Category Archives: Advice for Student Writers

What Matters in a Statement of Purpose

I’m seeing an awful lot of SOP/grad school flailing going on on my various social media platforms, so here are some highlights from the workshop I ran for our students a couple of weeks ago along with the handout I distributed. All materials are the property of the New Economic School Writing and Communications Center.

First, a few statistics:

  • Of all of the students who enter any kind of PhD program in the United States, only 50% actually finish (Cassuto).
  • In 2010, a study followed 583 students entering various university PhD programs in Economics beginning in 2002. After 8 years, 59% had earned the PhD, 37% had dropped out, and 4% were still writing their dissertations (Stock 176).
  • Of the 59% who finished, 45% took 5 years. The remaining 55% took 6 to 8 years.

What does this mean?

  • Graduate school is a long-term investment that requires considerable self-discipline, focus, and internal motivation as well as intelligence. Even very, very smart people do not finish. Indeed, many finish their coursework only to stall at the dissertation stage.
  • Admitting a PhD student also represents a significant investment of resources in terms of stipend money and advising and mentorship. The return graduate programs want from that investment is that you will finish and get a good job, thereby boosting their completion and placement numbers and conferring additional prestige. Those who make admissions decisions for graduate programs are looking for evidence that you will do this, which isn’t always easy to tell from your grades and GRE scores.
  • Your Personal Statement is the document where you make the argument for why you will be a good investment, demonstrating:
    • That you understand what advanced academic work in your field entails and that you have at least a general plan for getting through it.
    • That you have thought about your areas of interest and are able to describe the shape that your future research might take.
    • That you have done research on this specific program and understand how their specific strengths fit your goals.
    • That you have some idea of what you want to do with your degree (even though that may be a decade in the future).

Brainstorming:

  • Start writing early. Your personal statement will likely go through many drafts before you are ready to submit it.
  • If a school asks you to answer specific questions, be sure to do that. It’s crucial to show that you’re individualizing your application for each school and that you have thought seriously about their questions.
  • And even with a specific set of questions, you still must work to make your answers meaningful and unique.
  • Ask yourself the following sets of questions as you brainstorm.
    • The Field:
      • Why do you want to be a _____? Don’t think about why other people may choose this profession; why do you want that as your profession?
      • What are the benefits and drawbacks of the profession?
      • How and when did you learn about the field? Was it through a class, reading, work experience, or a professor? Is that story important to your story? What have you learned about it that has further stimulated your interest?
      • What particular path in the field interests you now? What are your career goals?
    • The Program:
      • Why do you want to get into this program? Don’t talk about Economics programs in general, but Harvard’s Economics Program or Stanford’s Economics Program. Maybe there’s a particular professor with whom you want to work. Maybe the school offers excellent research opportunities or teaching experience to graduate students. If you’re not sure, do more research about the school or talk with a professor or student.
    • Yourself:
      • What’s special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you and your story?
      • Are there details about your life that can help the committee understand you or that will make you stand out from other applicants?
      • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (i.e. economic, familial, physical)? Admissions committees are interested in unique personal narratives and evidence of having overcome adversity.
      • What personal skills or characteristics do you possess that would make you successful in the field? How can you show admissions committees that you have those?
      • Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school and/or more successful in the field than other applicants?
      • What are the most important reasons the admissions committee should be interested in you?
      • Does your academic record have gaps or discrepancies you need to explain (i.e. excellent grades but poor GRE)

What Makes a Poor Personal Statement:

  • Isn’t specific or unique—relies on clichés “I have always wanted to be an economist” or “I have always dreamed of attending Harvard.”
  • Doesn’t indicate that you’ve researched the institution
  • Doesn’t indicate your past work that serves as evidence of your potential as a student
  • Rambles or includes irrelevant information

General Tips:

  • Tell a story—show what you want to say through concrete experience. Rather than “I have an adventurous spirit,” tell us about the service trip you went on with a group of strangers to India.
  • Find an angle—most people have “normal” stories, so a focus that makes yours interesting.
  • Be focused—if the application asks you to answer specific questions, answer them. If there are no specific questions, still maintain focus. Choose important qualities/characteristics and write only about those.
  • Be specific—do not make claims you cannot back up with experience.
  • Avoid clichés.
  • Be coherent—the way you write indicates the kind of person you are. Someone who writes clearly is likely a sensible person.
  • Interpret material for your readers. Don’t repeat the material in your application—instead, explain how those experiences relate to the program for which you’re applying.
  • Don’t be afraid to be personal, as long as it’s appropriate.
  • Tell what you know about the field or profession. Share what you’ve already learned—refer to experience (work, research), classes, conversations you’ve had with people who work in the field, books you’ve read, seminars you’ve attended—and then show why you’re well suited to the profession.
  • Research the school.
  • If the school’s location provides a major geographical or cultural change, consider writing about that.
  • If there is a word limit, stay within it.

More, including samples, here: Personal Statement Workshop Handout

The Story Only You Can Tell

I was a little bit surprised that my last post on what I affectionately and long-windedly call the “How a PWD made me count my blessings by being like the very incarnation of Baby Jesus” genre of admissions essays turned out to be one of the more popular posts on this blog.  I was immensely gratified by the thoughtful and honest comments, where we semi-debated the risks vs. benefits of writing about various topics.  My hypothesis there was that this particular type of essay is ubiquitous because high school students and those who advise them, writing about that one week where you volunteered to work with children with disabilities or built an orphanage in Mexico and had a totally transformative experience seems like a good way to pander to the bleeding hearts who tend to read admissions essays.  They stress the more impressive parts of the student’s record and come instantly packed with a certain kind of drama.

This prompted a comment from Anna about her doubts that she as a person from a non-privileged group would be able to successfully write about her experiences without also taking on the stigma of belonging to that non-privileged group. At the time, I agreed with her, but now I sort of want to back off from that.  For one thing, over the course of the intervening month, in which I read over 200 admissions essays, I became more aware of my gut responses to particular types of essays.  Let me just say here that my gut response isn’t the sole factor determining how I score an essay.  As I stated in the previous post, I do not come to these applications looking to have my political convictions reflected back to me.  The score is a measure of the quality of both the writing and the thought behind it.  I recently gave a very high score, for example, to an applicant who wrote about the experience of belonging to a political family, the political family in question being one that I pretty much despise.

