statement, but in the midst of writing the assignment, we can lose track of what exactly this means. As we write, we often focus heavily on how clear or eloquent our writing is, or how close we are to meeting requirements. In times like this, it’s important to step back and think: what have I learned in the course? How can I use this assignment to show what I know? This often leads to a more authentic assignment.

Finally: Talk to your professor.

If you’ve completed all these tasks, and you still aren’t sure, then it’s time to approach your professor. Try and think of specific questions you have about the assignment. For instance, if the format of the assignment wasn’t clear, you could ask about that. Likewise, if you’re not sure how it connects to what you’ve learned, you can always ask.

As always, University Writing Center consultants are here to help you in breaking down assignment prompts and getting started. We’re happy to help you read through your assignment prompt and answer these questions.

For more help, check out the following resources:

How can I better understand my assignment?

Common keywords in assignment prompts

Five tips for interpreting writing prompts

The Places and Spaces of Writing

Katie Frankel, Writing Consultant

Sometimes, when I know I need to write – either creatively or academically – something possesses me and I think that writing in my bed is a good idea.Katie FrankelEven if it’s the middle of the day, I usually put on pajamas, because you’re supposed to wear pajamas in bed and I can write in pajamas just fine.

I crawl into bed, fluff my pillows, and set my laptop on my lap. If I’m determined to get some serious writing done, sometimes I’ll even open a Word document.

My dog sees me in bed so he jumps into bed, too, and snuggles up next to me. He is so cute. I set my laptop aside and grab my phone to take an adorable picture of him. While looking over this picture I start looking at other pictures, and the next thing I know, I am three years deep watching iPhone videos of my niece. I’ve now been in bed for half an hour and not gotten anything done. I’m kind of tired, and since I’m already in bed, a little nap wouldn’t really hurt, would it?

Does this writing process sound familiar to you? If it does, it’s probably time to reconsider the places and spaces where your writing is taking place. Today, I present to you a few suggestions of different writing locations that may allow you to be a more efficient writer.

The Coffee Shop

If you’re not a coffee shop goer, you’re probably already discarding this suggestion, but hear me out. I once was not a coffee shop writer either, believing that I needed privacy and silence to work, but mostly knowing that I didn’t want to pay the five-dollar-a-cup entrance fee. However, I have found that the coffee shop can be a great workspace. I like to write at coffee shops because I can usually sit with a friend (accountability partner), there’s some background noise that isn’t to the degree of being overwhelming, and food and coffee is there if you need it. If you don’t want to frequent coffee shops to write in because you don’t want to always spend money, then save coffee shops as an occasional writing space where you can also treat yourself (maybe for writing the last part of that paper?).

The Library

Sometimes, being surrounded by other students who are determined to make dents on their school assignments is helpful to me as I try to stay focused and write my own papers. Because the Ekstrom Library at UofL is so big, whether you want to be surrounded by constant noise or complete silence, you can find a place to sit and write on one of its four floors. And, if you’re doing research, the immediate accessibility to the stacks is certainly helpful. A major bonus working at the library affords students is that if you would like some additional help, you can stop in at the University Writing center on the first floor.

Your Home

Last but not least, your home can actually be a great place to get some writing done if you have more self-discipline than I do. Some people are actually more productive at home, and prefer to make various areas of their home their writing workspaces. Try writing at your desk, or kitchen table, or even sitting outside on your porch, if you have one. The benefits of working at home include not having to leave the house or interact with others, being able to stay in your pajamas, and having a constant source of food.

Leave a comment describing your favorite (or least favorite) writing space. And, if you have a dog, leave a comment if he’s a better assistant than mine.

 

Youtubin Your Way Through Literary Theory

Edward English, Assistant Director to the Writing Center

Years back, I began my freshman year at The University of Oklahoma knowing I would be an English major. Edward English Why not? English classes were my favorite in high school. I did well analyzing literature, waxing philosophy during class discussions, writing compelling essays about how Rasknolnikov’s struggles to combat guilt were not too unlike my own teenage worries that I wouldn’t find a prom date.

But as I began my college-level courses, something emerged in my English classes which I felt ill-equipped for—literary theory. Literary theory was, and still is, difficult for me for a number of reasons. While a single piece of literature may have little to no variance in its written composition, the theoretical framework(s) we use to extrapolate meaning from that same text can be seemingly infinite. So where do you begin? And which theoretical lenses are worth valuing and why?

