Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Trying to Sound Smart Might Make You Sound Stupid

Have you ever had to write a paper and felt that neither the way you usually speak nor your most academic or "smartest" language would work for the assignment?

I think everyone has felt this way, at least once his or her life. I know I have!

Now, have you ever read through your own paper or perhaps even when you were writing it got confused about what you were saying? If you answered yes, what was the cause of your confusion?

Was it because you were trying so hard to sound smart that your writing became so convoluted that your meaning was lost? Or was it because you hit that right click and went to the Thesaurus option a little too often?

If either of these rang true, revise, rewrite, or rework that paper. If you get lost writing or reading your own paper, imagine what your intended reader will feel!

Sounding smart at the expense of losing your reader(s) is not a risk worth taking. Meaning and comprehension hold much more weight than using a bunch of those 50-cent words (read: big, long words that may or may not fit the meaning you are trying to convey) does.

Otherwise, you run the risk of sounding like Joey's speech from the Friends episode for Monica and Chandler's upcoming wedding.

If you clicked on the link, the message that Joey was trying to get across to his audience was so confusing and aimless that it became meaningless. Essentially, what he meant to say was that he loved his friends and hoped that they would live a life full of happiness and love. Well, why not just say that!

Often times, we spend so much time trying to sound smart that we end up sounding, well, stupid to our readers (especially if they are more educated and/or more familiar with the material we are writing about). This is the exact result we were attempting to avoid by using big words. In other words, it is counter-productive.

If using the simplest word that means exactly what you want and need to say works, then why would you use a bigger word that does or could lose some of your meaning?

The smartest thing you could do is use that simple word with the exact meaning you intended to convey to the readers.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Writing Does More Than Make You a Better Writer

I have worked in sales of one form or another for over twelve years. My experience runs the gamut from part-time retail, commission-based sales, leasing, door-to-door, you name it. What I have found is no matter the position of sales, the central challenge is communicating effectively.

Much of my time as a salesperson overlapped with my education as an English major.  During this time, as my skills in communication improved, I discovered the importance and the difficulties of communication in the sales process. 

From the salesperson’s perspective, I am often amazed at the limited ability customers seem to have with communicating their needs. On the other hand, I am also amazed at the lack of inquiry and details my coworkers provided to customers. Often times I come to the rescue of my coworkers when I overheard a potentially disastrous conversation. 

The communication breakdown almost always occurs when the customer and the salesperson fail to see things from the other’s perspective. The customer assumes the salesperson is already aware for what is being asked, and the salesperson assumes that a wealth of product knowledge is shared with the customer. The result is almost always frustration and failure. However, on the rare occasion when the two parties assume nothing and see things from the other’s perspective, the result is almost always a success.

The difficulty of communication between the customer and salesperson is similar between writer and reader. When composing a paper, a writer cannot make the same assumptions similar to that of the frustrated customer and salesperson. Unless the intended audience is informed, the writer must avoid speculating that the reader is already aware of the subject and that the reader possesses any subject knowledge. In short, the writer must deeply consider the reader’s perspective and play an active role in considering his or her audience. 

Consider my latest endeavor as a salesperson of raw building materials to contractors and do-it-yourselfers. If I were to write an informative pamphlet for contractors on necessary information when requesting a quote on a roof truss systems, then I could assume some general information is shared. However, if I were to write a pamphlet on the same topic for the do-it-yourselfer, then I would assume no shared information. 

However, writing from a reader’s perspective involves more than a consideration of an audience. Detailed and exact language is also necessary. It is important that a writer develops concise and informative prose. This is important for many types of writing, be it descriptive or informative essays, resumes, or lab reports. 

As one becomes more successful with this style of writing, which comes almost entirely from practice and education, the skill of communicating effectively can be applied to any form of communication.

As we learn to consider our audience through writing, we learn the skill to communicate effectively, and skillful communication is a huge part of any success.              

Friday, October 26, 2012

Beware of Fallacies Part II

Last week I wrote about fallacious reasoning in regard to checking the reasoning that politicians employ during campaign debates and assignments you may have to complete during your collegiate career. I gave an introduction to fallacies by quoting Robert J. Gula; I then proceeded to examine a specific kind of fallacy: the Ad Hominem Fallacy.

