Preparing for a New Group of Students

I love preparing for a new group of incoming students. This will be my third year working with Freshmen at Berea College, and I’m just as excited this year as I’ve been in previous years. Something is different about my energy, though. Now that I’ve been working as a teaching assistant and peer leader for a couple of years, I’m feeling more comfortable in my role. I’m finding myself thinking like a teacher from the start, and using my experience as a student to build connections and make myself more relatable.

Admittedly, this role that I play is not the easiest or most comfortable to get into. I have to find a balance between being a fellow student and an authority in the classroom. In the previous two years, I’ve clung to the student role, because that’s obviously the role I’ve had most practice in. Being a leader among my fellow students has never been a challenge for me, but a figure of authority is a bit different. In this role as a teaching assistant, I do occasionally find myself in positions where I need to put on my teacher hat and leave my bare-headed student self behind. An example of this would be those instances (that happen far more than I’d like) where students repeatedly blow off meeting with me, and then later try to complain that they’re doing poorly in class, and they just can’t understand why. In the past, I’ve felt a extreme discomfort in the role of authority figure.

As I was sitting down and preparing for the new set of students earlier this week, I realize that I no longer feel the discomfort that was there before; I’m feeling like semi-professional, which is the best I can ask for in a job that no one should ever feel completely comfortable in (if you ever get too comfortable in a teaching job, it might be time to get out). It certainly helps that I’ve been working with the professor of this course for my entire Berea College career. I’ve been a student in the course, and by the end of this school year, I will have TAed for this course a total of four times.

I’ll finish up this rather random, and somewhat incoherent blabber by saying that each group of students brings on a completely different set of challenges, whether they’ve wildly exceeded our expectations from day one, or they’ve made it obvious that we’ve got our work cut out for us. I thoroughly enjoy getting to know them, and growing with them as they transition into college.

 

 

 

The Library is Your Friend

You know that building with all the books in it, some might refer to this mystical place as the library, it may seem obsolete with the invention of the internet, but that’s just not true. There are lots of helpful things in the library, not the least of which is your library reference section.

There’s a reason I spent half of my office hours in the reference section of our library at Berea. Students need to get comfortable with the resources available to them, and the reference section is an excellent place to do that. In most libraries there are reference areas that include a reference desk. At the reference desk you’ll find people who are trained at doing things like researching and navigating the resources available in their library.  These people are referred to as reference librarians, and they’re great!

Tip for asking questions at the reference desk: when you approach a reference librarian to help you find resources for a project or paper, make sure that your request is specific. For instance, if you’re writing an essay on high schools in the United States, you do not just want to ask for all the material on American high schools. You’ll waste your time searching through hundreds of books for slivers on information that may or may not be helpful as you continue writing your paper. Try telling the librarian a little bit about your paper, perhaps summarize your thesis, because this will help them direct your search.

Summer Classes

Most colleges and universities offer summer classes for students to make up a class, or to get in some additional credits. At Berea, this means that students have a couple different options: they can choose between taking four-week courses, or eight week courses. There are usually some awesome classes being taught in the summer, because professors have time to plan cool activities and field trips. Still, these are entire courses packed into just a couple of weeks. Depending upon the professor, they can be rather laid back, or go the opposite way and be rather intense; there are also going too be classes that are somewhere between those extremes. 

My advice: if there is a summer class that you’re interested in taking, you should do it. Usually the classes that are offered in the summer are not offered in the fall or spring semester, and this could be your only chance at taking them. Plus, even if the class is a more challenging, it’s the only class you have to focus on during that time. You’re not going to have the added stress of all your other classes while you’re taking this summer class. 

Another bonus of taking summer classes is that Berea’s campus is way better in the summer! There are still some people around, so it’s not a complete ghost town, but the people that are around usually seem much more relaxed in the summer. You don’t get stuck in that “everyone seems so stressed out” vibe that is usually found around here. 

So, summer classes! Yay! 

All-Nighters

All-nighters are a frequent occurrence in the life of many college students. As I type this, my roommate is planning on holding one of her very own this evening. While I lecture her about the importance of getting enough sleep, and how her immune system is going to take a major hit, she rolls her eyes and places her headphones back in her ears. Seriously though, allow me to provide you with some tips on avoiding staying up all night to get homework done:

1. Examine your schedule — Most people have schedules that allow them at least a few minutes of downtime between activities. Maybe you have five or ten minutes before or after a class. You may find that you have more small pockets of time than you expected.