What’s more, the philosophers/theorists canonized in contemporary literary criticism frequently appeared to me little more than a random amalgamation of scholars from various fields at numerous historical periods used to propagate particular political interests. Not to mention that many of these writings are incredibly dense and difficult for a beginner to absorb. I can recall making my way through the deconstructionists and thinking I might as well be reading a foreign language.

In time though, my disposition towards literary theory has shifted dramatically. As a current graduate student in English here at the UofL, it now feels like half of my life revolves around geeking out with my friends and colleagues about various theoretical takes on a piece of writing. There is one resource, however, that I wish would have had in my undergrad (had it been available): the YouTube channel The School of Life.

With relatively short videos (5-10 minutes), this channel entertainingly distills the main ideas of various literary theorists, as well as explicating the life and writings of specific famous writers. Watching these videos can be helpful on several levels. Maybe you’ve read through some literary theory but want to know how well you understood a given theory. Perhaps you’d like to prime yourself beforehand with an overview before you jump into the denser theory itself. Or, could be you just want to watch an engaging, and often silly, video that will expand your mind on how you can read a text. Either way, check them out! They are well worth your time.

Some of the major literary movements, theorists, and authors available on The School of Life:

Jacques Derrida
Michel Foucault
Karl Marx
Friedrich Nietzsche
Jane Austen
Leo Tolstoy
Virginia Woolf 
Marcel Proust
George Orwell
Romanticism

What To Do Before, During, and After Your First Writing Center Appointment

Jacob DeBrock, Writing Consultant

We’ve all been there. We’ve got a paper that we’re working on that’s puzzling us in some way or that we want someone else to look over. You might have heard about the Writing Center from other people, but you’ve never been there before, so you don’t know what’s like. How much information do I need to bring?Jacob DeBrock Is the tutor scary? Will they put my paper in a shredder if they think it’s bad? The answers are, respectively, at least some, only before 11, and no… for now.)
This blog post should hopefully make your first writing center appointment a less stressful and helpful experience by just learning a few simple tricks in advance, whether you’re a freshman or in your last semester.
1) List as much information as you can when you sign up for an appointment
First things first: you have to sign up for an appointment. While there are quite a few things you have to fill, the two most important things are what you are working on and your concerns are.
For the former, you don’t have to state every single aspect of the work; rather, this helps to give us an idea of what tactics and structure we will use in our appointment. The way we tackle a personal statement will be different from a research paper or a creative work. By knowing this in advance, we are able to get started quickly on the meat of the paper or other material.
Concerning concerns, if you are not sure about what they are in advance, that’s fine; sometimes, you only notice things odd once you hear them through the voice of another. However, if you are able to think of any concerns, this will help us to direct the appointment in a targeted approach to get at the heart of these issues.
2) Bring any and all materials relevant to the task at hand
Syllabi, assignment prompts, previous notes, texts that you’re working off of: your paper goes beyond your words. Having these materials with you provides us with a map to make sure that we understand what it is that you are working on and that, if you have any questions about it, we have something to look at for any potential answers.
3) Use your voice
Oftentimes, I get the feeling that people see our words as the final verdict to a paper’s issues and problems, but that’s not our purpose. We’re not editors; our main goal is to help improve you as a writer now and in the future. As such, we’d like you to speak up any moment that you are unsure about why we are asking you to do something. This way, you will leave the center with a better understanding of what exactly it is you need to better about yourself and how you can do it.
4) Think about your writing center experience
Your appointment doesn’t end after 50 minutes. After your first appointment, take the time to think about your appointment. Was there something that your tutor did that you really liked? Was there something you wanted to ask them, but didn’t get the opportunity to? Asking yourself these questions will not only help you to become a better writer, but to make sure that your next writing center appointment will be just as good as the first.
Going to the writing center can be a stressful experience. There’s a vulnerability, that you are letting someone look over your words and critique them. Yet we serve a vital purpose to the college community. We offer a service that cannot be found anyone else, solely dedicated to helping writers grow and become stronger. So, when you’re walking through our doors for the first time, know that we’re not here to judge or scorn or look down upon you; we’re here to help, to nurture, to strengthen.

Boo! It’s a Ghostwriter!

