Tag Archives: writing

Teaching Writing

The most gratifying part of being a Teaching Assistant (TA) this semester has been the work I’ve been able to do with students on their writing. I didn’t even realize how important teaching writing was to me until I had to do it. But I love when students email me, knock on my door or catch me after class to ask to work on their papers. I love when I have a question about a sentence or a phrase, then they tell me what they were trying to say, and I’m able to reply, “Yes. You need to write exactly what you just said.” And I love handing back A papers to students who think they’re weak writers because someone told them once upon a time that they weren’t.

I had a chat with my students recently about writing. I encouraged them to shift the way they think about it, with the understanding that in some ways, they can’t. Taking approximately 15-18 credits requires likely dozens of papers a semester and it’s very difficult to give the proper amount of time and attention to each and every paper. You often don’t have the time to write drafts well in advance to get feedback from your professor or TA. You’re simply trying to crank those babies out to make sure you have something to turn in.

When that’s your reality, it’s difficult to think of papers as anything but a means to an end, a hoop you have to jump through. In all honesty, I can count on one hand the number of papers I actually remember writing in undergrad. Remember, as a French and Comparative Literature double major, and an International Relations minor, I probably wrote hundreds of papers. And yet.

Still, with all of that in mind, I still proposed a perspective shift. Instead of thinking of writing as another thing you have to do, think of it as an opportunity to share the thoughts and opinions you have about our films, backed up with evidence and careful analysis.

Yet another problem I’m up against as a TA is the way we present writing as an individualistic enterprise. Because folks have so many papers to write during the semester, it feels like you have to lock yourself up in a study room in the library until you have no more words. I reminded my students that that’s absolutely not how writing works professionally. Every writer that we read in class, every book that you get in the bookstore…all published writers have editors. They have friends and family and mentors that read their words with a red pen of love at the ready. They workshop their words. That’s why the “Acknowledgements” section of books exist. Writing is a communal process, but we present it as something you do alone. So I try to make it as clear as possible that I am willing and able to work with them on their words, because they shouldn’t have to be in this alone.

I try to be as sincere as possible when I tell them I look forward to reading their words. Yes, it is my job to read and comment, but I’m curious as to what they think and how they think, especially if they’re quieter in class and discussion. Papers are a chance for you to flex a little, but it gives you the time and space to think through your response if you’re not as willing to jump in to a conversation with only a half formed thought. I try not to think of their papers as more work for me, but a chance to get to know my students a little better. I think of my comments as engagement with their thoughts.

I perhaps do all of these because I want them to love writing as much as I do. I know my efforts won’t matter to many of them, no perspective shift will occur. And that’s fine. But as long as I’m clear that for at least this semester, they have someone who cares deeply about writing and their words, I will have done my job.

So many articles exist on best writing practices and how the greatest writers write, but so much of that is crap. No, you don’t have to write every day to be an effective writer. You should practice as regularly as you can, but every body is different, every life is different, every circumstance is different. As much as I would love to write fiction all day every day, I mostly write during the summer and winter break when I have extended periods of time to devote to that manuscript. Do I write every day? Mostly every day, yes. But I consider many different things to be a part of the writing process. Tweeting is writing, blogging is writing, journaling is writing, reading is writing, note taking is writing, outlining is writing, drafting is writing, revising and editing is writing. I do at least one or more of those things every single day, but not because I’m practicing every day writing. Writing is part of my self-care, my self-expression, how I feel whole.

What I didn’t know also makes me feel whole is helping someone else craft clear and substantive prose, helping someone find their voice and run with it, and encouraging them at every step of the process. I love being a sounding board, an editor, a cheerleader– all important parts of writing. I love it all. Teaching writing is difficult, as is writing, but I still manage to find joy in it every day.

