Fall means crisp, cooler weather, stunning autumn shows of crimson, rust, and golden leaves, bountiful garden harvests, and, on Friday, October 20, a celebration of writing!
October 20 is designated as the National Day on Writing. The National Day on Writing is sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). NCTE recognizes that writing is a central tenet of literacy and founded the National Day on Writing to draw more attention to and celebrate writing across the nation. This fall, the Writing Center invites students, faculty, and staff to join us in celebrating the National Day on Writing.
On October 20, from 9 am to 5 pm ET, students, faculty, and staff can connect with a writing tutor to talk about writing and its importance in our lives. Click here to chat with a writing tutor about why writing is important to you. We also invite you to share your comments here. Why do you write? What role does writing play in your life? What does writing allow you to accomplish daily? Please share your thoughts, and be sure to include the hashtag #WhyIWrite. You can also learn more about the National Day on Writing by visiting the official web site here. Happy National Day on Writing!
Sara Wink, Purdue University Global Composition Faculty
For months, my daughter asked—not quite begging, but close—for a “real bike.” Her Radio Flyer big wheel just barely contained her lanky frame, so it wasn’t an unreasonable request…except she couldn’t pedal.
“It’s hard.” Those words came every time I stopped pushing. By five-year-old logic, something hard equals something not worth doing. Far better to go back to what is easy: forming words, over, and over, and over again: “Can I have a bike? I’m big enough. Can we look at bikes? Look, that kid has a bike. It only has two wheels. Mine has three, and that’s okay, but I really only need two, Mom…” It took weeks of (mostly) gentle prodding to drive her to move her feet, fall into the rhythm of the wheels, and—HOORAY! Pedaling!
Nowadays she still asks for a real bike, but not nearly so often. She knows a “real” bike will require more energy on her part. She knows she has to build up her leg muscles and balance to get there. She knows she needs to keep it up.
Why aren’t we all like that about the skills that count?
Teachers should set an example for students to follow. By showing them that regular reading and writing do help build one’s skills, they’ll be more motivated to try both. We need that connection of experience for the sake of understanding. My students always feel badly when they have to deal with their kids during seminar. When I tell them I’ve handled class discussions within 24 hours of giving birth to twins, they KNOW I’m one to turn to when things get overwhelming.
So how can we ask them to do all this reading and writing when we only do it when we absolutely have to? We’ve all read some faculty emails that really could have used an editor. We’ve also been guilty of writing such emails ourselves. And yet here we are, demanding students step up with their written work.
Let’s set a good example. Let’s make reading and writing count in our daily professional lives. I’m not just talking emails. I’m talking some critical and/or creative work. Be it novels or professional books, give yourself something to read every day.
No, not student projects. Something fun. I recently finished Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a medieval mystery filled with Latin. I enjoyed the story, and I was also challenged by the translation work as well as the dense prose. Now I’m going to read Agatha Christie. Maybe you like romance, or an epic, or a historical biography. Great! READ IT. One chapter at a time won’t bite too much out of your day. As we so often tell students: the more you read, the better you write. This applies to teachers, too.
Writing skills need practice outside of discussion boards and announcements. Blogging can be a great way to exercise those skills. Like my colleague, Lisa Gerardy, I have a website where I write under a different name. I write about my studies in fiction, influential music, observations captured in photography, etc. It has absolutely nothing to do with Purdue Global; it has everything to do with what interests me. That interest motivates me to write every week.
The more I write, the better I feel about reading—and critiquing—what others write. The more I write longer pieces, the easier it is to write those discussion board responses. Yes, the extra reading and writing take time, but we owe it to the students as well as to ourselves to show what a good reading and writing regimen can do.
If not, we should stop telling them to ride the two-wheeler until we are fit to pedal it ourselves.
Sara Wink, Purdue University Global Composition Faculty
I let out a mangled “Whamb?” through the apple pulp in my mouth as I wash dishes.
“Mommy mommy M-O-O-O-O-M-M-Y!”
I walk into the boys’ bedroom, still chewing, and raise my arms in a “WHAT?” gesture, sending suds and water all over the doorway. My twin toddlers are sitting around a little Chinook helicopter. One of the rotors has come off. Peter’s about to shriek another “MOMMY!” but Philip holds up the helicopter in time. “Fix it? Fix it, please?”
