“We’re starting at what time?”
The idea of getting up on a Saturday morning to attend a writing workshop doesn’t appeal to most people, but most people are not members of the Elizabethtown College Business Department Living/Learning Community. I’d like to thank the Business LLC for inviting me to share a little bit about language and writing today, and I hope everyone finds something of use in today’s workshop.
When does it matter to you?
I once served as a writing tutor for high school students. One student stopped by the writing center in my school and asked for consultation on a writing project she was working on. We made small talk while I read her work. She planned on becoming a veterinarian. I made several recommendations and offered to help her later if she needed it. To my offer she said, “That’s OK. This is the last English paper I’ll be turning in before heading off to college. Thank God I’ll be done with this nonsense.”
“Won’t you need to continue working as you go through college and start your career?” I asked, knowing that even veterinarians need to know how to write.
“No,” she said. “I’ll have a secretary for this stuff someday.”
With that in mind, it is important to note that I later learned the student failed to gain admission into veterinarian school on her first try… and then again on her second try. On her third attempt she was finally admitted to a school in the Caribbean–not an American institution. While at college, however, she met a professor who was able to communicate the importance of written communication to her and tutor her on academic writing.
In our pre-college education we were all taught to write in the same way. In just about every high school and middle school classroom students are guided through a personal essay writing process and an academic research paper writing process. If you are able to master these two types of writing during high school It is our understanding that when you decide to attend college you are saying, “I have a desire to be a better writer. I want to move beyond the basic writing I’ve always done.”
I don’t know if you will ever have a moment where writing becomes more important to you, but I do know that we often encounter a number of challenges as we try to improve our craft. What seems unknown or mystical about academic writing to you?
In my experience, I often hear the following answers to this question:
- Grammar/Language Usage
- Selecting and Citing other Writers in my Writing
- I Don’t Have Anything Important/New to Say
The Parts of our Language
The English language derives from a variety of Germanic, Romanic and Latin roots. If you were to study the history of the English language you find that at certain points in the history of England the language spoken by the common people, now the most widely spoken language in the world, nearly collapsed several times. But it survived and is still growing rapidly throughout the world.
The words in our language serve 8 different roles:
These different parts of speech can be assembled to build sentences. The 10 patterns in the English language that codify nearly 98% of all sentences in the English language are:
When you understand how these pieces are parts can bring together the simple sentences, you also begin to understand how other parts can be added correctly. With practice you begin to build confidence with the language and your communication across all platforms begins to improve dramatically.
Saying What Other People Say
The best book I have read lately on academic writing is They Say; I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Graff and Birkenstein. Now in its 3rd edition, They Say, I Say shows how the parts and pieces of a well-written essay can come together for just about any college-level writer… or his or her professors.
Graff and Birkenstein give equal emphasis to the development of each critical section of an essay, the introduction, the body and the conclusion. They also provide a roadmap, of sorts, for writers to follow when making decisions about their writing.
The book illustrates how a writer can reasonably and persuasively respond to other writers without glaring and obvious bias. Take for example this segment from Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous letter he wrote in response to his fellow clergyman critics while he was held in a Birmingham jail.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
In this one segment, King accurately summarizes what his critics convey in their letter to him. His response is to appeal to their common sense in saying that while the critics are not pleased by the demonstrations being carried out in their town, they should be equally displeased by the conduct that has initiated the demonstrations.
This is clearly a sensitive and important topic to write about and King’s response is one of his more well known pieces of writing. Writing about important, and sometimes divisive, topics with multiple points of view may be part of your college writing experience. The template below shows some moves one can make when one begins to talk about a controversial or divisive topic.
A good example of this approach being used in the real world can be found just about everyday on websites like the Huffington Post. Consider this example on a timely issue, how collegiate athletes should be better compensated. And take a look at this opinion piece posted to the Cedar Rapids, IA Gazette asserting that college athletes are already paid enough.
What if you worked in a professional capacity (accounting, marketing, finance, etc.) for a company tied to college athletics and your supervisor assigned you the task to write a response to the New York Times article linked above? Could you do it? In this scenario, I ask that you partner with one other person seated next to you to write a response to the article as representatives from a particular discipline (i.e. accounting, marketing, finance, and the like) and a specific company or organization (i.e. Nike, Under Armor, Octagon Talent, Gatorade, or the University of Kansas). Write a response that might appear in an opinion section of a news website discussing a point of view on how college athletes are paid and what should/could be done about it–if anything at all.
Use the template to help you get started, but apply some creative license to make the rhetorical “moves” work in your favor.
On of my lasting impressions that I hope to leave is that your writing does matter. You never, ever know how the things you write will impact your legacy. I have seen throughout my short life the amazing insights left behind by our most prominent and most forgotten historical figures. The handwritten notes of John F. Kennedy, the etchings of a final thesis in the rock walls of the Tower of London.
I was once walking down the aisles of a grocery store back home in Wichita, KS and a woman stopped me. She said, “Are you Lynn Skillen’s son?” I was a bit shocked by the question–my dad hadn’t lived in Kansas for at least 15 years. “Yes, I am.” I said. Then, with her hands shaking, she fumbled through her wallet to find a small note written in my dad’s handwriting. It was simply a word of encouragement in a very rough time in this woman’s life. She wouldn’t let me leave the store without knowing how much that note meant to her.
Take time to write every single day. The cognitive/tactile connections that need to exist in order to make the action of writing possible are quite complex and they can only be strengthened through routine practice. The more practice time, or mental reps, that you give to yourself will only strengthen your efforts to become a masterful communicator among a population of struggling writers.
Keep a journal, sketch ideas for your academic projects on a napkin, type an email to your parents. They will love you for it.
The most important writing I do every day are the handwritten notes I send to my grandmother who recently lost her husband to Alzheimer’s disease. Watching the slow, methodic and inexplicable decline of a person’s cognitive abilities has a lasting effect. She writes me everyday in order to strengthen the cognitive connections that remain for her.
You have everything to say. Your experience is unique compared to the person sitting next to you. Your perspective, if honed and properly researched, can be the very explanation that someone needs to solve a problem or see a better solution.
Writing takes time, and it is time well spent.