Friday, April 29, 2011

Do the Genre Swap

Well, summer is just a week away, and you all know what that means! Time to write! That’s right. Summer is the perfect time to write and try new things. Besides, it’s always good to write over the summer so you don’t get rusty. Writing is a skill that you need to keep practicing, and if you go all summer without writing, the fall semester will start a little rough. Now, I’m not saying go write a research paper or anything like that. I’m saying go have some fun with writing. So what I’m here to do is to suggest a writing exercise that is usually found in creative writing workshops. It’s called the Genre Swap and this is how it goes:

Take a genre you love. For me, I say the zombie genre. I love everything zombie. Then take that genre and list 3 reasons why you love it. Here’s my list:

1. The implications of a society/culture destroying itself.

2. The fact that the humans are typically the real villains/monsters of a zombie story.

3. The pattern of survivors found in almost every zombie story.

Now that you have the genre you love, name a genre you hate. For me, I would say the romance genre. Ughh, every time I see or hear “romance genre” I think Fever Pitch (what an awful movie). Okay, so once you name a genre you hate, go ahead and list 3 reasons why you hate it. Here’s my list for the romance genre:

1. The ridiculous back and forth: I love you. I hate you. I love you. Uhh, just decide already!

2. The minuscule reasons the couple will break up for: Oh you love the Red Sox? I’m leaving you.

3. The lack of deeper meaning within the majority of the genre.

Okay, so now is the time to do the genre swap. Write a story that falls under the genre you hate, but while doing that, swap your lists and write the genre you hate with the elements of the genre you love. I know what you’re thinking: “Chris, your example means a zombie romance story. That doesn’t make sense.” Oh really? I point you to Shaun of the Dead or Fido. It can be done and this exercise can be a lot of fun. This is just something to try and have fun with. So when you are looking for something to do this summer, pick up a pen and paper and write a little. You won’t regret it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Essay Exam Writing Tips

Finals Week is coming up.

Chances are, some of you will have to do some in-class essay writing during your Final Exam periods. If so, these tips from a recent Writing Center Workshop might be useful:

Before The Exam

-Look over your notes/readings as thoroughly as you can in the time you have available.

-If you know the topics you will need to write about, make an outline to organize your thoughts in advance.

If you can, find out from your professors what they expect in a successful essay.
If your professors give you an opportunity this week to ask questions about the exam, take them up on it!

Some things to ask about or consider include: Will you need a formal introduction/conclusion?
Are you expected to cite resources such as a textbook or other assigned readings? What particular topics should you be prepared to write about?

Before You Start Writing

Read through all the questions carefully. Get a picture of the exam as a whole.

-Budget your time and decide which questions to answer first.

-Underline the key words that tell you what to do for each question.

-Brainstorm and plan an outline on scratch paper or in the margins.

While You Are Writing

-Write your answers as quickly and legibly as you can.

-Refer back to your underlined keywords to make sure you have addressed each requirement.

-Write on every other line of your exam book to leave space in case you need to add things.

-Begin each answer with one or two thesis sentences that summarize your response.

-Support your thesis with specific evidence by making reference to material you have studied.

If You Have Extra Time

-Re-read your essay to make sure you answered each question sufficiently.

-Add supporting details if necessary.

-Proofread for errors in spelling/mechanics. (Save this for last).

Final words of advice...

Be Prepared. Get Plenty of Rest Before Your Exam. Take a Deep Breath, Relax, and Don't Panic!

[Thanks to Rashelle and Dr. Kory for putting together the "Essay Exam Tips" handout, which is available in the EIU Writing Center, 3110 Coleman Hall.]

Monday, April 18, 2011

Collaborative Writing

Writing can be a difficult process—hence the existence of this blog. Even more challenging, at times, is writing in groups—sharing the creation of a paper or assignment with others.

In a perfect world, every single person in a collaborative writing assignment would share equal responsibility in the writing process. Everyone would do the same amount of research and write the same number of pages. But let's face it: this isn't a perfect world.