I do so. They squeal a stereo “YAY!” until Phil notices a smidgen of suds dripping down the side. “Mommy, can you clean it? Clean it?” He thrusts it at my soapy self. Peter adds with a sharp crescendo “Clean IT?”
When someone wants help, they want it now. Not later that week, or “when you can.” NOW.
Many of us teach people with lives already loaded with Needs In the Now: elderly relatives who need care; a job with wonky hours; babies with colic or tyrannical toddlers who no longer nap; shots just fired outside the perimeter and they need to bug out, NOW. Despite all this, they commit to school, for with the right education, their Needs in the Now will alter for the better, or at the very least lessen. So they take on more, while we teachers teach a course we (hopefully) know pretty well and can balance decently with our Needs In The Now.
We need to remember that the students’ balancing act is ever-changing in dramatic ways. They have to move to a new military base. They have a loved one in the hospital. They are working more hours but have no child care. Sure, we remind them it’s important to dedicate time every day to school. I ask for thirty minutes minimum. But when they put that time in could be at 2am, or 1:30pm, maybe just a few minutes at a time when they’re on break at work or the baby’s finally asleep in their lap. Their ability to get online is limited, so when they need help, they need it NOW.
Waiting 24 hours for a response from a teacher is not horrible, but honestly, I feel like we owe it to our students to get online more often to at least check for questions or concerns. We all know how many students don’t get work turned in until Tuesday evening. “Gah, they’re just procrastinating.” Yeah, I know that’s the case for some, but for others, life just hasn’t let them get to the work beforehand. Many of our students have a very limited control over their daily life’s schedule. We, who do have some more control over our schedules, owe it to them to be more available.
I make it a point to check my email two to four times a day: early morning, midday, late afternoon, and early evening. Now granted, I work from home with my three children scampering about (see the aforementioned helicopter repair). I can’t just go on my computer whenever I want, or this happens:
So I plan my access around times I know they’ll be a) asleep, or b) occupied with well-timed educational programming. This way, I’m at least checking if a student has a question; if a question is sent to me at 10am, they hear back from me in just two hours rather than eighteen.
Of course, I appreciate that some teachers cannot check school email at their job. Then, establishing a “Check-In Schedule” at the beginning of term can be helpful. I’ve done this, too. By telling students you always check your email during Hours A, B, and C, they at least know when help will come, and won’t start the bombardment of “I didn’t get my work done because you didn’t get back to me” messages.
A few extra minutes on our part can make a LOAD of difference to our students. All they want is a little guidance to help them complete that which we want them to do in order to complete the academic journey. We can do better than plop the map at their feet and jog away with a “Good luck!” We must keep pace with them, so that when they struggle with all those dots and lines on the page we can provide a helpful word and hand. Believe me: they will remember how fantastically helpful you are when they tell their friends about their Purdue University Global experience.
And they won’t give a toss about your soapy hands.
Kyle Harley, Purdue University Global Writing Center Tutor
Understanding those who feel ostracized within the classroom can be a bit tricky in an online setting. Because instructors and tutors alike work with so many students, a few do fall through the cracks from time to time. I have worked with so many students in the Writing Fundamentals program and learned that many share a variety of experiences that certainly impact their writing ability. Some feel they are not heard in the classroom; some feel the professor does not understand them personally; and some just flat out give up due to feeling too far behind or just not good enough. More often than not, the student writes fantastically, but anyone can see the piling amount of anxiety these feelings can potentially create, not only in a writing setting, but across multiple disciplines as well.
As we already do a fantastic amount of great work as is, what else can we do to better the online experience for these students who feel left out or misunderstood? Due to the variety of unique experiences and firsthand student examples, I have combined a list of best practices that I personally employ and could potentially be applied if one of your students falls into one of the categories listed above. By increasing their confidence in the classroom, even if they feel their voice is heard, we will certainly better assist these students in their academic pursuit.
Get to know your students—every single one.
This seems a bit like no-brainer, but at an increasing rate students persistently mention how a tutor or instructor just breezes through the material and rarely gets to know the person on the other end of the screen. Now, this comes with reservation of course, because there is no need to know each and every detail about our students, but making an extended effort to reach out in some way makes all the difference. When students feel some form of connectivity with their tutor or instructor, even if it is as simple as asking about their career or where they live, students calm down considerably and approach their work in a completely different manner. I always employ this method prior to workshops, for instance, to help acclimate the student to the session while at the same time establishing rapport to assist with the conversation. In a classroom setting, this may become a bit more difficult, but try progressively doing this over the course of the term. Some students cannot believe that their professor wants to get to know them personally, so the additional touch could help to improve retention. One of the simplest and tried and true methods for creating this atmosphere directly stems, of course, from common ground.
