This Year’s New Technique To Contemplate

So far this year I have not come across a new composition trick to try, at least not borrowed from someone else as I have in years past. Recently, I have realized one of my own which I intend to keep as an experiment to see if it bears sharing or implementing in composition classes starting this fall.

As usual, the last few weeks of the semester are busy with writing exam and study guides, and grading. For most instructors, I imagine, this time of the year involves putting one’s own projects either on hold or slow-down mode. In my case, I was holding off on spending sustained amount of time on a book review, drafting a conference paper, researching and drafting a second conference paper, and 4 CFPs (two due within the next week, the others not until fall). There’s also a writing project to pick back up, but that’s part of another story, as is the design of a summer syllabus. On top of all this, I had some family in town.

The past two days, I have been getting back into my usual pattern of being able to spend more than 30 minutes at a time on a particular project. I started to notice a trend. My grades were due two weeks ago Wednesday, but then the next two days (Th-Fri) I was struggling a bit to get back to work, which was a problem because of some looming deadlines. I took that first Monday off, mostly to get family to the airport, and then the next two days I was suddenly able to get productive. Part of this might be the day or two off, but I think it was more due to how I was spending my self-imposed work time.

In two days, I was able to draft 1 CFP, complete the book review and send it off, and draft the first conference paper (due to be given Friday- as in 2 days from now), in addition to getting some outlining done for my summer course. Not to mention only spending about 5 hours per day in my office and not doing scholarly-type work at home; a much needed spring deep clean of the home is currently underway, plus I have really started to get attached to the idea of keeping home for myself and not work if at all possible.

Here’s my new (to me at least) composition/scholarly technique: work on one thing until it starts to get difficult, then switch over to another thing for a while, and when that gets to be a struggle, switch to something else, etc., coming back to the first thing the next day with fresh mind and eyes. While I admit that sometimes just staring at something for a while can be effective, more often than not, that can be a waste of time, just like fighting the sleepies for an hour vs a 30-minute nap.

Another version of this is spend an hour on one project, then switch to another, etc., and repeat the cycle the next day. This way progress is continually made on multiple items, and there isn’t as much frustration about getting stuck on something even if a deadline is getting close. Avoiding some of the mental fatigue like this also seems to help keep the temptation to take a brain break on social media at bay, which can turn into a big unproductive time-suck as well.

The more I think about it, this seems to be related to several well-established bits of time-management-when-it-comes-to-studying advice. First, there’s the idea that cramming is less effective than frequent short bursts. Then there’s the idea of stopping just before you’ve run out of ideas so that you have somewhere to start next time. Lastly, there’s just listening to yourself and knowing your mental status, and what’s possible as a result. If I need to write both a paper and a course, if I feel more like one than the other, then why not work on what feels better if both need doing on similar timelines?

Another benefit of such a practice is that you have an automatic reason to get up and move at least a little after each hour or so. This is probably as good mentally as it is physically.

Last but not least, I would note that there will be days where any particular technique just won’t work. Maybe you’re just tired, or not feeling as good as usual, or just not focused for whatever reason. The key to any good system is flexibility, and some days you might just start something and be able to easily keep going for hours. I find this often happens more with repetitive tasks, like looking up and recording all instances of a certain word in Chaucer’s corpus in preparation for starting on a conference paper or setting up a class website in a course management system. It’s monotonous, not creative, often dull, and necessary prep work that has a definite deadline.

For now, I’m going to see how well this works out, before I start figuring out ways to adapt this into classroom settings and scenarios. But that’s not to say I can’t/won’t be noting ideas or possibilities. Composition techniques like this don’t seem to work well as general recommendations presented in lecture; they’re more likely to be effective when modeled in class and then tied to possible outside of class uses. Or alternatively, modeled in a homework or out of classroom assignment, then discussed in class. I don’t have anything exact in mind yet, but I’ll be working on that the next week or so when I really get my summer course calendar built up beyond its current outline state.

