Thursday, 2 August 2007

Experience and goal – irreconcilably different?

I have reflected elsewhere on this blog that my experience of writing in formal education has been something of a curate’s egg. When I really get stuck into a topic and am motivated to a lot of research, I often find that the finished assignment doesn’t receive as high a grade as one where my interest hasn’t been as acutely piqued. Now I’m getting a bit of insight into the reasons for this. I feel it’s all about muddying the waters with too much breadth. For me, goal and process are a bit of a trade-off.

In the case of this essay, the assessor’s final comment that the assignment,“…could be improved by having a clearer focus and a stronger take-home message, which could perhaps be achieved by interpreting the title in a narrower way…”, lends weight to this. I feel that in this case (and in some others!) I slipped away from my main task which is usually identified by a thorough question analysis. Looking back, instead of presenting the strengths and weaknesses of Freud’s theory of personality as measured against the yardstick of evidential science I decided at too early a point to become an advocate for it. I tried also to question the appropriateness of the paradigm often used to assess Freud when it might have profited me (in terms of more marks) to stick with it. It may have helped me achieve the stronger take-home message counselled by the assessor. And interestingly, in this case I carried out my question analysis belatedly.

The vexing thing is that for me, writing from a very objective position, one which seems to bag me better marks, isn’t half as intense or rewarding. So I’m in search of a way to keep that close connection with my material whilst keeping my eyes fixed on my goal. I wonder if full expression and excellent marks can coexist in the same piece of writing? If my opinion muddies the waters and possibly takes me away from the zeitgeist of my discipline should I refrain from expressing it? Or maybe it's just about expressing it better.

As ever, your opinions and suggestions will be gratefully received.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

We have feedback!

Well, after all this time, the feedback on my essay has finally been returned and I’ve posted it on the Wiki. Click here to have a look. I think you’ll agree that it has been worth the wait. In particular I'd like to send a very big thank you to the assessor for being so thorough and reporting back in such detail.

After all the fuss I made about it here I’m especially pleased to have been awarded a ‘good’ for critical evaluation, something which is far from being a foregone conclusion for me!

Over the next weeks I’ll be commenting on each section of the feedback sheet here, and attempting to relate the assessor’s experience to my process as a writer. As before please do add your voices to mine whenever my reflections strike a chord.

Oh yes, and if you'd like to read the finished essay, you can find it here.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

On referencing

I'm sure that everybody likely to read this blog will at least have absorbed the idea of referencing as a must-have in academic writing. If you're anything like me, you'll also be truly amazed at the amount of time required to thoroughly reference an essay. This time, for instance, and despite my preparatory stack of index cards, I spent a startling three hours doing it. Of course, I grumble like mad, but I am firmly convinced that referencing is absolutely vital. It's much more than a device cooked up to torment academic writers when they think they're on the home strait (hmm, doth the lady protest too much?).

Most importantly, referencing enables us to at least try to attribute ideas to the people who originated them. In so doing – pay attention, now – we avoid the possibility of plagiarism. For this reason alone, it's worth paying reasonable attention to the sources we use to collect information for our work. As I know only too well, it's easy to see something and, by some kind of psychological conjuring trick, to claim ownership of it. Another very practical reason to reference our work thoroughly is to enable readers, if they so choose, to investigate the sources which inform our argument in more depth. Even though referencing isn’t mentioned in our list of assessment criteria, it’s good scholarship. And although it’s a bit laborious, one you have mastered the basic idea it’s quite straightforward.

The first thing to bear in mind when referencing is that whichever style is used it should be applied consistently throughout. The second thing to remember is that (and I think this is true of every referencing convention) references occur both in the text of the work and as a list of sources at the back. So far so good. Of course, we have already said that any idea not the writer’s own should be attributed to its originator. An example of this is the assertion I make in the second paragraph of my essay concerning Freud’s status as a cultural outsider. In this short piece of text I draw upon an interesting idea encountered in a journal article by Stephen Frosh. Not wanting to give the impression that this idea is entirely my own, I have cited its origin thus, “Freud’s status as a Jew, a cultural outsider (Frosh, 2006)…” I also list the source of this idea in my reference section at the end of the essay, which, incidentally, is arranged alphabetically by the author’s last name. There we see that it’s from volume 19 of The Psychologist.

The Frosh article is an example of a primary research source. I prefer to use primary sources – where the idea appears in its original form and context – for a number of reasons. Use of the author’s original utterance does lend additional authority to an argument, I feel. As a student writer I do need to borrow authority every now and then. And also, when I read a primary source, that issue of the original context is very helpful. Not only do I learn what a particular authority has stated, but also how the idea was derived. Having said all that, I frequently find myself using secondary sources simply because they’re often more accessible. In the case of Freud, whose body of original work is huge, I used secondary sources to guide me towards relevant primary material. But anyway, the point I wanted to make was that primary and secondary sources should be cited differently. Using the American Psychological Association (APA) style, in-text citation is the same but the reference list must also make it clear in which publication the original idea was presented.

