Writing and Style Angst

write-my-paper.jpg

by AnaMaria Seglie

One day a long, long time ago, in a far-away land named Nebraska, a younger version of myself sat listening to a lecture on writing style in a first-year college writing course. While the professor discussed vibrant sentences and fluid prose, I remember thinking: how can you grade me on style? After all, isn’t style inherently subjective – it’s my style, my taste, my flare, no?

If you ask any writing teacher, style is one of the most difficult things to teach because of this exact logic. It gives off an aura of idiosyncrasy and intuition. Students, like my undergraduate self, bulk that it is too personal and cannot be fairly measured. And yet, if we take a closer look at writing that most would agree upon as exceptional and sophisticated, there are, in fact, some stylistic commonalities – elements that sharpen, clarify, and distinguish strong writing from clunky, boring, or opaque prose. For example, most readers – whether my college self or my current one – can probably agree that wordy prose is not only less eloquent but also less functional. Similarly, most readers would likely perceive prose that continuously repeats the same sentence structure as monotonous and boring. While I would never say that there is such a thing as a “right” style, there are some basic principles that prove helpful. Below are three commonly recommended style guides that provide a list of such principles:   

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Composed over nearly a hundred years ago, this classic guide and its many editions provide a series of tips for writing in American English. It covers everything from foundational principles of composition to commonly misused phrases.

Garner’s Modern English Usage, edited by Bryan Garner. This more recently published guide includes tips focused on the use of modern English, such as pronunciation and verbosity.

Modern Language Association Handbook and/or Chicago Manual of Style. Both of these guides are revised on a regular basis with updated tips. They include style and grammatical instructions, but are perhaps best known for their citation rules and research guidelines.

Upon browsing these style guides, you will notice that there are certainly some overlapping themes: clarity, concision, word usage/choice, grammar, and so forth. You will also notice there are some differences. The MLA Handbook, for example, focuses on research writing, while Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is intended for a more general readership. Such differences remind us that there are a variety of styles and that style is shaped by purpose and audience. FWIS courses also follow this rule. Each semester I provide my students with a list of style and grammar tips – the underlying principles of which can be found in some of these guides, but which also reflect some of the learning objectives and purposes of my particular courses. These are tips that, I believe, help clarify academic writing and which also represent the recurring problems I have found in my students’ papers.

If you are student looking for style tips for your own FWIS, consider the objectives that your instructor lists on his/her syllabus. Review his/her comments and consider which issues they continually note in your writing. Then, check out one of these style guides to find methods for fixing these stylistic issues. Though it may seem counter intuitive – as it did with me nigh on ten years ago – keep in mind that style does not necessarily mean embellishment, flourish, or colloquialism. It means engaging in a process of conscious crafting – that is, recognizing and cognizantly shaping your writing to reflect your voice with the greatest clarity. Work on it and own it! 

 

Wanna take a shelfie?

by AnaMaria Seglie

Wanna take a shelfie? Yes, that’s right I said “shelfie.” My students took shelfies as the culminating activity in a spring 2015 library workshop. This workshop was designed to prepare them for an upcoming research paper in which they were required to find two scholarly sources.

What, you may ask, is a shelfie? With the explosion of Instagram and Facebook, the selfie has become a popular form of self-portrait – a postmodern autobiography, if you will. Inspired by this trend, the shelfie (for my course’s purposes) is a self-portrait taken in the shelves of the library while holding a hardcopy book. It requires that students go physically into the stacks, hold a real print book, and take a photo.

Why?

(The Big Picture) We repeatedly hear that today’s college students are digital learners – that they are more comfortable browsing the internet than they are settling down with a physical book. They are masters of Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and, as the crowds of young people wandering around this summer proves, Pokemon Go. Rice students are part of this crowd. They conduct their primary research via the web, often preferring Wikipedia, Google books, and Buzzfeed style articles to a library catalogue and dusty shelves. Despite this shift and the multiplying number of innovative online learning models, I continue to believe in the importance of the on-site library. I want my students to leave my class with the foundational skills for navigating both print and digital text-networks. Asking them to take a shelfie in tandem with conducting online library research offers one way to merge these two worlds.

(The Specifics) The shelfie, its associated workshop, and assignments also served some specific purposes for my FWIS courses: 1) to educate new students on the library’s resources; 2) to make students comfortable browsing (both digitally and physically); 3) to prepare students for their final essay; 4) to add a fun twist to library research. 

How does it work?

