Saturday, November 01, 2008

Such as and the Iraq and such as: Fumbling for a topic

I think I'm going through a mid-semester crisis (although it's past mid-semester, so it's technically an almost-the-last-quarter-of-the-semester crisis). I have been fairly certain for a while now that I wanted to write about current research on the formal teaching of grammar. Since Hartwell wrote his essay in 1985, I figured the last twenty-three years had to have produced some interesting material on the topic. Unfortunately, I think I'm getting cold feet. This often happens to me when I'm working on a paper. I get an idea for a topic, and the more I think about it and do research on it, the more committed I get to it; the problem is, once it comes down to actually writing it, I second guess myself, start thinking it's a bad idea, and run screaming back down the aisle. If I ever get myself straightened out, maybe Cheyney and I can start a self-help group for people suffering from topic-block. I think that all it will take is finding a really good source or two, so I'll keep looking.
I think another reason for my just-past-the-middle-of-the-second-half-of-the-semester crisis is that I've had some fairly "blah" tutoring sessions lately, many of them "assigned" sessions where the students are only there for the piece of paper. I used to have a fairly favorable view of assigned sessions, thinking they were a good way to introduce 1010 and 2010 students to the Writing Center. Now, since last Friday's encounter with the angry student who stormed out because I refused to just hand over a signed paper, I'm not so sure--plus, I keep checking under my car in case she's waiting to cut my achilles tendon.
Well, I guess it's time to commit to a topic and run with it--chain myself to a computer in the library until I've hunted down a couple of fabulous sources and get over it--and stop fretting about students who leave their assigned W.C. visit to the last minute.
Although, maybe I'll get myself some pepper spray, just in case.

Friday, October 31, 2008

I am going to write my bibliographic essay about writer's groups and techniques for working with creative writers. I chose this topic because it is most relevant to what I want to do. After graduating from Weber State, I entend to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. I hope to use this degree to teach creative writing at the university level. Creative Writing pedagogy is difficult because success is more elusive to define. Is success publication? Is success simply to become a better creative writer than one already is? What does "better" mean when it comes to creative writing, since, after all, there is no accounting for taste? Is it true that it is impossible to "teach" creative writing, that one must learn creative writing on one's own time and at best what can be taught is technique, craft, process? These are some of the topics I hope to explore in my essay. Currently, I am still in the digestive phase. I have yet to write a single word. I have a critical mass of source material and am currently going through all this with a highlighter, looking for themes, contradictions, opposing camps, reactions, chronology, etc. I'm not worrying about the writing yet. I'm worrying about how my sources interconnect, how they relate to one another, how they inform and argue with one another, etc. One last thing that has been on my mind currently. The MFA at the University of Michigan requires students to design a creative writing pedagogy. This is part of the coursework, which is rare though not unheard of for an MFA program to require. I wish I could get ahold of some of that, but I don't know how, since it is not published materials. Still, I think it would be interesting to look at.

Insanity and Topic Block

I have the hardest time deciding what to write papers on. I used to get writer’s block all the time, but now it’s topic block. Over the years I’ve developed a few strategies for getting around a case of writer’s block, and really don’t worry much about it anymore. But topics are something else. I’m still in an anti-topic-block strategy development phase.

The problem is not really about lack of interest—as I read I always find things that interest me for further study. It’s not really about too many topics, either. I can usually narrow it down to a small handful, and I can certainly tell you what I’m not going to write about. But what if I get halfway through a paper and decide I would rather do something else? What if it turns out to be complete garbage? Would something else have been more interesting? Will the professor laugh when he sees the topic? Will my paper be the exemplar of what NOT to write on? It’s insanity. Or avoidance, as Dr. Thomas termed it. And so it goes…

I can’t ask my husband for help deciding on a topic anymore. He officially quit when I graduated with my Bachelor’s (notice my proper use of capitalization here), stating irreconcilable differences. My children came next—I would place a few topic ideas in a bowl and have someone draw one out. Apparently it’s not much fun when mom doesn’t write on the topic you drew out for her. Same goes for my professors—maybe it’s insulting to recommend a topic only to see something completely different show up in the final paper. Forget reverse psychology…I’ve tried that, too. I’m much too convincing.