2. Use your time wisely — Those tiny pockets of time you’ve found in your schedule can and should be put to use. You could be spending that time on Facebook or Instagram, or you could be reading a page or two of homework. You could spend that time writing a paragraph.

3. Plan out your time — Keeping a planner and managing out your time will help you come up with space to work on certain projects and papers. Make sure to schedule in things like eating and sleeping!

4. Remember that not sleeping will literally drive you insane — If you don’t sleep, you will eventually go crazy, and it may be sooner than you think. Not sleeping for a night or two in a row is especially hard on your body and your brain, but it’s just as bad when you make a habit of not getting enough sleep. Your processing will be slower, and your decision making skills will go out the window.

5. Not Sleeping will screw up your memory — If you’re staying up all night to study for a test, you need to rethink your study habits. Memory is the first thing to go when you’re sleep deprived. This means that even if you stay up all night working on something, you may not remember it the next morning. I’ve found this to be true with my own studying, so I try to avoid reading and studying late at night.

If you’re having trouble sleeping due to stress, or some kind of physiological condition, make sure to consult a doctor to discuss your options.

Now, everybody get some sleep! ;)

-MB

Becoming a Better Writer

Writing, just like everything else in life, is a practice. You’re not born a “good” writer or a “bad” writer. No one starts out writing brilliant works of art as soon as they pick up a pen. Writing well requires practice and purpose — even cross-training. Your favorite athlete or musician did not get to where they are now without taking the time to put in the work necessary to perfect their craft, and the funny thing about perfection is that it doesn’t exist. An athlete or musician may play well, but that doesn’t mean that they ever play perfectly, so let’s take that pressure off right now. Aim to write well, don’t aim to craft the perfect piece of writing.

There are some things that you can do to greatly improve your writing skills; keep in mind that all of this takes time and won’t make you a completely different writer overnight. In fact, the goal here is not to make you a different writer — it is to improve the writer that you already are.

1. Write – I’m putting this one first because it is absolutely the single most important thing you can do to improve your writing. There is no substitute for actually sitting down (or standing if your prefer) and writing. Thinking and talking about writing cannot replace actually writing, though neither one of those things hurt. Write about everything because it really doesn’t matter what you write, just that you do it. Don’t worry about well when you’re practicing, the main thing is to write often. Remember that tweeting, commenting on things, and updating Facebook statuses count as writing.

2. Read — This is where cross-training comes in: reading will ultimately make you a better writer. This follows the same idea that listening to a lot of music makes you a better musician; reading and working with other people’s writing will help you figure out how phrase things, create transitions, capture an audience, and so much more. With the technology available today, you have so much access to reading material, and you should take advantage of it.

Tip: As you read, consider writing about what you’re reading. Take a moment every couple of pages, or chapters, to write down your thoughts. This will not only give you writing and reading practice, but will also help you remember what you’ve read, and could even give you fodder for class discussion and/or future essays. It’s a win all around!

Moving Away from Five Paragraph Essays

In most high schools (at least in the United States), students learn to write essays by using a formula that begins with a introduction paragraph, a thesis statement at the end of the introduction, three body paragraphs with one piece of evidence per paragraph, and a conclusion. This formula leaves you with the infamous five paragraph essay.

These kinds of essays are acceptable in college, and even expected on things like SATs and AP exams, but in college essays, topics and arguments are often too complicated for the five paragraph essay to do them justice. Professors and TAs work hard to get students to move on from the five paragraph essay as early as possible. There is no magic number of paragraphs. The best practice is to simply write your essay without worrying about paragraph count. Of course, if there is a page count, or a word count requirement, you should focus on those things, but very few professors are going to notice your number of paragraphs; unless, of course, you’re following them five paragraph formula.

The takeaway message here is that you should use however many paragraphs you need to sufficiently prove your argument and address counter-claims.

No matter how many paragraphs you end up with, they should all be well-developed and relate back to your original argument. This means that most of your paragraphs will probably end up being at least half-a-page long (double-spaced, of course).

Transitioning from the five paragraph format can be a complex process, so I’ll likely have more blogs on the subject in the future.

Campus Writing Centers

At several colleges and universities, including Berea, there are writing centers where students can go to get input throughout the writing process. Most people who have been writing for any amount of time have figured out that writing is a messy process. You write something, then you have to rewrite, and then write some more, until you eventually have to turn in the paper.

Writing centers can be great places to have other people read over your writing and offer suggestions. Most writing centers do not serve as an editing and proofreading center, but they can provide you with resources for things like comma rules. I’ll post a blog soon with tips on how to edit and proofread your own papers, as well as your friends’ papers.