That said, essays that adopt cliche approaches tend to receive middling scores because they lack individuality and depth, while essays that talk about intense personal experiences in an emotionally honest and nuanced way tend to be better simply because they reveal more about the student as a person and, because they are intense experiences, feature a more sophisticated emotional vocabulary.  In the past few weeks, I have seen excellent essays about dealing with the aftermath of parental abuse or abandonment, identifying as queer in a conservative community, coping with a chronic illness, and assimilating to U.S. culture as an immigrant.  All of these could have invited a certain type of stigma, but I responded to these students well both as writers and as people, and I do not think that this is because I am simply an exceptionally sensitive, social justice-oriented person.  I actually think that most admissions readers would respond well to these essays.

The fact of the matter is that in admissions training both at my own institution and on a national scale, readers are taught to look for evidence of pursuing challenges and overcoming adversity in addition to more traditional markers of achievement.  Because of the backlash against affirmative actions, these injunctions are a way of taking all parts of a student’s background into account without resorting to identity politics.  And while it’s probably true that most admissions readers–who tend to be ensconced within the Ivory Tower–are bleeding heart liberals, evidence of pursuing challenges and overcoming adversity appeals to bootstrapping conservatives just as much.  When asked to score applications for a pre-med scholarship program, my Reaganite father admitted that he tended to be more sympathetic with kids from less privileged backgrounds at least in part because they reminded them of himself (not that applications should be scored on the basis of personal identification either.)

The essential point I’m trying to make here is that anyone who drives a student away from talking about the more harrowing parts of their background is probably doing that student a disservice.  No one should be pressured into leveraging their trauma in such mercenary ways, but if a student feels moved to write honestly about an experience, I think that student should just go right ahead. Furthermore, no student should feel pressured to embellish their narrative in order to make their personal history more melodramatic than it is.  I have also awarded high scores to students who wrote about the ups and downs of their entirely healthy relationship with their parents or their first experience in a debate competition in original and nuanced ways.  Just because an experience seems mundane doesn’t mean it can’t be the source of an inspired piece of writing.  It just means that the story you tell should be a story that only you can tell in that particular way, because writing from a place of true honesty and sincerity is one of the most effective ways to connect with your audience.

Many people commented with their stories about why they chose the essay topics they did and what role they think that played in the fact that they did not get into their first choice institution.  I have one of those stories too.  It goes like this:

I had a pretty privileged upbringing, attending a private evangelical high school in a very affluent area.  That said, I did struggle with depression for most of my teenage (and subsequently adult) years.  One of the sources of that depression was a slow-burning crisis of faith.  Quite devout as a child, my skepticism about Christianity–particularly the conservative version of it that permeated my community–intensified throughout high school.  Though that crisis hardly made me an extra special snowflake, it was the most vivid part of my personal experience at the time, and I had an essay about it written before I threw it away at the last minute.  See, the problem with writing about that experience is that I didn’t feel I could show it to anyone as to do so would be to disclose the very thing that made me feel so alienated from everyone around me and that I feared would invite ostracism.  When I did venture to describe the essay to someone, I was discouraged from sending it in by someone who thought it sounded “whiny.”  So I wrote a generic essay about how I love books instead.

I can say with conviction that this was terrible advice, but I cannot say that sending the first essay would have guaranteed me admission to my first choice, where I was ultimately wait-listed.  The truth is that top programs and top schools turn down amazing people all the time, and usually there is no “one thing” that you can point to that makes one individual just a little bit less amazing than a person who was admitted.  So, basing one’s admissions advice on one’s personal rejection experiences is a bad idea.  As someone who has read thousands of apps and attended numerous admissions seminars, however, I am saying is that college admissions, for all its problems, probably is one of the few places where a student should take a few risks and be honest about who they are.    I know I would rather read an essay that chances a bit of exposure than yet another essay about how some person with vaguely defined characteristics inspired the student with generic positive feelings.

How Not to Write About Disability in Your College Application

Things that make me feel slightly better about the world:  in my current stack of 75 applications for a prestigious honors program at my university, four of the 150 essays have been about the use of slurs like “the R word” to describe people with disabilities.  That strikes me a somewhat encouraging ratio given the sheer breadth of topics available for these kids to write about.

Things that make my forehead scrunch:  more than a quarter of these essays have been about how a person with a disability taught the student A Very Important Lesson about perseverance, overcoming adversity, or being grateful for what one has.

I understand why essays about disability come up a lot, particularly among this cohort.  Just about every single one of us knows a person with some form of disability, and these kids spend many of their volunteer hours providing care at summer camps and group homes.  I think it’s tremendously commendable that they commit their time in this manner, but I want to caution students away from writing this particular kind of essay or, at the very least, only writing this sort of essay with some of the following problems in mind.  Teachers:  if you’re in a position to give advice about this sort of thing, feel free to pass it along.

1)  Almost all of these essays sound exactly alike.  The formula goes something like this:

First paragraph:  “I’ll never forget the first time I saw [name], who suffered from [disability].  Initially, I   thought [stereotypical and somewhat offensive preconceptions] about that disability, but [name] changed my perspective through her [remarkable qualities like innocence, perseverance, or courage].”

Second and Third paragraphs:  a chronicle of what you did for this person while working at [summer camp or group home for persons with disabilities].  This section is ultimately about how wonderful and generous you are for providing this sort of care.  There is often mention of having to help this person in the bathroom or shower and how that uncomfortable intimacy helped you grow as a person.

Fourth paragraph:  summary of how your life changed because of this experience (usually a single week or a semester of bi-weekly volunteering).  Usually contains truisms about counting your blessings and emulating that person’s cheerful attitude.

Essays that don’t clearly differentiate you from the pack won’t get you far with a selective college or honors program, so you want to avoid the formula essay as much as humanly possible.  I have seen spectacular riffs on the sort of essay outlined above, such as an essay on how a sibling’s disability made the student aware of the myriad accessibility issues in his school and church, but unless you can provide unique insights that stem from long-term experiences with disability, I would steer away from this topic.