Common ground breaks the ice and allows for growth.
Finding a few commonalities with students absolutely makes the difference. Thinking back to college, all of my favorite professors shared something personal about their life that I could relate to and, consequently, we created a stronger bond. An example of this first reared its head when I found out one of my professors was and still is just as obsessed with horror film as I am. This opened up an amazing door of opportunity to not only have a place to talk movies, but also produce work that circulated around that very interest—not to mention get some fantastic film recommendations. By sharing where you live, in a general sense, you may discover that you reside in the same state that your student is from. This could potentially lead to a great dialogue on current issues within the area that the student could write about as it affects their lives, as well. I know from experience here at the university that a good number of our instructors and tutors already utilize this technique, but it is easy to forget about this simple trick when we get tied up in all of our work. Popping into class fifteen minutes earlier than expected can act, in a way, as a mini-office hour you house with your students. Since tutoring is a much faster process, tutors can welcome the student back after the session. Establishing these lasting relationships encourages continued visits, which is all we can really ask of our students. But what of the students who seemingly have problems with every instructor and/or tutor? Certainly they exist, and maybe it is in part because, as educators, we misidentify the problem.
Take the extra time to identify the student’s issue correctly.
Much like when students misidentify what they need assistance with, so, too, do educators sometimes misidentify students’ issues and what they need assistance with. Many of my Fundamentals students come to their first meeting with the excuse “I’m just not good at writing.” As we all know, this excuse typically stems from a lack of confidence in their writing instead of a lack in ability. Once they come to this realization, often after we have broken the ice and established some common ground, their writing nearly instantly improves as was the case with one student whom I worked with. Instead of allowing this student to feel that he simply could not write well, we re-identified the issue and appropriated their focus elsewhere—on his confidence. Now, still to this day I see this particular student in Live Tutoring and in Paper Review, confident as ever. In a classroom setting, some students may find that the assignment instructions are impossible and that they will never be able to accomplish the task. To combat this, why not ask if there is any confusion and have a different way of explaining the material to better reach your students? The issue is usually not that the material is too difficult for the students; instead, they may just be a bit confused over the phrasing of the assignment. In fact, I think we all have had that anxiety with an assignment at some point, yet we still accomplished completing assignments.
For students, having a sense of comfort in an online setting brings down a pre-constructed barrier that impedes their development in a scholastic setting. In the classroom and in tutoring, this should be where our practice begins.
By Amy Sexton, Purdue University Global Writing Center Tutor
My college career began in the early 1990’s, before wireless internet and personal computers were in most homes. When I was a junior in college, I remember completing an assignment that used the acronym URL. The details about this particular assignment are fuzzy now, but I recall that I had no clue what a URL was, even though the design of the assignment seemed to assume that I did know. I was a brand new transfer student at a four-year university, and I had just completed an Associates of Art degree and was a work-study student in the library. I felt like I should know what a URL was, and I remember feeling a sense of shame that I did not. In fact, I felt so much shame that I was embarrassed to ask any of my professors or the library faculty whom I worked with what the letters URL stood for. So, even though I was a student who prided myself on always doing my best work, I skipped all the questions that pertained to the foreign term URL and submitted an incomplete assignment.
Eventually, I did figure out that URL meant Uniform Resource Locator, and in this case, the assignment was referring to web site addresses. I share this story to better illustrate an important lesson that I am reminded of time and time again as a teacher and tutor: Educators should not assume that students have the knowledge, skills, and expertise that we think they should have. Whoever had designed and/or assigned the assignment that I remember assumed that I, and many other students, would know, or should know what a URL was.
In my work with students, I have came across many other terms that educators use regularly that may be foreign to students, especially since students often ask questions in tutoring that they might not want to ask their instructors. I offer here a very small sample of some of the terms and processes that academics may understand well, but students may struggle with.
