Making Pronouns Inclusive By Making Them Plural

Faculty members’ ideas vary on this, and our Writer’s Web page about pronoun usage provides the canny advice to ask a professor.

The author of this post is far from “politically correct” in many areas, but it has always made good rhetorical sense to avoid gendering language when an audience includes men and women.

In a pinch, I can rewrite any sentence to keep it both grammatically correct and inclusive. Every summer, we edit our handbook for Writing Consultants, and I am surprised that three female editors still kept in sentences like this one:

“Have the writer identify his main point by asking…” when it is easily broadened to “Have writers identify main points by asking.” This revision has the virtue of brevity. Using “his or her” seems awkward.

I invite readers to come up with a sentence that cannot be revised by making it plural, save when an obvious gender-specific reference must be made.

Spinning the Plates in a Writing Center

Like Spinning Plates

Image credit: used under rights permitted by Jameson Gagnepain at Flickr

This post began as a reply to Jared Odd, the Writing Center Director at Lindsey Wilson College. Professor Odd wrote to the national e-list for Writing Across the Curriculum, asking for advice about managing a Fellows-based program at small colleges. At times, such as our current semester, I feel like one of the performers who keeps about 30 fragile plates spinning on the ends of skinny poles.

Richmond’s program for what we now call “Writing Consultants” now enters its 21st year. How we have managed has become a little more daunting recently, with only 3,200 undergraduates and the need to staff 50+ sections with Writing Consultants while keeping a Writing Center open. My post covers a few bedrock principles and recent challenges.

  • The Training Class Must Be Strong: We don’t shortchange Consultant training at Richmond. All of them must complete a semester-long course, Eng. 383, that is by invitation of our faculty. I could rush through 100 new Consultants in a couple of weeks of basic training, but I fear they’d be unethical editors, fixing writers’ problems but not making them better writers. Faculty would consider the help intellectually lacking, and I’m not about to dumb-down our commitment to fundamental ideas of peer work, long established in the field and tested well in our program. I find that recruiting my 36 new Consultants each year, 18 trained each semester, can staff the program. This has worked well at the similar-sized program at Swarthmore, long a model for WAC at Richmond. Except…
  • The Busy Student Body Must Notice Us: It is hip to be stressed out and over-committed on this campus. Strike one for staying on student radar, as a program or potential employer. Study abroad, a wonderful opportunity that I want every student to experience, has gradually become nigh universal for our first-semester juniors. Strike Two. Then there are internships, independent study, summer research, the hum of non-academic but seemingly essential social obligations…Strike Three. For these reasons, over time, more and more students delayed taking Eng. 383 until their third or even fourth years. Having sown this wind for a few years, in May 2013 I reaped the whirlwind, finding about 20 of our trained Consultants walking across the stage in their caps and gowns. Then, this term, another 15 went abroad. Thus we are scrambling to staff 50+ sections and keep the Writing Center open with 37 Consultants. Usually, I employ 50.
  • The Director Must Appeal to Potential Consultants Early and in the Right Way: My doubling-down on recruitment began early this semester. I notified faculty teaching first-year seminars that a crisis was at hand; I would depend upon them to bring me more first-and-second-year recruits. So far, a few are drifting in, but I will appeal as well to the students directly. Paying Consultants well helps, but students want more than a job today. Students at Richmond want a path to a post-collegiate career or graduate school. Working as a Consultant here means a better chance of landing a graduate assistantship or job with a communications focus. I count EBSCO, Penguin, and The National Archives among the employers of recently graduated Consultants.
  • Faculty in all Fields Must Become Partners: I have never felt that putting a writing program in a “silo” works well. First of all, writing has historically been under-staffed and under-underfunded. Susan Miller’s “sad woman in the basement” was more than a brilliant metaphor in her book Textual Carnivals. It was the fact on the ground (and beneath the ground) for a long time. Now that the Humanities themselves are in national crisis, writing programs cannot necessarily count on English departments with diminishing institutional clout for support. Program directors will need to sit down with Mathematicians and Economists and Sociologists, too, to determine local needs, priorities, and resources. These faculty will also serve as recruiters for those new student employees to keep WAC efforts vital.

I remain convinced, after more than two decades doing this work (with some very pleasant side trips into educational technology, the design of simulations, and more) that writing programs will thrive because our colleagues and administrators share our concern, if not necessarily our values, about writing instruction. The Director’s job, as the public face of writing on campus, is to be certain that the “center remains in the Center,” or wherever else writing instruction is housed currently. My greatest fear is that other units of a college or university, hungry for influence and budget, could gobble up WAC and Writing Centers.

We should not let that happen, since with merger may come a pedagogy we have worked so hard to avoid in our teaching and tutoring.

Handbook for writing in the disciplines: Music

musicindex

Our Writing Consultants Lauren Oddo and Kelsey Shields prepared a handbook with the cooperation of music faculty and our music librarian. Have a look for advice to writers, a sample essay, as well as transcripts of interviews with faculty at this URL:

http://writing2.richmond.edu/writing/wweb/music/

Three Professors In English Discuss Effective Writing

We just uploaded interviews with three professors in our English Department:

http://writing2.richmond.edu/writing/wweb/english/  (see left hand menu for links to videos).

