Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Being Heard Through "The Word"

In My Religion Helen Keller famously said, "For nearly six years I had no concepts whatever of nature or mind or death or God. I literally thought with my body...Then, suddenly, I knew not how or where or when, my brain felt the impact of another mind, and I awoke to language, to knowledge, to love...I was actually lifted from nothingness to human life..."   

Some of you may be rolling your eyes, thinking how incredibly cliché it is to use Helen Keller as an example of "finding herself" through language, but bear with me!

 The important thing, typically left out of Keller's story, is what she did with her realization--she made sure her voice was heard, even if that meant angering  powerful people, including President Woodrow Wilson, who persecuted the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union, of which she was a member.  

 Helen Keller was a radical socialist, a revolutionary voice for the voiceless, who boldly championed the rights of the disenfranchised, from those who are disabled, to the rights of ethnic minorities, women, and industrial workers.

The fact that many people don't know this is no accident. Keller's legacy has been tamed into a heroic tale of overcoming overwhelming odds with the help of a dedicated teacher (See Lies My Teacher Told Me for more). But Keller undoubtedly wished people would take advantage of that which no one can take--their voice. It is ironic that after struggling so hard to essentially create herself with language, Keller has been silenced by history.

The point? Take advantage of the power of written and spoken word by building arguments. Combine what you know through experience with what our amazing library has to offer. Using the power of language, Keller discovered a world filled with people needlessly suffering and said something about it. Will we do the same, or will we remain silent?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The First Step: Pre-Writing

Writing anything takes place through a process, whether we realize this or not. Some may follow different patterns at different times while they write, but over the next few months, we'll be talking about some tips for you to possibly use during your own writing process.

There's no way around it: when you've got something to write, you've got to start somewhere. Below are some strategies you can use to start pre-writing for your next project.

We've probably all heard this term before. When brainstorming, try making a list of key words, phrases, and questions about your topic. Ask yourself: What do I want to talk about? What else do I need to know? What do I want my readers to get from this? This is a great way to help generate content for your work. 

Whether you type or handwrite your ideas, getting them out into words is what's important. Don't worry about proper grammar or complete sentences here--write down any information that is connected to your topic that you feel is important, and let the ideas flow. You can always organize them later. While brainstorming generally looks like a list when complete, freewriting takes on more of a loose paragraph form. 

Talking It Out
While some may like to pre-write alone, it can be very helpful to talk to others about your ideas. Tell a friend or classmate what your writing is about, and ask them what they think. Talking to someone else about your topic can develop more ideas than you might expect. And don't forget, EIU's Writing Center is always a great place to talk!

Visit Purdue OWL Online for more information about getting started with your writing. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

"So What'd I Miss?" #1 - How Your Subject Librarian Can Help You

Quick story! Real quick, I promise!

The other day, I noticed an interesting suggestion on an assignment sheet that an undergraduate brought in: "Seek out your specialist librarian to help you navigate library resources."  So, I sent the theater specialist librarian, David Bell, an e-mail requesting we meet up and go over my (fictitious) assignment. David has been a specialist librarian at Booth for 16 years, and says more students would benefit if they would seek out their specialist librarians: “We know the sources—you’ll be able to write a better paper because you benefit from our expertise.”

I picked two prompts from the assignment sheet. David says students often come in with only an assignment sheet or a vague topic, and he “doesn’t expect students to come in knowing everything already." In fact, he shares that students "often start off looking for one thing, but discover another.”

For my imaginary assignment, I told David I was deciding between writing about Noh theatre and possibly the history of mimes. David walked me through the process: We looked at some articles, where I learned that Noh theatre is a Japanese theatre art, and I discovered Kabuki - another kind of Japanese theatre. He suggested I might write about the relationship between Kabuki and Noh. The more I learned about Noh Theatre, the further I got from thinking about the history of mimes.  David cautions, however, that you, as a writer, should “be persistent in looking up stuff about your topic,” and to “not give up too quickly just because you can’t find anything.”

Making an appointment with a specialist librarian will benefit you. You’ll do some background reading, get a feel for your topic, and then they can help you navigate the vast amount of resources that are available to you both electronically and in print. David says that rather than thinking that you should “write this, or that,” you should find something enjoyable to write about because “it’s an easier process if it’s something you’re genuinely interested in.”