George Mason University's Online Writing Guide for Students (part of their New Century University program) has a nice section on Collaborative Writing. It offers definitions of various roles, some helpful tips, and even ethical points to keep in mind. I strongly recommend checking out this website. In addition, I've included a few suggestions of my own below:

1) Compromise. You'll have to. If there are three people working on a paper, that means there are three different personalities, schedules, ideas, etc. In a collaborative assignment, everyone is equal. Your peers' suggestions carry as much weight as your own.

2) Be firm. If your peers aren't doing their share of the work, discuss it with them. They may have reasons other than sheer laziness, though if that is the case, then discuss the issue with your other peers, or your instructor.

3) Divide the work as evenly as possible. Are you usually in charge? In a collaborative environment, you'll have to relinquish some control. Are you used to doing what you're told? In collaborative writing, you'll have to take your own initiative.

4) Listen. This goes right along with compromising, but I feel its worth reinforcing. Listen to your peers.

5) Don't stress out. Really. Collaborative writing is highly rewarding, and is a great skill (almost a requirement) when entering the workforce, or extending your education. That doesn't mean it's a bummer, though. It's a great way to get to know people, and to evaluate your own writing process.

The thing to remember is, collaborative writing is worth it. It really is. Two heads are better than one, as the saying goes. When you work closely with others, you gain new experience and new points of view—this is why so many instructors utilize group work in their classrooms. Collaborative writing is a great opportunity to learn from your peers, and for your peers to learn from you.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Part 4 of the Interview with President Perry: The Power of Words

"It's through writing, I believe, that you do start to understand yourself."

You’ve kind of addressed the next questions I was going to ask you about procrastination, and I really liked the way that you put of all that, so I think I’ll let Dan ask his questions.


You’ve told us about different applications of writing, and you’ve told us about different steps in your writing process. Is there any one process or any one aspect of your writing that you particularly like, and conversely is there one aspect that you just absolutely dread?

Well, okay so let’s take the different kinds of writing—the part I like for the writing has to do with the job and all that. The part I like there is defining on the front end: Audience, message. Because that clarifies a lot for you right there.

And once I get that clear in my head and that’s not always clear because you’re meaning. Let’s say you’re going to be meeting with the Mattoon Rotary, and you’re going to be talking about something. The audience isn’t the Mattoon Rotary.

You’ve got to look at who’s all in there, the different segments of the community, and then you’ve got to think what are the common threads there, so you may end up knowing you’re going to be addressing, you know, one audience when you’re talking about the Renewable Energy Center, another audience when you’re talking about enrollment, and another audience when you’re talking about community service. And so I that’s the part I like, it’s getting that identified.

In terms of more personal, really personal writing, I like it when I find the right word.

In haiku, you know you’ve got these syllables, and I know of course if you in different languages of course the syllables change and meaning changes and all that, but I just do English okay? So, getting it right, at least what I think is right, is very satisfying because sometimes you’ll write it and you’ll have the write number of syllables and you’ll be getting almost the intent you want. But changing one of the words sometimes can really make things fall into place, kind of like a jigsaw puzzle, you know. You do a jigsaw puzzle, and you’re down to just a few spots left, and boy this looks like it goes right there, you know, it almost does, but it doesn’t quite. So it’s the same with words. So that’s very satisfying. I like that. A lot of enjoyment out of that.

Well splitting it up again into your professional and personal writing, what would you say have been your most successful or favorite writing experiences?

Well, I’d say maybe a couple of the mathematics papers I wrote. I felt like, you know, when it was all done, I felt very good about the way I had put together. A lot of the stuff that I wrote was in applied mathematics, so I was wanting to strike the right balance, you know, between theory and application, you know.

Proofs but also computational examples that show that the theorem not only is true because you proved it, but you actually can use it to compute solutions to certain kinds of equations. So that’s been very satisfying.

But I think my personal writing, I think students already know. They get to us and they’ve already gone through a lot in their life. And there’s going to be more of that to come, and I think to the extent that they can see writing as a way to deal with issues. It’s not like their writing for anybody else. They’re not going to publish it. Some people keep diaries. Some people just every now and then say I’ve got to write about this. Sometimes they tear it up. Sometimes they keep it in a book.