So, fellow writers. Become familiar with your chosen style of referencing and have fun picking out ideas to attribute. It’s good manners and good academic practice. And occasionally strangely satisfying, like tying a nice bow in a gift ribbon.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Being an editor

Right after I finish this blog entry, I will be starting the final edit of my essay. Editing my own work is tricky, I find, because it demands a shift in perspective. When I’m writing, I’m a creator, responsible for generating material. But as an editor I’m more like a destroyer, removing extraneous material and licking what’s left into shape. It reminds me a bit of the way the body repairs fractured bones; first of all, bone-secreting cells produce an excess of bone around the fracture site, which is then trimmed away by bone-eating cells so that the end result approximates the elegant shape of the original, unbroken bone.

To be an effective editor, I find that it’s necessary to distance myself from my work. One easy way of doing this, I find, is to put it away for a few days before beginning the final edit. And then, after that, to prepare for my edit by printing a hard copy of the work in a very different font and colour from that which I’ve been using to write. I always edit in hard copy if that’s how my work is going to be read, because I believe that editing is all about inhabiting my reader’s perspective. So, I get into the right frame of mind by imagining myself to be the archetypal picky reader, looking to find fault with the smallest thing, irritated by spelling mistakes and other similar errors. Then I get started.

The first thing I assess is the writer’s voice. Is it appropriate to the discipline and the essay topic? For example, in an essay which does not explicitly ask for my own opinions and experiences, I would probably never use ‘I’ when writing (and even if the essay were a reflective one I would try to use it very sparingly). When I write an academic essay, I try to aim for a style which is quite formal (saying things like ‘is not’ instead of ‘isn’t’) but which is as clear and plain as possible. I avoid unsupported anecdotes and generalisations (eg. “most people view Freud as something of a dirty old man”) like the plague. Furthermore, when I carry out my edit, I ask if the writer (me!) has used a consistent voice throughout. Deficiencies in this department can be jarring and offputting to a reader.

I would say that finding your voice is the most important part of writing in general. In academic writing, it’s probably one of those insidious factors which colours everything, although it might not be recognised as being of enormous importance by itself. In my view, an academic writer is like a newsreader; the mission is to report a viewpoint, hopefully supported by factual evidence, and most importantly to do it intelligibly and engagingly. Newsreaders aren’t there to grandstand and show off their cleverness, just to report. Please note that this doesn’t preclude their having an opinion or a particular viewpoint, though. News, after all, is rarely hard, unvarnished fact. It’s all about the presentation.

This point is touched upon in the WriteNow/Assessment Plus criteria. The last criterion, number six, cites use of language as one of the points for assessment, specifically, “The use of words, grammar, and punctuation to formulate an utterance appropriate to the purpose and context. Good essays are free from errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar, and would be acceptable pieces of writing in the wider world. Better essays adopt academic styles and conventions, and approximate to the appropriate academic ‘register’.”

This reinforces for me that far from being something which can be learned as a general methodology, each piece of academic writing stands alone. It should be approached as something fresh. It also reminds me that after my initial edit, I need to go back and proof read my essay (preferably in fresh, clean hard copy form) to detect any spelling or grammatical errors. Then, I must do an on-screen check to assess whether I am within the permissible word limit. And finally, I add my references, which usually takes much longer than anticipated.

So I’d better get on with it, hadn’t I?

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Mit schlag obers

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A stroke of good fortune bizarrely coincident with this essay topic brings your correspondent to Vienna this week. Freud lived here for most of his life, and I have made it my solemn duty to sample Guglhupf, allegedly his favourite cake. Just for good measure, I had it in the Landtmann, allegedly his favourite coffee house. However, a stroke of internet misfortune (specifically, flaky connections) means that I have been unable to post the penultimate draft of my essay until today. But after much struggle it’s now there for you to see, on the wiki, all 1498 words of it. Hooray!

Writing the body was fast and easy thanks to my prefabricated conclusion, which only needed a very slight adjustment to bring it exactly in line with the points made in the body. I’m sure that most of you already know this, but the conclusion of an essay, whatever else one decides to do with it, is never the place to introduce new ideas or information. I always compulsively double-check to make sure I haven’t done this, because it’s easy to overlook.

My introduction was a different matter. Usually I save space for one, something in the region of 10% of the overall length, and write it last. After all, it’s usually much easier to introduce something or someone you already know a lot about, rather than guessing ahead of time. This time, however, I find that don’t have a conclusion in the conventional sense. Space was too short and I had too much to say to feel inclined towards a conventional introduction. Instead, my hope is that the first paragraph will present the basic issue underlying Freud’s theory and that this will make my reader want to carry on.