Syllabus: Every college class has one, and most professors have written, revised, or edited one. Students, however, may not know what a syllabus is, or they may not realize the wealth of information that they can access via a good syllabus. I suggest that instructors begin every new course with an activity, lecture, or previously recorded video that clearly explains what a syllabus is, where the students can find the syllabus for the course, and what type of information students can find in their syllabus. A syllabus treasure hunt is an especially fun activity that can get students acquainted with the course syllabus.
Rubric(s): Instructors often tell students to follow the rubric or mention that they grade by the rubric. Indeed, the rubric is a wonderful tool, but it is a tool that is likely not familiar to many students. I recommend that all instructors introduce the rubrics that they will be using to assess work to their students and show them out to use each rubric to guide their efforts. Even better, show students assignments and excerpts that scored very well on the rubric as well as examples that scored very low. Taking the time to teach students about rubrics should also help generate quality assignments.
Template: This is another tool that can be very useful to students, if they understand what it is and how they should use it. Instead of simply telling students that they have a template to follow, consider showing them how to use it. Students may not realize how they should go about utilizing an APA formatting template, for example. They may need someone to show them how to personalize the template and replace the information included with their own, especially if they are new to using word processing software like Microsoft Word.
These are only three of the hundreds of terms and terms that educators may understand very well, but that students may need a little extra scaffolding to help them understand them and how to use them. What are others that you can add to this list?
By Chrissine Rios, MA, Purdue University Global Writing Center
A common time to teach “audience” to students is during the revision stage of the writing process: “Draft for yourself, and rewrite for the reader,” say a great many writing tutors and instructors. The same goes for long-windedness and correctness: “First express your ideas, and then edit your words,” say many writing experts. Ever since the early 1980s when Peter Elbow wrote about the importance of prewriting as a distinct phase in the writing process, writing has popularly been taught as a recursive process, and not a micro-recursive process where a writer critiques while writing and rewrites before writing more but a process having recursive stages where in each stage writers give concentrated attention to certain aspects of the writing.
“The Recursive Stages of the Writing Process” [PowerPoint Slide]. Adapted from Learn to Edit and Proofread presented by Chrissine Rios (2015). KUWC Writing Workshops
The prewriting stage, for instance, is for invention—coming up with ideas, questions, and plans.
During drafting, writers generate a discussion having a beginning, middle, and end; a thesis or theme; supporting details and evidence; reflection; analysis.
Then during revision, writers step back and re-see the main idea(s) and revise to bring them more into focus, and this stage, along with the editing stage, is where taking audience into consideration helps writers revise and edit to more intentionally appeal to the readers.
However, at this point in the writing process, the writer should already have a sense of the intended audience for the chosen topic and for the purpose of the writing. Together, the audience, topic, and purpose are what make the writing a form of communication, which is the goal of writing academically, to communicate. In order to communicate effectively, writers have to think about what they are writing and why and for whom. All three of these elements should be considered at the beginning and during every stage of the writing process because they are together what makes the writing situation.
Audience, the paper’s topic, and the writer’s purpose are the writing situation.
“The Writing Situation” [MS Word SmartArt] by Chrissine Rios (2016) for the Purdue University Global Academic Support Center
During tutoring sessions, I’ve asked students who the intended audience is, and one common answer is the “general public” or “society at large.” This is a good place to begin thinking about audience and how it influences what and why writers write.
To reach a general audience, writers will want to take a broad view of the topic and use plain vocabulary and syntax, so the writing is relevant and readable to diverse people. Most academic readers, however, will find such general discussions lackluster because they assume the reader doesn’t know anything. In most cases, the topic and purpose of a college-level paper will be better suited for an audience having college-level literacy skills, so the writer can best demonstrate his or her own college-level literacy skills and college-level learning.
Narrowing the audience helps the academic writer be more specific and develop ideas with more depth because narrowing the audience increases the shared common knowledge between the writer and readers. When students think of an academic audience, however, they will often go too narrow and only consider the professor. Especially when the professor assigns a specific topic and purpose for the writing project, students will be inclined to write only for the professor in response.
On the up side, students who consider the audience the professor will usually write within the parameters of the assignment requirements and strive for correct usage of standard American English and academic style. On the down side, writing for such a narrow audience as a highly educated professor who already knows more than the writer about the topic, can be very nerve-wracking; nothing will sound right to the writer, so it won’t sound right to the reader either.