So here’s my topic for the bibliographic essay: Contact Zones and English Studies. Whoo! I plan to start with Mary Louise Pratt’s essay on contact zones, tracing the idea through the works of others such as Patricia Bizzell, Richard Miller, and Min-Zhan Lu. It’s a start, anyway.

I decided on this topic by using my latest anti-topic-block method, the authoritarian mandate. This consists of a direct order, with no room for possibilities or choice. Basically I told Tamar to tell me what I was writing on, and she did. (Thanks, girl.) So far, it’s working.

Now if someone could just tell me the topic for my master’s thesis, I’d get to work.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Getting Ideas from My Roommate

After I read this blog post, I decided that I really needed to narrow down my choices of possible bibliographic essay options. As I began looking through some of the past discussions we have read, I miraculously opened our textbooks to an author, who we haven’t read, but who was talking about exactly what I wanted to research!
This discussion was focused on ESL students, but specifically, how students who come from different cultures deal with and react to the American standards of essay writing and whether or not it is “fair” to make them conform to our ideals when it comes to academic papers. This piqued my interest when we watched the film clips in class, interviewing ESL students who were comparing their methods of writing with our way. I had always thought that the biggest challenge to ESL students would be learning the language and using it correctly in papers. I was completely astounded when I realized that sometimes, the actual organization or the type of the essay can be an even larger problem that is not simply fixed by language proficiency.
I became even more intrigued by this topic after speaking with my roommate, who has recently come to Weber on a music scholarship from Taiwan. She is in English 2010 and is always telling me about her different papers she has to write and how she does on them (she often is the top of her class when it comes to her essays). In a moment of free time (which is rare for her), I asked her what she thought of the American method of writing essays, just to see what her reaction would be. Surprisingly, she launched into a full explanation about the differences between Taiwanese schools and American curriculum. She actually said a lot of the same things that the students in the interview stated, namely that the method of writing in her country was much less direct and more poetic than the typical five paragraph, thesis based essay. She explained that in Taiwan, there are several methods of writing that students are all expected to learn. Each method is unique and requires a different way of organization and word use. Perhaps because of the fact that she has been taught from her youth that there are different types of papers within her own culture, it has not been as hard for her to adapt to the American method because it is simply, “just another way” of writing. However, it would be interesting to find out if this is the case for other countries and what leading authority figures in the educational world have to say about this subject. I also wonder if this is as large a problem for ESL students as simple language proficiency is. Perhaps if a student has a relatively good grasp on the language, he/she will still struggle in their English classes because they cannot wrap their heads around the blatant statements of intention that must be made in their American essays (or in other words, the elusive goal of a thesis). I also find fascinating the debate on whether or not it is “right” or “just” or “fair” to tell these students they are wrong if they don’t do it the American way. Overall…I think that I like this topic.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I don't like deciding. Can I just write a couple of bib essays over the course of the next year or so?

Tamar- I really like upper division papers too! And I've had a couple of aquatic ecology papers. Once three guys came in and I tutored them one right after the other for some aquatic ecology class. They all had well written, informative papers, and fun sessions. With a few words I couldn't pronounce which they thought was amusing.

But yes, I think I shall stick with the topic for a change. At first the bibliographic essay frightened me because I had no idea what to write about. Then as I got a few ideas mostly from reviewing what I had liked in our reading and from talking to tutors that had written the papers, I became frightened because there were too many topics I found interesting. Then I picked one. Then I realized that I could just keep narrowing it down further and further. So I'm back to the frightening decision process. What do I actually want to focus on in my topic?