2)  The essay is ultimately about how wonderful the applicant is.  Yeah, that’s sort of what you’re supposed to do in a college essay, but it’s icky to appropriate another person’s life in this way, and some application readers are going to be sensitive to that fact (your reader may, in fact, have or be closely related to a person who has a the same diagnosis).  Furthermore, you typically have to flatten that person’s personality traits in order to fit the narrative of what a kind, generous person you are and how you learned this important lesson, and that ultimately makes for writing that sounds (and is) disingenuous and uninteresting.

3)  Your essays are an opportunity to talk about something that either can’t fit into a resume line.  Your time volunteering at that camp one summer–most of your short-term volunteer activities, in fact–will come through on a resume just fine.  In fact, it’s sort of expected from the types of students who apply to selective colleges and programs.  In other words, write about something that is a bit closer to your own personal experience.

Nothing points to the need for a better public discourse on disability than the ubiquity of this particular sort of college essay.  A person with a disability is always presented as an opportunity for an able-bodied person to learn a lesson about how great they have it, about how to accept adverse circumstances cheerfully and courageously.  Furthermore, it strikes me as a problem that such individuals are subjected to inexpert care from a person they will never see again in order for privileged college juniors to have something to write about.  Ditto for impoverished children in the developing world, people who frequent soup kitchens, people with terminal illnesses, the impoverished child you tutored for a semester, etc.

I don’t necessarily read college essays looking to see my own political commitments reflected back to me.  I don’t expect seventeen year-olds to be able to deconstruct privilege or fault them for using a vocabulary that the vast majority of able-bodied adults think is compassionate but is actually pretty infantilizing and problematic.  I do score these essays based on the quality of the writing, which usually isn’t very good.  It’s the oh-so predictable homogeneity of these essays–the prosaic quality that emerges any time someone is trying to expound on something that they lack the long-term experience or intimate involvement to be able to adequately describe–that earns them only middling scores.  It’s the symptomatic nature of these essays that makes my forehead scrunch.

On Writing Anxiety

cover art for Anne Lamott's Bird by BirdCommenters Notemily and Mightydougla both brought up the issue of writing anxiety and difficulty starting/completing writing projects.  I can sympathize, as being compelled to take something of a left turn in my current dissertation chapter has led to a rather nagging bout of writers block.  I know (basically) what I need to write, but I’m not yet sure how I want to structure this next section and recent attempts to just plow ahead have produced little more than meandering dreck and pages and pages of disorganized notes.

So yeah, it happens to the best of us, though that knowledge isn’t really all that helpful.  I am not, however, convinced that making the usual pronouncements about just sitting down and starting the damn project are all that helpful either.  As a rule, I tend to avoid the writing advice columns on the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed like the plague.  They tend to compound my anxiety by confirming what I already suspect:  I’m not productive enough, I’m not disciplined enough, my writing process is pathological.  I know that the schedules, journaling strategies, etc. probably work for some people, but they fill me with shame and make me feel like there are all these other things I’m supposed to be doing before I can even write.

This is why I love Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, because with incomparable grace and humor, she dispenses the most fundamental and essential wisdoms about writing–break the large project into smaller tasks, don’t be afraid to write shitty first drafts that no one is ever going to see, combat your inner critic, and just sit down and make yourself start somewhere already–while acknowledging that writing is a psychologically fraught activity.  We meet our best and worst selves in the midst of writing.  The chapter on the process that took one of Lamott’s novel’s from first draft to print is also a narrative about depression and a self destructive bender in New York City.  You don’t have to have perfect mental health in order to be a decent writer, but I do think that good writing requires a degree of self understanding as well as the willingness to look at oneself with compassion and a sense of humor.

If there is one overarching theme to that book, it is that believing we must be brilliant every time we sit down to begin a writing project is self-defeating.  It stops us before we even start.  Honestly, the best piece of advice I have ever heard about writing a dissertation is the following:  give yourself permission to write the trashiest dissertation ever floated under the nose of an unsuspecting committee.  Or, as one of my own committee members recently said, “a dissertation is a piece of paper with five signatures on it.”  In other words, the point is to finish, to produce something passable, not to write the next Of Grammatology.  If you’re faced with a class project, the point is to turn something in.  C’s are better than zeroes, after all.

And once you actually have something on paper, then you can use any extra time you have to make it good.  That’s why, when students come to me to talk about the early stages of a project, I usually insist that they bring something, anything in–an introductory paragraph, a page of notes, an outline, whatever.  You are always much better off if you have a document–even a really execrable one–to work with.  And within reason, I encourage students to bring me those execrable documents so that we can begin rehabilitating them (usually they aren’t as bad as the writers think).  If I don’t have time, I send them to the writing center.

So yeah, that’s my first big piece of advice:  lower your standards.  Lower them so that you can begin raising them again.  My second is:  know thyself.  Usually what we’re waiting for in the process of brainstorming, outlining, researching, and writing execrable drafts is the moment of inspiration, the epiphany that unlocks the whole project or even just a little piece of it.  Notorious Ph.D, in a wonderful blog post, recently called it the moment of Grace:

These moments are rare, and you can’t make them happen. That moment of inspiration is out of your hands. My job is simply to be there, doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing, so it knows where to find me when it arrives.

Part of becoming a productive writer is knowing what makes those moments happen and trying to create the conditions for it, or, at the very least, ensuring that you’re ready when it happens.  If it usually strikes once the deadline is upon you, make sure you have material to build around it.  If you require particular atmospheric conditions–music or silence, long uninterrupted periods of time–try to give that to yourself.  I have noticed recently that moments of inspiration often come when I give into instinct and let myself read that book that isn’t quite but sort of is tangentially related to this writing project but that sometimes sheds a whole new light on the problem or provides a bit of context that had previously been hidden from me or illuminated a way to bring conversations in two different fields together.

But do remember that creating these conditions takes some time, discipline, and planning.  At some point in college, I realized that I needed about a month of short daily sessions to produce decent final papers.  By short daily sessions, I mean that on writing days, I would focus on completing a single paragraph and not really worry about its quality or whether it would even be staying in the final draft.  I don’t always write final copy on the days I do dissertation work.  Sometimes, my little assignment is to read and take notes on 100 pages from a book and transcribe potential quotes (transcribing those quotes is really satisfying, because you can think of them as actually contributing to the final bulk of the chapter).  The whole point is just to end the day with something, anything on paper, and I can rest in the assurance that no one even has to see it unless I want them to.