You can find the specialist librarian for your major or topic here:

Hopefully you have Noh trouble finding something that interests you— thanks for reading, and good luck!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Writing and Micro-Adventures

A recent article about taking microadventures claims that downtime and new experiences are essential to productivity, which means they're essential to writing as well.

According to some researchers downtime allows your brain to evaluate your experiences in ways that could help you improve your self and your work. But true downtime requires you to cut off the flow of information.

So, no phone.

If you need more motivation, why not help children in need get clean water for every ten minutes you go without your phone?

Still with me? Feelin' good about helping the needy and taking care of your brain at the same time?

Good. Now we need new experiences.

Anytime you encounter something new, it can actually "spark different synapses in the brain," which you need for creativity and, of course, for all kinds of writing.

So, if you can't take a micro-adventure like camping in your backyard, try taking a written micro-adventure.

You could draw a map of the first neighborhood you can remember living in.

This is a great way to explore a place you've already been, blending downtime with new experiences and potentially maximizing brain gains. You'll be surprised by how much you remember or, in my case, by the massive blank spots.

Draw a map of an imaginary continent.

Where are the points of interest, and what are their names? What's the climate like here or there? Who knows, you may be on the verge of writing a fantasy novel when you're done.

Mapmaking not your taste? In a few sentences, describe an imaginary setting that you'd love to explore.

Inventing an environment is another good way to get some downtime and new experiences all at once. You can mosey around in an imaginary comfort zone while still conjuring up new sights, sounds, and smells to trigger those synapses.

Did the electric sandstorms in the new Mad Max pique your interest, or do you prefer the arctic climes beyond the Wall in Game of Thrones? Take that inspiration and make something new.

Instead of limiting your travels to the real world or even other writers' fictional worlds, try inventing your own setting. Load it with adjectives, and don't worry about sharing it. This is your world. Claim it.

I'm not saying you should claim it like this cat, but you can't knock kitty's results.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Confessions of a Plagiarist

Nearly everything I write starts out stolen.

Imitation is learning, after all.

But to avoid academic dishonesty or an "F" for the class, you need to do what any good thief does with valuable material.

Launder it. In writing, you can steal the purpose of someone else's words instead of the words themselves, and the writing you produce by following that model can work just as well.

An argumentation paper is a good option for this strategy. So when that assignment falls into your lap, we have a few tips here to help you succeed.

Here's how to steal like an academic.

1. Draft directly onto any examples your professor hands out.

If you have a digital copy of a successful paper, just load that beauty up and write your name at the top. Be sure to highlight everything so you can remember what's stolen later.

Congrats, you're a thief. Twirl your mustache before proceeding to step two.

"I shan't!"

2. Figure out why that example is good.

Make a list of what each highlighted sentence accomplished. Did it state an opinion? Did it provide context for an argument? Did it summarize a complicated idea?

In the Writing Center, we call this metacognition. Two-dollar word right there. Feel free to steal that too.

3. Copy the purpose, not the words.

That list should help you learn why the paper succeeded, and you can follow those guidelines as you insert your own ideas.

For instance, if your notes say that the first sentence of the sample paper simply introduced an argument or thesis statement, then you should do the same.

Go through the list with your topic in mind and write sentences that do what the example sentences did. Write your sentence right after the stolen one and compare them.

At this point, you're more like an art forger than a thief. But hey, that's still cool.

4. Fill the document with quotes.

Here's a good place to start when your professor doesn't give you a sample paper.

If the professor allows quotes, I load my document with enough of them to meet the assignment's page requirement. If nothing else, it makes me feel better that the end is in sight.

There are only two rules: the quotes need to be related, and I need to have something to say about each of them. That need is what will help fill the gaps later.

4. Read that ugly mess.

With the small bits I've added, that once glorious sample paper will now look like total carnage.

I recommend channeling Edward Norton for a zen moment.

Now it's time to clean up that mess.

5. Revise, revise, revise.

I usually can't help but write at this point because, for me, revising is easier than drafting.

Wanting to bring order to the world (or a lowly paper) is pretty a common desire, so I'm betting you'll be ready to write too.

Delete anything that doesn't connect to your topic. Bridge those gaps between quotes. It's usually as simple as introducing the quote and then explaining why it's important to your argument.

If you have any more stolen material that needs to be there for the paper to make sense, cite it carefully. Here's the website we use in the Writing Center to make sure our citations are perfect:

Yeah, sorry, you still have to cite. There is no perfect crime.

