Florianne Jimenez is a PhD student in composition and rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She also works at the UMass Writing Center as a Consultant on Multilingual Writing. You can find her on Twitter: @bopeepery.
In my first year of graduate school, a wise professor talked to us about the crippling sense of anxiety and fear that can come with writing seminar papers. When faced with a blank page and a vague assignment, she explained, we have the option to wring our hands over our professors’ expectations, what the genre calls for, and what the point of writing is. Or, she said, we could just GET IT DONE: “Write a paper, turn it in!”
That six-word command has rung in my head for the past five years. Is all writing just sheer will, and when it comes down to it, putting pen to paper? Is all of grad school just about turning something in and figuring the rest out later?
For international and/or multilingual grad students, we play the guessing game of genres, expectations, and purposes pretty often. It’s not necessarily a language barrier (although that can be a factor too), but it’s because so much shorthand around writing and research in the US, and in our respective academic disciplines, is never explained. It doesn’t help either that good mentorship and advising on writing is hard to come by.
As an international graduate student and a multilingual writer, I’ve learned (and am still learning) that writing like I belong in my field isn’t some magical skill endowed overnight, or even in one semester. It’s about building up a storehouse of small practices that make me feel empowered and about doing some larger-picture thinking about writing itself. Here are some practices to build into your writing and reading at any stage of graduate school to make writing feel less like a guessing game, and more like a navigation through choices.
Step back and think about your discipline.
Learning how to be in a discipline also means learning how to sound like you’re in that discipline. Academic disciplines are often marked by their writing: what it sounds like, what kinds of knowledge it produces, what kinds of arguments are seen as valuable. Introducing these assumptions is usually the job of an intro course or a methods course, but it also helps to do some of this work on your own. Learning these assumptions can help you feel more in control of your writing: instead of blindly typing up a paper and hoping that it “feels” like it belongs, you can see the field’s conventions as easily adaptable and learnable tools.
Set aside an afternoon or two to do some writing on what you understand your field to be: what kinds of questions are people trying to answer? What arguments are seen as “new,” and how are they phrased? Do your scholars tend to write floridly, with a goal of engagement, or do they write in sparse, spare prose, only trying to convey the basics?
Work with the literature, and your literature’s literature.
Part of graduate training is learning how to write about other people’s ideas and write inclusion into a conversation rather than being a passive summarizer or paraphraser of texts. For me this learning curve was pretty steep, simply because I was out of practice. I came from a scholarly background that valued citation and using sources, but at the same time, we didn’t have the material resources to access a lot of scholarship. When I was writing my undergraduate thesis, I often found myself on the wrong side of a paywall because my institution didn’t have access. Reading new, recently published books was not an option: the library was too mired in bureaucracy to get books to us in a timely manner. As a result, I wrote my papers and thesis around not having sources or having very limited ones, not really paying attention to whether I was critically using sources or engaging with them skillfully.
When I started grad school in the States, and access to research became the least of my worries, I realized that I actually didn’t know a lot about working with sources. I knew that sources were important, but I didn’t know who to cite, why to cite them, or how to make citing sound elegant. I learned a lot from breaking down the citations of scholarly writing that I admired. I paid attention to when they introduced their own ideas versus someone else’s, and how they introduced another author’s ideas. How do disagreement, critique, enthusiastic endorsement, and dismissal sound in citation? What sorts of signal phrases were they using? How did they use multiple sources in one sentence and not sound clunky? While I still hate the mechanical part of citation, now I know that it’s not magic: just a consciousness of how an idea is used, and how to phrase it. A blog post that I return to again and again is Pat Thomson’s “Avoiding the laundry list literature review”, which breaks down passive and active citation practices and the revision process to get from summary to sophisticated citation.
Find your models
Writing is often portrayed as an isolating process, which is ironic because writing is about communicating to people. There’s a lot to be said about building a community of writers, but I think you can also treat texts in this way. Who are the writers in your field that you admire? Who makes you feel supported and welcome in your field? Keep a list of articles that you love – maybe the ones that inspired you to join the field, or ones that you keep returning to in your work – and continually revisit them when you’re feeling stuck. Now you have a voice or a style to work toward, rather than abstract genres or disciplines.
Find your allies
Lastly, locate the resources on your campus around you and use them. If you work through ideas best by talking, try to schedule regular appointments with a writing center tutor. Tutors can provide external accountability for your goals, be an audience for your thought process, and help you structure your writing process. At the very least, it’s an hour a week where you focus on yourself and your writing. Your university’s research librarians might be a great resource too: these are people who are trained to help with research in a specific discipline. They know a lot about the major texts in your field, citation practices, and usually keep abreast of new publications and developments. Keep their name and email handy, and use them the next time you’re befuddled by a writing task.
A caveat about this advice
A lot of the best practices around multilingual writing can apply to writers who would identify as monolingual, native English speakers as well. There’s a lot more to unpack in this idea, but I think it speaks to how by default, society always sees multilingual writers as in need of “more” assistance than a “native speaker.” As a person who is multilingual, and also a person who works with pedagogical training around multilingual writing, I don’t think it’s about an amount of assistance or resources for us. One class, one book, or one article won’t fix all of the hurdles that multilingual writers face overnight. Instead, all of the institutions and individuals that make up higher education need to change how we talk about writing. Part of that is making our assumptions and expectations about writing transparent, and to negotiate with disciplinary expectations rather than taking them as law.
[Image by Flickr user Michael Pardo and used under a Creative Commons License.]