Here in Vienna, every foodstuff seems to come mit schlag obers (with whipped cream). I was hoping to apply the whipped cream of references to my essay this week, but cleverly I left my stack of index cards back home in London. I am, therefore, going to have to wait until I either find a more reliable internet connection than the one I currently have in order to look them up online, or wait until my return home on Sunday. Take-home message to you, dear readers; plan ahead and don’t be caught on the hop like yours truly.

More soon!

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Drawing a conclusion

It’s Saturday night and here I am writing my Freud essay. Let it never be said that I lack commitment! In fact, a couple of glasses of delicious South African Riesling seem to have freed up those creative juices very nicely (hic). Up until this point, I’ve been like a potter scooping out clay and shaping it into a vaguely vase or bowl-like blob. Now I’ve started up the wheel and put my hands on it, and have succeeded in giving it a decent base. Yep, I’ve written my conclusion. You can see it on the wiki if you’re interested.

This may seem a bit strange, given that I haven’t really written anything else. But give me the benefit of the doubt for a second; isn’t a journey much more comfortable, swift and purposeful if you know where you’re going to end up? As long as I know approximately what I want to say in the essay and in what order, I find that the conclusion is the best place to start. When I begin writing the body of the essay, it always seems to flow very happily towards the conclusion. I think my method works by priming the brain, infusing it with a purpose. As my dad used to say to me when I was a sulky teen, "the purpose of washing the dishes is to get them clean, not to make a big fuss, waste hot water and finish up having a big pile of filthy plates." In short, remember your purpose and you won't squander your time.

There’s another important benefit to this approach. In writing the conclusion first, I’m fresh. I haven’t yet boggled my mind with the finer points of my argument or its expression. I can make sure that my last paragraph leaves my reader with the firm impression of a question well answered. To this end, I tend to do a second question analysis just before I start writing the conclusion (I’m appending mine below). I also start the conclusion by trying to craft a last sentence that will leave the reader with a definite and hopefully appealing take-home message. An earworm, as they say in German (a really delightful term for something catchy, like a song, that you just can’t get out of your head). This is a challenge for me, as I’ve always had a ridiculous amount of difficulty with goodbyes. So yes, I have tried my hardest to devise a method to make it easy, and this is it!

Question analysis:

Evaluate Freud’s theory of personality

I only have 1500 words in which to do this, so I won’t be able to go into a long explanation of the ins and outs of the theory. How to reduce a life’s work to 1500 words, though? Plus, I don’t want to do the obvious thing where I explain all the theory and then evaluate it. Boring. Boring. I want to give a flavour of evaluation, of opinion, right from the off, as in take a critical view of the concept of personality. I also don’t want to stick to purely scientific evaluation. There’s not really enough of it.

Evaluate to me suggests be even handed in my assessment. Look at pros and cons, with evidence for both, and come to an opinion. Ok, I already feel that Freud’s ideas are unfairly and unreasonably dismissed. I need to limit myself to areas of theory that have something to say for and against. Also the essentials. Dynamic unconscious, psychological defences, id and ego, we develop through psychosexual stages. Personality quirks can arise from fixation. So also a discussion of libido. I notice in my argument list I mention libido late, and don’t explain it. I need to get it in early, with the id. Then I need to finish by saying that contemporary scientists have seen fit to take Freudian theory and subject it to systematic appraisal. What’s more, it hasn’t been found as wanting as the hype would have us believe.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Iteration and reiteration

I’m still trying to get my argument straight and logical. Never fear, though – nearly there! You can see my efforts on the wiki.

Communicating argument would be easy if the person marking my work could just plug directly into my thought waves. They’d feel its progression and instantly understand. Sigh. Meanwhile, back in the real world, I’m stuck with the task of making sure that my reader can follow where I’m going. For me, this means rejigging my argument again and again until nothing is taken for granted and it all follows on seamlessly.

Unsurprisingly, developing an argument is mentioned in the assessment criteria, defined thus:
"The construction of a coherent and convincing set of reasons for holding a particular point of view; the following of an analytical path leading from a starting point to a concluding point. Good essays contain expressions of positions on the issues raised by the essay. Better essays develop arguments throughout the essay, with each element building on the last."

So, argument is like a skeleton. It should be strong and hopefully not misshapen. Then, we can think about adding some muscle (the evidence) and clothing it all in a nice healthy, attractive skin (an appropriate writing style). I always spend a lot of time thinking about my argument for this reason, but also because – as I mentioned in an earlier blog post – the structure of the argument is inextricably linked to the structure of the essay.