Notes from a Writers’ Retreat

In a previous BGDGS post (“Daydreaming: An Ode to Life Post Comps”), I wrote about how I would care for myself after comps. One of my suggestions was to do a writing retreat, but when I imagined this, I figured I would have to pay for it out of my own pocket. Never in my wildest dreams did I think a writing retreat would literally fall out of the sky and into my lap.

And yet it did. William & Mary Libraries hosts a week long writing retreat for faculty in the spring after graduation (and I believe in the winter, too). This was the first time they decided to open it up to a limited number of graduate students and I jumped at the chance. I applied for a spot before I went under my exams rock, and by the next Monday, I was in.

I have been riding a high since I finished and passed comps last Thursday, so this retreat came at a perfect time. I was still so jazzed and energized that I wrote a solid draft of my prospectus* in four days of work, wrote a draft of a 200 word abstract for a journal submission and worked on a strategic plan for a new project I am developing.

In addition to all the good work I’ve been getting done, being a participant of the Writers’ Retreat earned me a swag bag filled with a nice W&M notebook and pen, as well as a travel cup. Not to mention, breakfast and lunch each day were provided. Did I mention I didn’t have to pay for any of this? They literally set up ideal conditions in which you have your own private space to work, nourishment, meetings with research librarians if you need them and a pretty steady supply of caffeinated beverages.

Despite being alone in my writing room for hours at a time, I found that I have met a bunch of really amazing people here. Breakfast and lunch are communal, and we share space with a bunch of other faculty retreats happening, including May Seminars, the Film & Media Studies Retreat, and the Coll 100 workshops. So I got to see a lot of faculty that I love, as well as meet new folks, including many of the librarians and a particularly cool Classical Studies professor.

The Provost Fellowship Writing Retreat is also happening this week. A few of my American Studies pals got Provost Fellowships and so they’re here in a different part of the library working away, though I do get to see them upon occasion during lunch.

It’s been a really nice week. I got a lot of writing done and had a lot of good fun with my buds while doing so. I hope to do this again in the future when I’m in the throes of actual dissertating.

William & Mary Libraries was right on time with the Writers’ Retreat– this was the perfect way to jumpstart my summer.

*The prospectus is the next milestone I have to conquer. This is essentially the proposal for your dissertation project. Different programs have different ways of dealing with the prospectus, but at W&M in American Studies, our handbook requires that the prospectus be 3,500-5,000 words (14-20 pages) and it should include: the problem, your intervention, a brief investigation of the fields and studies this work will build upon, an outline of your chapters and the work you seek to do in each section, primary sources you will be drawing from, methodologies, and a timeline for completion. After getting this document approved by my advisor(s) I will then have a colloquium where I will present my prospectus for feedback as I move into the formal dissertation.

A Debrief on Written Comprehensive Exams

Well, I did it.

Four days of testing, 6 hours per exam, 9 questions answered, and 59 total pages written.

I did it.

My brain feels like it has a rubber band wrapped around it, but I got it done.

Admittedly, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Someone once told me (hi, Chris!) that it would be relatively anti-climatic after months of studying and preparation. In some ways, it was, but in others, I felt that taking the exams was an excellent culmination of my five semesters of graduate level coursework, and my semester of individual preparatory work. Every morning when I opened my email, I held my breath while I read over my questions, then let out the greatest exhale ever. None of my examiners/committee wanted me to fail, only asking me questions that played to my strengths.

Each morning I got up, showered and cleaned myself up, dressing in my favorite outfits to enhance my good energy. I calmly reviewed my notes and looked over book reviews of texts whose arguments had flown straight out of my head. Then, around 9:30, I made myself some breakfast and set up my testing desk. I wanted to take the exams from the comfort of my home in my comfiest chair so I set up a little TV dinner table as my desk. I gathered supplies– a blank sheet of paper and some pens for outlining. At 9:50, I lit my Black Girl Magic candle and made myself a cup of coffee in my Queen mug, both gifts from Dr. Tamara Wilkerson Dias, settled into a cozy living room chair and at 10, my questions arrived.

