January 14, 2013

Can Writing Be Your 20 Percent Time?

An education colleague, Lisa Thumann, wrote a post recently about how some teachers are using the concept of  20% time. It’s a work concept that came about in 2006 when one of Google’s engineers wrote about how the company allowed them  to spend one day a week (20%) of their time “working on projects that aren’t necessarily in our job descriptions.”

They weren’t playing games or updating their Facebook page. They were supposed to be developing something new, or fixing something that’s broken.  Google claimed that in 2009 half of all Google’s products originated in 20% time.

When I heard about this back in 2006, I wondered why more employers didn’t introduce the concept.

Well, it has some obstacles: Money for one. Why pay people a chunk of salary to work on other things?  And what about those employees who would be updating their Facebook pages during that time?  But it could (with some parameters) produce some important things for the employer.

Lisa was writing about educators but what about you as a writer?  I was writing on another blog about this and later thought about how writers often complain that they just don't have time to write, but the secret is setting aside time to write on a regular basis.

William Stafford and Robert Bly are writers known for their "morning poems" which they did each day upon waking up.

The problems in doing the 20% in some jobs might be: Where to get the time? How to monitor work? How to stay on task? (And that includes using the time to fool around and using the time to just do your regular job.)

If I told you take Wednesday as your outside writing time, would I also take away 20% of your workload or would you just have to do that 100% in 80% of the time?

Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have said that the concept came from their childhood Montessori School experiences.

Creative play is underrated. So is having the time to be creative.

January 11, 2013

Open Positions at PCCC

Passaic County Community College (PCCC)is seeking talented and motivated professionals to join our community of learners and educators. We are currently seeking interested educators for the following, full-time, grant-funded positions. Please click on each link below to be directed to the position description. Application instructions are listed on our website: http://pccc.edu/job.

If you have any questions, please feel free to email off-serve at writingcenter@pccc.edu

January 5, 2013

Knowing Your Characters Deeply

The PCCC Writing Center blog welcomes Diane O’Connell this week. Diane is a veteran New York publishing professional, and as Editorial Director of Write to Sell Your Book, she specializes in helping first-time authors achieve publishing success. Follow Diane on Twitter at @WritetoSell.
Learning how to craft a compelling hero means truly understanding why you need one in the first place. Whether or not your protagonist’s journey inspires, frustrates, or enlightens your readers, one thing is key: the author of a phenomenal story not only completely knows her hero’s weaknesses and fears; she makes them confront these terrors face to face. It may sound like the work of an author is akin to the behavior of a sociopath. That’s actually not far from the truth.

It’s All About The Journey

Over the years, I’ve read so many manuscripts that fall short of compelling me. So often, no matter how vivid the story world, how fresh the language, or how original the premise, the biggest roadblock between an author and a publishing deal has to do with the hero’s journey. There’s a core question that the author did not fully confront: Why should readers care about my character’s story?

Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark

The best stories have characters whose journeys explore the inherent flaws of the human condition – and how those flaws either break or build them. Would Heathcliff be so compelling without his streak of darkness? Would The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Prynne be so mesmerizing if she didn’t go through hell? Like Hamlet’s, your own character’s arc should inevitably spiral toward that inevitable doom, whether or not you choose to have your characters’ stories end up there at the end – that is the crux of a stellar story.

So, how do you do this?

Get Dirty and Dig

Making a character is much more than knowing the stats on her driver’s license. As the carpenter of your story, you must construct your hero from the ground up, or he won’t be able to weather a whole lot. It’s important to know the details. What are your hero’s ticks? Does she obsessively rub her hands a la the guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth? Does he have 10 locks on his front door to symbolize his broken relationship with society? But, don’t stop at the character blueprint; have conversations with your character so you can fully anticipate her every move. Know your character’s mind as much as you know your own. When you come across something in your own life, ask, “What would my protagonist think about all this?”

Put Your Character Through The Ringer

Now that you know your character better than you know yourself, test her. This is where the story sprouts. The difference between a passable book and a bestseller comes down to the depth of the main character and the story that comes out of the journey your character undergoes. The plot has to be completely intertwined with your character’s journey.

Breaking Bad is not a novel, but the show’s writing is so fantastic that I always use it to demonstrate how storytelling not only entertains, but reveals the pitfalls of the human condition. In Breaking Bad, Walter White transforms dramatically from the challenges that cross his path. The writers always find ways to up the stakes, pushing the characters to the next breaking points. If the stakes are not high enough, your novel will be flat. It goes nowhere, and readers stop caring.

No matter where you are in the novel writing process, remember that every book that was truly groundbreaking delves into dark territory, at least a little bit. Ask your hero what her hopes and fears are. Then, make her biggest fear stand in the way of her biggest hope. No matter what you choose to do to thrust your character forward, remember: It’s painful to be a protagonist.

