Getting started

Bridging a gap: you and university study • Practice writing • Brainstorming • Generating questions

It all seems like another planet.

It's like learning a new language - you have to start from the beginning again.

I just don't know where to begin.

In this chapter we will assume that you are about to begin your university study (whether in an area which is new to you or not) and are asking questions about what you will have to do for writing at university. We will explore what is involved in university writing and will suggest some first steps that you can take towards tackling your assignments. Our aim is to help you to be confident in starting out; our message in this chapter is that you need to be courageous, prepared to take risks, and committed enough to keep practising. We acknowledge that university writing can be difficult but believe that there are ways of approaching it that will build up your confidence and develop your competence. This chapter uses three well-known methods for beginning to write: practice writing (based on a commonly used 'freewriting' technique developed by Peter Elbow) to get started with the writing; brainstorming to get down as many ideas as you can as quickly as you can; generating your own questions to think around a topic.

We will suggest that you try out these techniques in different ways and for different purposes, both for getting information and ideas, and for presenting them. The tasks are all designed to help you to get started quickly, so that you can use what you already know, and find ways of extending and developing your thinking. We hope that you will enjoy trying these ideas, which are about thinking, working and writing confidently.

2.1 Bridging a gap: you and university study

When you come to write at university you may find that there is a gap that you have to bridge. On one side there is you, with your background, sense of identity and ideas about the world, and on the other there is the subject you have to write about, based on academic disciplines. It can seem like a foreign country, far away from you and your familiar setting. This new place can open up interesting new ways of seeing and understanding for you but it can also present problems of how to behave, and how to speak and write. It is rather like joining a group of people involved in a particular activity, who have been talking together for some time. You have to feel your way into what the group is talking about: they seem to share ideas that they don't even mention, and you don't seem to be able to take part in the way they use language. If you do join in you may be saying something that doesn't fit with what else is said. You don't know if they may have discussed it already. In any case, you can't find the right words and you expect to be met with silence and puzzlement and to look foolish. However, usually after listening for a while, once you do start to take part you can adjust to what is going on and start to contribute in your own way. You feel awkward at first but if you don't mind this, it gets easier. The more you take part the more you are bridging the gap between what you came with and a different way of thinking and speaking. It can feel the same way with your university writing.

In higher education different ways of thinking and understanding the world are expressed through the different academic disciplines, the broad subject areas that are the basis of university study. Disciplines - for example, physics, history, psychology - have traditionally been the ways in which a body of people have made sense of and 'represented' the world: that is, built up particular ways of talking about the aspects of the world that their discipline looks at and explores. You will often find reference to 'academic communities', which have even been called 'academic tribes' to indicate how they have different customs and territorial claims. The conventions and ways of viewing and representing the world of different disciplines are often not made explicit to students. Sometimes academics can be so engrossed in their subject that they seem to forget that they need to explain their discipline, as a particular way of constructing knowledge about the world, to students. You may therefore find yourself struggling to find out both what you can say and how you can say it when you write for university. We take up this issue again in Chapter 9. As a student you will find yourself going backwards and forwards between different disciplines, and we say more about this and ways of writing for different courses in Chapters 3 and 12.

An example of the 'foreignness' of university study that you may encounter immediately is that subjects have their own jargon - words and terms that are used in a specific way in their own context. Even if you look them up in the dictionary, you still won't understand the way they are used in a particular subject area because their contextual meanings are specific and unusual. Familiar words are used differently and new terms are invented. Different uses of words indicate different ways of thinking about and viewing the world, so it is important that you learn the new terms and meanings and that you are able to use them in your writing. The next activity will help you with this.

Activity Three: Make a glossary of terms

Take any subject that you are studying. Choose a few terms that are commonly used in it. Use your own words to try to pin down what the term means for you. If you are noting words that are already familiar to you, think about where your present understanding of them comes from.

As you continue your study, note down where and how the terms come up and how they are used; you may want to collect and note actual examples of their usage. Adjust your definitions accordingly. In some cases introductory texts or a specialist subject dictionary will give you guidance on the meaning of terms but there is really no substitute for becoming familiar with how they are used in context, and learning to use them yourself in your own writing.

Pay attention to unfamiliar terms in the extracts and main body of this book as you work through it. Use your computer to put together a glossary of terms, editing it as you learn more about the terms you have included. Print it off regularly so that you can use the hard copy for reference.