For today's post, I will continue to explore fallacies.

One important distinction to make when you form an argument is that correlation is not causation. In Gula's book, he identifies three kinds of causes: necessary, sufficient, and contributory (120).

A necessary cause is one that is required to satisfy a particular state of affairs or situation. For example, water is a necessary cause for human life to exist. To take another example, in order to make a three-cheese pizza, one needs to have access to at least three different kinds of cheese.

I cannot exist if I don't drink water. Likewise, I cannot make a three-cheese pizza if I do not have access to at least three different kinds of cheese.

Notice that a necessary cause is something that we need in order to achieve some goal or some state of affairs, but in the examples that I gave above, we still need other causes in order to satisfy our goal or state of affairs. We need three different kinds of cheese in order to make a three cheese pizza, but just because we have three different kinds of cheese does not mean we can make a three-cheese pizza.

A three-cheese pizza requires other ingredients. Pizza usually has some kind of tomato sauce on it. Pizza also usually has some kind of bread or crust that provides the base for the cheese and sauce. In the same way, the existence of human beings requires more than water. The existence of human beings also requires some kind of food and a certain range of body temperature. Thus, a necessary cause is required to achieve some goal or state of affairs, but it is not sufficient.

A sufficient cause is one that is sufficient to cause some state of affairs. In Nonsense, Gula writes: "If Y always occurs when X is present, then X is a sufficient condition of Y" (120).

For example, hitting my shin against a piece of furniture will cause a bruise. In other words, hitting my shin against a piece of furniture is enough by itself to cause my shin to bruise. But notice that there are many other ways to get a bruise; in other words, there are thousands of sufficient causes for a person to be bruised: If a baseball traveling at high velocity hits my shin, it will cause a bruise; if someone of suitable size punches me in the eye with a clenched fist, it will cause a bruise; if I fall off my bike and land on my knee, it will cause bruise. All these examples are sufficient causes for a bruise, but none of them are necessary.

The final kind of cause is a contributory cause. A contributory cause is a cause which is neither a necessary cause nor a sufficient cause. A contributory cause occupies a kind of middle ground between the two other kinds of causes. It contributes to a state of affairs.

For example, eating a lot of saturated fat may contribute to a person having a heart attack. But since some people who eat a lot of saturated fat never have a heart attack, eating a lot of saturated fat is not a sufficient cause for a heart attack. And since some people have heart attacks without eating a lot of saturated fat, eating a lot of saturated fat is not a necessary cause. Instead, eating a lot of saturated fat is one factor that could contribute to a person having a heart attack.

To summarize the distinction between these different kinds of causes, Gula gives the following principles:
1. If X does not happen, then Y will not happen. (X is a necessary cause of Y.)
2. If X happens, then Y will happen.  (X is a sufficient cause of Y.)
3. If X happens, then Y may happen.  (X is a contributory cause.) 

A lot of fallacious reasoning is a result of people misapplying these three different kinds of causes. To illustrate how fallacies are disseminated by misapplying these three different kinds of causes, let's think of the way that politicians speak.

A politician might say "If I am not elected, then the economy will not grow." But growing the economy is a very complicated phenomenon.

The failure to elect a single politician will not in itself inhibit the economy from growing. The more rational formulation would be for the politician to say "If my opponent is elected, then it's possible that the economy will not grow."

This is the more logical formulation because it treats the election of a single politician as a single, contributory cause. Most voters, regardless of their political beliefs, will probably grant the truth of the latter statement. "Sure," we might say, "if I vote for your opponent and he is elected, then it's possible that the economy will not grow. But it's also possible that by electing your opponent the country will experience an economic boom. It's possible that the United States balances its budget and the unemployment rate drops to 4 percent. So what?"

Furthermore, suppose that a politician says, "If I am elected, then the economy will grow." Of course, once again, we know that growing the economy is a complicated process. It includes billions of variables--some of which remain unknown until the moment they are instantiated, some of which may remain unknown in perpetuity.

The election of a single politician is not a sufficient cause to grow the economy. What the politician should say, if the politician wants to respect the strictures of logic and good reasoning, is "If I am elected, then it's possible that the economy will grow."

Of course, broadcasting such a slogan will not play as well in the soundbites during the evening news.

