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This term I am in a seminar with an unusual twist. We are using about half the class time for a sort of writing workshop. Each week we turn in a bit of our term paper and get feedback. I should be very excited about this because I have been in grad school a very long time and have rarely gotten any feedback on my writing. The professor for this seminar is a very well know, senior scholar in our discipline so it’s exciting to get help from him. His logic is that normally we would all write our term papers during the final week or two of the quarter anyway, so we might as well just spend some time each week on our writing and get some actual feedback so that the final paper might be publishable. He also laid out which sections we were to turn in each week: abstract, outline, introduction, literature review, and so on.

This all sounds great so far, except I’m finding in practice it’s not. Here’s the thing, that’s not how I write my term papers. It’s true that I don’t get started on the actual writing of the paper until the end of the quarter, but I spend my spare moments all quarter researching, finding “data”, and reading through articles to build my literature review. By the end of the quarter I usually have a good idea of how my paper will be structured. Sometimes I write it from the beginning straight through, but often I start writing and then discover that the point I’m making needs to be moved later. My original intro is usually crap because I have to write some overly general rubbish in order to get to the heart of my argument. I don’t write a complete outline first, although I do write down some sections headings and points I need to make. So getting feedback on pieces of my paper before I have finished doing the research I need to come to a conclusion and make a solid argument is somewhat pointless. It’s also somewhat embarrassing because ┬áit makes me look like I don’t know how to make an argument.

I’m only writing this now because I don’t know how to proceed with the next section of my paper which I’m suppose to be turning in today. My paper is tangentially related to my dissertation, but is something that I haven’t researched at all before this quarter. This specific topic hasn’t been written about much in the academic literature. Historical information about rural parts of this country is not easily available outside of local historical societies, and the one I need happens to be closed for remodeling until next spring. Arg!

I’m writing a paper to do with posthumanism and the question of the moral standing of non-human animals. Today I ran into an undergrad I know who asked me what I was doing. Then I did a very poor job of trying to explain what the class was about. (I didn’t even try to explain what my paper was about.)

He said something like, “I always have trouble explaining classes I really like.” Thanks. I don’t know how you philosophy folks do it. I felt like I had to try to explain critical theory (which I don’t really understand myself) and then explain humanism before I could even get to the point about non-human animals. I have tried to say to people, “I’m taking this class about animals.” This results in them saying something like, “You mean like wildlife ecology?”

Last week at an end of the year party I told some other grad students in my program that I’m interested in discourses on/about nature and everyone looked at me like, “What did you say?” I ended up explaining why I think there was a link between whiteness and and concern for “nature,” which probably offended and/or confused people because I didn’t explain it well.

I have also taken (when slightly drunk) to attempting to insert, as many times as I can, the word hegemony unnecessarily into conversation. One (if one is a frazzle grad student) can accuse people of being hegemonic in sort of the same way that the peasant at the beginning of Monty Python and the Holy Grail yells “Help, help, I’m being oppressed!” But it’s only funny if you have recently read “Contingency, Hegemony, Universality.”

Recently I realized that I’m often to spare in my writing, failing to give enough background and assuming that my readers know me and my point of view. To follow up on my recent post on this evangelical comic, I thought I might give a little context.

Beorn and I are sort of vaguely tree worshipers. Just for good measure between us we fulfill all sorts of stereotypes of geekiness. Beorn worked for many years doing various types of tech support (read: computer nerd.) He has a beard. He likes gaming and science-fiction and sometimes wears a kilt. My parents were hippies. When I was little they went “back to the land” and tried to make a living as organic farmers. I still look vaguely hippy-ish, despite my attempts to hide it. I like botany and gardening. I know (at least a little) just about any craft you can name: sewing, cooking, baking, knitting, pottery, jewelry making, etc.

Given this background I just wasn’t expecting an Evangelical comic from Beorn.

The Rise of the Pagan Right” is more his style. (I especially like the part at the bottom, hippy-geeks can’t afford to take themselves too seriously.)

or this one from Devil’s Panties

Medieval Woman has been grading papers and her experience is so similar to mine I that I must blog about it. I’m assuming that her students are writing about medieval literature and my students are writing about twentieth century American popular culture, but this phrase is so familiar. “Throughout history and extending into today, [insert assertion here; e.g. “women have been oppressed by society”]…”

Why do student write this kind of stuff? Tiruncula seems to think the answer is to ban certain phrases. If I started banning all annoying student phrases I would have a really long list, but I’m not sure it would solve the problem of poor writing/thinking. Is there an effective way to get them to stop?

Do they really think that these things have been happening throughout history? Do they lack the experience to know better? Should their instructor just point out that this statement is inaccurate? Should certain phrases be banned?

Although my writing is passable, my experience with writing instruction is somewhat limited. Often I’m able to say that something doesn’t work, but I’m not sure what exactly the problem is. I can correct the student, but have trouble explaining how they would go about avoiding the error in future writings.

Saturday I attended a dissertation writing workshop and I thought it was pretty helpful. That might be because I haven’t started writing my dissertation, but whatever, I’ll share anyway. In general the woman leading the workshop was very encouraging. She mentioned impostor syndrome, pointed out that people who get to the dissertation stage have had a whole series of successes, and so should avoid negative beliefs about themselves. Basically, don’t attribute problems to anything about your own value as a person or an academic.

Time Management
1. Time management strategies usually focus on getting organized enough to do everything you want to do. This doesn’t work because there just isn’t enough time to do everything you would like to do. Accept this and prioritize.

2. Academics have too many interests. This is good because all those interests grow into new projects, new teaching techniques, new grants, but it makes it easy for academics to get distracted. People outside of academia don’t have many interests. (This part I disagree with, but I can see how statistically this could be true.)

3. Manage your guilt: Often we can’t sit down to complete one project because it generates guilt about other projects/tasks that you should be working on. This is often framed as commitment or assertiveness issues. But it’s normal to have trouble when you are deciding between two things you might actually want to do. This is not a reason to doubt your commitment or ability to choose.

4. Remember the 80/20 rule. Focus your efforts on small amounts of time, but use those times to work effectively.

Planning
1. Plan separately, plan briefly, and plan for starting (don’t try to plan comprehensively because your work won’t go exactly as you plan anyway.)

2. Plan for 45 minute units-she had a long explanation for this. Basically even though it may feel like you are just getting into a groove after 45 minutes, your productivity will actually be going down. Apparently your focus and attention can still be increasing but your actual cognitive abilities are slowing down at that point. This led her to all sorts of interesting observations about how her writing clients get into trouble when they have too much time available. She said she never worries about clients who claim they are busy, have kid, or other obligations.

3. Plan for the number of hours per week you will work(more hours isn’t better, prioritize your tasks.)

4. Plan for your dissertation work week. When will the week start? When will your day off be? How much time will you work each day?

5. Plan for time off, preferably a whole day off. Do something restorative. The number one restorative thing you can do is spend time in nature. Other options include exercise, art, or reading for pleasure. If you can’t take a whole day off, do something extravagant.

6. Plan a cutoff time for your dissertation work each day. This makes sure you don’t lose touch with reality. It confronts the feeling that you are always working and at the same time never getting anything done. It will gradually move you towards starting earlier because you will know that there is a real stop time and so be more likely to get started in a timely fashion.