Brooke Boling, Writing Consultant

Around Halloween, secrets and spirits loom around, hiding behind every corner where you’d least expect it. Ghouls and goblins lurk, hoping to turn you into a snack.Brooke Boling, in particular, are the sneakiest, waiting to spring upon you from every darkened hallway, even lurking in the wiring of your phone, speaking through the mouths of the unlucky souls they possess.
Outside of the context of Halloween, however, what exactly is a ghost…writer? Well, a quick Google search will define it as someone who is “hired to write literary or journalistic works, speeches, or other texts that are officially credited to another person as the author.” Although it often involves doing a bit of detective work to figure out if a ghostwriter was the writer, many well-known books have been ghostwritten. These include many of those in the James Bond series, dozens of autobiographies (including An American Life by Ronald Reagan), technical and business books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey and The Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner, as well as works of literature like the Nancy Drew books by Carolyn Keen (a pseudonym used by multiple ghostwriters to publish the series).
What is the purpose of having a ghostwriter? Many authors of popular series would begin with so much success that the demand for books became too high, causing them to hire ghostwriters to speed up the process of churning out so many novels. Celebrities and politicians use ghostwriters because they may not have the time or inclination to actually write their own autobiographies, but still have a desire for their story to be known. Leaders in technical fields may feel they are too close to the knowledge at hand to translate it effectively for a larger audience to understand. In the case of the Nancy Drew books, a pseudonym was established early and agreed upon by the many ghostwriters who wrote the series.
During my time as a ghostwriter, I wrote for informational technology (IT) professionals who did not have the time or inclination to write pieces meant for a larger, more layman-based audience. As someone with very little knowledge of IT concepts, I interviewed the experts and wrote marketing-based blogs that someone with very little IT experience could understand. These blogs were published on the company website under the experts’ names.
Ghostwriters do not write simply so the other person receives all of the credit. Rather, the author has the original idea, and the ghostwriter transcribes it. Ghostwriters help the author publish and spread their ideas, messages, and story, helping the author put words to their original ideas. Ghosts aren’t so scary after all!

Writing as Hospitality: 4 Ways to Host Your Reader Well

Abby Wills, Consultant

Is it the way those freshly baked sentences melt in your mouth?Abby Wills

Is it the long, hair-frizzling hours it takes to make it?

Is it the satisfied, sleepy feeling after it’s gone?

I’m not sure either. But I do know that the act of writing is rarely done in isolation. When you write, you are almost always writing for someone. In a way, as the writer you are the host, and your reader is the guest, whom you must welcome into your home of paragraphs and feed with your long slaved-over words.

How does one host well? The practice of hosting is difficult enough when your guest is sitting face-to-face with you at your table, but what about when you don’t get to see your guest in person? What about when your guest is not coming to your house, but coming to your writing? How can your essay welcome, feed, and make conversation with your guest so that they feel like they have been hosted well and would be happy to come back?

This may seem an odd way to think about writing, but seeing your reader as your guest actually has practical implications. Here are four ways to host your reader well.

1. Know your reader.

It is embarrassing both for you and for your guest if you greet them at the door but can’t remember their name. On the other hand, if you ask your guest about their sick family member they mentioned to you once several days ago, then they will know you care since you remember such small details. Just as hosting well depends on your familiarity with your guest, writing well depends on your familiarity with your reader. Your reader—and therefore what they know, what they want to hear, what they are interested in, and what references they will get—will be different depending on whether you are writing a rhetorical analysis for class, an article for a medical journal, a personal statement for an application, or a short story for children. Knowing who you are writing for is the beginning of hosting them well with your words.

2. Know what your reader needs.

A good host is attentive to a guest’s needs. If the guest says, “I’m thirsty,” or “I’m cold,” or “I have a headache,” and the host doesn’t think to bring water, or a blanket, or medicine, the host has arguably failed in their host-ly duties. Although we can’t hear our readers speak as we are writing, a good writer/host will start to hear the needy reader’s voice in between sentences: “I need more information here,” “I want to know why this is important,” “I don’t understand the context of your argument,” “I don’t know where you’re going with this.” If you know your reader (see #1), you will know when they need more from their writer-ly host. And if you are an attentive host, then you will eagerly fetch that extra information your reader was missing–along with a blanket and some tea.

3. Give your reader clear directions.

Just as a guest will feel uncomfortable if they can’t find their host’s house—or the bathroom, or the kitchen, or the coat closet—your reader will also feel uncomfortable if you do not give them the directions they need to get smoothly through your paper. The kind of directions you give depends on knowing your reader (again, see #1). If your guest has been to your house several times already, you don’t need to tell them where to hang their coat. Likewise, if your reader is already in your field of study, you won’t need to define terms they already know. However, if your reader is unfamiliar with your field, your topic, or your argument, they will need clear signs in order to follow where you want them to go. The considerate writer—like the considerate host—points the reader in the right direction.