The most effective academic writing I see is written for an educated audience within the student’s discipline of study or specific field because this is where the assignment will also usually situate the topic. I’ve learned from tutoring writing, however, that not all students automatically consider others in their field of study–other interested learners, educators, or professionals in the field—the intended readers. Helping the student see themselves within a discourse community in which their writing is adding to the body of knowledge on a topic is an important and fairly quick lesson to relay, and it can make all the difference in the student also knowing how to narrow the focus of topic and define a clearer purpose.
The narrower the audience, the more the writer can and must know the topic and express a clear purpose.
“Narrowing Audience” [MS Word SmartArt] by Chrissine Rios (2016) for the Purdue University Global Academic Support Center
Some of the best student writing I see is in response to assignments that identify an intended audience in the directions: the business letter assignment, the proposal, the memo, the blog post. . .. However, sometimes the intended audience is harder to decipher from the directions.
I recently read an information technology assignment to write a white paper that explains the benefits of a new computer system, and “to explain” is usually to inform, but white papers are usually persuasive, so the purpose would likely be to convince the audience of the merits of the new system. I initially thought the student was to write informatively, but then it seemed he was to persuade. It could be both, but then, is the audience those who want to understand the benefits, or do they need to be convinced of them, and would those who approve already want to treated as though they don’t, and would those who need persuasion even read what they don’t see the point of?
Sometimes too, there are so many directions—explain this, list that, compare those, describe these, and finally, analyze this, and evaluate that, and all in one 3 to 5-page paper—the writer’s concerns are rightfully on addressing all the subtopics and demonstrating comprehension rather than who the intended audience is. But then, they also do not know where to begin, which is what brings them, thankfully, to the writing center.
Knowing the topic, purpose,and audience helps writers know where to begin and which direction to go.
The exception to my advocacy of considering the audience early in the writing process is in creative writing. Poets, fiction authors, creative nonfiction essayists, memoirists, and other writers in the arts or really any writer who writes professionally or for the love or art of it, write with or without a particular audience in mind. These writers create their own audience. They put their voice, expression, and creations into the world and see how, where, and for whom they make an impact. Yet even then, the goal for many if not all is for the writing to connect with somebody, and when there is a somebody, there is an audience. In academic writing, we often begin with no intended audience in mind but try to identify one while prewriting.
If you teach or tutoracademic writing, help your students consider audience at the onset of the writing assignment. Use yourself as an example of the typical academic reader to help them with the expectations of academic style, but also have them think of the audience as others like them who are interested in their topic or directly impacted by it, those who read at their writing level, and who are purposely reading to glean new information, beliefs, or understanding.
Additionally, if you teach within a specific discipline like behavioral and health sciences, education, criminal justice, law, IT, . . . fire sciences, help students think about the expectations for communicating within that discourse community. Help them imagine where writing is used and why one would write on the assigned topic. Also, as one of my first writing instructors taught me, have your students imagine readers as nice people who care about what they have to say.
Finally, introduce the element of audience at the beginning of the writing project, and encourage writing as a process, so students have the opportunity to show what they know and write well.
In recent weeks, more than one conversation on the topic of compassion surfaced among tutors and, oddly enough, I am very fortunate in that I simply listened. Now, I fully understand that this comment is absolutely groundbreaking and will forever change your day in so few words, but, levity aside, how often do we really trek down that “extra mile” to better understand our students’ concerns? If only to be the proverbial shoulder for a few minutes’ time, I think we can all benefit from a trip down Humble Lane, and my voyage began with a student who certainly needed the few minutes of humanity that sometimes avoid us entirely.
I wish I had a long and detailed narrative to accompany this experience, but the student was unable to grasp the assignment instructions in their original format. Never have I felt so poorly as an academic than at that moment; likewise, never did I feel more of a responsibility to put myself in her shoes and take a few steps, if only for a second. The assignment itself was not to blame—nor the professor, which I find myself excited to admit. Instead, the problem here, and I am not so sure that it is so much of a problem as it is a simple oversight, reverts back to our distance and lack of a physical presence in front of students. The primary concern of this student stemmed from not feeling comfortable enough in the online classroom setting to pose the question, and, as I am roughly paraphrasing, speak confidently with the professor regarding said concern. So I began to wonder.
Like in a face-to-face setting, we interact with many different individuals, and I stress the term individuals for a reason, which becomes even more complicated with the great services that we provide; but that comes with a bit of fine print—right?
