Wednesday, 28 February 2007

A session with a writing mentor

Yesterday, I had a session with a writing mentor. Maria, a fellow psychology student, was kind enough to see me and give her opinion of my work so far. I took with me two rough pieces of writing, my purging/understanding and my ideas for things to critically assess. I also took with me a grumbling feeling of dissatisfaction about the way things are going with my research.

Although I’m really enjoying my journey into Freud’s life and work and the places this is taking me, I’m beginning to feel that the topic has been so thoroughly discussed that there is little scope for any real, original input from me. In my more pessimistic moments I think that since my essay is inevitably going to be a patchwork of other people’s opinions, I might as well stop flailing around trying to be fresh, save myself some grief and just get stitching. Something in me, though, resists. I don’t like many of the critiques I have found, especially the ones that quibble over the accuracy of various translations of Freud’s work. They seem to be avoiding the issue – sophistry rather than psychology. Also, I have been quite surprised by my findings so far, and this indicates that there is a tiny crack of opportunity through which the Edelweiss of originality might push. I fantasise about a world-weary Freud-averse psychology lecturer reading my essay and saying, ‘Well, fancy that. Perhaps this theory isn’t deader than the Dodo after all!’

So, I went for a mentoring session in the hope of finding an angle. Maria didn’t disappoint. Delightfully, before we even began our session, she declared herself to be a Freud sceptic. This made me happy, for the reasons given above. Next, she took her time reading through my sheets of ideas while I surfed the internet and sipped my coffee. (The writing center at London Met, for those of you who don’t know it, is a delightful, serene, coffee-scented scholastic paradise. There’s chocolate, too.)

Maria’s first comment was interesting. “You say that Freud’s theory is difficult to validate and is unscientific by today’s standards,” she began, “but what did it look like back then? It would be really interesting to have the contrast.” I agree, although it means a significant return to the library. But hey, no pain no gain. Then she pointed out that Freud was more of a Coelacanth than a Dodo. (You may recall the fairly recent flurry of interest in the Coelacanth, the so-called ‘fossil fish’. Held to be long extinct, it was discovered serenely swimming around near South Africa, unevolved and unrepentant.)

So yes, it’s undeniable, even to unbelievers, that Freud is a psychological icon. The reason for this seems ironically to lie in the fact that his theories are resistant to scientific testing – the other side of this coin being that they are difficult to refute definitively. So, my essay might plot Freud’s star from its zenith through its wilderness years and to its recent tentative, gentle ascendancy. With Maria’s help, I have found a possible angle. I can be an artisan needlewoman rather than a sweatshop labourer. And I suspect I may have infected her with a grudging respect for the grand old father of psychoanalysis.

Onward!

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Lynn,

Two things sprang to mind when I read this post. One is that when I did some focus group work with psychology undergraduates a couple of years ago on assessment criteria and what they mean, one theme that came up over and over was the difficultly many students have with saying something new on the kinds of well-traversed topics one is likely to be studying, especially in the first and second years, but also in the third year of a degree. Some students felt they didn't know enough to have an opinion or a point of view on a topic, and others felt that although they did have a view, lecturers wouldn't be interested in hearing it or they didn't feel confident they could express it in a way their lecturers would respect. Interestingly, Freud was the subject - or target! - of some of these discussions, and students clearly wanted to find a way to arrive at their own views and express them in a way that would be accepted as part of an academic essay.
You mention that you are also dealing with this issue of how to express your own views in your essay, and I wonder if you could share with us any strategies you use to help you persevere and remain confident that you do have something to say, as well as express those views in keeping with the genre of an academic essay.

The second thing I am prompted to ask about is your experience of seeing Maria. It sounds like it was a very helpful session, which for me is more evidence of the efficacy of peer Writing Mentor schemes to add to the already overflowing pot. I wonder if you could comment on what you have found to be the main benefits of working with a Writing Mentor, as opposed to, say, going to see your tutor.

Kathy

becky said...

Hi Lynn, Your post on 'A session with a writing mentor' once again highlighted for me the need for writing support to be subject specific. I have recently started providing writing support to science based students and find that, in some cases, I am unable to discuss their work in any real depth. As you have highlighted a subject specific tutor however, can provide not only generic writing support, but also a sense of passion for the subject. By sharing their knowledge of and passion for the subject a more productive relationship can evolve between the mentor and student.

Lynn said...