Our Writing Consultants conducted these interviews. They may load slowly, as they are locally hosted. We have about 30 more in various fields. See the handbooks linked from this page:

http://writing2.richmond.edu/writing/wweb/disciplines.html

Our long-term goal is to compile interviews for each handbook, as well as sample papers with commentary by the professors and writers (including some reflective “what if” remarks).

Writing in Psychology: New Additions to the Writer’s Web Handbook

I’m pleased that our university’s undergraduate Writing Consultants constantly are developing new materials from their majors, including sample writing with faculty commentary and video interviews. Our latest efforts add content to our handbook about writing in Psychology, including best practices on our campus for lab reports.

Writing in the disciplines proves tricky work at most writing centers, I’d wager, as tutors majoring in the discipline avoid giving writers content.

At Richmond, we achieve our balance by moving examples and advice onto the shoulders of our faculty, who appear to be more than happy about volunteering help. Often, they and their students will submit a paper or two with commentary written reflectively and after the fact. These models explore the “what ifs” of the roads not taken or that were taken incorrectly.

We hope readers here will enjoy browsing our latest update to Writer’s Web.

Update 2/27/13: Sorry for the broken link to the site! That has been mended.

Call for Chapters: Identity and Leadership in Virtual Communities

I’m very excited to announce this forthcoming anthology from IGI Global, for which I’ll be a co-editor with Dona J. Hickey, the founder of our Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Program at Richmond.

Our full title is “Call for Chapters: Identity and Leadership in Virtual Communities: Establishing Credibility and Influence,” and that could describe much of the networking among writing-center professionals around the world. The book will cover non-academic uses of networked communities as well, and we welcome international submissions.

Read the full call for chapters and description of the book here.

Those interested in submitting a proposal should do so by 31 January; Dona and I will  review proposals in February with an eye toward notifying everyone by the end of the month. Our contact information is at the call for chapters, if you have a proposal ready or any questions.

Of “Gravy Spots” and Academic Writing

gravy spotImage courtesy of “Make your Own Bar-B-Q Sign

Note to readers: this post appeared originally at our Writing Center Blog at the University of Richmond. I’m re-posting here because, in part, I am curious about how such small errors vary by culture. My Writing Consultants in our training class will discuss this topic today!

Imagine an orator making a speech after a formal dinner, and imagine the speaker doing so very well. In the end, however, a large segment of the audience never recalls the content because of the large gravy spot on the speaker’s tie or blouse.

The speaker lost the audience. So what are the sorts of small errors that make otherwise sympathetic readers stop reading? A general list may be nigh impossible, but I will take a stab at what most perturbs academic readers of student prose. In doing so, I won’t focus on the fatal flaws of novice writing: sweeping generalizations, sentence fragments, lack of support for claims.

  • Confused words. One does not hear the difference, in speech, between the homonyms “here” and “hear,” but in writing, such gaffs make the writer look unprofessional, if not ignorant. See our Center’s list of “Commonly Confused Words.”
  • Overstatement. One study or source does not conclusive proof make, even if it is a valid source or study. Academics expect an abundance of supporting evidence, including admissions as to where more study may be needed or the limitations of a source. One might write “the 2011 study only considered effects on male students at private universities” as a way to present such data.
  • Names. Student writers often use both first and last names for sources. It may be appropriate to cite a full name on first reference or for clarity when, say, two Smiths have been cited. But in most cases, in-text sources need only a last-name reference. A graver (gravier?) spot is to misspell the name of a source. I once had a reader of an article stop on page one when I did this, back in grad school. He said “after that I did not trust your prose any longer.” Ouch.
  • Format errors. APA, MLA, Chicago, and similar are not systems of fiendish torture. Writers use them to get work into a format needed for a particular journal or conference proceeding. I frequently see errors with a misplaced parenthesis, italics and double quotations both used for titles of sources, and the like. A first cousin of this problem can be adding blank lines between paragraphs, odd indents, and other mechanical gaffs. When in doubt…ask the prof!

These “spots” come to mind right away. Got more? Let me know in the comments section.

How Much Technology in the Center? A Question of Ethos

In Richmond’s Eng. 383 course that trains our Writing Consultants, I used to run across Michael Pemberton’s “Planning for Hypertexts in the Writing Center . . . Or Not,” warning about technology in our practices:

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves whether it is really the writing center’s responsibility to be all things to all people. There will always be more to learn. There will always be new groups making demands on our time and our resources in ways we haven’t yet planned for. (306)

My short answer for new media writing is “we had best be this one new thing to as many people as possible, or some other organization will do it for us and perhaps put us out of business.”

As this community of Writing Center professionals grows online, taking its place alongside WCenter , WLN, and other treasured print and digital resources, I want to stake a strong claim as to why I disagree, in a civil but nearly absolute manner, with Pemberton’s claim.

My response is one most applicable to those starting Writing Centers in places that have never had them or even a tradition of what we Yanks call “peer tutoring.”   The ethos accrued in helping writers with new-media projects could be immense. Such clout will help to protect centers and their staff from what I’m seeing here in the States, an ever-more predatory environment as campus services compete for budgets in a time of austerity.

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