Monday, June 16, 2014

H E R E, T H E R E & E V E R Y W H E R E

         This summer, the EIU Writing Center has expanded its walls.  Of course, we are still based in the Writing Center at 3110 Coleman Hall. Our summer hours are 10:00 - 11:30 am and 1:00 - 3:00 pm, Monday through Thursday. However, we've become a great deal more fluid. We can also be found at the Panther Fair and Transfer Fairs in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union, and at Summer Institute for Higher Learning study tables in Booth Library. Writing consultants love meeting incoming freshmen and women – as well as their parents – and appreciate the opportunity to welcome transfer students to our campus.  And, of course, we are in our element when we work with novice college students as they prepare for the rigors of the academy.
         We believe in the services offered at the Writing Center. We know that we have been a benefit to the EIU campus community. Yet, like other campus services, we know that the times, as they say, are a'changing, and we aim to change with them. We're becoming more flexible in our responses to student needs. So where students congregate this summer, the Writing Center will be there.
         English department graduate students Solomohn Ennis-Klyczek and Tana Young are the summer writing consultants. Along with our Director, Dr. Fern Kory, we are hot-footing it all over campus to share the secret of decoding writing prompts, the rewards of active reading, and strategies for successful academic writing. We want every incoming student to know about our services when they set foot on campus. We've got handouts and advice. We're prepared to help students with their resumes, scholarship applications, grad school applications and statements of purpose, and academic papers from English 1001 essays to graduate theses. Our motto: “We are here to talk to writers” (Stephen North).
         Again, our summer hours are MTWR 10:00 am - 11:30 am and 1:00 pm - 3:00 pm. Look for our posters and then come by to check out our services. Mention us to your classes! We love EIU students and we love writing. We also love to help. It's what we do. Students can walk in or call ahead to schedule an appointment. Our phone number: 581- 5929.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Let the Librarians Speak

Sure, we all know that librarians do a lot of reading. Librarians know books the way Michael Jordan knows basketball. However, librarians also do a lot of writing. EIU Writes recently interviewed two members of the Booth Library staff, Steve Brantley and Sarah L. Johnson, about the world of writing seen from a librarian's eyes. 

The interview was conducted over email. My questions appear in italics. Steve's answers are preceded by the initials SB, and Sarah's answers are preceded by the initials SJ

1. What genre of writing do you normally operate in? Emails, grants, reports, blogs, etc? Do you have a particular genre that you enjoy more than others? Why?

SJ--I do a fair amount of writing every day on various projects: handouts for library instruction classes, emails, responses to online reference questions, and book reviews, among other things.  I write a blog ( covering historical fiction. If I had to choose, I’d say I enjoy blogging and writing reviews the most, because the process involves the most creativity. 
SB--I guess I am most often writing daily communications and announcements which are in the form of email. But I also write reports for other faculty and staff in the library, prose to accompany exhibit displays, course and subject guides for web pages, presentations for my professional colleagues at library conferences, reviews of books, and journal articles reporting on library science research. My favorite writing is probably writing that I will present as public speaking at conferences. I can't look at a list of bullet points and speak off-the-cuff in a way that flows well or holds together, so I have to write my remarks. Writing in this way forces me to think about how I speak and the difference between listening and reading.
 2. One of my favorite high school teachers repeated daily the maxim "Strong readers make strong writers." Who would you suggest reading in order to improve writing?
SJ--I definitely agree with that statement! I recommend reading as much as possible in the genre in which you plan to write.That way you’ll not only familiarize yourself with other authors’ typical content and style, as well as any conventions of the genre in question, but you’ll also learn which techniques work most effectively (and which don’t).
SB--I think reading contemporary poets can be very useful to helping us write because their use of language is often playful, creative and frequently such a fine distillation of meaning(s). I find myself surprised and excited by the always new and unique ways that poets use words.
3. You're a librarian, so I gotta ask: What are your pet-peeves? Students being loud? Sometimes I attempt to re-shelve books that I look at briefly. How serious a crime is this?
SJ--I know students are often trying to help out when they re-shelve books themselves, so I’d hardly call it a crime! But in case you were wondering why library staff ask people to leave books they’ve consulted on book carts instead, it’s because we keep track of which books are getting used. If we notice that many reference books on world education, to give one popular example, are being consulted regularly, we may look around and see if there are more we should be buying. It helps with our collection development. Plus, not all students may be familiar with the Library of Congress classification system that we use to shelve books (although they can feel free to ask one of us at Reference if they’d like more info). It makes me nervous to see food and drinks around the computers, so I try to discourage that.  But it hasn’t been a significant issue, fortunately.
SB--Honestly, stereotypes about librarians bother me the most. I see references to media stories several times a year coming from all over the country in which they publish a "scoop" about how librarians aren't bun wearing, glasses-chain having bookworm ladies anymore, that they are interesting people from all walks of life. Well duh. Sheesh, get over it!
To answer your question more directly, the learning process requires talking and discussion as much as it requires reading, writing and listening. We promote the library as a space for collaborative and group study as much as it is a place for silent and contemplative study. Librarians and library staff don't have to police the noise level (although I _will_ shush you if I can hear music or video from your computer/phone/tablet. :)

