The Stevens Writing and Communications Center Blog

It’s Revision Time!

In Uncategorized on October 24, 2012 at 2:44 pm

by Jennifer McBryan

With the semester now halfway over, many first-year students will be taking the opportunity to revise a paper or two for their Freshman Experience courses (CAL 103 and CAL 105).  I thought I’d take a moment today to talk a bit about what this process really entails.

Professors frequently express frustration when they offer students the opportunity to revise a paper, only to find that their students are simply resubmitting the same old paper with nothing but a few cosmetic changes in place.  Fixing the grammar, changing up the wording in a few places, or reversing claims that your professor may have questioned doesn’t really constitute a revision.   As professor Billy Middleton likes to remind his students, “Revision is really a re-visioning of the assignment.”  It’s about taking a step back, evaluating your whole approach and figuring out how to become a better writer.

Fixing the Grammar / Changing the Wording

Grammar is important.  Not only does using correct grammar convey authority and smarts, but it also shows the relations between concepts in your paper.  That’s because grammar is not just a set of rules – it is a system that is designed to reveal the relationships between things.  When your paper is full of poor grammar, you communicate more than just a lack of interest in polishing: you communicate that you do not have a strong grasp of the concepts you are trying to explore.

The same goes for changing up the wording.  If a professor suggests new and better words to use, that’s great!  But often when we use the wrong words, it’s not because we don’t know what the words mean.  Often, it’s because we don’t really, deeply understand what we’re talking about, or what we want to say.

So before you go changing your grammar and your wording, study the paper, the texts, the concepts, and your own argument very carefully.  What were the holes in your logic or understanding that might have led to these inconsistencies in the first place?  What is it, exactly, that you are trying to say, and how can you say it correctly in your own words?  The danger of simply making the cosmetic changes that your professor has suggested lies in the fact that your professor might also not understand what you are trying to say.  If you simply incorporate his or her advice, you might be saying something quite different from what you intended.

Reversing Positions

In some ways, this tendency in student writing is the most potentially disturbing: If your professor questions one of your claims, simply reversing it reveals that you didn’t care about it or believe in it in the first place!  A better approach is to consider the claim carefully yourself, think deeply about why your professor didn’t agree with you (note that he or she may not actually disagree with you, but may be prompting you to express yourself more clearly), and then decide whether you want to stick to your guns or change your position. 

If you want to stick to your guns, take the time to strengthen your argumentation so that the justification for and relevance of your claim become more clear.  Maybe you need better textual evidence to support your point, or maybe you need to follow it up with a more rigorous interpretation.  We always like to see students taking some interpretive risks in their work, but we’re more likely to get on board if you can show us that you have really thought it through.

On the other hand, sometimes your professor is right, and your position simply doesn’t make sense.  In that case, you will want to change your position, but if so, then you will need to think carefully about how your new idea is going to impact the main argument of your paper.  You may need to change your thesis as well, in order to accommodate this newfound complication.  Exploring the impact of your new idea in greater depth will allow your professor to see that you have really done the work of revising rather than just fixing it up.

Of course, the staff in the Writing and Communications Center are experts at helping students gain the confidence to revise their own work, so you can always stop by and see us as well.

Good luck!

Tips for the First Paper

In Uncategorized on September 3, 2012 at 9:11 pm

by Jennifer McBryan

Many first-year students will be writing their first college papers very soon, and most of you will likely encounter a significant gap between experience and expectations as you begin the transition to college-level writing.  Our goal is to help ease some of the heartache with this next series of posts: General Tips, Crafting the Introduction, Working with Sources, Writing Conclusions, and Speaking with Professors.

GENERAL TIPS

The Process

  • Start early, and leave plenty of time to revise.  The biggest mistake that you can make in your first year of college is to let the temptation to procrastinate take over.  Do not leave your first paper to the last night before it is due.  Instead, you should begin sketching out ideas as soon as you receive the assignment, and aim to have a full draft completed at least 48 hours before the paper is due.  This allows you to engage with the ideas while they are fresh in your mind, and removes the element of panic that often produces sloppy or incomplete “final” drafts.
  • No question is a dumb question.  Your professors are aware that you are currently working on making the transition to college-level writing, and they want to help you in any way they can.  However, keep in mind that college was a long time ago for most of us, and we may occasionally need reminding that what is expected is not always crystal clear to you.  Professors will not be annoyed or consider you foolish if you ask for clarification or advice; rather, they generally are pleased to encounter a motivated and thoughtful student.

