October 1, 2015

Meet the Consultants: First Edition

So, you’re coming to the Writing Center. And you want to choose the consultant who will be the best fit for you– but how can you know who that is, from the meager information provided by the WC scheduler? You could choose by which name you like best– but then how to decide between, say, Will H and Will C? Sarah M or Sarah C?? Or you could use the dropdown menu to choose a consultant who specializes in the subject of your paper… but that’s ridiculous. You don’t want to know if they’d get along with your paper, you want to know if they’d get along with you. Luckily, I’m doing the footwork, and I’ve been interviewing the consultants, asking the following hard-hitting questions:

What is your best skill?

What state are you?

and What question should I have asked you?


I’m pretty good at beatboxing.


You should’ve asked which US state I most identify with emotionally (Florida)


Procrastinating but still doing really well.

New York (because I’m rude and liberal).

Why are you Dave’s favorite person at the Writing Center?


Probably the ability to interact with hugely diverse groups of people.


What made you really mad at your parents when you were a kid? (In 4th grade I discovered I was colorblind, and I blamed them for it.)

Sarah M

Getting things done right before the deadline.


What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever written in a paper? (Violent conflict is better.)


Drinking a lot of water.

This might be boring, but I’m Missouri.

What’s your worst skill? (College algebra)


Being the best Dungeon Master there ever was– and I’m willing to put that to the test.

My heart will never leave Oklahoma.

You probably should have asked me something about the F15’s combat performance.

Lauren R

First, procrastination. I also read the last Harry Potter book in 6 hours.

I’m gonna go with state of mind– this is my 6 word memoir: “Adult age, mind of wandering child.”

There’s lots of things you should have asked me. What is the weirdest thing that you’ve ever done? (I’m just a weird person, so I embarrass myself a lot and then I go curl up in a corner and cry.) What kind of coffee are you? (A grande vanilla caramel chai tea latte with soymilk– meaning I’m complicated yet I have different flavors.)  What is your favorite thing to do to Dave? (Sass)


My best skill is barking like a dog.

Rhode Island.

Which president served two nonconsecutive terms? (Grover Cleveland)


I am very good at acting like I know what I’m doing in another country when I’m actually scared to death.


What are you going to get at the farmer’s market this weekend? (everything)


I can make my hand look really crippled and arthritic.

Vermont, I really like ice cream.

What’s your favorite book? (Peter Pan)


Either empathy or eating pizza.


Have you ever written 3 different papers about prostitution simultaneously without planning to?

Sarah C



Do I have a coffee addiction? (Yes.)


My greatest skill is being all-around delightful.


Is this my natural hair color? (Yes.)

April 9, 2015

The Writing Center as Bike Co-Op

bike co op

“What does a Writing Center do?” It’s a complicated question, and people have come up with a number of metaphors to explain what writing center consultants actually do. The one thing that we’re darn sure we’re not  is a “fix-it shop.” Many articles about writing centers criticize those who consider a writing center a place where students take papers to get them cleaned up and “fixed,” with no real collaboration between the student and the WC consultant. Of course, this is a good message: we want to avoid merely “fixing” a paper for a student like the Best Buy “Geek Squad” fixes computers (or used to, anyway.) The focus is on trying to change a writer’s writing process for the better, not just make one paper look nicer. (“Teach a man to fish…”)


However, I think that perhaps part of the reason that the “fix-it shop” metaphor works so well as a straw man is because it feeds the English major’s (often) inherent mistrust of the mechanical world, of being connected to technological work, working with one’s hands–an area of expertise most of us (definitely me) do not have much experience in. No, ours is a loftier mission. We aren’t a fix-it shop, we’re artists!


But I’ve seen mechanical metaphors for writing work very well. For example, Roy Peter Clark’s writing handbook “Writing Tools” ( http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Tools-Essential-Strategies-Writer/dp/0316014990) pushes against the Romantic ideal of the writer as tortured soul and diviner of spirits, replacing it with a straightforward, mechanical mindset of things that often work and things that definitely don’t. He provides a tool set of 50 well-tested strategies in the book, including writing instruction greatest hits like “The Ladder of Abstraction” (move up it and down it, but don’t stay in the middle!) This mindset is not just for beginning writers. I think it can help clear the head of a more experienced writer desperately trying to reinvent the wheel instead of looking into her trusty set of tools that have worked just fine in many situations.