When politicians attempt to connect phenomena, it would be logical for them, in most cases, to speak about contributory causes. But campaigns that run on logic and sound reasoning have a tendency to end with concession speeches.

Since most of us are not running for political office, we don't need to worry about making a good soundbite. Instead, let's worry about becoming better writers, better thinkers.

Let's avoid, as best we can, confusing the different kinds of causation.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Writing Business Proposals: You Just Might Find You Get What You Need

Most likely at some point in our lives, we will all have to write a proposal for something whether it is for an academic paper or for work. Here, however, I will concentrate on business proposals as they are not all the same.

Business proposals have different criteria than other types of proposals even though they all have basic properties in common. For instance, every kind of proposal is a persuasive piece of writing. We write them in order to convince our readers that what we are proposing is a good idea and beneficial to both parties in some way. From this point on, though, the structure is very different. (See example here). 

The business proposal is a report designed to persuade its audience and/or to offer a solution to a problem or to take advantage of an opportunity. For example, the purpose of a proposal might be to start new business, obtain funding for a specific project, provide a solution to a problem, or recommend an improvement. Therefore, it should do these basics:

1) Describe the problem or opportunity,
2) Suggest a solution, and
3) Request permission and/or funding to implement the solution

It is also important to keep in mind the time frame for the project along with pertinent details on when things will get done, who will do them, and the credibility of the author/s or company.

The subject should be specific, clear and concisely fit to the problem either designated by the person/company requesting the proposal or significant to the writer and his/her audience. Examples of subjects might include: the purpose/idea of a company we are thinking of starting (entrepreneurial in nature), our company/institution going “green,” a solution to a problem area that a competitor is excelling in. 

The audience is one of the two most important aspects of writing a business proposal – or any proposal – because they are the people who will decide whether or not our proposal will be approved or not. The second would be the persuasive element of the proposal itself.

Paying close attention and tailoring to the wants and needs of our readers will ensure that a proposal will be received in the most positive way – even if it is denied, having considered their wants and needs will make them consider it more seriously than if these things were completely overlooked. 

This is especially true since the typical readers are those in managerial/administrative positions in companies or institutions, or in other words, those in higher decision-making positions. 

With these audiences in mind, it is important to remember that our language should be formal. The syntax, sentence structure, and organization should be clear, concise, and to the point. Proposal writing is not only very persuasive in nature, but it is also very fact and statistic-based writing.

Also, it is important to remember that even if the proposal is not approved and we might not get what we want the first time around, after we get feedback we might be given the opportunity to rework the proposal to better fit the readers’ wants and/or needs. So we might not get what we want, but we just might get what we need. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Troubling Margins: What to Do with Teachers' Comments

Students are often perplexed by teachers' comments written in margins of their papers.

In a study in 1993 Robert Connors and Andrea Lunsford evaluated 3000 student papers with teachers' comments, and only 9% of comments consisted of "nothing except praise and positive evaluation" (Connors & Lunsford 210). This could mean that students read 91% of teachers’ comments with indifference, ambivalence, confusion, frustration, or a feeling of being overwhelmed or defeated.

This blog post, however, is not about blaming the teacher. 

Instead, I want to focus on what to do with 91% of potentially troublesome comments students read.

The first reaction many students have after reading a negative, or not-so-positive comment, is an emotional one. The second second step many students take is to store the essay away and never look at it again. Although reacting emotionally is only natural, students can recognize their emotional reactions and take the comments for what they are worth. 

In most cases comments are not meant to be hostile but helpful, which is why students should take a second look after a little time has passed.  Often students do not reflect on the parts of the essay the comments are referring to, which can lead to the initial confusion and negative emotional attachment. Therefore, taking time with the comments during the second look is also a good idea.

This is not to say that comments are always easily understood with a little time and effort. Teachers’ comments are sometimes altogether confusing and illegible. In the Writing Center at Eastern Illinois University, I have often looked over comments with students, and in some instances the student and I arrive at no real conclusion but for the student to contact the professor.  

In the video posted below, "Beyond the Red Ink: Teachers' Comments through the Eyes of Students," students from Bunker Hill Community College in Boston comment on how they feel after reading disheartening comments.  In the video, Adam Zalt says, “My teacher wrote ‘bad’ on top of one of my sentences. I didn’t know what that meant. What does ‘bad’ mean?”  I do not have an answer for Adam, but I do know that it is worth looking into. 