I decided to write on plagiarism. I find it interesting, and it ties into a lot of what I have been interested in throughout this semester. In my oh so expert opinion there are different kinds of people who plagiarize, but a chunk of those who do are those writers who do not feel they have adequate words to express the ideas they are trying to express. They think they know what their paper *should* sound like, they have this invented university in their head, but they can't seem to write the words they think their audience wants. So they write somebody else's words. Or, they have this vague idea, and then in their research they stumble across some well formed sentences or even paragraphs and suddenly those words wind their way into a paper. I've been there myself, too. When I read something by somebody else and then can't think of any other way to phrase it. Drives me crazy. I try to write my own stuff before reading too much of anything else so I at least have my own ideas firm enough (Emig anyone?) that they don't dissolve into others words. But back to my topic...I want to talk about plagiarism. Perhaps tie it into insecure writers who don't think they have the words to say their thoughts, or maybe ESL students and cultural perspective, or Intellectual Property law (which fascinates me in a really nerdy way!) and Western ideas about idea ownership and originality. And where does tutoring fall into all this? Or composition theory? I don't know. I found a topic only to find I didn't really have a topic yet. I'll get there. I've enjoyed reading about it so far. Maybe if I find an article that I think is just stunningly brilliant I'll base my paper out of that. Fun fun. Maybe (kidding) I'll do something ironic and plagiarize my bibliographic essay on plagiarism.


I would like to write my bibliographic essay on comma usage. I have never fully understood commas or the rules behind them and for that reason I want to do some research on them. I can usually tell where commas should and should not be, but I never know why or how to explain it. From here say I've learned that comma usage can be a very controversial subject, among nerds. I feel obligated to learn as much as I can about the rules of commas because there are students who come into the writing center that may possibly view me as the kind of nerd that would know about all the rules of commas.

After doing a small search for information on comma usage, I'm thinking about changing my topic. If I can find an article on commas to jump from and use it's bibliography to find more and more on the subject than I will probably stick with it. Otherwise, I will change my subject. I realize too, that I probably need to get a lot more specific than just comma usage. If I focus on
how to teach comma usage or go even broader and into how to teach punctuation, then I could find a lot of information.

I'm glad this was the prompt, because just writing about it has helped me think. I like the teaching punctuation subject, because I found about fifty gazillion articles on it in JSTOR. That is going to be my subject. Done and done.

Type Theory in Composition

I am planning to write about type theory in composition. The subject fascinated me when we read about it in Muriel Harris's chapter on engaging reluctant writers, so I decided to learn more. However, I worried that I would not find much on the subject or that it would turn out to be a "dumb" topic. So far, I have been wrong, at least I think so.

After looking through a stack of journal articles and reading half of a book about type theory in composition, I have found that it has shaped the teaching methods universities have used over the years. Approaches to teaching composition have often been directed at one type of personality, making it difficult for a student of a different personality to learn how to write. Consequently, people like Freire or Murray came along to change the approach of teaching.

I have also found that many of the essays we have read in Cross Talk are referenced in the essays I have read on type theory. Bartholomae, Emig, and Murray are just a few of the names that have been dropped. I have also found Freire's ideas in the essays, but not his exact name. These connections to theories that I feel somewhat familiar with are helping me to understand the space that type theory occupies in the larger sphere of composition theory and studies.

As I read the last half of the book on type theory, I am sure my ideas will form more fully and that I will have a lot more to write about on this subject. I will also have a clearer picture of how type theory, made popular by Carl Jung and Isabel Briggs Myers, relates to teaching composition. Now, it is time to get back to tutoring!

Talking About Writing

I am currently working on my bibliographic essay research. So far it's going okay, except for a slight set back today when I thought I had a great source, but it turned out to be more about reader-response theory rather than what I want to write about.