And to the list of metaphors we’ve heard for the mission of the Writing Center, I’ll add my own, somewhat Truman-specific: “The Center as Bike-Co-op.” I recently took my bike to the co-op for the first time to have a broken spoke replaced. I have very little experience in fixing bikes, and so I like how the co-op gets students to fix the bike themselves while the co-op member tells the student what to do. When it came time to true the wheel, the student helping me first began tightening spokes to show me how to do it. Then suddenly came the terrifying offer: “Now you try!” Terrifying because I hadn’t really been paying attention, thinking he’d do all the work for me. But I quickly figured out the simple process with his guidance and trued the wheel on my own. (By the way, I didn’t know ‘true’ was a verb before that day. Auto/bike shop neologism?)


Might we have something to learn from this model? In many situations, we deal with students with very little prior experience either in one specific aspect of writing or many. They don’t have the tools, and we do. In such cases, it’s best to invite the student to try out the tools themselves. The co-op’s method of providing the tools, showing how something is done, and then having the bike owner do it for themselves clearly works very well in such situations.


I ran into a situation like this the other day. A student used passive voice several times in each paragraph. After explaining the difference between active and passive voice, and the advantage of active voice, I showed an example of how you would go about fixing a sentence with an avoidable passive voice problem. Then I had her fix a couple sentences on her own. First I told her exactly what to do, but then she had to take ownership of the process. And once you learn how to fix a bike…well, hopefully that works the same as learning to ride it.
February 26, 2014

Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History

English majors often look at literature through theoretical lenses.  Each theory is equally unique and thought-provoking but often times English majors favor a certain theory just a little bit over the rest (kind of like parents do with their children).  We never really admit it, but the favoritism is printed in black and white.  I will admit that I often take a psychoanalytical approach to most of what I read and write, but this semester that seems to be changing.

At the beginning of the semester, I walked into Dr. Woodcox’s Restoration and 18th Century British Literature class not knowing what to expect.  Originally, when I thought of literature from this era, scientific documents and dry diaries came to mind.  This class has proven me wrong on so many levels and it all has to do with the women from the 18th century.

The women of the Restoration and 18th century era were revolutionary bad asses, not only fictionally but literally as well.  Women like Margaret Cavendish, Mary Wortley Montagu, and Eliza Haywood publically voiced their opinions through essays, short stories, and plays.  They faced ridicule from both men and women during their lifetimes but are now well-known and respected authors of their time.  I have been blown away by the amount of girl power that can be found in the literature from the 18th century.

A fantastic example of “girl power” in the 18th century is Eliza Haywood’s “Fantomina”.  For those of you that have not read this particular short story, I strongly suggest it.  It is a saucy tale about a young woman who becomes enamored with a fellow courtier while disguised as a prostitute.  The two become lovers, but the man in question quickly becomes disinterested.  Our main character, Fantomina, continues to pursue the same man through different disguises until she becomes pregnant and is sent to a French monastery.  Essentially, the story is an earlier and more risqué version of the chick flick John Tucker Must Die.

Although this particular short story seems to follow the typical layout of a novel during the 18th century on the surface, it really has more feminist undertones than many of the works before its time.  Not only is this piece written by a woman, but the main character—also a woman—has full control over her lover.  She has her lover hoodwinked throughout the entire story, up until the very moment she confesses her scheme during childbirth.  This level of female power was never depicted in everyday life in the 18th century.  Haywood is bold in suggesting that women could actually be the seducer in a romantic relationship or ever have the upper hand.  These revolutionary ideas were taken with much criticism by the public, but they were still widely read during the era.

Female authors were not the only ones with powerful female characters.  In Daniel DeFoe’s Moll Flanders, main character Moll has complete and utter control over her life.  She calls the shots and does not let her husbands or children hold her back from what she wants.  Many dislike Moll Flanders and her self-absorbed approach to life, but I think she is a ballsy woman that doesn’t get as much credit as she deserves.

All of these real and fictional women from the 18th century have shown me that a feminist outlook on life has existed for an extremely long time.  As I said before, I often prefer to look at literature through a psychoanalytical lens.  This course has made feminism so much more intriguing for me than it ever was in the past.  Thanks to the women of the 18th century, my favorite theoretical approach to literature may have some competition.

February 13, 2014

Kate Turabian and the Footnotes Hit the Scene

A new band has appeared on the McClain hall music scene: Kate Turabian and the Footnotes, formed entirely out of musicians from the Writing Center. Taking their inspiration from Turabian’s uncompromising, high-flying Chicago Style, the group featured lead, rhythm guitar, and vocals by Alexus, tambourine and vocals by Lacy, and First Act drumset/water cooler by Dave, violin and mandolin harmonies by Conor, ukulele accompaniment by  Kevin, and occasional grooves on the toy xylophone by Jamie. The set list included “Wagon Wheel,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “London Calling,” and “Home.”