Each day I got 6 hours to do my best idea work and writing. However, as I’ve said, my examiners knew me particularly well and asked me things that they knew I’d have a lot to say about, and in forms that let me flex my creative muscles. I had questions that asked me to write a conversation between some famous figures in the history of the Black intellectual tradition; I wrote a lecture on depictions of race in popular culture (managing to tie in “Homecoming” while I was at it); I imagined designing a lecture on African American literature for a non-American audience (I’m sure my examiner was thinking about my role with the Keio program for the last three years while crafting that question); and I designed a syllabus on modern African American literature. I answered other questions as well, questions that let me explore the impact of Black women writers on African American literature since Zora Neale Hurston, and questions about speculative fiction and currents in the Black intellectual tradition. As anxious as I was about these exams, when I sat down and looked at the questions, I felt my heart swell because I knew the answers. I knew how to answer them. I knew which texts to connect and analyze. It was as if the tangle of 250+ texts just straightened out when I had to put my fingers to my keyboard and type.

It was actually kind of fun.

I never want to do it again, ever– but the process really wasn’t so bad once I adjusted the way I was thinking about it. I saw someone tweet (hi, Shannon!) that someone else had told them to think about the exams as writing days. And we all know I love to write, so that’s what I did. It took some of the pressure off and allowed me to get carried away by my ideas.

Practically speaking, I spent about 30 minutes getting myself organized for writing– selecting the books I wanted to use, jotting down ideas, connecting the dots. Once I had my outline, I just let my fingers fly. I wrote almost every day (in a Googledoc so there was no fear of losing my writing) for at least two and half hours without stopping. I would write until I had exhausted myself, then I would take a break for lunch, catch a second wind and then write for two more hours. I usually started to fade somewhere around 3 o’clock, which is when I’d start to round out my answers, read over everything and edit. I would add a sentence here, delete a sentence there, until it sounded the way I wanted. By 4 o’clock I had, on average, around 15 pages of work that I downloaded from Googledocs into a word document, then attached to the email that the questions had arrived in. I would submit them the moment the clock struck 4 and feel my body slump with pride and exhaustion at having finished another day.

I walked around the house with a mixture of fatigue and satisfaction for a few minutes after submitting each test, riding on the high of finishing, before I started on my relaxation routine. I would have a cider, my drink of choice, call my dad, do a facemask and meditate while the mask was on. Then I would spend some time either mindlessly flipping back and forth between the Vampire Diaries and Gilmore Girls or else reading a few pages in Justin Reynolds’ Opposite of Always. I’d have dinner then spend a little time looking at notes for the next day. It wasn’t a hard core study session, just a casual flip through notes. Even on my day off, I spent most of my time laying around. I was actually so wound up and buzzing with energy that I was convinced I should’ve just scheduled my exams to go straight through.

Thank God I gave myself that Wednesday break because by Friday at 2, I was crawling to the finish line. I think my answers were good that day, but it was obvious that I was running out of steam. Those were my shortest answers and probably my least well developed.

I wrote as much as I could on that last day and it was the only day that I submitted my answers before 4. I couldn’t look at my writing any more. I had written almost 60 pages total and I was done. I hit send and immediately a blanket of fatigue hit me. I had been running on adrenaline for pretty much the entire week.

I made a celebratory Target run and had dinner out with my parents. I was going to watch Into the Spider-Verse, but the fatigue won. I was out like a light before ten.

Of course, Karin Wulf was right all along: It was the process. Because I had carefully done my work over the last several months, I was more than prepared to take the exam.

I’m thisclose to ABD (All But Dissertation). Just an oral exam standing in my way.

But after surviving this ordeal, I can survive an hour with four people who only want me to succeed. The hard part is over.

And just like Professor Harold tweeted at me, I need to relax, but I won’t: I’m already plotting what comes next.

I’m too eager, too hungry, to relax– not when Ravynn K. Stringfield, Ph.D. is closer than ever.