As for re-shelving the books, stop it! If books are re-shelved incorrectly even by a little bit they are effectively lost to anyone else who needs the book. Let's say you are the next person looking for that book and you can't find it. How likely are you to seek out a staff member or a reference librarian to try to locate it? If you don't ask about it, the book stays lost until someone takes the extra step to let us know it isn't where it is supposed to be. As for the severity of the crime, let's call it a misdemeanor that carries a mild penalty.
4. What do you consider to be the most important elements of writing? Organization? Voice? Grammar? Obviously, all of the elements should work together, but if you had to choose a top three of writing elements, what would be on that list? 
SJ--If I had to pick, they’d be: clarity, content, voice. That may be cheating a bit, because part of making one’s writing clearly understood involves the appropriate use of grammar. My answer also depends a lot on the purpose of the writing; developing a unique voice is less important when writing meeting minutes, for instance.
SB--Coming from the perspective of someone who reads a lot but who also feels like he never has enough time to read, I would say that voice, organization and economy are my top three. Since my time to read is limited I appreciate the originality and distinctiveness of a writer's voice because it is what stands out to me as most memorable in a person's writing. 

Secondly, organization is key. When the elements of a theme are disorganized it stands out.The flow is broken. I also rate organization as highly important because it is something I struggle with in my own writing.  

Finally, by "economy" I mean the efficient yet elegant use of language to convey your point. I appreciate brevity that does not come at the expense of meaning or elegance.
5. There is a lot of talk circling around regarding the "digitalization" of literature. What does this mean for the future of libraries and librarians? 
SJ--Libraries and librarians are heavily involved in digitization projects, both as users of previously digitized material and as content creators. At Booth, for example, we subscribe to the Early English Books Online database, which has digital images of nearly all materials published in Britain between 1473 and 1700. We also maintain The Keep, EIU’s own institutional repository, with contains publications of EIU faculty as well as scanned-in items from the university’s history. 
More products continue to be offered in digital form – newspapers, books, journals – and having this material available online means increased access for users, which is a good thing. As a reference librarian, one of my responsibilities is to help students use these collections by guiding them to the most relevant resources and showing them how to develop good search strategies. On the other hand, while there’s a lot of useful free content out there, many of these wonderful products are subscription-based – and can be expensive.  This poses challenges for library budgets, and this won’t get any easier over time. Looking ahead to the future, I expect librarians will continue to play integral roles in the digitizing of literature, and in helping people locate the best sources for their needs. That’s what we’re trained to do.

SB--As the digital age has come upon us, libraries and librarians have adapted their practices and skills to accommodate the changes in the way published knowledge is collected, maintained and consumed. 

Generally speaking, from the perspective of the physical library, as digital information has grown, the numbers of walk-in visitors and circulation of physical books has dropped. In response, libraries have redesigned their spaces, collections and services to serve their patron's changing needs. From the perspective of the public services librarian, whose primary mission is to assist library users find and effectively use information, the proliferation of electronic literature in all forms has only made finding it and using it effectively that much more complicated. From the perspective of the technical services librarian, whose goal is to accurately and consistently describe the information objects, print or electronic, for optimal discovery by library users, their jobs are increasingly diversified and, in my opinion, interesting.