End/New Year New Idea

It seems like kind of a pattern that the past few years I’ve either ended the fall semester or begun the spring term with a big new thing to try, either research or teaching, that has something to do with writing. This year, over winter break, I was revising a composition course that doubles as introduction to literature since I have 3 sections of it this spring. I got the random idea that this semester I would work with students on a series of common problems or things students seemed to struggle with every term in writing assignments, the things I always seem to end up commenting on. I counted the number of class days I had to work with and, subtracting a few for things like the midterm and library research day, I came up with 28 class days for the semester. Each day could have one smallish composition related thing as its focus.

I eventually figured that this would make for a good warm up most class days. It did not take long to come up with the list. What took longer was trying to work out a good order (still working on that), and what components should be the focus of the 5-10 minutes of mini lecture/activity. I’m thinking already that I may end up wanting to reorder things.

What seems to be working so far (1 ½ weeks into the semester) is to tie the writing thing in with whatever the main literary concept of the day will be. I’ve annotated the first few days for example and also because I haven’t written the entire semester’s worth of actual notes or practice exercises yet. That’ll probably happen off and on every other week or so,

Writing Thing #1: Bibliography Citation (Bibliography vs Works Cited) MLA 8 for entry in anthology (prose or poetry) and complete work (like a novel) and web page (secondary)

Day 1 of class has no specific literary focus; it’s basically syllabus day. The main reason bibliography and general citation is first is that this will be necessary for nearly every assignment in class. I find this seems to be especially useful since there are always some students who don’t get the textbook right away for a number of reasons, and need to use alternative versions of the short stories for the first week or two. Thus, they need to provide a works cited in their homework so I know they are not leaving out parenthetical in-text references or getting the numbers wrong, but rather are using web versions without page numbers or simply a different edition.

Writing Thing #2: In-text parenthetical Citation for prose and poetry, both for quote and paraphrase

The literary focus is the short story genre, and plot graphing methods via line, circle, triangle/pyramid. The assigned story is Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”., and a set of lecture notes covering various definitions of short story. The exercise: Paraphrase from Poe’s definition of short story to have a single sentence which contains the main requirements for the genre. Quote in one sentence the necessary components given by Werlock.

Writing Thing #3: Signal phrases with quotes: don’t say ‘x quotes’ etc, format (commas and final punctuation), purpose of the signal phrase/attributive tag/lead in/ whatever other term of choice

The literary focus is narrators and narration, and the texts for the day are Poe’s “A Cask of Amontillado” and Millhauser’s “A Visit”. The exercise/discussion: Find where we finally definitively learn the name of the narrator in “A Cask of Amontillado”; hint: it’s located a ways into the story. Put together a sentence which includes a signal phrase and a quote (either the whole sentence or part of it) which responds to some element of why the name might be delayed.

Writing Thing #4: Quotation Marks: how and when to use when quoting and with titles (also use of italics in titles)

Writing Thing #5: Passive Voice: vs active, why to generally avoid it, when it’s ok; avoid ‘it can be seen/shown/proven etc’

Writing Thing #6: Pronouns- first vs second vs third (what they are and when to use), avoid generics (also expletive ‘it is’) as subject and why; also relatives (who vs whom, which vs that)

Writing Thing #7: Thesis Statements (detail and specific, ‘so what’ factor- meaning or importance)

Writing Thing #8: Topic Sentences- detail and specific, link to thesis, include ‘so what’ or meaning, placement, as transition and focus/forecast.

Writing Thing #9: Reasoning-Explanation of evidence; evidence supports not replaces argument or interpretation, must refer to details and explicitly reference evidence and reasoning behind how it supports idea(s)

Writing Thing #10: Comma use and abuse- joining clauses, oxford and with lists, with quotes, when to not use

Writing Thing #11: Colon and Semi-Colon- what they should be used for, not to be confused with/uses to avoid

Writing Thing #12: Grammatical person 1-2-3, and when to use what

Writing Thing #13: Introduction paragraph- provide context for subject and analysis (ie-thesis), not overgeneralized.