But I would rather talk about non-traditional students. I was surprised to hear about Emily's experiences with non-traditional students. I had never thought about the authority issue between a non-traditional student and a tutor. Most of the students I have worked with are grateful for this service and open to suggestions. I guess in some ways I am a little biased because I would qualify as a non-traditional student. At least that's what all of the little fliers they keep sending me tell me. When I came back to school I was surprised by how many non-traditional students there were at Weber. It's probably a function of more than one factor. The first is this is a commuter campus. Most people don't live on campus and commute here. The students are people in the community who have this resource available, and would like to come back and get their degrees. In other cases universities are in communities where most of the population is already educated, and students are coming there from all over the country to start their degrees. They are often young and there on their parents' dime. They live on campus and a lot of them do not know what they want out of life yet. I think that is the major difference between traditional and non-traditional students. Most non-traditional students are more focused because they have decided what they want, they are paying for it, and they have a timeline they would like to fulfill. Traditional students are still figuring it out, and are sometimes using school as a delay tactic before they have to go out into the "real world" and get a job.

Personally, I like working with non-traditional students because oftentimes their papers are for upper division classes. I find these papers fascinating. The topics range from nursing papers, to criminal Justice papers, to aquatic ecology (which has been my favorite paper to tutor so far). I like learning about non-traditional students, and I like reading what they're writing. I like being able to help them (when they are willing) and I think I can relate to some of the things they are experiencing, or have experienced.

So, back to the beginning....maybe the role of non-traditional students in the writing center might be a good topic for a bibliographic essay. Should you tutor non-traditional students differently? Are there writing centers who have programs set up for non-traditional students? I don't think I'll write on this idea, so it's fair game if someone wants it.

Monday, October 27, 2008


So.  What are you all thinking about writing the bibliographic essay about?  Or rather, about what are you all thinking of writing the bibliographic essay?

Michelle Pulls a Palin

Blogging, blogging. This is a very late post. Thankfully, the new post is not up yet.

Part of me wants to pull a Sarah Palin and not answer the question posed to me, even though it was a fun question. There are lots of grammar rules that I struggle with, and I sort of move through them all circularly - finally getting one rule down just to forget the one that plagued me two summers ago. I am in a never-ending fight with comma rules.

But I really want to talk about the link Dr. Rogers posted. It fascinated me! Not only does this guy who write term papers for a little extra cash, but he also includes a moral on the failings of the university at the end of his essay. He raised so many interesting issues. First, I was intrigued by the idea that he looked for quotes/arguments, and then just sort of filled up the middle with words. I can imagine a person really trying to write a paper on a book they hadn't read going crazy, but as he said, if you just write whatever comes to mind, chances are you could get pretty fast at it after a while. I also think anybody who has ever been stuck for time and doing one of their own papers has probably fallen into that sort of rhythm.

What really intrigued me, however, was the idea that most college students have never actually read a research essay. They hear about them, they get told to write one, and they go home and stare at a blank screen and (here comes in Bartholomae and Ong), they are forced to invent the language they think they are expected to be using, and write for an audience which is largely an illusion. Nobody ever teaches college students to write this way. But as Mr. Term Papers pointed out, college students are expected to write like it. He also pointed out that a lot of these kids probably should not be at college, and that they are the big chunk of kids who ask him for papers. His second and third group of people who came to him were very thought provoking, however. A chemistry major stuck in a poetry class (or the other way around), that has never been taught and has no real interest in what they are supposed to be doing. They can either fake it, or they can pay someone else to fake it, but as he pointed out, there really isn't much "teaching" going on about how to actually write for the discipline. Why? Is it because nobody really knows how? Do we just expect it to be intuitive? Is it because they people who become teachers are those for whom the subject was interesting and at least a little natural (I would argue that few people become college professors in a subject they hate) and therefore they don't know how, or at least forget that they are supposed to teach it? And most importantly, what is the solution? Do we just try to keep these kids out of the universities, or can we improve the way composition is taught so that there are less people who feel they have to fill Mr. Term Paper's pockets in order to survive their college experience?

Fascinating article, very thought provoking...