To put it briefly, new forms of information exist side by side with older forms and it takes a long time for any format to truly go away, if it goes away at all. Libraries may shift some of their focus from "brick and mortar" issues to issues of access to digital books and digital information, and the delivery of that information over digital networks, but the central mission of the library remains. I've got a book you can read about it: Clough, G. Wayne. _Best Of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, And Archives In A Digital Age_ Smithsonian, Washington D.C. 2013. []

Monday, April 14, 2014

Stradivarius and Shakespeare

For centuries, classical musical lovers and violin aficionados agreed that no violin sounded better than a Stradivarius. There was just something about that old-wood sound.

These 18th century instruments are extremely valuable. In January, a man shot an orchestra performer in Milwaukee with a stun gun and stole his Stradivarius. The reward for returning the violin unharmed? $100,000.

However, according to this article over at Livescience, Stradivarius has lost its reign as King of the Violins. In a blind test in which some of the world's greatest violinists played new and old violins, "The older violins ranked lower in all five categories of the ratings, though new and old violins came out equivalent in the 'overall quality' category. Notably, the soloists couldn't tell an old violin from a new one: Their guesses were no more accurate than the flip of a coin."

So, what explains all this fuss over the Stradivarius sound for hundreds of years? How have we all been fooled into thinking that no other violin has a better quality? Joseph Curtin, the man behind the study comparing new violins to their Stradivarius counterparts, says, "The idea that you can't make a better sound than a Strad has been a pervasive one, and it doesn't really rest on anything except people saying it."

That statement from Curtin reminded me of a comment made by a certain graduate student, I'll name him Tyler, who claimed that Shakespeare was a little overrated. Needless to say, a rousing debate followed. At one point, Tyler said, "If we were not always talking about Shakespeare, we would not consider him the best ever." 

Tyler's point was that no one approaches Shakespeare without a huge amount of bias. We are told Shakespeare is the best ever and we in some way want to believe that Shakespeare is the best ever in order to fit in with cultural predispositions. Lo and behold, we read Hamlet and join the "Shakespeare is the Best Ever Club." 

I originally felt that Tyler's argument was baseless, but after reading the article on Stradivarius violins I am beginning to reconsider my position. Do I love Shakespeare because of what is actually in the text, or do I love Shakespeare because everyone has told me that I love Shakespeare?

Almost all Americans are introduced to Shakespeare during high school. This makes Shakespeare literary common ground for much of the nation. The fact that many Americans are able to argue intelligently about Shakespeare's work speaks to his pervasiveness, and therefore his greatness, as a writer. 

Now, I do not want to set up a binary. No one claims that a Stradivarius does not produce an incredible sound. The study simply argues against the idea that a Stradivarius produces the best sound ever. In a similar way, Tyler admits that Shakespeare is one of the greats. His point is that perhaps Shakespeare is not the greatest writer in the history of the English language.

What other "bests" might bare closer examination in our different disciplines? Are John Lennon and Paul McCartney the greatest pop song writers? Should Warren Buffet go down as the greatest investor of all time? Has someone out-painted Picasso?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Shakespeare's Black Lady

We have all read Shakespeare, in high school or college, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Everyone knows who he was and remembers what Romeo and Juliet is about. Most people when they hear or read Sonnet 130 will be able to tell you, "Yep, that's Shakespeare alright." Sonnet 130 is probably the most studied of his sonnets and also likely the most misinterpreted. The sonnet is about Shakespeare's mysterious muse known only as the Dark Lady, who, for the longest time, was thought to be some married noble woman.

In a Shakespeare class last semester, I learned that increasing evidence points not to the Dark Lady being some tragic confined noble-woman, but to a free woman with her own agenda, who quite literally was Black (Sonnet 132: "Then will I swear beauty herself is black/And all they foul that thy complexion lack.")In addition to my professor (John Kunat, a Shakespeare scholar), Dr.Dunken Salkeld argues that she was a woman named Black Luce, who was in charge of a brothel near Shakespeare's playhouse. If this is the case, then we might read Shakespeare with different eyes.