In short . . .

It's all about stealing the purpose of words, not the words themselves.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Comfort in the Writing Center: Why I Never Went

I'm a pretty happy guy. When I'm sitting at the desk in the Writing Center, I smile at people who walk by. Basically, I look like this:

Though, unlike the bow-tied Dwight Schrute, I keep it casual.

Some people smile back, and some are too focused on their destination to notice the smiling weirdo. But every now and then, a passerby will look up, see me smiling, and turn away quickly.

I'm not a stranger to people avoiding me, but usually it's because they're just embarrassed to be my friend. Plenty of people avoided being seen with me from around December through February because I was the only person on campus still wearing flip flops every day. However, these students turning away and avoiding eye contact is a bit different. They can't even see my flip flops. These are students who don't want to be pulled into the Writing Center. I remember being that person.

When I was an undergrad here at EIU, I would walk by the writing center on my way to class each day. Every now and then, I'd look in to see what was going on, but I made sure to avoid eye contact with whoever was sitting at the desk.

I feared that they would pull me in. I thought that their eyes were insisting, that they were telling me I couldn't write. Theirs were eyes that said, "Look at the English major who needs help writing his papers!"

Even if they didn't think this way, I was sure that my peers would talk about me going to the writing center. I knew they'd doubt my ability to write the right words, punctuate my own sentences, and come up with my own ideas. I mean, if I couldn't write, why I was an English major in the first place?

I don't know if that's what all averting eyes are afraid of, but I can and will admit that mine were. I wanted to prove to everyone--not that anyone cared--that I could write my own papers. I didn't need help.

But I did. I've looked back at many of my undergrad papers. Trust me, I could have--and should have--used the help.

As a grad student, I ask my friends and colleagues, many of whom work with me in the Writing Center, for help. Do they judge me? Nope. They're in there too. In fact, when a colleague comes to me for help, I know that they're trying to write a better paper and be a better writer. I don't scoff at them for wanting assistance; I'm impressed by the initiative they've shown by seeking out resources that can help them improve.

Those of us who work in the Writing Center know that getting someone else to look at our writing helps. We have our own set of grad-student eyes, but it always helps to have someone else look at your work. And I'm happy I've realized that.

But I wish I'd realized it a long time ago.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Two Tips for Giving Peer Feedback

Maybe you're part of a writing group, a student in a creative writing workshop, or just peer-editing a friend's paper. No matter your situation, we at the Writing Center know how complicated it can be to give honest, helpful feedback.

These two tips should help you to be help others--without making enemies.

1. Set Feedback Rules

For beginning writers especially, good taste in writing comes easier than actually being able to create good writing. It means you probably won't like each other's work the way you like other things you've read. Discussing problems with a story may become easier than discussing strengths.

But as long as you know each other's boundaries, you can navigate this terrain. Ask each member if they want both positive and negative feedback. If they are ready for negative feedback, ask them if they prefer observations or advice. Trying to prescribe solutions may take away the fun and independence of writing from the writer.

I, for example, have never once used the solution that someone else came up with. Now, I don't know if that's because of pride or because others simply can't rewrite your story the way that you can, but it doesn't matter. Advice works better when it's invited.

Also, be sure to consider how your discussions begin and end. Would you rather dig into the opportunities for improvement first or after a little buffer of praise? The sandwich method (praise, problems, praise) may sound good, but it can be hard to pay attention to encouragement after your peers have pointed out a weak spot in the writing. That said, who wants to end on a bad note?

2. Believe in Your Peers

In writing groups, what I worry about is not taking a risk and failing. After about six workshops, I've come to accept that a lot of my risks will fail. What I worry about is the way people in workshops take the group setting as permission to turn off their trusting side.

When we read published writers, we often accept that our confusion may be our own fault. Now, you may not be in a group of published writers, but that shouldn't stop you from reading with belief in every writer's abilities.

I know it's easier to read a peer's work with probably too much awareness that the author is in a group designed for writers who want to improve. Yes, pointing out issues can help the writer, but confusing sections may smooth themselves out, given enough time.

It's a good reading practice to suspend your disbelief the first time you read a piece. Be a believer. Trust the writer. Then reread the document with a more critical eye.

In my first workshop, I fell victim to that kind of doubt in myself and everyone else. "It's not like any of us are one of the greats," I thought. So why should any of us get a free pass?