Step 1: My Spring 2015 FWIS students attended a library workshop hosted by research librarian Dr. Joe Goetz. I asked students to arrive at the workshop with a research question or topic over our most recent reading. Joe generously led my students through the process of searching and using the library’s various catalogues as well as the search engines and databases they would find most useful for their upcoming assignments.

Step 2: Upon leaving the workshop, I asked students to apply their newfound knowledge and skills. This activity required them to find an online journal article and an on-site book for their research topic. Upon recording these findings, students were urged to find their book in the stacks and take a self-portrait with it. I gave no guidelines for the shelfie’s type or tone, but simply allowed students to take the photo as they saw fit and send it to me. As you can see from these images, I received a wide range of responses that I then posted on our course blogs. These posts allowed students to not only see others’ photos but also to see themselves as part of a classroom community.

IMG_2814.JPG

 

What I learned:

As a teacher, this exercise was fun to watch unfold. Though I have long used online platforms such as WordPress, the Purdue OWL, and Writer’s Diet, this exercise challenged me to further integrate social media into my classroom. I have no desire to make my courses into constant Twitter or Instagram feeds; however, the growing number of intersections between social media, digital education, and the classroom present rich opportunities for new communication pedagogies, and I intend to mine them for creative ways to help my students read, write, and think critically. Now, if I can only find a way to integrate Pokemon Go…

Profile of a FWIS: Fiction and Empathy

120.jpg

FWIS 120: Fiction and Empathy

An interview with Burke Nixon, Instructor

How did you get interested in this particular topic?
I’ve been interested in fiction since I was a kid, probably since before I could even read it myself. Getting lost in a character’s thoughts and experiences—that never gets old. And writing fiction myself (and often struggling to write fiction) has led me to think a lot about what fiction does, what it’s supposed to do, what it means to take a character’s perspective, how that works. I also teach a Medical Humanities FWIS and co-teach a Literature and Medicine course with a friend of mine at Baylor College of Medicine, so I’ve become really interested in discussion about the supposed “empathy gap” that can exist between physicians and patients, as well as the related research and debates over the supposed connection between reading fiction and “improving” our ability to empathize. At some point, I decided that questions about fiction and empathy were so open to debate and so interesting (to me, at least) that I could make them the basis of their own course.

What, specifically, are you excited about teaching in your FWIS this semester?
I’m always really excited about introducing my students to the work of great writers like Junot Diaz, Yiyun Li, Edwidge Danticat, and George Saunders. I’m also excited about having them introduce me to some great authors I haven’t read.

What is one thing you hope students draw from this FWIS?
I hope the course helps my students develop a closer attention to language—in their reading and in their writing, in creative narratives and academic arguments, on the page (or screen) and in person. That’s the big goal. 

Profile of a FWIS: Star Wars and the Writing of Popular Culture

123.png

FWIS 123: Star Wars and the Writing of Popular Culture

An interview with Dave Messmer, Instructor

What do you think is interesting/distinctive about this FWIS course?
I'm guessing that having "Star Wars" in the title will get a lot of attention, but what I think will really be interesting about the course is the variety of academic perspectives that we are able to bring to bear on these films.  I'm guessing that most students have seen some or all of the movies (though I'd love to have some people in the class who haven't), but we're going to look at them in ways that might be surprising and unfamiliar to even the most avid Star Wars fan.

How did you get interested in this particular topic?
Well, I grew up in the early eighties, so being a Star Wars fan was basically a requirement.  But unlike a lot of the other childhood fads that I lived through, Star Wars has endured, both in the popular imagination and in mine.  Why this particular phenomenon has lasted this long is and what is at stake in that persistence is an interesting intellectual question that I'm eager to explore, especially with a generation of students whose exposure to the films will certainly be different than mine.

What, specifically, are you excited about teaching in your FWIS this semester?
We're going to start with the original, theatrical releases of the first three films, not the special editions from the 1990s.  The original versions are what I grew up watching, but they're really hard to find these days.  I'm excited to see how students react to them but, more importantly, I'm looking forward to discussions about what is at stake in revising these films.  They offer a unique opportunity to ask questions about the cultural ownership of media and the role of commerce in the production of art.