Writing Thing #14: Conclusion paragraph- review highlights, including thesis or main goal, final thought and/or why it might be important or useful to understand the way you’ve presented

Writing Thing #15: Supporting evidence- detailed, matched exactly to the point, cited

Writing Thing #16: Paraphrase- what it is (not patch-writing), when to use it, how to cite it

Writing Thing #17: MLA 8 Essay formatting: font, spacing, header, page number, bibliography, title

Writing Thing #18: Focus on the prompt- answer exactly what’s asked, note verbs and all required parts, don’t try to reconfigure too far to fit your ease/interest

Writing Thing #19: Focus and Interpretation- thesis and topic sentences, explanations (and evidence), detail, one point per paragraph.

Writing Thing #20: Reliable Sources (academic, general, popular) – author and date, publication source, use the works cited, when to use general or popular sources (and how to cite them)

Writing Thing #21: Using Dictionaries and Thesauri- know the exact definition and the proper context of the word.

Writing Thing #22: Synthesis- secondary source does not replace your ideas and need to be interpreted too as it suits your point.

Writing Thing #23: Fragments and Run-Ons- what they are, how to fix them

Writing Thing #24: Coordinates and Suboordinates conjunctions- what they are, which to use when

Writing Thing #25: Paragraph Structure review- point focused, specific; evidence- detailed, reasoning and explanation- focused and explicitly direct.

Writing Thing #26: Avoid- Generic statements, generalizing, rhetorical questions

Writing Thing #27: Web Searching- determining use and usefulness of source; can/should use this.

Writing Thing #28: Revision- order of revision: content (points and evidence, overalll structure), sentence-level, proofread, formatting.

 

End of Summer Randomness

The Fall semester starts in just under two weeks for me, which means that it is now time for the annual rush to get lots of stuff done in time and/or before things actually get started. I have especially noticed the past week or so the pre-semester struggle to balance working on syllabi and calendars and a new class with scholarship. If I don’t feel like one, I can do the other right? In general, it is not a bad thing to switch off between two tasks as long as both get done. The problem comes in when you want to do one more than the other, or avoid one more than the other. I’ve been struggling with getting motivated to write the scholarship. The goal is to have a complete draft of an article developed from a conference paper done before August 13 (Monday, first day of class), but it’s been rough actually making myself start some days.

Another observation I have made is that it seems like I find a new writing technique to try out about every year. Admittedly, the beginning of a new semester is a good place to start a new habit like this but it seems like I’m needing a new one about once a year. In any case, the new process is an adaptation from something I saw addressed to novelists on social media (Twitter maybe): 500 words OR 5 pages editing OR (my addition) 2 hours of research 5 days a week. So far it seems like 500 words is not a lot at one sitting, but it’s supposed to add up, which in theory it does. The problem with this technique is that it does not account for the amount of time that researching or running down a source can take in academic writing. Most scholars know the feeling of trying to figure out a something as small as a footnote, which can take hours or days. Or finding a really promising citation, but then spending an hour trying to figure out if you have access to the source. Then you have to read the source, and if it does suit your need, work it into what you’re doing, not forgetting to record the citation. This takes time. I figure 2 hours is about what it would take me on average to meet the writing or editing part of the rule, so that’s what I’m going with.

I think that part of the reason for the annual reset is that I’m usually just back from a conference mid-late July, full of all kinds of new ideas and possible interests to pursue.  This time I was in Toronto for the Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society. Something I’d noticed previously at Kalamazoo (ICMS 2018) was that in addition to the usual which panel sounds better out of two interesting ones I was having to decide between something that sounded more like fun (as in popular culture) and ‘I have no idea what this is but it sounds interesting’ (‘scale jumping’ anyone?) and something more traditional that sounds like I should go to that one (manuscript-y things). More often than not, when I went to one of the first two, I enjoyed the panels far more and got more ideas for myself than the last one. It’s an interesting trend, although I’m not entirely sure what it means.

As often seems to happen, I was again reminded of some things that students face, like getting an assignment just right before it’s due. In my case, this was discovering a much more concrete thesis idea somewhat under pressure (I figured it out about a week before the paper was scheduled to be given) and a good conclusion (in this case, a Mythbusters reference closing a paper on Chaucer). As with many conferences, there’s the inevitable informal competition to see who can or who did put off writing or finishing their presentation each time. May I never be a winner for that one.