Setting a meeting with the professor to discuss the paper and the comments he or she left is always a good idea. Sooner better than later. In many instances, students may find his or her initial negative emotional reaction was unwarranted and will have a better understanding of what is expected for the next essay.  

If you watch the video below, listening to how students react to teachers’ comments may help you feel a better. It does for me. Maybe the comfort is knowing we are not alone.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Beware of Fallacies

Recently, you might have noticed that the interruptions occurring during your favorite television shows have changed. Sure, the usual suspects still line up: The Honda Accord with improved fuel efficiency, the novel combination flavor of Doritos (surf and turf, maybe), the fast-food/comic book movie tie-in, the reptile (or is it an amphibian?) pitching car insurance.

Squeezed in between these bookends of capitalism are the works of our beloved democracy. In 2012 the candidates are Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

I'll assume you know each man's party affiliation. Political parties spend a lot of money and a lot of time developing TV commercials. Not surprisingly, after viewing a few of these commercials, the candidates seem almost trustworthy.

As sophisticated consumers, we've come to expect a hamburger at McDonald's will look different in an advertisement than it will upon consumption; likewise, as sophisticated citizens of the United States of America, we've come to regard the promises and evidences contained in political advertisements with an air of skepticism.

To some citizens, voting is a sacred obligation requiring sincere deliberation. Mass media advertisements do not convey the kind of information that allows a rational person to sincerely deliberate, thus the citizens of this country require other forums for political expression. One of the other forums of political expression is debate.

So far, during this election cycle, there have been two presidential debates. Maybe you've watched one in its entirety; maybe you only seen a couple of highlights, but however extensive your knowledge of the debates might be, perhaps you've occasionally said to yourself: That seems wrong.

In the words of twentieth century polymath and teacher Robert J. Gula, "It's frustrating to know in your heart that what you've just heard is nonsense but not to be able to pinpoint why it is nonsense" (1).

To help students and non-students with their ability to pinpoint why an argument is nonsense, Gula wrote a book entitled Nonsense: Red Herrings Straw Men Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language. One way to decide whether the arguments a politician uses in a debate really are wrong is to check them for fallacies. Checking arguments for fallacies isn't something that we should only do when politicians are running for office. Instead, we should always be on the look out for fallacious reasoning
--not just in other people's arguments but also in our own.

The first thing to be aware of when thinking about fallacies? There are a lot of them.

It is not easy to construct a non-trivial argument that avoids any fallacious reasoning, but it isn't impossible. For this post, I will, drawing on Gula's book, give an introduction of ad hominem arguments.

Because ad hominem arguments focus on criticizing the person and not on criticizing the person's argument, all ad hominem arguments are fallacious, that is, they do not provide a good reason to believe that some claim is true or false.

In chapter six of Nonsense, Gula gives an overview of ad hominem arguments, three of which I'll specifically address in this blog. They are:
1. Abusive ad hominem
2. Circumstantial ad hominem
3. Guilt by association

To illustrate (1) let's look at the following hypothetical exchange:
Jamie: "Candidate X's conclusion about raising taxes is false."
Jaime: "Because candidate X got into a bar fight last week."

Just because a candidate for political office gets into a bar fight, that doesn't mean his conclusion about raising taxes is false. There is a difference between a person's argument and a person's behavior. Attacking a person's behavior or their character does not affect the argument he presents. An evil person guilty of the most despicable abomination can still present a strong argument. Just imagine an evil person saying the following:
Premise: "All dogs are mammals."
Premise: "All mammals are vertebrates."
Conclusion: "Therefore, all dogs are vertebrates."

Does this argument seem sound to you? It does to me. It wouldn't matter how evil the person was, if he presented this argument, it would be sound.

To illustrate (2) let's look at the following hypothetical exchange:
Jamie: "Candidate X's proposal should be rejected."
Leslie: "Why? It seems like the park does need new sidewalks."
Jamie: "Because candidate X's brother owns a concrete company. The proposal will benefit him."

Just because a candidate's brother will profit from a proposal that doesn't necessarily mean that the proposal should be rejected.