Hi Kathy,

Having spent this short time with Freud and his panoply of learned commentators, I’m not at all surprised that the students you consulted felt this way! First of all, as you say, there’s the issue of authority. It can be daunting to critique somebody’s life’s work, especially if that work is as innovative and revolutionary (and venerable) as Freud’s. It’s easy to feel that we don’t know enough. But I firmly believe that there’s a downside to knowing a lot about something; as concepts become more familiar, we become progressively less sensitive to inconsistencies and things that don’t work. Being an expert is in some ways like being like a frog in a pan of water being slowly brought to the boil. A truly fresh mind can spot things an expert has long become habituated to – like the fact that the water is getting uncomfortably hot! Philip Pullman expressed this very nicely in his novel ‘The Amber Spyglass’. His heroine Lyra spoke of her experience at university being in part one of learning again to do things she once did intuitively, without conscious thought.

I try to bring freshness of mind to all of my research. I ask myself questions like, “Are there any inconsistencies or conflicts in this material?” “What isn’t being said?” “What don’t I understand and why don’t I understand it?” This last one is important. If we’re smart enough to be at university then we’re definitely smart enough to make sense of a coherent argument. I find often that if some aspect of a theory persistently confuses me, it’s often because of some inadequacy in the theory or in its expression rather than in me. It try to weight this up honestly, but I also try to trust my instincts.

I feel that we can all take heart from the fact that however polished a theory or an argument might seem, it won’t ever be perfect. So, when I read anything, I deliberately set out to find fault with it. I do this in a completely na├»ve way, without worrying whether my views have any substance. Sometimes it’s even as basic as, ‘I don’t like this because it sounds silly.’ I make notes of all of my objections, and do the same with the things I like.

Later, when I come to include these points in my essay, I have a couple of strategies. The first is to search for backup from the opinion of intellectual heavyweights in my field who may have felt similarly (eg. Manfredo Tafuri thought that Venice was the product of conflict and class struggle). The second is to look for clearly supportive objective evidence (eg randomly allocated double-blind trials show that strict potty training causes miserly behaviour in adulthood). The third, and most scary – yet exciting - option, is to go it alone. I’m doing this is my Freud essay when I assert that Freud was not unscientific because he was a charlatan, but because he was a doctor. This assertion was born from my experience of working in clinical healthcare and reflecting on the nature of medical practice. I can’t lean on authority or on experimental evidence, so I am trying to state clearly and plainly why I am convinced that this is the case. I may use examples from what I know (treatments which are established but whose outcomes have not yet been formally evaluated, or those which have been abandoned after such evaluation). But I will try to express my views without generalizing too much and without saying things like, “it’s obvious that…”. I’ll introduce my argument tentatively (“it seems harsh to single out psychoanalysis for such criticism when…”) and try to marshal the supporting points around that without any quantum leaps in logic. It’s risky, definitely, but I reckon that scholarship should be a risky business. We learn as long as we’re truly committed to using any feedback we receive.

My feeling is that every piece of writing we do matters. Therefore, we must take ourselves and our task seriously and attempt to do at least one novel thing in each assignment. Novel by our own standards, that is, because we’re in charge of our own education. I regard essays and assignments as principally a chance to deepen my own understanding of a topic rather than as an assessment-oriented activity.

Lynn said...

Another way of saying something fresh might be to critique the established critiques (or even your own critiques) of a theory and see where that takes you! It's something I try to do routinely and it's quite enjoyable.

Lynn said...

Hi again, Kathy,

In the past I’ve had some amazing input from my tutors, and I’ve been grateful for it. And yet there’s always been the whiff of assessment hanging in the air. For example, there’s always at least some discussion of grades to date or to come. So the whole experience of writing has taken on the feeling of an express train to assessmentsville. Sometimes the overall experience has been elating and sometimes dispiriting, but I have found this particular emphasis to be a bit unsatisfying. Perhaps it’s because the unspoken theme of a student-tutor relationship is always one of relatively empty (student) versus relatively full (tutor). Of course, that’s why we pay our tuition fees and attend university, but even at its best this relationship can feel a little infantilising and formal. I must stress that this is in no way a reflection on my experience of individual tutors, but something mysterious I feel is inherent in the relationship. It may well be the product of my plentiful neuroses, but somehow I often feel less capable, creative and enthused when I speak to tutors about my work.

In my session with Maria, on the other hand, we looked at my experience as writer and her experience as reader, and compared the two. It felt like a very clean, honest connection. Yes, there was judgement, in a very friendly, positive sense, given that Maria was feeding back on her experience, but no reckoning. There was literally and metaphorically time to pick the daisies. It felt really playful, a kind of tossing of ideas back and forth. This enabled me to voice my nebulous worries and discomfort and get past them, while also receiving some very perceptive and practical advice.

Lynn said...

Hi Becky,

I'm really glad you raised this point, because I can never really decide once and for all what my view is. In one sense, someone outside one's own discipline can bring buckets of that very valuable freshness to a session. They can concentrate on the clarity of the writing and won't get sidetracked by content.

Have you found this to be true of the science students you've been working with? Have you found some of the sessions to be without merit at all, or have you been able to help in some way, however small?

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