Saturday, September 5, 2009

Observations on Second Set of Reflections

An unanticipated hidden benefit from the reflections - this afternoon I only got to watch a few minutes of the Illini-Mizzou game. It'll probably be the only time this semester when I wished that we had more students in the class.

There were some really excellent pieces written, connecting Better to other projects some of you are involved with or to analysis of problems we as a society have that might be curable with appropriate focus and attention. The variety of what you wrote about was good too. I appreciate that. Reading essay after essay on the same topic gets to you pretty quickly. If I can learn something new reading a piece, that keeps me going. Also, several of you seem to have found your voice and a good way to insert yourself into your reflections at suitable places. That is good. Understanding how you came to an idea and how that idea impacts you or engages you is helpful for me and gives a personal element to the writing, making it more compelling to read.

Now a few issues. For some of you I have the sense that you are writing to please me and therefore putting on a show. The writing gives the sense of reading a glossy travel brochure. You need to get past that stage. You should be writing to please yourself. (And I hope develop a sense of taste where what pleases you will please other readers.)

Then there is the issue of providing context. Some of you wrote about a rather large issue, gave just a few sentences, wrote a rather sweeping conclusion, and then moved onto something else. That is not good. The ideas need to be richer. There needs to be more detail. Cover less but what you do cover go into greater depth. In several of the comments I wrote, I said something like, "you need more drill down." You need to elaborate on your ideas enough so a reader who hasn't necessarily gone through the thinking you have can put two and two together.

Another issue is providing support for the claims you make in your pieces. Eight out of ten students on campus read the DI daily. Some of you have sentences like the previous one in your pieces. In this particular case, I just made that up. I have no idea how many students read the DI. You are all good people, I'm sure, but frankly I don't trust claims unless the source has been identified, no matter who makes the claim. It's work to identify those sources. That's work you need to do.

Now something about identifying sources with online writing. Some of you did a good job on the references and listed them at the end of your piece. My preference is that you link to the piece instead, if the piece itself can be found online, or you link to a reference for the piece if the piece itself isn't online. For the latter, is a pretty good reference for many books and google scholar is a good reference for many journal articles. The Library catalog may be good for both, but I'm not sure the links persist. When links to a site with the reference, a persistent link is necessary.

Let me explain why this is useful. As much as you the author might want the reader to persist straight through your piece, the reader has a mind of his own. If a reference is claimed, the reader might very well want to track it down then and there. That might be to verify your claim, but it also might be for the reader's own learning. When the finds the reference novel, the reader may want to explore it then and there. Encourage the reader to do that. The reader will appreciate it. If you have good and interesting links in your piece, others will benefit from it more.

One last point. Some of you have inventive word usage. When you are aware of it yourself, it's funny. I like funny. When your usage seems in earnest I feel some compulsion to say something. This time around I mostly let it slide. But in future comments I might end with a little picking nits part. I will try to do it lightly and with humor, to raise some of the more egregious use miscues. I'm neither grammarian nor language maven. (William Safire, who still writes a column for the Sunday NY Times Magazine is royalty in this domain, if you want to experience the full treatment.)

Where at the point where I now owe you how this stuff will be evaluated. I will give you a rubric later in the coming week, but for now what I have in mind is that you will select 4 of your reflections over the semester, one from the first 3 weeks, another from the following 3 weeks, and then two other than can be from any time during the semester that you think are the best you've produced. I'll evaluate that portfolio - with a mixture of are you growing as a writer and how good is your best stuff? More details soon.

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