Now, there might be good reasons to reject the proposal. If, for example, the candidate's brother submitted a bid that was higher than every other submitted bid, the proposal could be properly rejected on those grounds. If the candidate's brother submitted a bid that was competitive in price but non-competitive in predicated time-of-completion, say, all the other company's promise to complete the work by the end of March while the candidate's brother promises to complete the work by the end of April, then the proposal could be properly rejected.

The proposal should be examined closely, irrespective of who will benefit financially. If the proposal is deemed to be good for the community, then the fact that the candidate's brother will be the one benefiting financially is irrelevant.

To illustrate (3) let's look at the following hypothetical exchange:
Jaime: "I'm not voting for candidate X."
Leslie: "Why?"
Jaime: "Because candidate X is member of the same fraternity that just got busted for cheating on an exam."

Just because a candidate is a member of a fraternity that committed an immoral act does not mean that the candidate's arguments are false. The candidate can have friends, family members, and associates who believe things that he himself rejects.

Just because a candidate's brother believes that the earth is flat, and just because a candidate has dinner with his brother every Sunday does not mean that the candidate himself believes that the earth is flat. The candidate's beliefs should be determined and assessed based only on the candidate himself. 

When we write a paper for a class, especially a paper that requires us to make an argument, we need to make sure that we are focusing on what is relevant. You can not affect the truth or falsity of a premise or a conclusion by attacking the premise's or conclusion's source. The good news is that the arguments that you make are also protected from ad hominem attacks.

If someone criticizes you, your argument is unaffected. And isn't that a relief? 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Writing to Read

As I sat in my Intro to Grad Studies in English course and listened to the professor talk about our upcoming colloquium, I began to panic.

How am I supposed to write something interesting and original enough for people to want to listen to me read it for two minutes let alone twenty minutes?

How can I make reading it sound captivating and entertaining, and not like Ben Stein in a Clear Eyes commercial? (Sorry, Ben Stein, but you would put us all to sleep in no time.)

And so I began to worry, but I was not and am not alone. There are not only my classmates who feel the same way about presenting a paper to an audience full of professors and fellow students, but there are people all over the world agonizing about giving a presentation: in class, at a conference, at work.

Wherever they may be, anxiety is flooding through their veins as they anticipate that moment when they have to stand in front of a room full of people (who look like a firing squad ready to take their speaker down at the first fumbling of words or gap in logic)

and impart their knowledge and/or argument.

It is intimidating. No one likes to make mistakes or to embarrass him or herself. And even less people like to admit they just don’t have the answer to a question shot out from the firing squad (the audience) in the Q & A portion of their presentation, because no one likes to look “stupid.”

So, how can you or I or anyone around the world make our writing better for a piece of work to be presented orally?

I think one of the best things anyone can do is remember our audience; the rest falls under this umbrella of advice.

If we wouldn’t want to listen to our paper be read aloud, the odds are – no one else will either. So, the best place to start is to pick a topic that we are interested in and passionate about in some manner.

Once we have our topic, draft the paper. Edit, and draft again until you feel it is “just right.” It should be organized in such a way that it is cohesive, not all over the place. If we lose our audience in the first two minutes of our presentation, they will most likely stay lost (or start checking their Facebook) for the remainder of the allotted time.

It should flow in a way that makes it easy to follow, even if a printed copy is not available for the audience to read along. Good transitions are a key point in avoiding losing the audience. They act as guideposts. They let the audience know where we are and where we are heading. Once we have all this down on paper…

Practice, practice, practice. And practice some more. Present it to an audience of one in the mirror. Read it to some friends. If they are good friends they will tell us, “Dude, this is SO boring. No one cares,” or they will say, “I really didn’t expect to be that interested in it, but that was really intriguing.” Feedback is our friend in this situation: good or bad.

That mirror or those friends will let us know when something is awkward or confusing. Practicing also gives us a better idea of our timing: how long will this take to read? If there is time for questions, when do we need to start wrapping up the presentation? If we have humor or an emphatic point embedded in our presentation, how many seconds can be allowed for laughter or applause (it could happen) before moving on to the next lines?

Thinking about all of these things as we write will help us become more engaged with the material and how to arrange it in just the right manner to keep our audience as engaged as we are.

