Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Making The Most of Free Time

With the exception of completing this weekly blog post, I have zero obligations at the moment. None. No upcoming exams, all homework assignments have been completed, and there are no other extracurricular things going on. With all this free time in mind, it reminds me of what I used to do in high school and probably should consider taking up again now, which is writing in a journal. Honestly, this is probably one of the best forms of therapy there is as you have a physical medium for your thoughts and not just a conscious one.

While the day to day ups and downs may seem temporary and insignificant, days and weeks passing can lead to a snow ball of bogged down feelings, especially around the mid-semester time. With that in mind, whatever thoughts and feelings that get jotted down in a journal don't even necessarily have to make sense, as the purpose of doing this isn't producing a draft, or getting a grade, or compiling a portfolio. It's only a portfolio in a personal sense in that it's your own collection of thoughts.

When I think back to my high school scribblings and scratchings, I realize now it helped out a lot to be able to jot my thoughts down somewhere. Especially in light of the fact that I've faced more significant challenges at this point in my academic career than back then, the result is still the same regardless of what's going on in that there's an available outlet for mental venting.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Many Faces of Writer’s Block

As an English major, writer’s block is my oldest foe. Beginning an assignment is the most daunting. The vast whiteness of a blank page can seem to stretch on forever while the blinking cursor of a Word document mocks my lack of ideas with every flicker. Fortunately, there are ways to ease the stranglehold writer’s block can claim over the brain.

I start by simply walking away – from the computer, from the assignment, from my room entirely. As counterproductive as this may seem, staying put only frustrates me further. Frustration fuels writer’s block, so in order to break the vicious cycle, I pace. Counting the number of steps it takes to get to the opposite end of the hallway or a complete loop of the dining room table is monotonous but steady. It’s easy to focus on, thereby blocking out the impossible assignment. With a clear head, I begin to consider the paper topic by asking simple questions. What needs to be proven? What points are crucial to the argument? How are these points connected? As soon as the first inkling of a thesis statement presents itself I write it down without a thought toward sentence structure, grammar, or word choice. It can be tweaked later. Having a topic sentence, impermanent as it may be, allows for an outline of the entire paper. Though potentially time consuming, this method loosens the grip of writer’s block, enabling me to get words on the page which, ultimately, is the biggest hurtle.

The death stare of an empty page is not the only form in which writer’s block makes itself known. Just like there are many variations of writers, there are many ways to keep them stumped. Boring or confusing topics often impede progress while stress or self-consciousness about writing in general can bring the process to a complete standstill. In any situation, however, taking a step back to gain a clearer perspective is beneficial first step.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Writing in the Sciences: Injecting Your Voice into Research

I, like several other tutors in the Writing Center, am a science major, biology to be specific. Hardly a week goes by when I am not expected to produce some kind of report based on lab work. A lab report is something that is both very different and very similar to traditional “English class writing.” Lately, we’ve had many freshman science majors come into the WC and ask for help, because the concept of lab report writing is difficult to grasp at first, especially for those accustomed to the open-to-interpretation style of typical English 101 and 102 assignments. With students, one of the major struggles I have noticed is limiting the flowery wording and becoming more concise, analytical, and unbiased. This is not to say, however, that one cannot infuse the report with his or her own writing style. There are several methods one can use to ensure lab reports still have that personal touch that is so satisfying to see in one’s writing.

First, a brief overview of the typical structure of a lab report might be beneficial. Lab reports are split into four sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. The Introduction section introduces pertinent background information from other research and data. At the end of this section, the hypothesis succinctly describes the prediction that was tested during the experiment. The Methods section briefly describes the steps that the experimenter(s) took to test the hypothesis. This part of the report needs to be detailed, short, and written in the past tense. Next, the Results section illustrates the data obtained from the experiment, often utilizing graphs and tables. Finally, the Discussion section is the portion of the report in which the results are analyzed, the findings are compared to past research, and the hypothesis is judged by whether or not it was supported by the experimental data.

Succinct, brief, detailed, and short are just some of the words I used to describe an ordinary lab report. None of these words exactly lend themselves to personal interpretation and expression. It is true that a large portion of lab reports are very matter-of-fact and cut and dry. The key to personalizing a lab report lies in the only section in which it is appropriate to interpret data: the Discussion section. The Discussion section could also be called the Interpretation section. After the many trials you performed to complete the experiment, this section allows you to have free reign over your ideas, within reason of course. Logical, well thought out conclusions from your data are placed here, along with the implications for future research and study. Here you can state your goals for furthering your findings and advancing scientific knowledge as a whole. It is the place in a lab report where you can broaden your horizons and help other researchers become interested in your findings and motivated to learn even more, often through their own subsequent research.