There were however a couple of firsts for me at or immediately following my panel. Someone whose work I’d used in my research was there (and asked me a question, which is kind of an academic high five), and I’m just glad I’d seen his name badge earlier and knew who he was. Right after the panel, someone else whose work I’ve used came up and pointed out a small, but possibly highly useful point that would allow me to bring in some manuscript evidence in to the argument if I ever manage to get it developed enough for submission to a journal, and all together I think this may have been the first time that I walked out of the panel and had to immediately take down a few notes on my own paper (on my presentation copy).

I once heard someone say that academics don’t go on vacations; we go to conferences. There is some truth to this. Especially when the conference is held somewhere I have never been to or haven’t been in years, it’s interesting to get to explore a little bit, both on my own and for conference events. This year I had to skip the excursions day the day after the conference formally ended to head back home, but I still got to see a bit of Toronto, especially around the University which is within walking distance of downtown and Chinatown. There are also quite a few fun coffee shops, which is something I personally like to try out. Seeking out and exploring the local coffee culture has becomes a little bit of a habit for me in recent years, and Toronto has a good mix of places as far as I can tell. I also had more ramen (3 out of 5 nights) than I have had in a long time.

During the conference itself, there were two events held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. One was more of a cocktail hour, but the other was a special small display of medieval Ethiopian artifacts pulled from the collections just for the medievalists. This included some painted polyptych wooden pieces, and a few books. The spell and anti-spell books were pretty impressive, and I wish I could have read them to see how they compared to the European ones (mostly in Latin) that I can read. After viewing this little exhibit, we were free to visit the rest of the museum. As it turns out, there was a major special exhibit dedicated to Canadian Inuit artists. I wandered in by accident, and by the end I was pretty fascinated by the art and the ideas behind it: http://ago.ca/exhibitions/tunirrusiangit-kenojuak-ashevak-and-tim-pitsiulak

What first caught my attention was an aesthetic that I appreciated, and then there was the artist’s explanation of the owl image that seems to be her most famous work. I’d never thought of owls that way, and I really liked how she put it. This year the conference seemed especially interested in taking notice of the local native culture, as evidenced by a notice early in the program concerning how the University of Toronto is built on lands originally belonging to local native tribes, as well as opening the conference with a smudging ceremony. I had no idea what this was when I saw it on the program, but it turns out it’s a native purification ceremony, which in this case was followed by presentations not entirely in English. There was also a play performance of a Nigerian adaptation of a piece of the Canterbury Tales, and it too was multi-lingual. This new focus on multiculturalism is most certainly intentional as medieval studies has recently been facing some public (at least if you’re an academic interested in these areas) issues with inclusivity and racism. These issues are more complex and difficult than I can address here and now, but they’re out there and not hard to find. Just ask Google

Challenges of Research and Teaching It

July means 2 things for me: conference presentations and starting to think about fall syllabus prep.

Prepping a conference paper is its own unique academic exercise. It’s a research paper but at the same time, it’s not. Often, one leads to other, sometimes both. There are challenges every step of the way, which isn’t surprising, but what is interesting to me is that many of the issues are very similar to what students run into, just at different levels. My thinking is that by considering the same difficulties and challenges that professional academic scholars face and how we solve or address them, maybe that’s where more useful or promising possibilities for helping students can come from.

The first step is generally the same, whether you’re drafting a researched paper or article, and a conference paper. The research reading and drafting comes first. Two common issues here are getting hands on sources, be they digital or paper. It’s not just getting sources you know you need though; this is also when finding all the sources that you should look at. This is as much a process as the developing of ideas and writing. You have to maintain and build a list of titles and authors to find, so that you cover previous scholarship as thoroughly as possible.

Bibliographies and annotations are a step in this direction, but I’m still working on finding a method that gets students to actively research what fits their topic or thesis best, not just what they find first and seems to work.

Near the end of this part, comes the usual struggle with introductions and-or conclusions. It’s not only coming up with the concise and precise statements of argument and intention that can be difficult here; it’s also about making sure that the ideas match without repeating. These issues are a struggle for introductory composition students on up, and they don’t seem to go away.