2.2 Practice writing

When you are first trying to get into the method of a new kind of writing it can be very useful to make yourself try to write as much as you can about a topic, as a way of getting your ideas into some kind of external form, and in the process discovering what these ideas are. Since you are simply practising writing at this stage, we call this 'practice writing'. The essential idea of this method is that it doesn't matter what the writing is like because the only reader, unless you choose otherwise, will be yourself. It doesn't matter whether it is well written, or even whether it makes sense; the point is to keep doing it. You keep writing, in continuous prose, not notes, and try to write as much as you can, either in a preset time or for as long as you can go on. The point is that it doesn't matter what or how you write - just that you practise doing it.

The idea of practising writing for university may not seem very controversial but in fact most students don't do much ongoing writing for their courses -instead they just have to produce assignments each term as finished products. It isn't usually suggested that they may need to do a lot of preliminary practice of small amounts of different kinds of writing. Yet it is obvious that to be a tennis player you have to practise. It is the same with university writing: just as learning the rules of tennis isn't the same as being able to play, neither is reading about a subject the way to learn to write about it - although of course reading is an essential prerequisite for university writing.

One thing that makes writing difficult is that we are inclined to be critical of what we are writing as we do it and to try to make the writing good and correct from the beginning. This habit may come from experiences at school. If you are writing something that you find easy, where you know more or less what you want to say, this may work, and you might possibly end up with a piece of writing that you can use straight away. This is very rare, however. In doing a piece of writing for university, you have to accept that you will be likely to need several attempts, correcting and amending it, to get it right; you will need to redraft and edit your writing. We look at this process in Chapter 10. An important purpose of practice writing is that it separates the first thinking part of writing from the critical editing part. Trying to get your writing right in every way can inhibit you from allowing your ideas to flow freely and your language to develop. The message is simple: you can't be expected to do everything at once. In practice writing you are rigorously turning your back on your editing voice which tells you that this isn't making sense, suggests that you go back and start again, or, even worse, insinuates that this is so terrible there is no point in trying and you'll never be able to do it. With practice writing you are doing one thing at a time and discovering what you know, in the way you yourself can express it, right from the beginning.

Practice writing is an easy way of making yourself do plenty of writing. However, as you proceed you will want to make it more focused. Try the technique, for example, when you have had a lecture. If you are able to take five minutes at the end to practice-write about it, without referring to your notes, you may be surprised at how much you can remember and produce, and how effectively you will be getting down ideas from the lecture which you can make good use of later.

In the following activity on practice writing, we suggest a topic, 'The family', because we go on to discuss this as an example. If you prefer, try it now on a topic that is more closely connected to your study. Notice that here we are suggesting that you work on a general topic from your course, whereas later in the book we examine assignments in a more focused way.

Activity Four: Practice writing for university

Set a timer for five minutes, then just write as much as you can on 'The family in Britain today'. Start from any point of view you like. You may, for instance, find it easier to start with your experience of your own family. Remember that it doesn't matter where you start or what you write because this is writing for practice and to get you started. Write in continuous prose, not just notes.

When you have finished, read through what you have written. What do you think of it?

Identify what you have written about and think about why.

Notice how you have written. Do you pursue one thought or jump about? Have you written in complete sentences?

Did this exercise work for you? Are there any surprises in what you have done?

Keep this writing by you as you work through the next few pages on the family.

You may be surprised at what you have written. (Writers are often surprised at what they write.) You may have kept to one idea or have written in a more random way. Perhaps you find that you are enjoying playing with ideas or language. Even if you have not written very coherently, you will notice that it makes some sort of sense, although you may not have bothered much with punctuation. You may like this piece of writing, and might want to develop it.

Here is an example of an attempt at this task:

The family in Britain today

Families are fine when they work but they don't work very well often, sometimes they even get what social scientists call dysfunctional, what does this mean? Well it seems to mean that none of them can get on with each other and they can't work like families should. All families have their problems but I think that is a part of being in a family, so what do we mean by a family anyway? I think that this is changing all the time and if we go to other cultures we see how different families are. My great grandmother was one of 17 children and all her uncles and aunts lived in one town, but my family lives all over the place and mostly we don't see each other beyond the immediate ones. Lots of my friends live in different kinds of families like with just their mum or dad or with other people and I live with my half-brother so it's difficult to see what a family might mean in the future. Anyway I enjoyed seeing some of my family last Christmas but again in America it's thanksgiving for families.

