From the trenches
I hope you all had wonderful Mother’s Days. That date always sneaks up on me and I never quite expect it to be wonderful and for some reason, it just usually is. In addition to Mother’s Day, I went into deep recovery mode. As many of you know, I spent the last four years in grad school, taking it one class at a time (usually) with summers off (except one). As I tallied up how much writing I’ve done for grad school in those four years, it turns out I’ve written 600 pages of double spaced academic writing. 600 pages (I was kind of surprised the number was so round, actually).
I got to thinking about all that writing and what I learned from it (beyond the obvious content analysis that the writing was meant to generate). I want to share a little of that here.
- Weekly essays are too frequent.
Several of my professors liked assigning weekly writing topics. They would give us something to read and then ask for 2-4 pages of writing to a prompt related to the reading. Usually we were narrating the content and then bringing a bit of personal insight or an interrogative point of view to the topic. I found that in classes where I had to generate original writing about brand new material without the benefit of a lecture first every week, I did not learn as much as I did when I was given time to read, think, listen, discuss and then write about that topic. I often felt I was prematurely offering my thoughts before they had had time to grow inside of me.
The plus side to weekly writing is that you get over the intimidation factor pretty quickly. I did get into a groove and could produce weekly essays without much angst.
- Academic writing benefits from mingling personal experience with scholarly analysis.
I usually found a point of contact between myself and the material whenever I could. My professors not only valued this, but several of them specifically asked for it from us as students. My final MA thesis has six pages at the start that trace my journey theologically which leads to the thesis and why I chose to write the paper. These introductory remarks were requested by my advisor. I want to point this out because there is still a feeling among so many homeschooling moms that academic writing is meant to be objective and impersonal. Certainly the analysis must have the air of scholarship and considered opinion, but situating the argument contextually and relating it to personal experiences is valid and in some cases, encouraged in the humanities, in particular.
- Introductions need to include a “word map” of where the paper will go.
When I teach the essay, I tell my students that they need to include both a thesis and a sentence or two (at least) that suggest the direction of the paper (what points they will cover in the essay). I can’t emphasize this point enough. Scholarship depends on clarity of organization more than any other element. The reader must know where he or she is being taken and how he or she will get there.
- There’s a difference between textual analysis and the use of secondary sources in analytical writing.
Usually academic writing in the humanities (philosophy, literature, theology, history, sociology, theater arts, political science) means analyzing primary sources (reading original documents and doing textual analysis) and then cross-checking that analysis against secondary sources (scholarship that offers insight into the primary source). Using tools designed for textual analysis and examining arguments of secondary sources helps you create your unique take on the topic. It’s strange, but given how many of us went through college and spent hours writing papers, I’m surprised that I have never read in the homeschooling market a book or tool that breaks this all down and helps kids understand what they are doing when they write a paper. For the June and July issues of the Slingshot, I’ll be writing tools to help you determine source credibility, how to do textual analysis (primary source work) and how to use secondary source material. In the fall, I hope to offer an essay class that works with primary and secondary sources to give your kids a feel for how it’s done.
I have many other insights to offer and will do that over the next few weeks. In the meantime, feel free to ask questions in the comments section. I can’t wait to expand what we offer through Brave Writer. It’s been such a wonderful experience being a student and I think my experiences can translate to real benefit to all of you, particularly those worried about how to prepare your teens for college writing.
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