Of course, the point of these sorts of presentations is to “Wow!” the audience. It helps our self-esteem to know we did a good job, and it is even better if we did a great job. Hearing the applause at the end or being asked engaging questions at the end are just a couple ways to tell bad from good, and good from great. They will also boost that self-esteem or knock it down a couple notches, but that will most likely come as a direct result of how much time, thought, and effort was put into the work presented.

So arise, go forth, and conquer that writing and reading!  Oh, and try not to sound like Ben Stein.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Forget about The Elements of Style

In doing a little research for this blog, I stumbled upon an NPR audio article marking the 50th anniversary of William Strunk and E.B. White’s writing handbook TheElements of Style. The article is three years old,which is about the same time the book was strongly suggested to me by one of my professors. I took his advice and bought it.

However, the article I found features Geoffrey Pullum arguing that The Elements of Style gave us a half century of “stupid grammar advice.”

Imagine my confusion had I listened to the broadcast of this radio interview the day my professor strongly suggested I buy the book. What is a student to do? And how can grammar advice be stupid? Grammar is either correct or incorrect… Right?

Evidently not! Pullum says of Strunk and White, “some of the advice is just coo coo.” He notes more specifically the controversy over the avoidance of the split infinitive, which is the placing of an adverb between to and the verb (OED). Take this example from the Oxford English Dictionary

She used to secretly admire him. (incorrect, split infinitive)

She used secretly to admire him. (correct)

“Advice to avoid this is just silly bossiness,” says Pullum. Furthering his critique, Pullum also attacks Strunk and White for creating the rule of using none (as in no one) as strictly a singular noun. As in:

None of us is

Opposed to

None of us are

What Strunk and White are doing is “giving untrue claims to students that will make them uneasy about phrases they will use… the advice is just harmful” (Pullum).

So what does Pullum suggest we do? If The Elements of Style is no longer the turn-to handbook as my professor suggested, then what is? Pullum recommends Joseph M. Williams’s Style Toward Clarity and Grace.
What Williams offers to the “lively debate” is this: “We don’t have to understand principles of grammar to write well” (1). In fact, “The best evidence suggests that students who spend a lot of time studying grammar improve their writing not one bit” (1) and in many instances they get worse (2).

Williams’ introduction isn’t the best to entice one to want to read further until he offers a new perspective on the problem. Instead of focusing on grammar and memorizing rules and advice that are stupid, “mature writers can change the way they write once they grasp a principled way of thinking about language” (2). 

The principled way is to be clear, sincere, and try to understand how “readers of modern English read”(2).  What this means to me is simply (1) be sincere, (2) read every word you have written precisely as you have written it, and (3) forget about The Elements of Style

Grammar is still worth mentioning. It cannot be forgotten altogether. However, for mature writers, grammar anxiety may be a thing of the past. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Some Reflections on Kairos (in the Writing Center) Part II

In my last post, I wrote about my initial reflections of kairos. I used examples from all over the cultural landscape to explain how I understand the concept of kairos. It seems to be everywhere, and, to a certain degree, it seems to be contained in everything we do.

In this post, I'm still focusing on kairos, but instead of focusing on the role and influence it plays outside the writing center, I am going to focus on the role it plays inside the writing center when a consultant and a writer introduce themselves and begin a session.

According to Carl Glover of Mount St. Mary's University, the initial assessment of a tutor must balance several different exigencies, each one related in some way to the cultivation of kairos for that particular session. As a tutor or consultant, I need to quickly assess the following:
1. Time constraints.
2. The needs of the client (the writer).
3. The demands of the assignment.
4. The kairos of the paper itself.

If a student walks into a writing center at Noon with an 2000 word poetry analysis assignment due at 12:30, and he only has twenty-two words written down, it's not the sort of circumstance that will create an auspicious environment for kairos.

Kairos is subject to certain temporal laws of nature, just as humans beings are. A student who has not left himself adequate time to complete an assignment will probably be too psychologically distracted either from anxiety or from regret to experience a kairotic moment, no matter how talented a consultant might be. Thus, when hunting for kairos, a writing consultant must be aware of how much daylight he has left. If twilight is near, he must be realistic about his opportunities.

When a writer comes to a writing center, presumably he has needs that the writing center can help him to satisfy. Some of the needs or desires a writer may have can be elicited from him during the check-in process by asking some initial questions. For example, you might ask: "Have you ever visited the writing center before?"