You see that this writer has many thoughts about families but they are rather jumbled up and her punctuation and grammar are imprecise. She is not 'editing' as she writes. The piece reads more like speech than formal writing, as if she is talking to herself - which indeed she is. It is noticeable that the writer uses her own personal outlook to think about families in more general terms. She is getting her ideas from her own experiences and probably from the media, where general ideas and opinions about the family are often expressed. However, she also uses the term 'dysfunctional' to refer to families that are not functioning in ways that they might be expected to. This is not originally an everyday term but has become adopted into more general use. If this writer were to continue with her writing at this stage her ideas would probably begin to flow more easily and the connections would be clearer. As we see in Chapter 6, some writers find that writing like this is a good way to start a piece of work. Once they have gathered information, practice writing is a way of getting down what they know as quickly as they can, so that they can begin to look at what they have in front of them and from that plan their assignment.

The term 'family' has a very wide range of meanings and associations. Your own thinking and your talk about 'my family' may be determined mainly by your personal and social background and experiences. The family is also a topical public issue, and the media and politicians have a good deal to say about it, from different perspectives, in ways that are charged with conflicting meanings that represent the interests and views of different groups. For example, the term 'family values' has different associations for different groups, some positive, some negative. Academic disciplines speak about the family in specific ways which have different meanings from those of politicians, the law, the church and the media. The following list indicates different kinds of approaches of different disciplines:

• Sociology: how the family functions as a group or fits into the larger structure of society. How the concept of the family is used to explain social issues.

• Psychology: the impact of family relationships on the individual.

• Literary studies: how fiction depicts a particular family and how this relates to the language and form of a novel.

• History: how family patterns and behaviour have changed over time.

• Social anthropology: families in different cultures, with different cultural interpretations of the meanings of the family.

• Biology: 'family' used as a category or a means of classification - a group of objects distinguished by common features.

To give a fuller example, here are two attempts to deal with the idea of the family at the beginning of a sociology essay:

The word 'family' can mean different things . . . in this country, when social policy makers refer to the family, they commonly mean the 'nuclear family', involving two parents and their children.

The traditional notion of the family with the father as breadwinner in the public sphere of paid employment and mother as carer in the private world of home is increasingly remote from the reality of modern day households . . .

You will notice that these writers are concerned with different ideas about what the family means rather than offering any set definition. One of the important aspects of university study is that it can invite us to question our currently held assumptions and ideas; so that, for example, you can come to compare what 'the family' has meant to you with how your understanding changes from studying it as a part of a university course.

Fast writing

There are many other ways of using short bursts of writing to explore course ideas and your own learning. Here are some suggestions for 'fast writing' and you may like to think of others for yourself during your studies.

• Keep an 'ideas' notebook for noting down ideas as they occur to you. Many academics, including your tutors, do this. You might find it especially useful if you are engaged in a project or a dissertation.

• Write a 'note to yourself' about what you might want to say in a seminar or other kind of discussion. You can do this during the seminar itself.

• Send an email to fellow students about your thoughts on a lecture or other learning activity.

• Brainstorm ideas for an assignment, then choose some that seem important and try 'practice writing' about each in turn for a few minutes. In each case keep on writing, and write in sentences not notes.

• Generally, try to build up a sense of yourself as someone who uses writing regularly as part of your studying.

2.3 Brainstorming

The next method that we look at for getting started on an assignment uses note form rather than the continuous prose of practice writing. The idea of brainstorming your ideas is that you simply note down as many ideas as possible about a topic, in words or phrases. As with practice writing, it is important that you don't censor what you come up with; just note down anything you can, as quickly as possible. Later you will select and throw out some items. You can do this task as a list, but many people like to begin to arrange their brainstorming ideas spatially, which helps them to see how they relate to each other. It can therefore be a good idea to use a blank piece of A4

paper so that you can arrange your jottings where you like over the page as you think of them.

As in the practice writing exercise, use your own topic for the following activity if you prefer.

Activity Five: Brainstorm for writing

Take the topic 'The family in Britain today'. Write down as many points about this topic as you can, using single words or phrases. You may find it useful to arrange your ideas spatially on your page, to give you an idea of how they begin to group together.

Now compare the brainstorming ideas that you have noted with the list below. Can you think about where your own ideas have come from?

The family in Britain today

• Different cultures - different models of what is a family.

• Families are difficult and can be completely dysfunctional.

• Is the nuclear family on its way out? Ideal family in 'ads'.

• New kinds of family emerging - e.g. shared parenting, civil partnerships.

• Family values - meaning - use by politicians.

• Are families in decline?

Even from as small a list as this you will see that this writer has a number of ideas about different and changing family patterns that she might want to pursue in further study. It shows that she has ideas which she will be able to draw on, for example in a social studies course. Studying on a university course will give her the opportunity to clarify, systematize and change her thinking. This list seems to come from the writer's thinking on what she has read in the media, a kind of 'general knowledge' that she has picked up and that would be shared by many people from the same culture. Perhaps the same is true for you, or you might have ideas from your personal or work experience. The relationship between what you already have in mind and your study will be variable but it is a good idea to begin by clarifying and exploring any ideas that you already have. Once you have done this you will need to get your ideas more organized and focused on particular questions and assignment titles. You may also use the brainstorming method as a way of pushing your thinking further as well as for beginning to organize your ideas.