Revising Tip: Don’t Fall in Love With Every Idea

All good writing is the same.  All bad writing is bad in it’s own…ok, this doesn’t really work.  Writing can be good or bad in any number of ways, but part of the embracing the revision process in all of it’s glories and miseries is figuring out the unique ways in which your first drafts tend to fail.  I continue to be astounded by how much I do actually have to learn about my own writing process.  It seems like it ought to be pretty transparent.  I’m the one doing it after all, but I’m starting to realize that some of the things I *thought* I knew about how I right are actually about how I wish my process worked.

One of the fantasies I have long held about my writing is that I walk into a first draft with a clear idea about what my argument is, when as it turns out, writing the first draft is the invention process that gets me to the argument.  This is why I wind up with introductions that are six pages long and contain 4-6 major ideas.  It reminds me of what someone (I can’t remember who) once wrote about Michael Bay.  One of the myriad reasons why Bay movies tend to suck is that he falls in love with every idea he has, every shot he directs and doesn’t seem to know when to cut stuff out.  So you wind up with bloated robot fights where the audience can’t tell what the hell is going on.

I think I place too much faith in the late-night epiphany, and get too attached to material that might contain a great idea, just not in the context of that particular writing project.  Disciplining myself to cut those intros down to 2 or so pages with one really clear central argument is a little excruciating, but my current projects are all the better for it.

And thinking about writing as a relatively open-ended process helps.  That way I know that those ideas can be turned into projects of their own.

How to Get a Better Grade

Back when I wrote these posts on grade grubbing, I had every intention of writing a companion piece or two directed at students (I know some students read this blog).  Then I got distracted.  Basically, I wanted to give students some advice about how to potentially improve their grade by improving their relationships with instructors, by not being “that guy”–you know, that guy that teachers rip to shreds on their blogs.  And while July seems like a strange time to be writing about school, I figure that some students are winding up their first session of summer school, and, you know, it’s never too early to start thinking about the Fall term.  So here we go:

“She just doesn’t like me. She gave me a D on my paper.” I used to hear this statement a lot from the guy I dated in high school. Throughout our four years at Evangelical High, he cultivated academic persecution fantasies that would put David Horowitz to shame. Then, I would take a look at his paper, point out that there wasn’t a single complete sentence in the entire first paragraph, and he would turn on me. We did not date long.

“My teacher doesn’t like me” is a ridiculous excuse, folks. First of all, what does “like” even mean in this case? What do you consider to be a sufficient level of affinity here? Do the two of you need to be so close that you stay after class to talk about your feelings? Does the instructor need to be willing to walk your dog and drive you to the airport? The truth is that students and instructors can have wonderfully productive relationships regardless of whether or not you want to go have a beer together. You can even have productive relationships when you are entirely indifferent toward one another as people. Yes, there are some instructors out there in serious need of a personality transplant, even a few who are inappropriately punitive in their grading policies. But let’s just start from the assumption that the VAST MAJORITY of secondary school and college instructors are just pretty decent people, people who want to do their jobs, people who took those jobs because they are in some level interested in working with students, whether or not they feel super close to each individual.

So, starting there, how do you build a working relationship with an instructor that is likely to get them interested in helping you, in letting you make up or redo work, in maybe listening to a petition for a better grade (that last one’s a tall order)? How, in short, do you get an instructor on your side, whether or not they actually “like” you, whatever you think that means?

The answer is actually pretty simple and actually goes beyond just performing well in their class. I’ve had plenty of smart students who drifted through my classroom turning in great work without seeming to try, but I wasn’t ever interested in bending over backward for them. The key to getting an instructor on your side is to show a sincere investment in their class, whether you are “good” at that particular subject or not. Note: this does not mean sucking up and telling the instructor how brilliant they are and how much you want to major in this topic. In fact, it’s possible to build a good working partnership even if you are open about your ambivalence or historical difficulties with that subject. Showing investment means actually investing your time, your effort, and your focus. Here’s what that looks like in a practical sense.

Cover the basics. Show up on time. Observe the attendance policy. Don’t ask questions that can easily be answered by looking at the syllabus. Turn in assignments according to schedule. Put forth an honest effort on each assignment. Study. Respect the class rules. Policies are usually there for a reason, and habitually disregarding them is a sign that you don’t respect the instructor’s time or effort in putting together the class. If you have trouble with any of the imperatives in this paragraph, it’s time to take a steady look inward. Barring extraordinary circumstances, which I’ll discuss in a moment, your instructor is not the reason you are doing poorly. No, not even a little bit.

Be up front about any accommodations you need. If you have a disability, your instructor is required to provide the accommodations listed in your Disability Services letter. Beyond that, if you have a particular issue, like a scheduling catastrophe that may make you late on occasion, it’s better to get out in front of it on the first day. Don’t just assume that your instructor will figure it out. In the absence of other information, he’ll probably just assume you’re a jerk.

Don’t wait until the end of term to address a bad grade. For one thing, waiting til the eleventh hour to try to manipulate your way from a B+ to an A just reeks of grade grubbing. For another thing, any time you want to talk about your grades, it should be in the context of your performance on individual assignments. Furthermore, your performance on a particular type of assignment and your mastery of content will improve if you seek extra feedback in a timely fashion. This means that the day you get a test or paper back with a grade that was less than what you were expecting, you seek out the instructor within a week. Don’t just walk up to her after class. Take some time to absorb any written comments. Then, a day or two later, send an email that looks something like this:

Dear Professor X,

I was really disappointed with my performance on the last test. I studied the entire week beforehand, but I guess I did not understand the material as well as I thought. I’d like to talk with you about how to improve for the next test and make sure that I understand everything. Could we meet during your Tuesday office hours?

Thanks.

Or something like this:

Dear Professor Y,

You probably noticed that I did not do so well on that last paper. I had three exams last week and did not anticipate the amount of time it would take to study for them. As such, I did not do my best work on that assignment. I was wondering if we could meet some time to talk about my thesis and how I might improve it. I know you allow us to do one revision, and I want to make it count. Unfortunately, I work my shift at Chipotle during your office hours, but I am available to meet any time on Friday or after 1:00 on Thursday.