We don't have to think, "Man, Shakespeare, you are so deep. You only care about personality; you don't care that your lady is unattractive. So romantic." Instead, we can read Sonnet 130 and say, "Alright, so what you considered beauty was not standard, but certainly still beautiful. You're just a dude with preferences, Willy."

All this is important because it lets us know that we aren't so changed from the past. Shakespeare was a genius, but he was still a man. Right now, I am reading the oldest epic of literature, written even before the Odyssey, and even before the Hebrew Bible: Gilgamesh, and it is more accessible than either the Bible or the Odyssey, and the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is the most poignant bromance I have read in literature or seen in on film--they fight, they hug it out as equals, comfort each other, and Enkidu dies for Gilgamesh. The human condition was not alien 4,000 years ago, and it will not be so different 4,000 years from now, if we can survive.


My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks; 
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
   As any she belied with false compare. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fix Your Grammar

I love puppets. And I love fuzzy animals with large teeth (Look at these capybaras. How can you not love these capybaras?). And I love internet videos. And I love grammar.

So, imagine all the love I felt when I came across this video by Glove and Boots on YouTube. It's everything. A bunch of puppets (including a puppet version of a fuzzy animal with large teeth) give directions on fixing common grammar problems.

Hearts popped out of my eyeballs.

So, without further ado, I'll share the love. Here it is: "Fix Your Grammar" by Glove and Boots.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Memorize with a Memory Palace

In a bizarre turn of events, my incredibly awkward younger brother was cast as Romeo in his high school's production of Romeo and Juliet. Interestingly, his teacher told all of the students not to try to memorize the lines; he had a special technique that would help them remember their lines better than reading the poetry over and over.

That technique is the memory palace. A memory palace is an imaginary space you build in your mind and fill with objects. You attach images to the objects in order to aid with information recall. It helps people complete amazing feats of memorization. For example, people with advanced memory palaces can memorize the order of a deck of cards after only seeing the cards once.

So, if you want to learn how to astound your friends or woo your significant other by memorizing a poem, check out the technique here. Also, the memory palace could help you with more practical things, like schoolwork.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Silver Dollar Method

I spent this past weekend at the Eastern Conference Writing Centers Association (ECWCA) with Dr. Kory and three of my fantastic colleagues. Miami University hosted the conference, and let me tell you, MU is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. It's unbelievable. I want to pull a Percy Bysshe Shelley right now and see how many metaphors and similes I can come up with re-Miami University's beauty, but no one wants to read my poetry. Instead, here is MU's virtual tour. 

Although I attended several informative and interesting sessions, I found Victoria Willson's and Megan Ward's presentation on the connection between reading and writing  particularly compelling. They provided strategies to aid (mainly first-year) students with critical reading. One of their primary claims is that struggling writers often struggle with reading, a claim I agree with. Of the two methods Willson and Ward walked us through, I think The Silver Dollar Method could be easily employed in a classroom setting and would have immediate positive results.

Also, a guy I grew up with plays in a band called Silver Dollars, and they're pretty sweet, if you're into alt-country. Check 'em out.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dear Professor: Emailing in The Academy

When you think of college writing, what genres come to mind? Essays? Lab Reports? Proposals? Whatever popped into your head, it probably wasn't email. That's unfortunate because emails are one of the most commonly used forms of writing in the academy (and beyond). Most studies on the subject focus on emails in the corporate world (where workers spend a whopping 28% of their work time managing emails), but a quick, wholly non-scientific survey of my own inbox shows that I wrote 41 school-related emails last week.

Unfortunately, few students learn how to craft an appropriate email--even though lots of students could stand a lesson in netiquette (a blog post on the subject by EIU English professor Dr. Michael Leddy has drawn more than 400,000 readers from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe!).