This will indicate whether or not the student has any experience at all with the writing center and its philosophy. Another question that will help to clarify the needs or desires of a writer during the check-in procedure might be: "Have you ever been to the writing center for this assignment before?" This question can help the consultant avoid repeating material that the student may have already covered satisfactorily. Without this information, a consultant may unintentionally make a student feel uncomfortable by beginning the session in a place the student does not want to begin at. If the student is shy, polite, or intimidated, he may not speak up. Instead, he might get quiet and distracted thus undermining the potential for any future kairotic moments.

The consultant needs to understand what the student's assignment instructs him to do. If he doesn't have this information, it would be very difficult to cultivate any kairos. If the student is expected to examine two sides of a controversial issue and argue for one of the sides, then the consultant needs to keep this rhetorical purpose in mind. The consultant can help cultivate a kairotic moment by asking the student questions that are pertinent to the purpose of the assignment. The questions the consultant asks for this assignment will probably be different than the questions the consultant asks a student who brings in an assignment for a personal narrative essay. Knowing the professor's instructions is an important part of generating kairos in the writing center.

Sometimes a student may have his best ideas buried in the second paragraph. As the consultant reads the paper out loud to the student, he should looking for sentences or ideas that could be used to drive further discussion with the student. If the student's best ideas are expressed by a sequence of two sentences in the second paragraph, and if the consultant can identify this feature of the student's paper, then perhaps the situation would be ideal for kairos. Some students may resist the suggestion to wholly revise the entire paper, but some may be excited by the prospect of improving their writing by starting over.

A writing consultant must quickly establish the restrictions which impound any single session. These restrictions are, in the words of Carl Glover, "a balance between the abilities of the client and the demands of the paper" (16).  It is only after these contingencies have been assessed and understood by the consultant that the session can be expected to produce any kairos.

However, because every session is a dynamic enterprise of negotiation and interpretation, the mere satisfaction of a stipulated number requirements will never guarantee kairos. Its achievement can never be reduced to a set of instructions or directions. Instead, the consultant must always look for its beacon. Once the dim pulse is apprehended, then you must be ready to follow it.

After introductions have been made, reading a student's paper out loud is the preferred technique to commence a session at the writing center that I work at. This allows for both the writer and the consultant to actively engage the material the student has written.

Learning how to guide the process toward kairos is more an art than a science, but it does seem like focusing on grammatical mistakes or colloquialisms should be avoided. This recommendation may not hold in cases where a student is fixated on grammatical mistakes, but as a general rule it seems sound.

As the paper is being read, the consultant may pause occasionally to ask the writer questions. It's during these interrogative moments that the consultant needs to be on high alert.  Is the student making eye-contact with you? How long does the student take to begin to answer the question you have asked? Do you notice any change in the student's posture or in the student's tone of voice? Does the student seems perplexed by your question, if so, how does the student respond to this complexity? Does the student get quiet and disengage or does the student become more loquacious and engaged?

All these different questions have answers that affect how a consultant may diagnose the imminent likelihood of a kairotic moment. No consultant is perfect in his diagnoses; but, the goal of a consultant should be to improve our ability to diagnose as accurately and consistently as possible these potential kairotic moments.

Here's a link that could provide some helpful information.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Regis, I'd Like to Use a Lifeline: Writing with Writer's Block

“I'm burnt out,” the thought of every writer who has ever experienced writer’s block.

I've been hovering around the topic of writer's block for a couple of weeks now like a helicopter unable to land safely. There is a reason for this. 

I've been experiencing it myself. And if I have to suffer, well, you know what they say. 

Misery loves company. 

And it does. It is true.

So what do I do when I sit there staring at the blank page in front of me waiting for inspiration or some divine intervention to come down and zap the words into my head? 

I sit there staring at the blank page for a while. I bounce ideas - however idiotic or irrelevant - around my head and hope that a word or a phrase will stick out of the lot of them.

And when that doesn't work?

I take a break. I walk away. I eat something since most likely I have forgotten to adhere to normal mealtimes – or to eat at all. I go for a run. Whatever I do, I step away from the blank paper or the empty Word document.

And when that doesn’t work?