4. Be interested in your subject.

What does that have to do with hospitality? Why would my reader care if I’m interested in what I’m writing or not? I’m glad you asked.

You are a guest at a dinner with family friends. Someone brings up your host’s favorite hobby. Suddenly your host’s eyes light up. She smiles. She starts telling a story. She gestures excitedly. She raises her eyebrows. She laughs. The other guests laugh. They listen attentively. They ask for the rest of the story.

When your friend really loves something, you can tell. When they are fascinated by something, you can tell. And if they are really, really interested in something—often you can’t help but be interested in it too. Just as the above host tells a story that excites her (and thus excites her guests), the hospitable writer ought to write about what truly fascinates him—because the reader will know if the writer was bored with his subject, and the reader will be bored too. For the sake of his guests, the thoughtful host will not prepare a dinner he thinks is bland; for the sake of his reader, the thoughtful writer will not write an essay he thinks is boring.

Why does this matter?

It depends. If you want your guests to be glad they came, to want to come back, to exclaim, “This meal is so good!”—then you will make the effort to know them, pay attention to their needs, give them good directions, and foster interesting conversation. If you want your reader to enjoy your writing, to read easily, and to understand your argument, then you will practice thoughtful writing as you practice thoughtful hosting—with your guest in mind. When a guest is hospitably welcomed into someone’s home, they remember.

Write Like You Mean It

Josh Christian, Consultant

            Advanced Composition appeared as an elective course in my student handbook at Campbellsville University, where I was an undergraduate. I enrolled my junior year, to try to get it out of the way for a freer, more calm senior year.Josh Christian (We all know about senioritis) But it was the only class on my schedule that semester I was concerned about, as I didn’t know what to expect. “Advanced Composition” read as if I was going to be plunged into the icy academic waters, left to sink or swim. So, sitting in the lecture hall on the first day of class, I was surprised when the syllabus listed a narrative as the class’s first formal assignment. First, I wondered about its elementary nature, how it seemed trivial for English majors. Then I began to panic. What was I going to write? How was I going to structure it? What ways could I approach such a broad topic? How would I know if I was writing it correctly?

If you are wondering, I didn’t die. I got through the assignment, and it was much easier than I thought it would be. But I do not believe I am alone in my panic, as in universities across the country, students are faced with such writing assignments in composition classes. And because of their lack of experience with writing narratives in an academic setting, they don’t know what to do.  The anxiety they are feeling is more than one writing assignment. No, it is evidence of something larger at play.

Throughout my high school and early academic experience, I was taught to write for the academy. I was to take myself out of the equation, permitted from using “I”. Instead I was told to be objective and to state my opinion but through an unbiased language. I was taught to not make a claim unless I could back it up. And if I did attempt to back up my claims, I needed to cite the material in-text and on a reference page of some sort. This was academic writing. The other kinds of writing, creative writing (stories, poems, plays, etc.) and journaling or messages sent to a friend, had their place but it just wasn’t in the academy.

You see, there had been a binary established, one in the making for generations before me. Academic writing sat on one side, while creative writing sat on the other. And like all binaries, there was a strict wall between them, especially early on, when all narrative or poetic elements were driven from a student’s paper until it became nothing more than thesis statements and transitional phrases. Don’t get me wrong, these elements of academic writing also have their place. But to drive the use of these elements out of any writing completely, is to take away a writer’s desire or ability to be creative, leaving stacks and stacks of student papers which otherwise could have been more thoughtful.

So, what do we do with such a binary? How do we, as students or faculty deal with it? How can we be excited about academic writing, if we can’t be creative? And how can we approach creative projects, like literacy narratives, if we haven’t historically been given permission to be creative before? Well, like any binary, we begin to defeat it when we question it. And when we begin to question the binary, it only helps if we are ready, as students and professors alike, to take back the mantle of “writer,” a title left for the literary authors who often mold the work we, as an academy, talk about.