 

 

 

Profile of a FWIS: Racism, Colorblindness, and the Prison Industrial Complex

Adkins.jpg

FWIS 100: Racism, Colorblindness, and the Prison Industrial Complex

An interview with Alexander Adkins, Instructor

What do you think is interesting/distinctive about this FWIS course?
Sometimes, university-level courses deal in very esoteric topics. And that’s not only perfectly fine, but very desirable (one of the benefits of going to college, after all, is the opportunity to study and develop skills in subjects that are valuable and interesting but often ignored by the working world). So what’s interesting about this course is that it melds together what might seem like esoteric intellectual and college-level material—past and current ideas surrounding racism, criminology, and the War on Drugs—with the most visible social movement in the US today: Black Lives Matter. I think this makes the course very exciting and relevant for incoming students who may or may not have pre-existing ideas about these issues, and who are interested in thinking this stuff through an academic lens (all the while learning to become better thinkers, communicators, and writers in the process).

What, specifically, are you excited about teaching in your FWIS this semester?
I’m really excited to show students documentaries about prison and the prison industry—especially the ones that have sparked a lot of recent interest in these subjects. Documentaries such as The House I Live In and Narco Cultura invite us to take a peek inside social worlds and problems some of us never knew existed. This, in turn, allows us to think, speak, and write about issues that impact all of us in palpable but also invisible ways. I’m also excited for students to read the work of Michelle Alexander and Cornel West—public intellectuals who have a lot of interesting and controversial ideas about imprisonment. Their ideas often provoke intense discussion among anyone involved. This course will tap into precisely those forms of discussion.

What advice do you have for first-year students (about FWIS or their first semester in general)?
College is such a special place. So much so that I think students should never hold back from getting as much out of it as they can. This might mean making friends with people from backgrounds different than their own. Or it might mean taking classes and pursuing interests that lie outside their comfort zone or experience. Regardless, students should see college as a place to take chances both personally and intellectually. Mentors and professors can be very helpful in this regard, so I would encourage students to reach out to their instructors as much as possible. 

Profile of a FWIS: Déjà vu: Literary Adaptations and Spinoffs

197.jpg

FWIS 197: Déjà vu: Literary Adaptations and Spinoffs

An interview with Jennifer Hargrave, Instructor

What do you think is interesting/distinctive about this FWIS course?
“Déjà vu: Literary Adaptations and Spinoffs” will give you a chance to read and analyze all different texts: fairy tales, poetry, novels, and even films. Even for students who intend to go into a STEM field, this class will give you an opportunity to develop strong reading skills that you will be able to apply to any text. But the most distinctive aspect of this class will be our developed understanding of how texts have their own cultural history, histories that we are rarely aware of whether we are watching Penny Dreadful or reading Lord of the Rings—both texts with very long cultural histories.

What, specifically, are you excited about teaching in your FWIS this semester?
I’m REALLY looking forward to teaching the novel Pride and Prejudice alongside the new film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The movie is wonderfully horrible (who doesn’t want to see zombies terrorizing nineteenth-century Britons?!) but also a very interesting adaptation of the classic story that really reflects our cultural moment.

What advice do you have for first-year students?
TRY EVERYTHING. Don’t align yourself with a major too quickly. Give yourself at least one semester to really experiment with different subjects to which you were not exposed in high school. The FWIS program is a great time to try something new. If you usually gravitate toward English classes, try one of the science-oriented classes. If you are really interested in Engineering, try a humanities class. You are already required to take a FWIS class, so use this as an opportunity to learn about a subject in which you wouldn’t normally be interested. HAVE FUN.

Profile of a FWIS: Art in Place and Places for Art

117.jpg

FWIS 117: Art in Place and Places for Art

An interview with Nonya Grenader, Instructor

What do you think is interesting/distinctive about this FWIS course?
Houston is home to many influential works of modern art and architecture, and students from all disciplines will have the opportunity to discover some of the best examples from across the city. Actual artifacts and edifices will serve as our primary sources, and you will observe, analyze, and interpret these significant works using both words and images.

What, specifically, are you excited about teaching in your FWIS this semester?
Art and architecture are fields that have traditionally encompassed a wide variety of subject matter. Every work has its own historic significance, its place within a social context, its ability to perform structurally, and its capacity to inspire written description. In addition to reaching across the curriculum, I want to offer an introduction to Houston’s culture. We will travel beyond campus to view not only the well-known examples, but also the hidden gems!

What is one thing you hope students draw from this FWIS?
As a long time architect and professor, I continue to be amazed at the power of art and architecture to inform and inspire creative thinking. And, at a time when we are offered an abundance of available information, this class focuses on fewer topics that will allow students to linger and look closely. 