I have my own thoughts about how to email professors (don't use emoticons. because: obvious), but I thought I'd ask a few experts. To that end, I chatted with Dr. Tim Taylor, Associate Professor of English and Director of Composition at EIU, Dr. Sandra E. Weissinger, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and  Dr. Natalie T. J. Tindall, Associate Professor and Co-Graduate Director in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University (whose twitter feed, incidentally, is all types of interesting). Here's some of their advice:

Use appropriate titles.

Many professors bemoan the epic of informality among today's students. All three of the academics I interviewed touched on this issue: Dr. Weissinger included "when students misspell my name or call me 'Miss', 'Ms.' or 'Mrs.'" on her list of top 3 email pet peeves; Dr. Tindall explained that she asks for the "extra formality" of being called Professor or Doctor because she is not much older than many of her students; Dr. Taylor's email policy, which he includes with his syllabus and course policy for all courses he teaches, asks that all messages begin with a formal address.

OMFG, y'all. Stop with the textspeak. Ur teacherz don't LOL.

There is a tendency for students to include casual internet abbreviations in messages to teachers. Perhaps it's rooted in the same informality that leads students to write emails without a formal address or salutation or maybe it's, as Dr. Taylor argues, related to the tendency of some people to "think of email as the same as texting their friends." Either way, it's a problem. Dr. Tindall's advice? "Emails are professional communication tools, and you should spell out everything you write." Kthnxbai.

And while you're at it, check your address.

Your email address reflects on your image as a student (arguably a type of semi-professional), so be sure to keep that in mind when you communicate with professors. I mean, do you really think your comm teacher is going to seriously consider a request for extra credit when it comes from (Dr. Tindall's example, not mine)? Dr. Leddy explains that using your university email, in addition to ensuring the expected amount of professionalism, "immediately lets your professor see that your email is legitimate and not spam."

Be specific!

All three of the professors I interviewed also noted that they expect students' emails to provide all the specific information that is necessary for the message to be read, understood and, if appropriate, responded to. This means wisely using the subject line and giving your full name, course number and section and, if applicable, the name or page numbers of any assignment or reading you're asking about. This isn't just about etiquette; it's about efficiency. As Dr. Weissinger explained "I have many students. So, when students do not note which class their email concerns (in combination with non-specific questions), I am lost - and often do not have time to figure out what class they are in, as I am often five minutes ahead of my students in terms of class preps and grading."

And while you're crafting that specific question, stop for a minute to decide if you need to ask it at all. As a TA for a first-year writing course this semester, I've become pretty salty about how many emails I get asking me questions that students should be able to answer on their own (when's the assignment due? How 'bout you look at the schedule posted on D2L... on the internet... that you're using right now to send me this email). And for the record, I'm not the only teacher who doesn't want to answer these types of questions; Dr. Weissinger included when students ask "a question that is answered in class documents (for example, the syllabus)" as her #1 pet peeve.

Keep it simple, stupid.

The best emails are short and to the point. "Emails are more inviting and easier to read when they are 'chunked,' meaning that in an online platform, strong communication is likely to have shorter paragraphs than academic essays," Dr. Taylor explains. "The medium affects the arrangement and form of the message." Dr. Tindall, who follows this website's advice for 90% of the emails she writes, agrees: "I hate long emails. HATE THEM." If a longer message is absolutely necessary, Tindall recommends using white space and bullets as tools for chunking.

The pudding's in the proofing.

As with any good writing, emails require proofreading. Consistently incorrect spelling and punctuation make messages harder to read--and can make readers quite cross. Save yourself (and your audience) some frustration and give your words a quick once-over before pressing send.

Feeling a little overwhelmed? Don't worry. More responsibly using electronic communication, while it might appear daunting at first, doesn't really take all that much work. Plus, it adds to your own efficiency. Including course numbers in your subject lines, for example, makes searching your own inbox much easier. And there's the bonus of knowing that your professors will be better able to answer whatever questions you have (and in a better mood when they do) if your messages are clear and concise. And don't feel like you're alone; Dr. Leddy and each of the professors I spoke with all pointed out that, just like their students, they work to follow their own advice.

It's a jungle out there; write accordingly.