Once you have a meeting set up, it is imperative that you keep it, especially if you need to ask for time outside of office hours. If you need to reschedule, make sure you get in touch with the instructor ahead of time. Most teachers are not inclined to schedule extra meetings with students who blow them off.

Once there, focus the conversation on your performance on that particular assignment/exam and try to avoid talking about your grade as something that the instructor assigned arbitrarily or something that was done to you. After you have done all of these things, you may then broach the subject of do-overs and extra credit. Respectfully ask if you can make up the quiz you failed or do an extra credit project or revision. Then accept the verdict respectfully. If you want to be a real star, you can revise the paper anyway and then hand it in again and just see what happens.

Get on top of emergencies. Did your computer catch fire over the weekend? Have you been struck down with bubonic plague? Did you wind up in a magical scheduling vortex and have 14 exams and projects due the same week? Believe it or not, this is not the time to throw in the towel, nor is it the time to hope the entire world will stop until you get sorted out or to assume that people know that something horrible must have happened to you. This is the time to Deal With It.

Folks, I have had students with emergencies that make your 24 hour flu look like a day at the spa. I have had students lose their parents, find out mid way through the semester that they need to go home while their mother undergoes chemo, require an emergency appendectomy, discover that they are pregnant and need to divert their emotional and mental resources to figuring out what to do about it. I have had students whose roommates poured Dr. Pepper over their laptops. I have had students with painful chronic illnesses that sometimes kept them in bed. All of these students made it through the semester, some of them with excellent grades, even after missing two consecutive weeks of class. All of these students got on top of their emergencies. In a timely fashion (i.e. while it was happening, not a week after they re-materialized), they let me know what was going on and–even more importantly–how they planned to deal with it. Some have deputized their parents or friends to find out what they were missing and to get homework. Some have met with me to discuss the possibility of taking an incomplete and getting work done over the summer or to map out a schedule for completing all their work by the last day, including regularly scheduled check-in appointments with me. All of these students required special accommodations and leniency, and I was happy to give it to them. Under no circumstances would I require someone to email me from the recovery room after surgery or write papers when they ought to be sleeping or doing physical therapy. But at the bare minimum, even if your emergency is just a particularly bad cold, have some kind of a plan and share it with your instructor.

Be a presence. Speak up in class.  You don’t have to be the most talkative person in the room.  Just chime in two or three times a session whenever you have something to share in order to show that you are engaged and interested in making a contribution.  Also, be a presence in your instructor’s office hours and in their email inbox.  Don’t harass them or anything, but feel free to ask questions about things that aren’t immediately obvious from looking at the syllabus or assignment sheet, and show up in office hours when you legitimately need help.  It shows that you are interested in improving.

Be humble. Be accepting. Even if you do everything I recommend here, in order to cultivate a relationship with your instructors that is based on respect, you need to recognize that even if you show up every day, even if you try your hardest, no one actually owes you an A. Ultimately, your final grade is always based on your performance on the tasks you were given.

Does all of this sound more or less like,  you know, work?  Because it is.  If you were hoping for a solution to your grade problems that didn’t include doing everything a good student is supposed to do, then I’m not sure I can help you.  I certainly would raise your grade.  Sorry if that’s not what you want to hear.  But the simple truth is that investing time and effort in what an instructor is teaching is more likely to make them want to invest substantially in you, more likely to make them go out of their way to help you, make them more sympathetic when you need them to be.  The simple truth is that instructors are human, and you will get really, really far by showing that you respect what they’re doing.

To be continued.

Future posts:  How to petition a grade if you absolutely must.  What to do if your instructor really is a total human fail.

Hitting the Wall

This is me right now.

Embarrassing confession time: I’ve been having trouble with a non-blog related writing project for the past few weeks. Guys, it is so stupid. I’m trying to finish a damn conference paper. It is, for the most part, almost finished. The first two-thirds of it are pretty much locked.  The framework for the argument is laid out. I have quotes selected and notes ready to be revised into real copy waiting in a separate document. Basically, what I’ve been facing for the past several days is the task of laying down about 1000 words of close textual analysis and a brief conclusion. 1000 words. I can write 1000 words in half an hour. I did a 1000 word close analysis almost on a whim last week. I have, in total, written about 20,000 words on this blog just in the past 10 days or so. 1000 words is a wind sprint. Yet every time I sit down to finish this thing, nothing comes out but an incomprehensible stream of inane blather. Technically, those 1000 words are already typed out, but they are bad, bad, bad. Every time I look at that Word document, I want to scream. It makes me wish I actually drafted things long hand on paper so that I could start a trash can fire with all of the draft material I’ve sent into the nether of late, though that would probably also burn my house down.

So, the result is that I’m having nightmares and not sleeping well. This happens every once in a while, and whenever it does, I feel like I spend my days teetering on the edge of a panic attack. I try to distract myself with other reading and house cleaning and crap like that, but then I’ll read something infuriating on the internet or I’ll break a glass or something, and all the tension I’m feeling about not being able to finish that project comes bubbling to the surface but directed at something totally ridiculous. So, in the four days leading up this conference, I am either going to find a way to fix this paper, or I am going to have a meltdown.

I know why this is happening. It happened somewhere around Draft 5 of my dissertation prospectus last year. The shortest explanation is:  I desperately need a vacation. In the past six months, I have completed the following:

2 dissertation chapters
1 journal article
4 conference papers
1 fellowship proposal

All told, that comes out to about 75,000 words or over 150 double spaced pages of presentation/submission quality work. And that’s not even counting the reams of early draft material that got excised. About a third of that work was all done just in the month of April, so it’s probably not surprising that I’m tired. I’ve hit the wall with less under my belt than that before, so perhaps this is progress or something.

“Hitting the wall” has special meaning for marathon runners. The average trained runner burns about 100 calories per mile. The average body stores about 2,000 calories of ready-to-burn energy, which means that at about 20 miles (give or take), the marathon runner has reached the bitter end of their body’s reserves, and the body begins to revolt. Never having run more than 10 miles at time (and that was only once), I’m not entirely sure what this feels like, but I think you can approximate it if you’ve ever tried to do an intense workout on a totally empty stomach. I did that last week, and it ended in nausea and cramps and shaky hands and needing to guzzle a Dr. Pepper (sports drinks are gross) as soon as I got home. Long distance runners can try to delay the inevitable by–I kid you not–eating candy or taking hits off of those nasty energy gel packs.