Early reviews of KT and the Footnotes have described their sound as “acoustic, rough-cut and punchy, like pre-Beatles John Lennon” and “like a smashup of John Cage, Van Morrison, and the Roots (when they ironically play toy instruments with Jimmy Fallon [but really well because they care about their music] ).” Reviewers particularly praised the polyrhythmic percussion between the water cooler jug and the tambourine.

Much speculation surrounds the next performance of Kate Turabian and the Footnotes, who plan to continue playing at off-the-path venues to develop their Chicago Style sound. However, sources indicated that the next session could be within the month. Get cited, folks.

October 7, 2013

Consultants at the Lake

This Saturday, several WC consultants and their fearless, cargo-shorts-wearing leader set out for Thousand Hills State Park for an afternoon of chili, hot dogs, chili hot dogs, taco salad and various other snacks and drinks.  They played frisbee by the shore, somehow managing to keep the disc away from a watery fate by finesse and hustle, until a certain individual wearing cargo shorts sent it between two people and into the waves. However, while staring ruefully at the frisbee and preparing to abandon it to the fish, they realized it was slowly working its way towards shore. Encouraging it with tossed rocks, and with the chord progression from Elvis Costello’s hit “What’s So Funny ‘Bout (Peace, Love and Understanding)” played on a mandolin, Jamie was eventually able to snag the wayward frisbee with a long stick, to the delight of all.

This propaganda is brought to you by the Writing Center Social Committee (WCSC). The WCSC desires a larger turnout for its future events and is devising a campaign of snark, promises of food, and passive-aggressive arm-twisting to accomplish this objective. When meeting in their usual alleyway, members’ talks have centered around a movie night, possibly with a theme of B-movie horror.

The Social Committee: Enjoyment is voluntarily mandatory.

September 16, 2013

Solving the Oxford Comma Problem: A Platonic Dialogue

One June morning, an Oxford Professor of English, whose lectures had been unattended during the summer term,* was taking a stroll of the grounds when an American journalist crossed his path, taking pictures with her large black camera. They greeted each other wordlessly, the Professor nodding his head sideways and half-smiling, the Journalist raising her eyebrows civilly.

Then the Journalist remembered something.

“Excuse me, sir,” she called after him. “I have a quick question for you, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” said the Professor readily. “That is to say—I believe I have time for a question, so long as it is, as you say, quick,” he added, though he was secretly delighted by the distraction.

“I am an American journalist here to report on medical research at Oxford, but I love literature, too,” said the Journalist. “And I was afraid I would end up visiting this place without ever getting to ask an Oxford prof about the Oxford comma!”

“Oh dear me,” said the Professor, preparing himself for a bitter argument. “I fear we will find we have great difference of opinion on this matter.”

“Well, maybe not,” said the Journalist. “We’ll see. You probably know that the Associated Press Stylebook has for years mandated that when you list items in a simple series, you should use commas, but not before the conjunction. In other words, you ought to say, ‘Richard Nixon was a fraud, a liar and a crook,’ no comma before the ‘and.’”

“Just so,” said the Professor. “And you know, of course, that the University of Oxford Press has—since time immemorial—preferred a comma for the final item of the series, before the conjunction. Thus you would have ‘Guy Fawkes was a Jesuit, an Englishman, and a traitor,’” he concluded, saying ‘comma’ aloud punctiliously each time it occurred in his example.

“Yes,” said the Journalist. “And in an American context, we see that comma as unnecessary, and a sort of affected Anglicization. An American using it is trying to put on airs—like spelling ‘gray’ with an ‘e.’

“Well now,” said the Professor.  “You Yanks are always so brutally forthright in your opinions and your series of items, no helpful pauses to allow what has been said already to be digested properly. And what would be so wrong with re-Anglicization, after all?”

“You have to admit, though, that in a simple series, the comma is not necessary for the meaning of the sentence,” said the Journalist.

“Sure, I will grant you that,” said the Professor. “But does precedent and tradition mean nothing to you?”

“Eh,” said the Journalist, squinting her eyes thoughtfully. “It depends what the tradition is, I suppose.”

“However, I am afraid I now have the minority view, even within the school from which the serial comma gets its name,” began the Professor wearily. “The revised University of Oxford Press Styleguide now says, and I quote, ‘As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used – especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and.’ See what they have done, those iconoclastic, hair-shirted villains!” he cried rather loudly, frightening a magpie from a nearby branch.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” said the Journalist kindly.