I have a minor meltdown. Just kidding, but really I do. Sometimes I panic. What if I never have anything to say about this topic? What if I don’t get it done by my deadline? What if I don’t get it done at all? What if, what if, what if?

It happens, and then I mentally slap myself and tell myself, “Get it together! Just do it!” Meltdown over.

That sounds easy and clean enough. It is not. Believe me, it is not.

In fact, I just experienced it while thinking about writing this blog post and about a midterm paper I have due Thursday. So, what do I write about when the world is my oyster and I have a blog to write and cannot for the life of me think of what to write about? I write about not being able to write.

I am sure somebody who is or was somebody down the road did this as well and is crazy famous for it; in which case, I thank them for the subliminal idea I wrenched from somewhere in the depths of my long-term memory.

And when the world is not your oyster and you are limited to a topic or a prompt given by a teacher or a boss?

Brainstorm. Freewrite. Doodle. Watch TV. Brood. Phone a friend. Ask the audience (in most cases, a boss, a teacher, or a customer). Flip a coin to choose a side.

Do whatever is going to get your mind off of what you have to do enough to let it sit in the back of your mind and stew there for a while. Later, you can come back to it refreshed and rejuvenated.

Writing something witty or persuasive or argumentative enough to capture your audience is not that easy. Just ask anyone who has ever had to write a speech or a proposal, they’ll tell you.

Some people do not realize how hard it can be, especially if writing has always come easy to them. That is the case until they get blocked, and then they search for that “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” lifeline in the hopes that something will come to them.

However, using these strategies or lifelines, if you will, can help get out all the extra fluff (read, “crap”) out of your head and onto the page so you can get the things you really want and need to say to fulfill your duties.

So when you get blocked, remember, you can always say, “Regis, I’d like to use a lifeline.” The best part of this deal is: there is no limit on the number of lifelines you can use. The worst part is, of course, most likely you aren’t going to win excessive amounts of money for doing your homework.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Dave Eggers Wish: Once Upon a School

So there is this Dave Eggers guy, a writer, who opened a pirate supply store in San Francisco. Even though there is no longer a large pirate community in San Francisco, Eggers is doing well. He is accomplishing his goals nearly beyond his creative imagination. His success is where it gets weird.

Eggers' pirate supply store is actually a writing tutoring center. The pirate supplies are just a front to disguise what is actually a tutoring center, just like a pizza joint for the mob’s racketeering business. 

Capt’n Eggers and his crew of 1400 bucca-teers have one goal: to provide one-on-one writing tutoring to as many local area students as possible. 

That’s it! They sell pirate supplies only because their business place is zoned as a retail location, not a tutoring center. 

The success of the tutoring center is astonishing. The place is popular with kids and always busy after school hours. Students working side-by-side with writing professionals have published books together, like Khaled Hamden, a 9 year old video game addict converted author, and writing projects like 826 Valencia project. Students who are published achieve a level of professional writing and "once they’ve written at that level, they can never go back” (Eggers). Hamden has now been published in five books through the help of programs spun-off from the pirate store. 

This is all because Eggers created a community of writers made up of both professional writers and student writers.  The set-up he and his crew created has been mimicked as far away as New York City and as close as Chicago. Each center has a different theme such as "The Travel Mart in Los Angeles, the "Robot Supply and Repair Store in Ann Arbor Michigan, the New York "Superhero Store", and "The Boring Store" in Chicago.

Even closer is EIU’s own Writing Center at 3110 Coleman Hall.  Although the staff doesn't dress with one-eye patches and peg legs, they are doing essentially the same thing as Eggers’ pirate store. 

The only real difference is that EIU's Writing Center has been around for far longer.  Although most of the staff (including myself) are not professional writers like Eggers' volunteers, we are graduate students hoping to make writing our profession. 

The point is that EIU and many college campuses have created a writing community  for the purpose of collaborating with students so they become stronger writers and thinkers.  Although not everyone can be a published author by age 9 like Hamden, many students do want an enthusiastic group of writers to talk with.   

The Ted Talk below has been most inspiring to me as a member of community with such outstanding goals and positive attitudes towards writing. Eggers' enthusiasm is inspirational. I hope Eggers Ted Talk inspires you to become involved with an amazing resource such as your local writing center.