I think this happens with writing or any other kind of creative work as well. Graduate students usually figure this out the first semester they sign up for three courses that all have 20+ page papers as their final project. One of those papers is going to suck, maybe two of them, depending on how hard your semester was. But at least one execrable seminar paper is pretty much guaranteed in that situation, because for some reason, most brains just can’t do much more than that. Undergraduates who wait until the last minute to write all of their papers figure this out too and wind up turning stuff in that’s incomplete or just not turning it in at all. Pacing yourself helps, but I think that no matter what, we eventually reach a point where our energy reserves, creativity-wise, are just sapped. When you reach that point, you’re just done. The magic won’t happen any more.

Of course, my fear is always that it will never come back, that I’m just through. Finished. Washed up. Cut off before my career could even get started. If writing (or drawing, or making music, or whatever creative work you do) is the source of your identity. If you know that your career prospects are in some very real way attached to it. (Yes. SENTENCE FRAGMENTS. DEAL WITH IT.) If you feel that writing is your major contribution to the world, then hitting the wall produces existential terror.

The West Wing, one of my favorite shows, captures this beautifully. Seriously, if you know the feeling I’ve described above, bookmark this clip and watch it whenever you hit that point. It will make you feel just a little bit better. In this scene from “Arctic Radar,” Toby Ziegler is sitting down to write the President’s second inaugural address after a long, harrowing campaign season. Watch how this scene is shot, with the Seal of the President looming ghost-like in the background to remind you just how high the stakes are. The other character here is a speech writer who has been sent by Toby’s deputy to help write the address, and Toby has given him an assignment to figure out if he’s up to the task. I like to think that Aaron Sorkin (or whoever) wrote this scene with the full knowledge of exactly how this feels, where–not for want of effort–”there’s just no blood going to it.”

Unfortunately, I can’t go to Atlantic City right now. I have to finish this paper, the conference being in four days and all. But afterward, I think it will be time to just take a couple of weeks. I can’t afford to go anywhere, but I can go to the book store and pick out something that just looks fun to read, preferably something with sexy people on the cover. I can re-watch the last three seasons of Mad Men. I can bake cookies. I can write long, rambling posts on this blog to remind myself that I still have words, even if I’m not able to hammer out that next dissertation chapter right away. And I can remind myself that it will, eventually, come back. It always has.

Taking a break has always been pretty hard for me. I think it’s just because we live in a culture that devalues rest, that shames us for being unproductive and wasting time. I actually think that rest can be a form of production. Taking a break from creative work is ultimately part of the invention process. It’s the carbo-loading period. It’s that day of rest in your week of athletic training, where you give your muscles time to repair themselves. Recently, Kate Harding confessed on her blog that her writing process includes a “talking about it in bars stage,” and that such a stage really is essential. Sometimes, that space in which you aren’t yet really producing anything is when the ideas really come, when problems with a project that seemed insurmountable suddenly get worked out.

It’s hard to trust in that process, though, because like I said, we live in a culture that tells us we can never stop, even for a second (academic writing advice columnists are pretty bad about this too). It’s easy to believe that if you take a break, you will never actually get back to the project itself, or never return to writing, that you will lie on the sofa for the rest of your life and never touch the keyboard again. Finding the size acceptance movement and intuitive eating, strangely, has helped me get over that feeling a bit. Intuitive eating teaches you that allowing yourself to have one french fry does not mean that you will just go ahead and eat ALL THE FRENCH FRIES IN THE WORLD. Taking a step back from writing for a couple of weeks does not mean that you will waste away, unproductively, for the rest of your life.

But, you know, deadlines exist. Sometimes you have to crank something out even though you know it’s not going to be your best work, so that’s what I’ll be doing for the next few days, though I’ll likely also be venting in this blog about it. I’m not writing an inaugural address. I’ll be lucky if half a dozen people show up to hear this paper. The stakes are really not THAT high.

And vacation starts on Friday.

Rabbit Trails

Everyone seems to have a system for writing, and most people are willing to share it.  As most dissertation/thesis, aspiring freelance writers, and budding novelists know, there is a sizable industry devoted to telling you how to write:  what time you should write and for how long, what tools you will need, what alignment the planets ought to be in.  A quick Amazon search for “dissertation writing” spits out the following titles:  the ever famous Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, Writing the Winning Thesis or Dissertation:  A Step-by-Step Guide (what is this “winning,” are there prizes I didn’t know about?  Is it cash?  I hope it’s cash.), Demystifying Dissertation Writing:  A Streamlined Process from Choice to Topic to Final Text. I have yet to find the title that actually interests me, which is How to Write Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day While Playing Online Games and Watching West Wing Reruns. But alas.

Higher education websites are full of advice too, notably from overworked assistant professors describing in horrifying detail how one manages to produce enough published material in order to get a full time job and ultimately receive tenure.  Those articles frankly scare the shit out of me, not only because they speak to the appalling state of the academic job market but because they make me fear that the rest of my life is going to more or less feel like my first year of grad school.  I have always been “good at school” in general.  I always handed in assignments early in college and managed to get through final exams without having to pull any all-nighters (yes, the high school lunch room was MISERABLE for me, thank you for asking).  But in grad school I found myself feeling like I had to Say Something Brilliant in every class I was in, that every term paper I turned in needed to be of publishable quality (before I really had a clue what publishable quality was).  It seemed like everyone else had read Derrida back in like the third grade and had interesting and insightful things to say, and here I was just trying to figure out what “poststructuralist” meant.  I felt way, way behind.  I wondered why they had admitted me in the first place.  And my lack of interesting things to say in class or write in my term papers meant I had a hard time producing anything worth reading.