But who needs that attitude?

Tell yourself that the writer did everything for a reason. Respect the writer's authority, just as you would want them to respect yours. For the first reading at least, treat them like a prophet with a direct line to Truth. Treat 'em like one of the greats.

Ever since I started reading this way, I write better feedback. My peers seem happier. And best of all, every time I go to a workshop, I get to surround myself with prophets, with the greats.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Words Matter: The Female Question

In the comments section of our last Words Matter post, reader Mel C posed an interesting question: 
Should we let our students get away with calling women, females? (other than the fact it's grammatically incorrect). 
My answer to Mel was twofold. On the one hand, it's perfectly acceptable--and, in fact, preferable--to use "female" in writing about biological, social, or sexual difference, especially in the sciences. As Yateendra Joshi explains, the general rule is that writers should "use female only when the biological distinction is relevant or needs to be preserved, as in female secondary sexual characteristics, female preferences that govern the choice of a mate, or calories required by nursing females." In these examples, using the word female doesn't only work to make the writer's meaning clear; it also ensures that the scientific information relayed isn't too personal. But if you're writing outside of the sciences, that lack of personal sentiment can be off-putting. As Linguist Deborah Tannen explains, she avoids using "female" because "it feels more like describing an animal than a person." Maeve Maddox's reasoning behind avoiding "female" is similar: "as a noun, female has no place in ordinary conversation unless one is speaking of an animal species." So, if you're writing something where double-x lady parts (as opposed to the social connotations different cultures ascribe to said lady parts) matter, or in the fields, like biology, where writers observe and describe humans in much the same way they do animals, feel free to female it up.   

But there are times when using the word female to refer to women is more problematic. It's particularly problematic in one of the discourse communities that I'm a member of (and, I think, the one Mel C was referring to in her original question): speakers of African-American Vernacular English or AAVE. Just like any other dialect of English (like Cajun English, the "Brahmin" dialect of upper-class Bostonians, or the "Engfish" of academic circles), AAVE has its own grammatical and phonological systems as well as its own vocabulary and, though there's a lot of crossover between AAVE and Standard American English (what many people describe as the kind of English that doesn't have an accent, like what newscasters often speak or what many Midwesterners sound like--though in actuality, even the Midwestern accent-that's-not-an-accent has its own particularisms), there are some particular differences. One such difference is the use of the word "female."

In many varieties of AAVE, "female" isn't reserved for scientific or clinical communication. Instead, it's used in casual, everyday communication in quite a few different ways--and none of them are appropriate in academic writing. 

So, what are some of the different ways AAVE speakers use the word female? Because this blog is PG-13, I won't be providing examples here (though if you're interested, a quick search of "females" on Twitter should give you an idea of some of the different usages). Suffice it to say that, as it's used by many AAVE speakers, the word "female" comes with negative, often sexualized connotations. Miss Glamtastic breaks users of "female" in this particular way down into two categories: men who want to demean or denegrate women and use the word female "because it doesn't sound as nasty (but still carries the same sentiment and tone) as calling her something profane" and women who want to "[endear] themselves to men" or put down other women. The Root's Demetria Lucas D'Oyley and Jezebel's Kara Brown both go into more detail about it.

But, if you're an AAVE speaker, how can you check to be sure that your usage of female in academic writing is appropriate? And, if you're a tutor or an instructor who's not an AAVE speaker, how can you tell if an AAVE client or student's usage of "female" is a problematic one? Try Miss Glamtastic's replacement test:

If you can replace the word "female" with the word "b!$$%", or, actually, any other defamatory term used to refer to a woman that is displeasing in some way, and the feeling of the sentence is the same, then be offended [or, in the case of writing, revise to use another word]. If the tone of the sentence hasn't drastically changed, though a profane word is being used instead of "female," then you know what the person is REALLY trying to say.
Or you can do what I do: The Chris Brown Test. On one of my favorite radio stations from home, the radio edit for Chris Brown's 2014 song "Loyal"--with its oh-so-catchy but bothersomely misogynistic refrain--changed the lyric "these hoes ain't loyal" to a more user-friendly one: "females ain't loyal." If the use of "female" in question fits in the song, you've got a problem and need to revise.

So, what's the TL;DR answer to Mel's original question? "Female" can be okay to use in academic writing, but only when it's used thoughtfully and appropriately. Because words matter.