But, I think words have such power for us. That’s why we have to be careful, you know, in using speech with other people. I mean, yes, we have freedom of speech, but we can sure hurt people with our speech. But the power of words enables us to deal with our own emotions too and deal with the things that are happening to us in our lives. So it’s been satisfying when I’ve been able to face some of those things, deal with some of those things in that way.

Well, to take it back into maybe your professional writing, when you see other people doing the kind of writing you do, so you read a speech, or, you know, you see some of that, when do you think like “Oh, I wish I said that.”

I wish I’d said that.

What do you really admire in that you see people doing well in the kind of writing that you also do?

Well, I see brevity and imagery.

Someone will write something, and it will bring something to mind. I think that’s very valuable. You know, you think about examples: with malice toward none, charity for all, ask not what your country can do for you but what you, I know there are names for that kind of construction.


But wording that connects you to the speaker and to the speech.

I think one of the great things about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is its, we all know the part about I have a dream, but you look at the whole speech, and you see imagery in many, many places, very powerful imagery and it’s not with a lot of words.

It’s just, you know, a few words you get this imagery towards you. Franklin Roosevelt, and of course a lot, you’re shaped, I’m shaped by what I studied, what I’ve heard. Those are the kind of things that get me: just short, powerful words with imagery and a call to action. You see this as something more than just some words sitting on the page. It’s something that’s reaching out to you, saying, you know, you need to do something.

So it’s about when you see writing that works, or sort of that sort of good writing that sort of you know it when you see it. Has anyone ever, to take a sort of more intellectualized version of that, is there, has anyone said anything to you about writing that you said like “Yes!”? Have you gotten good advice about writing?

Oh well, the best advice I ever had, got was “Know your audience.”

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Part 3 of the Interview with President Perry: The Writing Process

"If you say, okay I can spare 10 minutes and I’ll just start writing, 
and it creates momentum and the next thing you know, 
you got something pretty good to work on."

Well, going along with the writing, is there anything unique about your process that you would like to share?

I don’t think, I don’t know if there is anything unique, but what I tend to do is let things roll around in my head for a long, long time. I’ll know that I want to have something written by a certain date, so I know that’s out there. Maybe that’s my demon, my first demon, okay?

And I think the first thing I do always is: Who’s the audience? What’s my intention? What’s my message? And use plain language. Does this need to inspire in some way? How do I put words together to be inspirational? And, I don’t think if you start putting things on paper immediately you, the inspiration—I’m not sure you’d get it.

But when you work things around in your mind and your thinking about it, sometimes words come together in ways that wouldn’t on the page. And then at some point I’ll know it’s time to start putting things down.

Now this isn’t good advice for a student, you know. Oh, I’ll just roll around in your mind until something comes to you. I think, well back to your question. So that’s the way it works, and usually what happens is when I write it down, it’ll either be the penultimate or the final—one or the other. I tend to, when I do that, I go right to a word processor.

But, I think for other kinds of writing. Sometimes for writing I find the best thing you do is to take 10 minutes and say, “Okay, Bill. Just start writing. Okay. Just 10 minutes, that’s all you got to do. Just 10 minutes,” and then you have a place where you will keep that.

And sometimes that creates momentum, and sometimes the 10 minutes will be up and okay 10 minutes are up, but sometimes I’ll just keep going, that momentum will keep me going. Next thing I know, it’s been 20 or 30 minutes.

But I think in terms of students and their writing, I think if you just, you see this huge project. It looks mountainous to you. It’s like that garage you know you got to clean out, and you think it’s floor to ceiling with junk and furniture and all this kind of stuff.

And finally when you go to the garage, all there is in there is a couch, right? Because you imagined it to be worse than it is. So but if you say okay I can spare 10 minutes and I’ll just start writing, assuming in know what I’m supposed to writing about, and it creates momentum and the next thing you know, you got something pretty good to work on.

So how do you know, like you said, how do you know it’s the final draft? How do you get there?