No matter how trivial you may find the experiment to be, the findings in the lab report are your property. The data you find are the fruits of your labor, and your interpretation is entirely up to you. People who do research for a living submit their reports to the scientific community proud of their accomplishments. They spend much of their time polishing their reports, because they want them to be both professional and unique. This is what I find exciting about science. Researchers independently experiment with their hypotheses and then report their findings to their peers. It is a collaborative effort to further scientific knowledge, but it would not be possible without individual scientists publishing exciting and deeply personal research. The next time you write a lab report, remember this quote from psychologist John Dewey, “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.”

Eddie Hamrick

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Reading and Writing Without Bias: The Fine Print of Every Article

With the race for the Republican nomination gaining more press coverage, many voters will be bogged down with the task of distinguishing truth from fiction in political ads and debates. Even the most knowledgeable voter will have difficulty in weeding through the bias and mudslinging of political campaigns. However, bias in journalism, literature, and media coverage does not exist solely around election time. It is challenging to write without bringing in your personal opinion. Therefore, when researching potential sources before writing a paper, it is important for you to be alert for the bias of others.

The goal of most research papers is to write a well-balanced paper with good information and little to no bias. Why write without bias? Well, a research paper presents information on a topic, and biased information will lack legitimacy, not being as respected. Thus, it is important to avoid being biased.

To begin to recognize bias, it is important to look at where the source originates. For example, if you are looking for a source linking smoking with lung cancer, a study funded by a tobacco company that proves there is no link between the smoking and cancer has an inherent bias. Since it is in the tobacco company's best interest to prove that its product does not cause lung cancer, this study, funded by them in order to prove what they want to be true, lacks much legitimacy and is therefore biased.

Additionally, bringing one's opinion into a piece can be a form of bias, especially when the author is not an expert in the field. For instance, if you include a quote found in a blog in your research paper, the writer of the blog entry is probably not an expert, and thus, when you quote their personal opinions, you bring another person's bias into your paper, making your paper biased as well.

Finding biased material in an article is not always as clear as it is in the above examples. For this, I offer a few tips:

- Make sure that the article does not ignore or omit information from one side of an argument. A well-balanced paper will include both positive and negative aspects.

- Look to the sources used. If the selection of sources supports only one view, the information in the piece may not be impartial.

- Ensure that the story includes various interpretations of an event if alternative interpretations exist. Including only the parts of an event that supports your view is a form of bias.

- Watch to see if the author labels people of opposing views negatively while supporting or over-qualifying people of the same view. Not giving credence to experts on the opposing side is a form of bias.

Reading through bias is like reading through the lines of a legal document: it is necessary to understand the information presented, but uncovering the facts is a challenge. Hopefully as you sit down to look at potential sources for your next paper, you concentrate on finding possible bias as much as you look to the information presented. After all, if you were searching for accurate information on a specific presidential candidate's platform, you wouldn't want to look solely at the information presented in mudslinging political campaign ads of their opponents.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

No Two Voices Are the Same

At the WVU Writing Center, our tutors have adorned the ceiling with various paper snowflakes in spirit of the winter season. Each snowflake, like real snowflakes, has their own unique features and qualities that make it special in its own way. The concept of individuality displayed in the creation of snowflakes is similar to individual expression created by a writer's voice in their work. Like the saying that no two snowflakes are alike, every writer has their own, specific voice.

To establish a voice in writing, writers make decisions that have an effect on their reader. This is sometimes evoked in one's conveyed tone or mood with the presence of original thoughts or personal emotions. It can also be fostered through the writer's style. The reader can learn a lot about an author's personality through identifying voice, the unique quality of a piece.

In terms of appropriateness, authors have to modify their voice at times to fit certain writing styles. For example, when sending an e-mail to a friend, I may use different language or sentence structures than when writing to my professor. My voice does not completely change; I am still writing, though in a different role that I possess in my everyday life.

Finding your writing voice may be difficult at first, but it is important to stay true to who you are. Writers should not try to mimic someone else's voice because this will take a way from the genuine aspect of a piece, sometimes sounding forced or awkward. When you are able to write comfortably and enjoy your work, you can take pleasure in the process and express yourself with ease. In time, your voice will emerge from the words, just as every special snowflake falls from a cloud.