Both fortunately and unfortunately, we do not physically see these students’ emotions when their faces curl up in confusion regarding an assignment, a grade they do not agree with, or even a term we use in seminar that sounds more akin to a foreign language than our own. We simply do not have that consistency; unless, of course, all parties partake in the technology available, but again we cannot presuppose our students’ technology, again, due to distance.
That said, are we truly that unfortunate? As experts in this cacophony that we term as the Internet, I think it is becoming more of our responsibility to try and find that comfortable ground to help students actualize their goals. Sometimes, despite our wanting to do so, this includes rephrasing an entire assignment, on one’s own time, to better assist our students. To put the matter into context, think of it this way: Some assembly required. We all love to read that, right? Well our students’ needs sometimes take on an added clause, and maybe asking just a few more questions would open their minds up enough to feel comfortable in this online learning environment we have created. Surely the convenience of being primarily online comes with the added perks, so my challenge to all those teaching in this e-world of ours remains simple: Go that extra mile. Corny as it may well be, at the end of the day, just hearing the person’s voice change from absolute distress to a happy and content student justifies our work—and I think we all could use a but of sunshine during what appears to be the second ice age. Be the warming presence that our students will return to.
Kyle Harley, Tutor, Kaplan University Writing Center
Over the past few weeks, I have found that students often seek more than a simple session with a writing tutor. The writing issues vary by student, of course, but one consistency that I picked up on includes the students’ desire to feel part of the process as a whole. What I mean by this is rather simple, but even I used to overlook this aspect of tutoring from time to time: Establishing rapport with students, in sum, creates an atmosphere where each individual can feel at home and continue to do so when returning to our services.
This moment really jumped out at me when, of all things, I began discussing horror films with one of my students after our session concluded—this particular dialogue embarked on the path of ’80s slasher films, so it was nearly impossible for me to turn down. Sure, the subject matter deviated a bit off the mark, but I almost wish I would have initiated the session with this conversation due to how the student opened up a bit more and began enjoying himself. When in a tutoring scenario, the atmosphere can at times be a bit awkward for the student, especially given the online context—this in and of itself makes for a difficult task in terms of establishing rapport; however, by relating with the student on the simplest of levels, we broke down the awkward barrier that sometimes rubs students the wrong way and became that much more ‘human’ in our online world. Our tutors do a fantastic job of relating to students on a daily basis, and I now feel that, along with the activity that we conduct in the session, establishing rapport remains just as important for students’ success. As a bonus, they may well end up finding someone with similar interests, and that initially captured my interest when I first visited a writing center what seems to be decades ago.
This particular success may well be beginner’s luck, yet other centers may share the same success—though accomplishing the task at hand takes precedence for the student’s benefit. Each educator, of course, is not required to ramble on about horror films while in a session, but establishing some sort of connectivity with students will ensure a returning, happy customer. This may not always be the case due to the fact that some students like to accomplish the task at hand and then simply move on; for the others, though, reaching out a bit may in fact make their complex assignments look a little less intimidating. I have since worked with this same student five or six times due to our little conversation after our session, and it appears that each subsequent session after our original meeting improves due to how we both feel comfortable in our surroundings, and the student, overall, appears far more confident than before. In fact, the very same process can easily be applied to the classroom, and I implore more educators to get to know their students more—even if just for a few moments. Most of us sit behind screens all day long, which can at times be a bit daunting and lacking personality, so why not extend the proverbial olive branch and see what comes of it? Creating meaningful connections can make a world of difference, especially when one begins to see progress made by the student in a comfortable, relaxed space. Sure, it is a bit more work on our end, but these are the students that we ‘see’ on a weekly basis; furthermore, I firmly believe that each of us can make a difference by simply connecting with our students while simultaneously changing their lives through education.
Nothing can put fear in to the heart faster than the prospect of academic writing. Our mind immediately fills with pictures of quill pens, dusty libraries, and some robed and bespectacled scholar bent over parchment spilling out polysyllabic words that will ring down through the ages. Relax. Academic writing is far less complex than it sounds.
I will leave it to others to explain the nuances of in-text citations, formatting, and references. What we want to think about first is voice. The tone of your paper is what makes it academic just as assuredly as the format–perhaps more so.
We have become a world of casual writers. Online students commonly use texts, emails, and Twitter to connect with peers and faculty, which can take academic writing from the realm of formal communication to something akin to chatting over the back fence. And there is a place for that. Just not in academe.