“Still and all, there are instances when even your cold, utilitarian AP Stylebook admits that the serial comma is absolutely necessary,” said the Professor.

“It’s true,” said the Journalist. “For example, and I quote from the Stylebook: it should be used ‘if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: ‘I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast,’” she said, verbalizing each comma. “Since ‘ham and eggs’ is a set phrase that includes ‘and,’ there has to be a comma before the first ‘and.’”

“Correct,” said the Professor. “But there are even more serious cases in which a comma is non-negotiable—in which grave ambiguities could result from a lack of punctuation!”

“What cases do you have in mind?” asked the Journalist.

“Good gracious, it gives me goose-flesh just to think of them,” said the Professor, shuddering. “But one of the most noxious is the following: ‘This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.’”**

“What’s the big deal?” asked the Journalist, taking out her notebook.

“Why, don’t you see?” said the Professor. “Punctuated in that way, the sentence seems to suggest that the writer’s parents are Ayn Rand and God!”

“Holy Deepthroat, Batman!” exclaimed the Journalist, scribbling illegibly. “I see what you mean now.”

“Yes, yes, perhaps now you see why we at Oxford have traditionally chosen careful restraint over incautious assumptions of clarity.”

“Sure, I can. Yet I hope you will agree that there is some merit to our side of the story. In so many contexts, the serial comma is just clutter, an extra stumbling block. For example, in the sentence ‘Duke Ellington composed, arranged, and played jazz music,” that comma just steps on the flow of the sentence, like a false note.”

“Of course, yes. Verily so. It seems we all live just long enough to see ourselves proved the fool,” said the Professor ruefully. “Perhaps, at least, you can learn from my mistake, and prepare yourself for the day when the next generation will be making fun of your most beloved institutions—Twitter, perhaps, or Greek yogurt. Vile stuff, really, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Ha!” laughed the Journalist. “The sun will never set on Greek yogurt’s day. However, thank you very much for your time, sir. Our conversation has been illuminating.”

“And the same to you,” said the Professor. “I always enjoy speaking with our American friends.”

They shook hands and parted ways. For some days afterward, the Journalist hesitated just a moment before plunging her spoon into her Greek yogurt.

*Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “On the Origin of Beauty: A Platonic Dialogue” begins with the same premise—of an unattended Oxford professor with too much time to muse upon a subject.

**Example taken from Mental Floss article: “The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars.” They have many other fun examples, and arguments for and against the serial comma: http://mentalfloss.com/article/33637/best-shots-fired-oxford-comma-wars

September 9, 2013

Game Day at the Writing Center

The Writing Center Social Committee, an institution of vast resources and shadowy, ominous prestige, hosted a “voluntarily mandatory” day of board games this Saturday. On an otherwise balmy, innocent late summer afternoon, a crowd of WC consultants struggled for ore and lumber in Settlers of Catan, strove to survive the zombie apocalypse in Last Night on Earth, and squabbled over a stolen haul in Cash and Guns. Food appeared, was collectivized, and eaten rapidly. It included red velvet cookies from Erica, buffalo chicken dip from Kevin, and brownies of mysterious eclectic composition but excellent taste from WC Director Dave.

Having demonstrated its decision-making capabilities, the WCSC is rumored to be considering a further campaign of events soon, but no one is entirely certain when they will strike again. However, anonymous sources close to the story indicate that news will be broadcasted via the WCSC’s propaganda office’s emails, and possibly via bullhorns.

March 7, 2013

Question of the Week

At the Writing Center we have a question every week on our chalkboard for the consultants to answer. Typically, the question is a considerable one, a venerable and ancient mystery, perhaps touching on the social contract or the great sadness of the world.

This week’s question was, “If you had to eat only one thing for a whole week, what would it be?”


Pizza (I can have a different kind every meal)


Blogger’s note: isn’t this kind of escaping the problem? I leave that for you to decide, dear Reader.


Cocoa Puffs



Reese’s Puffs












French Fries

-Anon. (as well as most of the continental United States)


Keep your eyes out for future WC questions of the week and our consultants’ carefully considered, illuminating responses!

March 1, 2013

On Verbs: Sink or Swim—or Walk?

Trust your verbs. Always—and if you find that you can’t trust them, fire them and get new ones. You can’t have a sentence without a verb. Verbs are not always the showiest part of a sentence, not always the part of your writing that the reader walks away remembering, but they are the hub around which all the other parts of the sentence turn. To make a comparison to music, verbs are like the chords in a song, the essential foundation that gives just the right tension and shading to the ear-catching melody of nouns and adjectives.