The standard advice seems to be to work out a good strong thesis, and build the introduction around that. Generally, this seems to work. The conclusion though is another story, and the question becomes how to review your key ideas without copying and pasting your introduction with a few minor vocabulary changes, as seems to be a favorite technique. I’m planning to try the following prompt: what did you learn in the process of creating your argument and why might it be useful or valuable to know? We’ll see how this goes.

With conference presentations, or presentations in general, there’s the usual time and visual restrictions to consider, but also the audience. When teaching composition using rhetoric as a major factor, audience analysis is something students need to do, but the question is how to get them to really consider their target audience. This is more a problem in a composition class than a conference though, because you already know what kind of person will likely be at the conference. I was recently at the combined meeting of the John Gower Society and the Early Books Society, and someone joked how nice it was to be at a conference where you didn’t need to summarize the Confessio Amantis as a part of your presentation. Another benefit of this level of presentation is that arguments need not be fully developed or even complete, as many scholars use these gatherings as places to get feedback and advice on how to proceed or improve.

Since a presentation based paper from a student needs to be fully developed and polished at the time of presentation, and doing dress rehearsals or peer review of presentations can get boring for students who then get stuck seeing the same or very similar talks given twice, I’m thinking I might do small group presentations with mandatory Q & A as peer review, and then have the final version be turned in as a standard essay. This idea needs more work, so we’ll see what ends up happening.

Even at the professional level, feedback can get tricky. It seems like, on a standard panel of 3-4 papers, 1 or 2 almost always get more questions and attention than the rest. It’s also often the case that certain people ask the questions almost every time. These are factors I’m going to try and circumvent with presentation peer review, but again, to be continued…

With professional conferences and even with advanced student project/presentations, the final challenge comes when you’re faced with adapting a 5-8 page essay into a full scale research project, or vice versa. The challenge of re-finding sources and citations, or choosing what to keep and take out as the case may be, is more one of time than anything else, and time management is a tricky thing to teach well. Even I sometimes forget to cite as I go, and I almost always regret it later; but no matter how much I remind students and tell them my own horror stories, it doesn’t seem to get through. Finding new sources to include is also a reality, though one more for the advanced student or scholar than an introductory type composition course.

Extending the time frame for a major research assignment, and breaking it down into a series of smaller steps seems to be the best option, but keeping students interested and challenged as they go becomes harder.

Coming at the challenges facing introductory composition from the perspective of a writer and researcher seems promising, but for now as there are more questions than answers, I’ll leave things with one final to becontinued….

New Year’s Goals 2017

I find goal setting useful, and doing so in a somewhat public way even better for self-accountability. I have found that setting goals for different things regularly actually helps me get more realistic about it, especially in how to build in flexibility. So on that note, here’s my Goals for 2017:

Teaching

I’m going to be able to teach a course in my specialty area over the summer, assuming it meets registration minimums that is. I want to be careful to write this one well, and plan ahead to make sure I don’t over-do it. It’s totally true of first time teachers, both in the sense of being new to the classroom (which I am not) and in terms of building a new course from scratch (which I am), that the temptation is to be too ambitious. I’m going to follow the general technique I used last summer of building the course thematically, because that worked out very well (see my earlier post “English Renaissance Lit: The 5 Week Edition” for details).  The difference though is that this upcoming class isn’t quite as period centered like last year (Literature of the English Renaissance); it’s Middle English Language and Culture. I haven’t taught a full-scale language course in a few years, so this will be a welcome but challenging return and review. It’s also going to be a challenge to combine grammar and vocabulary building with literature and material culture, all in a 6 week hybrid course. I’m looking forward to this.

I also want to plan to re-focus the writing 101 course that I’ll likely teach in the fall to center more on the actual craft of writing. I’m considering using the trivium to help do that, and I also want to find a reader that students might actually read. I’ve finally found a handbook I like and a way to get students to actually use it, but I still need that reader and possibly something on the trivium itself.

I also want to work on the research components of all writing and literature classes to develop a basic guide/review to use in all levels of both composition and literature courses. I have such a set of notes for basic composition, but I am realizing the need for one concerning research and citation as well. I was grading the first set of homework in a sophomore level literature course yesterday afternoon and I found myself thinking “We’re going to have to go over in-text citation”. I then had almost the exact same thought going through the homework for a section of composition 102 (intro to lit).