A switch sort of flipped in my second year when, after reading what most everyone else had been reading (you should read your Derrida, kids, it builds character), I started chasing rabbit trails.  I started reading stuff that wasn’t assigned and exploring subjects that people weren’t talking about and thinking of ways to make them interesting.  That’s how I wound up with a disseration that I feel passionate about and that is getting written pretty quickly.  I get so excited by the discoveries that I actually can write for seven hours a day and forget to eat lunch (and ignore West Wing reruns) when things are going well.  But getting there has also meant deviating from the schedule I established back in college, which was of the YOU MUST WRITE THIS MANY PAGES A DAY AND COMPLETE PROJECTS ACCORDING TO THIS SCHEDULE model that most advice columnists recommend.  I’m all for forcing yourself to write sometimes when you feel like procrastinating, making yourself just get it done when a deadline is looming and you know what you’re going to be saying anyway.

But sometimes procrastination isn’t just procrastination, if you know what I mean.  Sometimes it’s actually invention.  Sometimes there’s that book title that sounds really interesting to you but doesn’t seem to be relevant to whatever you are working on right this minute, so you put it on your “free time” list.  Then you get so exhausted with your current research that you pick it up anyway just to get your mind off of things and finding a new piece of information or a new connection that makes the whole thing come alive again.  Sometimes you fall down a Wikipedia hole during a bout of internet insomnia and wind up finding something significant.  This semester, I decided to take a class in Sociology, which I didn’t need to take and was, in fact, discouraged from taking because it would take time away from my dissertation, just because the course description sounded fascinating to me.  I wound up discovering scholars I had never heard of and encountering a wealth of data and theory that helped me complete both a dissertation chapter and an article in just a couple of months (over 100 pages of solid, final draft quality work, haters).  In other words, you never know where the rabbit trails are going to take you.  (That sounded unbelievably cheesy).

I don’t think we allow ourselves to do that enough, chase whatever wayward interest happens to seize you at the moment and follow it where it leads.  More than that, I don’t think we encourage our students to do that enough.  In a future post, I’ll explain why I structure and schedule writing assignments in a sort of idiosyncratic way, but I’ll just say this here.  Sometimes, the way we teach writing tends encourages a mindset focused on meeting a deadline at all costs (or suffer late penalties), or producing X number of pages, instead of producing vibrant, exciting work.  Structures and schedules are important, otherwise, we probably wouldn’t get much done.  But we ought to teach ourselves and our students to manage deadlines in a way that leaves room for discovery, whether that means taking on fewer projects at a time, or, when it seems important to do so, devoting a day or a week to chasing a rabbit.

Using “I” Without Making it All About You

One of the cardinal rules of writing in high school is that you are not supposed to use the first person pronoun.  That rule generally gets relaxed once you get to college, and there is a reason for it.  Professional writers (and most of us who teach college writing are professional writers or at least trying to be) use “I” all the time.  Academic writers say, “in this chapter, I will argue,” “during my research, I discovered,” etc.  Those who write in less formally constricted environments, such as editorials, are even more promiscuous about the use of “I.”  But I’ve been hearing some colleagues talking lately about how they ban the word “I” in their student’s writing, and this sort of bothers me.

There is a reason why high school writers aren’t allowed to use it, and I get it.  But a great deal of my energy in getting students to produce felicitous (that’s a great word, isn’t it?) prose is spent trying to untangle the web of rather arbitrary-seeming rules and constraints handed down to them at earlier stages in their education, so it seems worthwhile to spend some blog time exploring why this is taught and how it maybe really doesn’t have the intended effect.

The reason students are told not to use “I” is because of the tendency of young writers to make the writing all about them.  No one ever told you that in 9th grade English, did they?  But there it is.  Kids are kind of narcissistic, and it does, in fact, get in the way of efforts to help them produce good writing.  They tend to rush to positions on an issue and then defend it dogmatically based on nothing more than their god-given freedom of thought:

“MY ARGUMENT IS THIS BECAUSE IT’S MY ARGUMENT AND I’M ENTITLED TO MY OPINION AND YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO THINK IT’S A FREE COUNTRY AND YOU SHOULD BE GRADING MY IDEAS NOT MY GRAMMAR.”

Moving from expressive writing that is focused on exploring the self and toward writing that is focused on tailoring an argument to persuade a specific audience is one of the most profound steps student writers take.  It’s sort of like that Lacanian moment when, as a child, you begin to recognize that you are a self that inhabits a world of selves, that the space you take up in the universe is bounded and runs up against the boundaries of others.  The problem is that the injunction against using “I” in writing doesn’t really help.  The tendency to make one’s writing all about the writer rather than the reader is an impulse that remains alive and well in college and even among adult writers.  So, instead of simply banning the word “I,” we ought to be teaching how to use it.  I actually encourage students to practice using the following statements in their formal, argumentative writing, especially in early drafts:

“I contend…”

“I argue…”

“I advance the position…”

“I have concluded…”

For one thing, freeing up students to work with these kinds of constructions actually helps them write stronger, clearer theses by forcing them to distill their main point in such straightforward terms.  However, there are a couple of phrases that I do tell students to look out for:

“In my opinion…”

“I believe…”

These constructions are in some ways inherently self-directed, while the former set tend toward other-directedness.  By saying “I argue,” you imply that there is a person on the other end of that argument, an interlocutor, a potential respondent, someone you have to persuade or at the very least engage.  By saying “I advance the position,” you are implying that there might be other positions out there, some of which you may need to acknowledge or rebut.  However, when you say “I believe,” you are talking about thoughts that are typically very private.  The implied relationships is not between yourself and the reader but between yourself and the entity you believe in.

That isn’t to say, however, that “I believe” statements cannot work.  They can.  In a lot of confessional writing (think Augustine, Tolstoy, or C.S. Lewis), in which the author is talking about beliefs, you get this kind of language all the time.  But even those writers were attempting to persuade their readers.  By showing how the workings of curiosity, doubt, and faith have led them to adopt a particular belief system, they are trying to say something about how it might work for other people, but trust me, they are almost always thinking about the reader in the process.  People who try to get you to convert to their religion are talking about “belief,” but they are also thinking about the rhetorical strategies that might get you to go along with them.

So, instead of banning “I believe” or “In my opinion,” I tell students to watch for these phrases in their writing and examine why they are using them.  Are they using them as a defense mechanism because they aren’t sure how to justify or substantiate their conclusions and want to render themselves impervious to criticism by resorting to the “well, this is just what I believe, and I’m entitled to my beliefs” stance?  Are they trying to similarly insulate themselves from critique by highlighting the inherent subjectivity of what they are about to say?  If so, then they should see what the statement sounds like if they restate it using one of the first four constructions I listed before.  Does it now sound like something that can be argued and supported with evidence?