It’s always a good idea to have as many different eyes on your writing as possible, so have lots of different people read it and give you input. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with their input, or follow their advice, but they may notice something that could really improve your paper.

If you’re a Berea student, you can visit Peer consultation in the Center for Transformative Learning as often as you’d like, and for FREE! http://webapps.berea.edu/ctl/peer-consultation/

You may be wondering why you’d want to go to your campus writing center if you’ve taken your paper to your TA to look over, TAs are a wonderful resource, but relying on one person’s opinion of your work may not yield the results you’re hoping for. It would be a wonderful idea to take your paper to your TA and your writing center; this can be done at different points in the paper, if that would be helpful.

Integrating Quotes

In most college essays, you’re going to need to incorporate quotes into your writing. Quotes can be great things that help you prove your arguments in really specific and precise ways, but you need to learn how to use them properly in your writing. First, let’s look at some common mistakes that people make when trying to bring in quotations: 

#1 Dropped Quotes: these are quotes that get inserted into writing without being introduced or setup in any way. “Mac and cheese is yummy.” And then your reader becomes completely lost. Even though mac and cheese is yummy, we don’t know who said, or why it is significant to the discussion on dropped quotes. 

Avoiding dropped quotes: Make sure to introduce your quotes by telling the reader who is speaking, and provide some context for what is being said, for instance: My friend, Julia, said “mac and cheese is yummy!” when she saw the Kraft commercial on TV. 

The next step here, in any good writing, would be to provide the reader with some insight into why the quote is significant. Perhaps Julia is being sarcastic here, and she actually hates mac and cheese. Or maybe she’s defending Kraft’s choice to use the yellow coloring agent. Whatever the case may be, here is your chance to tie your quote back into your argument. 

#2 Not relating your quotes back to your argument: failing to relate your quotations back to your argument can be a major problem. Every quote you use should have some significance to the point you’re trying to make. If, for some reason, your quotes doesn’t have anything to do with your thesis, don’t use it. 

#3 Retelling what your quote says: The reason you use a quote is bring someone else’s words into your work so that you can work with them in some way. It’s like a conversation — there’s no need to repeat back to the speaker what they already said. If a speaker says, “the sky is blue,” there’s no need to quote the speaker saying “the sky is blue,” and then tell your reader that the speaker is explaining that the sky is blue. It’s already been said. Instead, provide your reader with some kind of insight that supports your argument. Why does it matter that the sky is blue? 

 

Office Hours

Over the past few years, I’ve worked with several cohorts of students, and with each cohort I attempted to hold office hours. The idea here was that students needed to know where to find me at certain times during the week so that they can ask questions, or get help with their papers, or just have someone that they can sit and do homework with. In theory, it’s an excellent, but in practice I rarely see students during my office hours. 

I’ve tried setting several combinations of hours, including daytime and nighttime hours: both with little success. The idea behind the nighttime hours is that I can be available when the professor is not on campus, and while students seem to understand this concept, they often only make an appearance right before their papers are due. I thought daytime hours might provide students the opportunity to drop in for quick questions between classes, or during lunch, but no one seems to show up to those either. 

I’ve created flyers, and sent out emails with details of when and where I’ll be at various times throughout the week, and still I find myself sitting alone night after night when I know that students could benefit from stopping in for a visit. 

My colleagues and I have tried casual settings, such as the coffee shop across from campus, as well as more formal settings such as the library. 

So, if any of my fellow TAs have ideas for making office hours productive, please let me know! 

PS– I have a rather long list of topics to discuss in future blog entries, so stay tuned!

What Needs to be Cited

I often get questions from students about what they need to cite in their paper. The general consensus here is that if the information did not come from your brilliant, or if it is not common knowledge, you should cite it. You may be wondering what counts as common knowledge — most people know that London is a city in England, or that George Washington was the first president of the United States — these pieces of information would be considered “common knowledge.” When in doubt, the best option is to cite a source. It’s better to over-cite than to get in trouble for plagiarism.

So, let’s look at some specific things that need to be cited (referring to both in-text citations, as well as a full citation on your works cited page):

Quotations: This may seem obvious, but if you’re using a direct quote, you need to cite it.

Paraphrasing/Summary: This is where students often get tripped up. They assume that they can get away with avoiding citations by referring to sources, but not quoting them directly. Sorry to burst any metaphorical bubbles, but if you’re summarizing or paraphrasing, you must cite it.

If you’re wondering what the difference between a summary and a paraphrase, check out this link.

If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to leave it in the comment section.