Well. For me, I’m consciously doing this, working in my head. And then I’ll just say, “Okay, it’s time.” And just something will come because its time. I’ll just drop whatever I’m doing, and I’ll go and hammer out, and sometimes it’s the final, and sometimes it’s next to final, and that’s worked out pretty well over time.

What I’ve found is also since a lot of the writing I do is to prepare to like give a speech or something like that, that by doing that way, once I write it down the only reason to write it down really is if someone in university relations needs the text of it. I don’t like to read speeches. And so that’s why sometimes what I say and what I wrote will differ in some ways.

But I think in terms of students, you know you’ve got public speaking and communications, and you’ve got English and writing, and you’ve got rhetoric, and these things fit together in different ways. And so if the assignment is to give a talk about something, that’s quite different than handing a paper over to some people about something. But I think the thing is everybody works their own style.

Now, obviously I will never be a novelist or anything like that, because I don’t think you get there by letting it roll around in your mind. So many novelists I read about, they’re very disciplined, and they write. They sit down, and they write. It’s work, I mean, they love it, but you know, it’s work. It’s kind of like, you know, as professor, if mathematics is your area, you’ve got a set time you’re going to be doing mathematics. You’ve got to set a time you’re going to be preparing for class and so forth and so on.

I mean, it’s not that different in some ways from rolling it around on the page versus rolling it around in your head?

Yeah and I think technology makes it easier on the page than hand writing absolutely.

And, you know, I think one thing I’d say to students is block out once you know who your audience is and what the message is to be, sometimes you can block it out. And of course the writing instructors are going to say okay there’s some certain things that need to be in here and so forth and so on.

It’s like in public speaking: tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them you told them. That’s kind of the general set up.

But in writing, maybe there’s some of that the same, right? But you know sometimes what you can do is say, okay you can write block one x, block 2 y, block 3 z and that just gives you comfort. Sometimes you say, “Okay now I know what it’s kind of going to look like,” and then you can go in and work each block and I think word processors are a great aid, but they don’t replace the creative process obviously, which is the most important part.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Part 2 of the Interview with President Perry: Living the Examined Life--Writing is the Key

"And writing's the key."

We often hear people cite certain authors or texts as being kind of their inspiration for how they write or why they write. Do you have any authors or texts that kind of inspired you?

Well, Tony Hillerman is one, and the reason is that he respects culture he respects the culture he’s writing about. And in fact he was recognized by, I believe, the Navajo for his sensitivity to that because these are murder mysteries, and they’re written in the four corners region. So, you have these two, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, these detectives and but also because you learn something from what he’s writing.

I remember one book in particular he’s talking about, I can’t remember if its Leaphorn or Chee is interviewing a grandmother who’s related to someone who may be involved in a crime and so forth and so on, and he talks about the rhythm of the conversation—that there is a rhythm. And that sometimes if you wait just a little bit longer, then the person will say the most important thing next.

And so that’s something that’s important in the way we interact with people, certainly as an administrator or a teacher or a friend, you know. If you’re a good listener and if you wait, sometimes the next thing will be the most important thing.

Wallace Stegner—Angle of Repose was a very challenging book for me, very affecting because it’s about life. Angle of Repose, if you pile up sand or coal or anything like that, the pile makes a certain angle with the ground. That’s the angle of repose, and so the sense I got out of the book is as life goes on we settle into an angle of repose ourselves through our life experiences, and that’s a valuable lesson for me too because we all go through things in our lives. And they affect us in different ways, and we have to know how to deal with, if you will, the gravity of life, but we can struggle against it, but we’re not like sand where its poured and that’s it, so I thought that interesting.

T.S. Elliot, some of his poetry, you know, been very influential for me, and then just in terms of something exciting to read I think Alexander Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo. He can spin a great yarn, sort to speak.

Those all, those have been influential to me. One author who I heard speak once that said something very important, in my opinion, was Robert Olen Butler and who won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction several years ago. And he said that every time he writes he has to, in so many words, get past his demons—that it’s always in his process.