The fundamental importance of verb choice is sometimes hard to see clearly unless you compare the disastrous effects of the wrong verb to the strong but flexible structure given by the right verbs. To see some verbs in action, let’s look at a poem by Billy Collins. He’s one of my favorite poets—the clarity and accessibility of his word choice often stands in sharp contrast to the surprising journeys his images take the reader on.


Walking Across the Atlantic

Billy Collins


I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach

before stepping onto the first wave.


Soon I am walking across the Atlantic

thinking about Spain,

checking for whales, waterspouts.


I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.

Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.


But for now I try to imagine what

this must look like to the fish below,

the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.


(from Sailing Alone Around the Room)


Lovely little poem, don’t you think? So we can contrast the firm, flexible structure made by good verbs with the chaos, or inflexible, impenetrable wordiness, caused by bad and unhelpful ones, let’s ruin this poem by just changing some of the verbs to similar, but much less effective, ones. With apologies to Collins:


Strolling Across the Atlantic


I stand waiting for the holiday crowd to vacate the beach

before hopping onto the first wave.


Soon I am strolling across the Atlantic

dreaming about Spain,

watching for whales, waterspouts.


I feel the water keeping up my shifting weight.

Tonight I will snooze on its rocking surface.


But for now I try to visualize what

this must look like to the fish below,

the bottoms of my feet showing up suddenly and vanishing.


Well, yuck, right? It’s not meaningless, but it’s not poetry any more. Everything’s either gone flat, or gone silly. See how “stand waiting” adds an unnecessary word and changes the simple, deft stroke of “wait” to a two-word phrase with a clunky –ing ending? See how “strolling,” which might appeal to us at first as a more interesting action than “walking,” just made things far too silly and egotistical, in contrast to the determined but everyday tone that the original poem had with “walking”? See how “watching” in the second stanza gave the narrator an over-anxious Captain Ahab attitude, in addition to adding a third word beginning with ‘w’ to that line, overwhelming the subtle, wispy alliteration Collins intended with “whales, waterspouts”? See how “to visualize” in the third stanza is so much more wordy and businesslike and less dreamy than “to imagine”?

I could have changed the verbs much more subtly and still spoiled the poem. On the other hand, it could have been worse: I didn’t throw in any nasty passive-voice constructions like “I felt my weight as it was held by the water” that invert the usual clearer order of doer of the action followed by receiver of the action: “I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.” Picking ineffective verbs—too wordy or too extreme—can keep your writing tied to the ground. Or, to stay in the world of this poem, the surface tension created by the verbs that keeps you on top of the water collapses, and you sink into the waves like the rest of humanity, splashing about in a sea of unhelpful language.

Our choices with verbs are more limited than other word choices in English. When choosing a noun or an adjective, we often have dozens of alluring options. But finding the right verb for a situation has a pleasure all its own. While they are sometimes less flashy than the adjectives or the nouns—I’m more likely to remember the “whales” and “waterspouts” than that the narrator was “checking” for them—they set the tone in a way that nouns and adjectives simply cannot. “Checking” is the same thing we do when crossing the street—it’s casual, almost thoughtless. In our mind’s eye, we see the narrator turning his head every now and then to look right and left for a whale’s back or a spout of water, as if for an oncoming car at a crosswalk—just in case. We get the sense that the narrator has done this before. He has walked across the Atlantic so many times that it’s as habitual as crossing a street with light traffic. He has dealt with the fantastic so many times that to him, it’s just an everyday occurrence. This is the essential tension of the poem—the contrast between the supernatural journey taken and the simple, confident word choice of the narrator. It allows this poem to retain its mystery and offer up new pleasures even after many repeated explorations. Verbs can take you across the Atlantic—as long as they’re the right ones.

October 30, 2012

Thar they blow: The Writing Center’s Sea Creatures

New this year: the Writing Center Aquarium! The latest additions to the Writing Center’s peculiar ecosystem are four fish:

From left: Yossarian, Flounder, and Bob, named by unanimous vote by the Writing Center Subcommittee for the Naming of Sea Creatures. Swim the other way, Bob!


There we go. A little more coordination among the three.


The tri-colored trio is joined by our hardworking camouflaged algae-eater, Suspicious. He came to us named Suspicious, and of course we wouldn’t want to confuse him by naming him something else, right?

Come in and check out the fish! And improve your writing! Or both, at the same time!