So how do you make the switch between the writing style that makes you a hit on Facebook and a writer presenting scholarly ideas?
Here are four practical tips for writing with an academic voice:
1. Remember for whom you are writing. You may communicate with your colleagues, classmates, and even your professor regularly, but when you communicate with any member of the academic community, you take on the responsibility of academic writing. Your academic audience expects a professional presentation of ideas–thoughtful, organized, and concise. In your own reading, who do you take more seriously–the writer who uses slang or starts a sentence with “OK” and assumes you understand, or someone who is in command of the ideas and expresses them clearly and concisely to ensure you understand?
2. Use simple and accurate wording. You do not have to be stiff and stuffy or use big words, but you should make every attempt to incorporate the language of your discipline within your writing. This not only helps your reader to relate to the topic, but also to you as a kindred spirit in the field.
3. Write out every word. Avoid contractions such as “didn’t” and “won’t”; write “did not” and “will not” instead. You will be surprised at how quickly using a formal style elevates the communication and overall fluidity of your writing.
4. Finally, remember you are a scholar. You are an expert on whatever subject you are sharing if you have done the research and are prepared. Presenting it with a formal, academic voice helps to validate the good and important research you have done and the conclusions you have drawn.
So, hold your head high, and face that keyboard without fear. Apply these simple tips to hone your academic voice and believe that you are an academic writer!
By Stephanie Thompson, Kaplan University Composition Professor
Ron Suskind’s recent New York Times Magazine article describes his family’s attempts to connect to their autistic son, Owen, through his love of Disney animated films. A typical toddler until just before his third birthday, Owen began losing speech and retreated into his own world. The only moments his parents and brother connected with him occurred while watching his beloved Disney movies. Their first breakthrough came while watching The Little Mermaid; they realized that his “gibberish” refrain “Juicevose” actually meant “Just your voice,” what Ariel must give Ursula for legs and a chance with her beloved Prince (Suskind, 2014, para. 8). As Owen began to make associations between his own experiences and those of the characters, particularly the “sidekicks,” his parents worked with therapists to use these associations to help Owen communicate. Now in his early 20s, Owen is attending a special school for those on the autism spectrum, falling in love with a young woman he met there, and telling his father, “ . . . . it can get so lonely, talking to yourself . . . you have to live in the world” (as cited in Suskind, 2014, para. 168). Suskind notes, “that desire to connect has always been there as, the latest research indicates, it may be in all autistic people; their neurological barriers don’t kill the desire, even if it’s deeply submerged” (2014, para. 143).
The Suskind family’s search to help Owen find his voice, to forge connections with them and others, resonated deeply with me. Reading about families going through some of the same pains (and joys) that we have experienced since our son Cooper was diagnosed with autism can be both elating and immensely sad. Will my son ever have the revelatory moments of connection and communication that Owen experienced?
I can only hope to find the key to unlock my son’s mind; the Suskinds found it with Disney characters, and I too use stories to forge bonds with my son. I wrote a blog piece for Kaplan’s Parenting Blog about my summer reading aloud to Cooper, sharing some favorites like The Wizard of Oz and Charlotte’s Web, and we have continued our nightly ritual for the past year. We read stories about quests and finding strength, stories that give me hope that one day my son will find, if not his voice, a way to let me know what he is thinking and feeling. Flora and Ulysses, Kate diCamillo’s novel about a squirrel and the girl who believes he is a superhero, is a projection of those hopes, for Ulysses the squirrel learns to type poems and convey his thoughts to his beloved Flora. Ariel lost her voice and found it again, Ulysses lets the clack of typewriter keys tell his story, and I pray that one day, my son will connect with these narratives and understand that he, too, has a voice and stories to tell me.
Recently translated into English by author David Mitchell, himself the father of an autistic son, Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump strives to answer the questions that the teenager imagines others have for him about autism and his odd behaviors. He answers questions like “Why are you so picky about what you eat?” and “What’s the worst thing about having autism?” (2013, p. 57, 43), questions I would love to ask my son, but until we can unlock those doors and find a way to help him communicate beyond expressing simple needs or frustrations, I will have to settle for having him point to a page, indicating that he wants me to keep reading. I am just grateful for those bridges that books have helped me to build with my son.