The Product

  • Eschew summary in favor of analysis.  One of the biggest stumbling-blocks for beginning academic writers is the problem of summary.  Most first-year papers are heavily weighed down with paragraphs that only summarize the text and do not provide insight or analysis in the service of an argument.  Remember: you are not writing a book report.  The audience (your professor) has already read the text in question and does not need you to recount it.  What we are looking for is meaningful analysis, insight, and engagement.
    • SUMMARY: “Antigone’s sister, Ismene, tries to share some of the blame and is prepared to die with her sister.  However, Antigone will not allow this.  She says, ‘Don’t try to share my death or make a claim / to actions which you did not do’ (31).  Even in the face of execution, Antigone will not accept help from her sister.
    • ANALYSIS: “Antigone’s refusal to allow her sister to share in her blame is complex.  Although it appears to be an act of bravery, there is also a strongly egotistical flavor to it, which is evident when she admonishes Ismene, ‘Don’t try to share my death or make a claim / to actions which you did not do’ (31).  Like a sister jealously guarding her favorite possession from a sibling’s encroachment, Antigone here seems to betray a lurking desire to reap destiny’s rewards alone for her act of valor; she does not want to ‘share’ them.”
  • Back up all of your ideas with specific examples and quotations from the texts or other relevant sources.  This is an incredibly important skill to master, and the sooner you get it down the better.  More posts on this topic will be forthcoming.
  • Make sure that your paper has a strong organization and that each paragraph flows out from the one before it and into the paragraph after it.  Topic sentences are your friends!
  • Pay attention to polish.  Many first-year students make the mistake of not taking their early papers seriously enough.  They turn in sloppy work riddled with mechanical and grammatical problems, half-hearted textual analysis, or colloquialisms.  I have even seen more than one paper in which the student used “textspeak” or quoted directly from Wikipedia.  Keep in mind that any work product with your name on it is a representation of you.  Taking pride in your work not only leads to better grades, but, more important, leads to a lifetime of opportunities.

That’s all for now; stand by for upcoming posts exploring different facets of paper-writing in depth.  In the meantime, all of us at the Writing and Communications Center wish you luck and encourage you to come and visit us throughout the semester for guidance and support.

The Writing and Communications Center

210 Morton // x 5529

Monday – Friday 11:00 am – 5:00 pm

http://www.stevens.edu/cal/wcc

Welcome, First-Years!

In Uncategorized on August 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Well, it’s that magical time of year again – the days are getting shorter, the light a little more golden.  The air is still hot, but something in it smells different.  Fall is on its way, and the new school year begins.  At Stevens, we get to meet a whole new generation of bright undergraduate students.

Whether you are a first-time freshman or a transfer student, you will be taking two exciting courses in your first year at Stevens: CAL 103 and CAL 105.  Together, these courses make up what is called the “Freshman Experience” – our opportunity to share with you the thoughts, methods, and skills that have shape the humanities for decades.  More information about these courses can be found through the College of Arts and Letters website: www.stevens.edu/cal.

From our point of view, it’s important that you understand that you’ll be doing a lot of writing in these courses.  Furthermore, it’s a different type of writing than what you might have had in your high school AP or IB English classes.  It will probably take some time for you to adjust to the new normal in your writing, and you might need some extra coaching to feel confident.  We encourage all first-year students to visit the Writing and Communications Center at least once during their freshman year, so that you can acquaint yourselves with our services and form a lasting relationship with us.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be running a series of posts designed to help you get the most out of your first CAL 103 and CAL 105 papers.  We will also be running workshops to help you draft your papers and get ahead of that learning curve.  In the meantime, if you have any questions about what to expect your college professors to expect from you, we can help answer them.

Looking forward to working with you,

The WCC Staff

Morton 210

Monday-Friday 11:00 am – 5:00 pm

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