I contend (Iseewhatyoudidthere) that banning the use of “I” really only limits vocabulary without teaching students how to see themselves, their beliefs and opinions, as entities that have to interact with other entities in the world, people who have to persuade other people, beliefs and opinions that have to acknowledge and respond to other beliefs and opinions.  Students often think that their writing is part of a hermetically sealed conversation between them and the instructor in which their argument isn’t so much an argument about whatever the assignment was but an argument for why they deserve an A.  And that’s just not how writing works in the real world.

Writing Good Paragraphs

So you’ve got a great argument, fantastic ideas, and solid evidence to back it all up, but your essay itself feels like it blathers on and on without a real sense of coherence.  Some of your best points aren’t shining out, and you felt like you had to pack your essay with meaningless generalizations in order to reach the requisite length.  You may be getting bogged down in the paragraphing.  On the one hand, writing a paragraph feels like one of the most basic elements of writing, right after learning how to string a sentence together, yet writing good paragraphs is far from natural and often requires good planning.  By way of reminder, here are the essential elements of a paragraph and how they fit together.

Topic Sentence—the topic sentence is more than a statement of what that particular paragraph is going to talk about:

“First I shall discuss carrots.”

A topic sentence is a mini-thesis that relates back to your main thesis.  As with all theses, it should present a potentially contestable argument plus a reason or two:

“Carrots are an essential part of a healthy diet because of X, Y, and Z.” (my hypothetical paper is about nutrition)

Evidence—your evidence is essentially that X, Y, and Z.  Evidence can consist of:

  • Direct citations or summaries of an outside source.
  • Details from an object that you are analyzing.

I might go without saying, but all evidence presented in that particular paragraph should support the topic sentence or mini-thesis of that paragraph, not some other topic sentence.  If this paragraph in your nutrition paper is about carrots, don’t bring up blueberries.  Blueberries are another paragraph entirely.  Right now, you’ve asked your reader to concentrate on carrots, so don’t pull a bait and switch by shifting focus on them.

Commentary—your commentary is where you spell out how your evidence supports your topic sentence and ultimately the main thesis of your paper.  These are generally the most difficult sentences to write and are often neglected by undergraduate writers.  Most fear repeating themselves and feel that because they know how that evidence supports their thesis, everyone will be able to figure it out.  Here’s the thing though, your readers don’t have access to the specialized body of knowledge that qualified you to write this paper in the first place.  They are counting on you to educate them.

Here’s a paragraph without commentary:

“Carrots are an essential part of a healthy diet because they contain beta carotene and Vitamin A, and they are delicious.  Studies show that carrots are the best source of beta carotene and Vitamin A among all vegetables.  They also contain moderate amounts of sugar, which makes them tastier than many other vegetables.”

My reaction as a reader is, “So what Ms. Nutritionist.  What’s this beta carotene stuff and why the heck should I care about it?  And so what if they’re tastier than other vegetables.  That’s setting the bar pretty low.  You know what else is even tastier?  Cheese fries, that’s what.”

Commentary is where you persuade your reader to care about the evidence you are offering.  Even though hard data is important, commentary is where the bulk of persuasion actually occurs.  So here’s that paragraph with some commentary thrown in:

“Carrots are an essential part of a healthy diet because they contain beta carotene and Vitamin A, and they are delicious.  Studies show that carrots are the best source of beta carotene and Vitamin A among all vegetables.  Both nutrients are needed by the retina in order to process light.  The molecule formed by Vitamin A aids the eye in seeing colors and seeing in low light conditions; therefore, carrots are one of the best foods one can eat in order to keep the eyes healthy.  Carrots also contain moderate amounts of sugar, which makes them tastier than many other vegetables.  For that reason, raw baby carrots are an ideal snack food for both kids and adults.  Even when served with salad dressing or dips, carrots make for a tasty and much healthier snack than packaged foods high in processed sugars.”

Good commentary can even sneak in some additional evidence that helps explain why the major bit of evidence matters (such as the metabolic function of Vitamin A).

Editing your paragraphs:

If you think your paragraphs are in trouble, try doing the old high school highlighting trick.  Get a bunch of colored pencils, highlighters, pens, crayons, whatever, and mark each of these three elements in different colors.  Use another color for anything that might qualify as “filler,” stuff that doesn’t really contribute to the argument at all.  Once you’ve done that, look at how the paragraph is structured and note the ratios.

  • If you couldn’t find any real evidence to highlight, that’s a huge problem.  That means that your paragraph is essentially an assertion plus some sentences talking about why you like your assertion (“My thesis is my thesis because it’s my opinion and I’m entitled to my opinion”).
  • If your paragraph is mostly evidence, and you have a solid topic sentence that ties all of that evidence together, than you’ve at least got a skeleton to build on.  Try to work it out to a ratio of 2 sentences of commentary for every 1 sentence that lays out your major pieces of evidence.  This is precisely the ratio I used in my model carrot paragraph above.

Concluding sentences?

Don’t try to force yourself to write a concluding sentence, especially if it’s of the “and that’s my carrot paragraph” hand-waving variety.  What you should really be concerned about is how you transition into the next paragraph.  Since I ended my carrot paragraph by talking about why they are an idea snack, I might approach the next paragraph in a variety of ways:

  • Talk about another good snack food.
  • Talk about unhealthy snack foods and why they are bad.
  • Elaborate on how to create enticing but healthy snack options for children
  • Etc… (I’m sure you’re noticing the theme here).

Arranging paragraphs in this fashion gives the reader a sense that your major thesis is being fluidly developed.  The reader can chart your logic without feeling like the piece is jumping from one topic to another without any sense of connection.  Good arguments have a telescoping quality (Paragraph 2 builds on the info offered in Paragraph 1, and the implications of both are considered in Paragraph 3, which takes us to Paragraph 4 where we talk about solutions to the problems raised in Paragraph 3, etc.).  Staid or weak papers have an additive quality (Thing 1 + Thing 2 + Thing 3 + etc.)