Scholarship

Once I again, I resolve to post once a month, or 12 posts this year. I may not be exactly on time each month, but I found last year that making myself come up with something each month, even though sometimes thinking of a topic was hard, was good way to keep myself reminded of the need to make time for non-teaching related work.

On that note, I am setting myself a schedule for scholarly time. This practice is recommended in “how to survive academia” articles all the time, and it’s a good point.  I’m undecided whether it’s better to do 1 hour a day or 1 day a week. I’m leaning towards the former as more productive, especially since I think the best writing advice I’ve heard from an author (Joann Fluke writes fiction but her advice is still applicable) was to always stop before you’re fully done with a thought, so you have a place to go when you pick up again.  I’ve tried the one day a week, and I’m not sure that way was as productive as it could have been for me. I’m going to try the one hour a day most days, and see how that goes for a while.

As of now, I have 2 things to work on. First, I am starting to get into new project. I presented the first part at a conference last summer (NCS 2016), and I’m going to present the second part at a conference this coming summer (Gower Society 2017).  As I do the research for this second part, I need to keep developing and writing the first part while also keeping an eye on an outline for the article version.

My second project is to go back to my dissertation to see what I might do about converting it into a book. This year I think it’ll be a do-able goal to set up a plan for what to fix, remove, and add to turn it into a book manuscript. I haven’t really looked at it in almost 2 years, and I think the time away will be good for a change in perspective.

Personal

If someone told me a few years ago that I would have to make an active effort to do fun, non-work reading, I’d have thought they were crazy. Then, candidacy and dissertating happened. I built up quite a pile of future personal reading over the two years it took to complete my dissertation, and I’m still working on it, although admittedly I also keep adding to it. Something I’ve found motivating, helpful, and just fun is that I’ve joined a book review blog group; this will be my 3rd year there. The basic premise of Cannonball Reads is to read and review 52 books per year; that’s called a Cannonball. The first and second year I thought it would be more realistic to do a half-Cannonball (i.e. 26 read and reviews). This was manageable the first time, but last year (2016) I actually managed a full 52. This year, I plan to repeat that effort. For me, I’ve noticed that it’s less the reading time than the reviewing time that causes more time management problems. I’ve noticed that the reviewing really forces me to evaluate why I react to a book the way I did, and that’s useful, since part of my job is to help my students figure out how express such things. I also like the social, community aspect of the whole thing, and it raises money for cancer research.

In addition, I intend to be more active on Goodreads. I’ve been pretty good about updating what I read, but not much in the way of reviews. I don’t think I’ll be able to present full reviews of everything I read, but I plan to at least comment briefly on most things I read and rate this upcoming year.

 

A Realization, Excitement, and Vadamus!

A new writing project is always an exciting thing. I admit that for me personally it feels especially good because I was not as productive as I would have liked in the fall. The change in habits required pre- and post- PhD was a bit more difficult of a transition than I was imagining. That said, here’s the plan: I am still reading for my Gower project, which given the scale of the project, is not unexpected. I am in a position  to start writing for my pastoral in medieval English poetry paper. I recently read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that made some relevant points. I had been using my heavy teaching load as an excuse to not spend as much time as I would have liked on my own work. While my new schedule (5 classes (3 courses) at 2 schools; 2 of the courses were new to me), I was emotionally and almost physically stretched. But Jenkin’s article resonated with me, especially the points that you can and should use previous ideas that can be expanded (from blogs etc), and that even with a hard teaching schedule, scholarship is possible though it requires detailed planning and some sacrifice.

Now, onwards to pastoral features in English literature during the medieval period. I have already done the writing that illustrates how the Latin pastoral traditions carry on into the medieval period (dissertation work that can be easily adapted), and it turns out that much of the reading will not be new to me based on that and previous graduate school papers/presentations. I will be writing about how the pastoral tradition is clearly present as a part of the gradual evolution and adaptation that happened between the Latin Classical period (Virgil) and the English Renaissance (Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser,etc). Chaucer, Gower, Henryson, and several anonymous poets will provide the texts using pastoral methods and tropes both in their frames and their central messages. This is going to be fun. Stay tuned…