Any time you write, of course it depends on the purpose of your writing, and sometimes it’s very personal because you’re dealing with something, that’s different than writing a memo or email obviously. But when you’re writing something that’s really deeply connected to who you are, I think you do have to go through that, and you have to recognize that, and you do to have deal with it. And I think sometimes what happens when we hit that wall, sometimes we can’t push through it, and sometimes that’s why we can’t write because there’s an unanticipated block, but if we know it’s coming, sometimes we can work our way through it.

In a way, in the Writing Center I think that plays out when people come in with a personal statement. Why do I want to go to graduate school?


I mean you really get, but people are also very receptive to talking about that. I mean, those are some of the most productive conversations we have in here because the writer cares deeply.


About the outcome, but also they’ve been asked to write about themselves and externalize things they’ve been thinking.

Right and I think writing in general in terms of Integrative Learning, there is a self-examination that occurs either voluntarily or involuntarily. And that’s another value of I think writing and its connection, very strong connection with Integrative Learning is, well what is it, the unexamined life is not worth living.

So, one of the main purposes of college I think is that self-examination and understanding what are our values, how did we come to have these values, what are our presuppositions, challenging our own presuppositions about the way things are and what’s the way they should be. And how do I take philosophy and history and sociology and all the courses that I am taking, how do I pull that together to formulate my approach to the world, how do I frame my world view?

And writing’s the key.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Part 1 of the Interview with President Perry: Writing & Making Connections

"Well, I think it’s connected to Integrative Learning." 

President Perry, thanks for coming to the Writing Center for the interview for EIU Writes, and we’re just going to ask you a few questions about writing and writing at EIU.

Great. My pleasure to be here.

Okay, President Perry, you just told us you that you are a mathematician.


And that was one of my first questions: What was your professional background before you came to Eastern in 2007, and what kinds of writing did you have to do before you became President?

Right. Well, I was at another university for 36 years, and I went through the ranks in mathematics, and then I got into administration, so I wrote mathematical research papers. I wrote some textbooks, a handbook, and then I started writing memos and plans—those kind of administrative things that you do. So, professionally, that’s what almost all of my writing has been. I’ve served on some boards for nonprofits and so occasionally. In the positions there, I would have to write things. Those were more planning documents or sometimes a letter, letters to constituencies.

Okay. Since you’ve been here at Eastern, have you developed any new kinds of writing projects that you didn’t do before? I know you’ve got a newsletter that I’ve seen on the website.

Well, of course there are many ways to reach different constituencies, and I’ve been more in contact with alumni here than I had been in my previous position, so using electronic ways to reach out there has been important. But also I think emails to the campus community—I haven’t done too many of those because I think they can create fatigue—but I try to do those in an episodic basis, so that they remain effective.

So, on the side for the hobby writing, I’ve done some poetry, just for personal consumption, you know, and some 5-7-5 haiku. I find that’s interesting because you have to be very spare. Every word counts. And often times you have to really push your way through an emotion or something that’s working on you at that particular time, so I find that, I find that satisfying as well.


Well, one of my colleagues reminded me when you came to the English department meeting that you mentioned that you use writing in your math courses.


And a lot of people have this conception that math or the sciences … not much writing in them. So why do you use writing in your math classes and what’s the payoff?

Well, I think it’s connected to Integrative Learning. So, one of the things I did in the past, in a linear algebra class I taught, was I asked the students to pick something in the world that was related to mathematics, and that was interesting experience because they didn’t immediately … nothing sprung to mind, so I had to sort of prep myself and said what about movies? So I said, oh well  A Beautiful Mind and Good Will Hunting and these kind of things, kind of tells you about when I was doing this, but and then I would mention maybe an article or two maybe that had appeared in a newspaper or a magazine or something like this, so they started to get the drift and gradually built a list of things. So then I said, “You can approach it from any point of view you want, but I want there to be somehow mathematics as maybe a generator of the project,” you know. So they were all over the map, and it was really great.

One I remember in particular was this engineering student wrote about A Beautiful Mind and was talking about actors having to portray people with mental illness say—the sense being that you couldn’t really do that and as an actor. You couldn’t do that and so it was intellectually dishonest for an actor to actually take that on, to portray someone, and that was interesting because then you start to really get talking about some interesting nonmathematical things about the arts, about acting, and so forth and so on. But then some others were connected … different kinds of writing. One person turned in a digital project; another person turned in a voice project, and so I allowed a lot of freedom there, and I started to see there’s a lot of creativity out there and mathematics sometimes can provide the spark for it.