Profile of a FWIS: Beyond Pocahontas: Natives in Nineteenth-Century America

139.png

FWIS 139: Beyond Pocahontas: Natives in Nineteenth-Century America

An interview with Fay Yarbrough, Instructor

What do you think is interesting/distinctive about this FWIS course?
For many people, their knowledge of native history starts and ends with Pocahontas (the Disney version, no less) and the founding of the colonies.  Of course, native peoples continued to interact with European and African arrivals to North America long after the nation’s founding and have a vibrant history of their own.  This class will focus on the tumultuous 19th century which included the events of Indian Removal, native participation in the American Civil War, and their response to rapid western expansion by Americans.  I hope the class introduces students to a history that is new to them.

How did you get interested in this particular topic?
The story is a bit convoluted.  I was writing a paper about relationships between masters and slaves for a graduate seminar and used the WPA slave narratives as a source base.  Over and over again former slaves mentioned their native ancestry in these narratives, not just connections to members of the master class.  This led me to research native perspectives on interracial relationships and into native history more broadly.

What, specifically, are you excited about teaching in your FWIS this semester?
It is always exciting to work with students when they first arrive at Rice.  All Rice students work hard, but 1st year students seem to have a special kind of enthusiasm because everything is so new and a bit of adventure.  I look forward to being a part of that newness and adventure for my FWIS students.  

In terms of our class materials, I am excited about all of the primary sources that we’ll be examining and teaching Robert Conley’s novel Mountain Windsong about Indian Removal.

Profile of a FWIS: Jews on Film

FWIS 199: Jews on Film

An interview with Melissa Weininger, Instructor

What do you think is interesting/distinctive about this FWIS course?
Jews on Film uses a narrow focus, cinematic representations of Jewish life in different periods and places, to encourage students to think about larger questions.  For example, this year students will explore the topic of immigration both through films about Jewish immigration to the United States, but also by participating in activities around immigrant communities in Houston.  This course connects film and the Jewish experience to current events and other communities.  In that way it helps students think and write critically on a larger scale and helps them to connect their own personal experiences and identity to broader academic and social questions.

What, specifically, are you excited about teaching in your FWIS this semester?
I love teaching and discussing films with my students, both on a critical scholarly level and a pop cultural level.  We’ll learn a lot of academic language for writing about films, but I also love to talk about what students like and don’t like, and how they feel about the films.  Specifically, I always get excited to show students great films that they wouldn’t otherwise see, like A Serious Man or Exodus (I love to introduce everyone to Paul Newman!).  I’ll also add that I love learning things from my FWIS students as well: I like to hear about their favorite contemporary or classic movies, and they always teach me a lot of useful slang.

What advice do you have for first-year students (about FWIS or their first semester in general)?
Use your resources, especially your professors.  We are human beings, and we care about your well-being, both academic and personal.  If you are overwhelmed or can’t make a deadline, or even if you just have some ideas for your next paper you want to discuss, talk to your professors!  We understand the pressures and difficulties of transitioning to college, and we are here to help you.  My door is always open.

Profile of a FWIS: Literature and Public Health

191.jpg

FWIS 191: Literature and Public Health

An interview with Sophia Hsu, Instructor

How did you get interested in this particular topic?
I'm writing a dissertation about the Victorian literary origins of public health, particularly about how the idea of the population as something that can be controlled and cultivated emerged in the nineteenth century. This project has shown me that the concept of public health is not only about scientific and medical advances but also about the broader issue of who we consider to be part of the "public," as well as what we consider to be "health." In FWIS 191, we'll ask ourselves: Who belongs to the "public" that public health policies try to target? Who gets left out of that "public"? What are the social, political, and ethical implications of improving the health of certain populations but not others? And how do we decide which aspects of health are deemed significant enough to address? Throughout the semester, we'll discuss these questions by analyzing novels, movies, and a variety of nonfictional writings. We'll also talk about how literature and culture help shape our understandings of public health.

What is one thing you hope students draw from this FWIS?
Content-wise, I hope students will be able to recognize and critique how the notion of public health has been deployed for a range of political and social issues. I hope students will be able to see how our ideas about community (whether that community is as large as the globe or as small as a city) and our ideas about health (is health only about epidemic disease? and is epidemic disease only a medical concept?) greatly influence public health policies. Skills-wise, I hope students will learn how to become comfortable with writing and communication. While I don't think writing and communication are necessarily skills that someone "masters," I think that learning how to be okay with the difficulty of those skills is the first step to improving.

What advice do you have for first-year students (about FWIS or their first semester in general)?
My advice for first-year students is to be open and willing to learn! College is a weird and amazing experience academically and personally. Be bold and step out of your comfort zone; try something new both inside and outside of the classroom.