            When we begin to identify as writers, we begin to take responsibility for our words. We begin to be more thoughtful about what we write because we have agency over our words, them becoming our own. So, make the choice that all writers have to make. When you read the assignment sheet, ask yourself where you can stand to be creative. How can you begin with an anecdote, using narrative elements? How can you push the limits of a rubric by thinking differently about a topic? How can you make what you are writing fun to write or read? Before you know it, your creativity will inform your academic work, and your academic writing will show you the necessity of research and argument. Dare to be a writer in your own right. And whatever you write, write like you mean it.Image result for bob dylan think different                                                                     (Apple, 1997)

You Get What You Give: Making Success Happen in the Writing Center

Liz Soule, Consultant

Hey Writer,

So, you’re about to head into the writing center. You’re going to your first appointment (or maybe it’s your fifth) and you’re wondering: what can I do to ensure that I leave my appointment feeling empowered, confident and ready to tackle my writing? In other words, how can you make the most of your writing center consultation? Liz Soule

By committing to these three things, you can make certain your next writing center session is your best yet:

  1. Invest in the session: When you enter your consultation, try to center both your focus and your positive energy on it. Devote the entire 50-minute block to your writing. It might be challenging, but put distractions aside, and do your best to disengage from unrelated troubles for the time being. If you’re feeling frustrated with your writing, or uncomfortable with the session, attempt to embrace a positive mindset. You will make progress in these fifty minutes, even if you’re not sure how yet.
  1. Communicate your needs: Communication is absolutely vital in a writing center consultation. When you express your needs to your consultant, you offer us an opportunity to help you. Throughout your appointment, do your best to voice how you are feeling. If you’re not comfortable, or you think you may be hitting a wall, say so! Likewise, if something is working very well, it helps to mention that.
  1. Be prepared to take initiative: In a writing center consultation, you will ideally play the lead role: your concerns, needs and desires dictate what we work on. As consultants, we aspire to act as guides. Depending on your needs, we may offer you our perspectives, but for the most part, we will dedicate our time to understanding your intentions as a writer. This may require some give and take in our conversation. Although you should be prepared to take the wheel, know you’re not going at it alone: we’ll work together until we find the balance that works for us.

This consultation is a partnership. Just as you commit to taking initiative and communicating, we commit to seeking out and listening to your perspective. Likewise, we will invest, just as you will, in the productivity and power of your consultation.

I hope that these steps succeed in offering you a feeling of agency when you enter the University Writing Center. I’ll be there, in the back, excited to sit down beside you and get to work.

Liz Soule

Attention UofL Artists! Display your work in the Writing Center!

At the University Writing Center we are committed to celebrating communication and to putting student work first. As part of that commitment we have, over the past four years, made space in the Writing Center available for ongoing displays of student artwork. It has been exciting to have the student art in the Writing Center and has given the artists the chance to show their work to a larger university audience. Now

53d2aae1df3900a8b185a80d11435f73
Woman Writer of Pompeii

that we have moved into our new, very visible space on the First Floor of Ekstrom Library, we again have the opportunity to display student artwork. But now we have a central location on campus where the art we display will be seen by thousands of people a year.

That’s why we are calling for UofL student artists interested in displaying their work in our new space to get in touch with us. The work can be in any medium and on any subject – though we are particularly interested in work that connects somehow to writing, reading, words, books, computers, maps, and any other way we communicate to each other. All UofL students – art majors and non-majors alike – are welcome to submit works.

If you think your artwork would be a good fit for the University Writing Center space, email us today (writing@louisville.edu) or stop by the University Writing Center, First Floor, Ekstrom Library. (We reserve the right to choose which work to display).

Write In, Build Community

Write In, Build Community

Cassie Book, Associate Director

We’re off to a good start at our new location on Ekstrom Library’s first floor. Since we moved, over 500 writers have visited for over 800 appointments! Yet, another benefit of the new space— location and design— is an improved ability to accommodate larger crowds.

On December 9th we’ll host the first big event in the new space, a Write In. We join nearly 90 writing centers worldwide in the International Write In. The general purpose is for writing centers to create community around writing during a particularly stressful time of the semester. Every center will adjust the theme to its local context. For our Write In, we will simply open our doors for UofL writers to use our space to work on final papers and projects. We’ll provide snacks and handouts; writing consultants will be available to answer brief questions. The Write In forwards our Center’s mission to support writing as integral part of the university and as a lifelong learning process. Just making time to sit and write is an important aspect of any writer’s process!

While the typical daily activity in the University Writing Center takes the form of focused 50 minute consultations, the Write In offers a comfortable and motivating space to write. So, if you’re UofL a student, faculty, or staff and could use a break from your usual writing routine, drop in on Wednesday, December 9 from 6-9 p.m. in the University Writing Center.

DSCN3762
The New University Writing Center on Ekstrom Library’s first floor will host its first big event, a Write In, on December 9.