Now here with Integrative Learning last fall when I taught linear algebra developed some three projects, and students gave preferences, and they ended up being the project group, and the outcome of that was then to write a reflective paper on connections that this made for them with maybe the career they had planned or other courses they had taken, so forth and so on.

And, the point is that if you are going to relate mathematics to something else, you have to—mathematics has a language all its own, you all know; you’ve taken math, so you do a math homework; it’s one set of language. But now if you’re going to talk about how that relates to maybe football head injuries or supply and demand, you know these kind of things, you have to interpolate that for your audience. You have to convert mathematical concepts to plain English, and so that’s a valid exercise because I think in all of our lives, we’re always interacting with multiple audiences.

We’re trying to make a connection one way or another. I think social networks give you examples of ways people are trying to connect and connecting, so having a common set of language and interactions is an important part of it. So, I think the payoff—the payoff—is for people to see that mathematics does connect with the world, but it’s like having an adaptor like when you when you travel to Europe you got to have the special adapter and all that. It’s learning how to do that, and if you can learn to do that with mathematics and something else, then I think you can start to make the connections in multiple fields.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Coming Soon: Interview with President Perry

In the next two weeks, we'll provide videos and transcripts of our interview with EIU President William Perry from earlier this semester.

We're providing the interview in four parts since it runs a total of approximately thirty-five minutes from start to end.

I'd like to thank all of the writers of this blog for their contributions in the interview. In particular, much gratitude needs to be heaped upon Chris Houchens since he transcribed it all.

And we all thank Graphic Designer Michael Babcock from the Center for Academic Technology and Support (CATS) for taping the interview, producing it, and getting it up on YouTube. As many of us at EIU know, Michael does outstanding work.

We hope viewers/readers enjoy the interview with President Perry, and here's the schedule for the four parts of the interview.

  • Tuesday, April 5: Writing and Making Connections
  • Thursday, April 7: Living the Examined Life--Writing is the Key
  • Tuesday, April 12: The Writing Process
  • Thursday, April 14: The Power of Words

Friday, April 1, 2011

A User-Friendly Grammar Lesson

As a tutor in the EIU Writing Center, I’ve seen quite a few grammatical concerns that repeatedly show themselves. Perhaps the single most common I’ve seen, the one that crops up not only in the writing of students who visit the Center, but in my own writing (and even my professors’), is what we call the Comma After an Introductory Element.

The Writing Center Resources for Writers page has a link to a marvelous comma handout, the entire first section of which deals with this issue. What I’m going to attempt to do here is break down the issue into something that is easily understandable. Think of this as the CliffsNotes version.

An Introductory Element is basically a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence that sets up one of the following questions: where, why, when, how, or in what manner. There are certain key words that indicate one of these phrases is about to appear; common ones include “in,” “when,” “because,” “if,” “although,” “since,” or words ending in –ing. Let’s look at an example sentence, without proper punctuation:

On the day following her exorcism Reagan felt immensely relieved.

Let’s start at the beginning of this sentence. We have the word “on,” which immediately sets up a “where/when” scenario. In this case, it’s “when.” So we know immediately that we’re going to have a comma coming our way.

But where does it go? Let’s look for our subject. Who is doing something in this sentence, or having something done to them? The answer is Reagan—this sentence is about Reagan feeling relieved.

So now we know that the word “on” is referring to when Reagan felt relieved. And when was this? “The day following her exorcism,” of course! So now that we have an answer to our question, we put in our comma:

On the day following her exorcism, Reagan felt immensely relieved.

A shorthand way to think of this is: 9 times out of 10, the comma will go immediately before the subject of the sentence. Thus, since Reagan is our subject, the comma goes before her.

I recommend checking out the linked handout for further examples, or even picking up a copy from the Writing Center. This is a tricky issue that even the most experienced writers face, so there’s no shame in asking for some help with it.