January 3, 2013

Book Review: Researching the Writing Center: Towards an Evidence-Based Practice by Rebecca Day Babcock and Terese Thonus

Researching the Writing Center is an evidence-based text that emphasizes the importance of vigorous empirical research that can and will inform best practices in writing centers across the country. The authors, writing center professionals (an Associate Professor of English and a Writing Center Director) have put writing centers and their tutoring sessions under a scientific microscope, to examine the various ways we can investigate and study academic tutoring—what works and what doesn't?

In this comprehensive text, Babcock and Thonus describe the current status of research in writing centers (or lack thereof), give readers a crash course in research basics (what aspects have and can be explored), and discuss the various contexts of tutoring, including studies of different tutoring populations and some of the existing recommendations for practice. They then examine the sequence of events (specific actions and responses) followed in a typical tutoring session; “What defines a successful tutoring session?” (143-169). While they give some potential answers to this question, the authors reiterate the need for more scientific RAD (replicable, applicable, and data driven) research that builds on existing studies and methodology. The text concludes with various agendas for future writing center research: questions and approaches, methods, data analyses, and possibilities in terms of modifying professional practice (170-179).

Babcock and Thonus view writing center scholarship as “largely artistic or humanistic, rather than scientific, in a field where both perspectives can and must inform our practice” (3). They are concerned with connecting “theory, inquiry, and practice” (3) in the same way that other fields must question, examine, theorize, and put into action recommended changes. Writing centers are not a hot topic of research, like health and medicine, and do not garner even as much attention as classroom teaching practices in public and private schools, though the similarities are evident.  In a field such as medicine and pharmaceuticals, the necessity of empirical research, repeated testing, and experimentation is obvious. But every field can benefit from a more scientific approach—where statistically sound data and evidence using different methodological approaches (often a combination) that builds on past research—is used to help make changes in the way professionals approach their work, companies manage their employees and their products, and services and product quality are enhanced. It is too easy to use “anecdotal evidence or hasty surveys” to serve some other purpose, such as making an institution look good on paper, but backing up claims with solid research (that requires time and funding) is the real impetus for change and can result in a fundamental shift in the way professionals view and approach problems.

The authors serve as a model for the very practices they wish to encourage: Babcock and Thonus provide the reader with background and a slew of published and unpublished dissertations and theses (“grey literature”) that explore various aspects of writing centers and give us a detailed picture of what work has already been done, as well as offer suggestions and potential questions for further research: What do current writing centers look like, what populations do they serve, and who staffs them? What tutoring methods are effective for various populations (deaf, second language learners, culture)? What types of consultations are preferred and result in the best outcomes? What do tutoring sessions look like and what kinds of actions appear to work best in various contexts?  What specific details in linguistics (directives, suggestions, politeness, tone) affect consultations and in what ways? (172-178).
“Researching the Writing Center” is exactly as the title suggests: It is a type of research and discourse about research that serves both as an informational tool for researchers and writing centers, but also as a generative, thought and question provoking text that gives anyone involved with a writing center new avenues to explore (in terms of critical thinking and potential for revision). It is NOT a how-to manual for what a writing center should be like and how a consultation should enfold.  

Though Babcock and Thonus give us recommendations for practice, based on current and past research, they do not subjectively argue for any particular course of action. Some of these recommendations include: considering private space for tutoring in addition to open space, lengthen consulting times, rethinking the required consultation, considering open negotiations between tutor and tutee, encouraging writing consultants to really listen to the tutee, considering tutor vs. tutee centered sessions, and exploring the incorporation of read-alouds and pauses during the session. Many of these are less recommendations as they are considerations, as it is always important to take context into account; each writing center serves different populations and different needs. It seems that a more encompassing recommendation would be that writing professionals learn sensitivity to the needs of various populations, become flexible in the way that they structure a consultation, and be open to changes in implementation. If we return to the important question of what makes a successful consultation, it seems that most writing centers define success as making “better writers” as opposed to satisfying course instructors or tutees, or even just improving a given paper (145).

This is a critical perspective to consider; making better writers is something that is hard to quantify and measure and is something that is more inherently concerned with process (how does the writer write?) as opposed to product (what grade did the writer earn on his or her paper?). Babcock and Thonus would argue that it is essential to research the unquantifiable elements in whatever ways we can. And it is even more essential to look for ways to be better at the process of writing and tutoring writers, as it is essential to focus on the process of research—collecting information methodically, analyzing and replicating studies in order to learn more about the role of the writing center and the ways in which it can be improved.
“Researching the Writing Center” offers some provocative questions that can serve to incite researchers and writing centers to action—perhaps some will continue the research and use this text as a mine of valuable information and potential methodologies; or perhaps this book will serve as an educational point of discourse for writing center professionals—helping to increase reflective practices and thoughtfulness in their work.

About the Authors:

Rebecca Babcock is Associate Professor of English at UT Permian Basin where she teaches courses in writing and linguistics. Visit Rebecca's website: http://www.rebeccababcock.com/ 

Therese Thonus is the Director of the University of Kansas Writing Center and a trained linguist who has published extensively on writing centers and tutoring. She teaches courses at the graduate and undergraduate level.