Some students like doing this kind of brainstorming thinking by using a 'spider diagram' (see Figure 2.1). The basis for this technique, which has now become very familiar, and which you may know, is that ideas are not arranged in our heads in a simple linear structure, one following another, but in different patterns. To force ideas into a linear sequence, as writing prose does, from a beginning to an end, is to give a kind of structure to our mental constructs that does not really fit them as they are. You see how in Figure 2.1 the notes can be put in different places right from the start, and then links between different ideas can be added as the writer considers them. You can experiment with different ways of representing your ideas visually.

2.4 Generating questions

At this point we will move to the first stages in thinking about producing a specific assignment, as one way of getting used to the process. In Chapter 4 we will give you a more systematic method for tackling a particular assignment. Let us take a possible question from a first-year politics course as an example. We don't necessarily expect you to know anything about the topic below from the point of view of a university politics course. The point of this task is to define your own thoughts as a preliminary to further work. In order to model the process for yourself, we suggest that you try out the following activity from your general knowledge and understanding. Then, in the future, you should be able to apply this method to one of your own assignments.

Activity Six: Generate questions on a topic

Work on this title: 'What is racism? Can it be eradicated?' Make a list of as many questions as you can that this title suggests to you. You are not, of course, expected to answer any of these questions - just to pose them. Now compare your list with the following example:

• What are the causes of racism?

• Is racism mainly to do with black and white?

• Is racism an innate human characteristic?

• Are there some societies where racism doesn't exist?

• Are there different kinds of racism?

• How has racism manifested itself historically?

• What is the connection between racism and religious intolerance?

• What effect have laws against racism had?

• Is policy-making and the law an answer?

• How am I personally affected by racism?

• Is there a difference between racism and prejudice?

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These questions are very varied and you will realize that neither this assignment nor even a fairly general politics course could answer all of them. They certainly do not begin to form a plan for an essay. It is also interesting that all of these questions could lead to further questioning, which, as we explore further in Chapter 4, is an important part of being able to be searching and analytical in your writing. It is always important that the student as well as the tutor asks questions. Generate questions for yourself when you embark on a new course, and as you are about to read a book or article, or attend a lecture. Formulating the questions helps you to be clear about how you conceive the subject and what you hope you will get from the materials and other sources of information. It starts you thinking in a purposeful way as you explore different sources for ideas.

As you embark on your study you can expect to encounter various ways in which you will be helped towards tackling assignment questions. Firstly, your course syllabus or handbook should give you a good idea about how the particular topic of your chosen assignment fits into others. Lecturers may also suggest appropriate ways in which you might think about the topics. Handouts may direct you to particular readings, or provide a series of different definitions. In discussion groups of various kinds you may be asked to introduce particular topics. This will give you the opportunity to explore your own understanding in the company of others who do not necessarily share your views. You may find that you have to defend your opinions, or listen to others and change what you think on how you approach a topic. In all of this it is always a good idea to do your own thinking first, to put together and make concrete your ideas, see how they relate to what you are learning at university, and develop them by more thinking and reading.

Course handouts may:

Define what you have to learn.

Provide material that is especially relevant for the particular course. Provide definitions and explanations; work notes; follow-up questions.

Lectures may:

Define the range of the course of study.

Process a wide range of information into a form that you, the student, can handle more easily.

Give you a model of how to practise the subject. Seminars/discussion groups (including online) may:

Give you the chance to talk about the subject and practise using its language. Enable you to explore and develop your ideas in company with others. Require you to give presentations on an aspect of the subject of study.

In this chapter we have been looking at ways of getting started with your university writing. The process of thinking and rethinking that you should be going through in your studying will be easier and more productive if you keep formulating and processing your ideas in a range of different kinds of writing. If you make sure that this includes a good deal of continuous prose, you will build up a sense of your own identity as a university writer.

Notes

• Look out for new terminology and, if necessary, ask the meaning of terms in different subjects. Notice unfamiliar terms in this book.

• Use brainstorming to clarify what you know and what you think before you start any new piece of work.

• Practise many different kinds of writing as much as you can and don't just rely on writing assignments.

• Don't expect that you can get your writing right the first time you do it. Remember that writing is for learning.

• Be prepared to think broadly before you focus in on a question or a particular assignment.

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