Ask a Teacher Series: Eight Questions from Writers to Teachers, Back-to-School Edition
Teachers, as I’m sure you all know by now, are an excellent resource. With many students returning to school for fall classes in the next few weeks, we think now is a great time to hit up real-life teachers for some back-to-school advice!
Below is an interview with Carolyn Clare Givens, M.A., a teacher, writer, and editor.
1. What class or classes do you teach?
2. What type of writing do you deal with most often? Essays? Short answer? Outlines?
I taught college freshmen English Composition and Introduction to College Reading and Writing, a remedial-level writing and reading comprehension course. I work as a grader and give critical feedback on master’s-level theses. I’ve also taught a group of home schooled high school seniors a college prep composition course. In addition to my teaching, I’ve worked as an editor for an online magazine and for a non-fiction book publisher, and done freelance editing on fiction and non-fiction books.
3. How important is good grammar and spelling to you?
Typically, I deal with essays—both academic and non-academic. I’ve also spent considerable time working with authors on book-length non-fiction and fiction manuscripts.
4, Which style do you prefer students use in your class (MLA, APA, CMS, etc.)? Why?
Good grammar and spelling are necessary for clear communication. They are a means to that end. However, the English language is remarkably malleable. It is possible to utterly butcher the grammar and spelling of a sentence and still communicate the intended meaning (though that is more difficult in writing than it is in spoken communication).
5. Do you have any tips for doing research?
My students used MLA in the English Composition and Intro classes. That was the standard format used by the University for general humanities classes. At the master’s level, the students use APA, as they are writing a methodical assessment of a project. In my non-fiction book editing, I’ve used mostly CMS. As I’ve worked in communications, I’ve had some exposure to AP Style, but have never used it exclusively.
I think the key to note in any style is that very word: “style.” Yes, each style guide includes a method for citation. Those methods provide the reader with a simple way of finding the source material in a given paper or book. Each style guide’s citation system is fairly simple, and a careful reader can navigate it when it has been implemented correctly. But that’s not the point of the different style guides. Rather, each guide provides a method or “style” for presenting information. The method for presenting information in APA, for example, is one of scientific reporting—the writer has done the experiment, case study, research, etc., and is reporting the process and the results. MLA’s purpose is different. Instead of reporting the findings, the author’s goal in MLA style is to walk the reader through the process of thinking—presenting the thesis and unfolding the supporting evidence, like an attorney presenting his case. CMS’s style is the most flexible. In both presentation and documentation, the goal of CMS is to clearly communicate ideas and show the support for them properly. AP Style’s primary purpose seems to be brevity. It is a system developed for journalism and limited text space.
My preference for students to use depends upon the subject matter they are presenting. Most of my teaching and my own academic writing has been within the humanities. MLA is a robust style guide for those subjects and the kind of research and presentation of ideas typically associated with them. For those working in the sciences and social sciences, APA provides a quality standard for presenting research and results. As I have worked with authors and on my own writing outside of academia, I have come to appreciate the flexibility of CMS. I think a more limited system, like MLA or APA, is proper to use as a student is learning, but CMS allows the writer to use the pieces of both of those systems that will be most helpful in presenting his information in a way that is accessible by the common reader. Call it my humanities bias, but within academia, I prefer MLA’s method of presenting information, and I think it provides a simpler transition to CMS for later writing.
6. What are your biggest pet peeves when it comes to students’ writing in your class?
I once had a college professor who had us write a note card for each fact we gathered, with the citation information on the back and the fact on the front. I felt like I was in fourth grade all over again.
I don’t think you need to be quite so simplistic as that, but I do think there are some simple things you can do that will make presenting your research easier. One of the biggest issues my students seem to have had was with proper citation. I’m a proponent of the Albert-Einstein-never-memorize-something-you-can-look-up rule. There’s a story of a reporter asking Einstein for his number, and Einstein had to look it up in the phone book to give it to the man. His thinking: why memorize it when you know where to find it? Forget trying to memorize MLA or APA or CMS citation formats. You can look them up. You don’t even have to buy the book anymore. I strongly recommend Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) as a resource. However, every citation format has the same basic elements: Who wrote it? Where? When? In what format was it presented? What page was it on? What was the URL? Learn those. Forget about what order they need to go in, just get the basics down. Then, as you do your research, write or type that information at the top of the page and write your quotations under it. As you write your paper, if you use a quote, copy and paste the citation info into a page at the end of your paper. Then, when you go to create your works cited list, you will save yourself eons of time when all you have to do is look up the proper formatting for your citation and put the bits of information in the right order.
Yes, I know Word has an “Insert Citation” option. If you use it, CHECK IT! It has often gotten things wrong. “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”
The other tip I’d have is more on the “avoiding plagiarism” side. I suggest doing your research, reading it through so you’re familiar with it, then setting it aside as you prepare your ideas for your paper. Think through what you think on the topic and how you want to present those thoughts. Write that much. Then go back through and insert the support for your ideas that you found in your research. Remember, this is your paper. YOU are the one whose ideas should be primary.
7. What are some writing mistakes that you make that you’d like to caution your students against?
“In my opinion” – It’s your paper. I sure hope this is your opinion. You don’t need to say it.
“Basically” – Does the sentence need this word? (The answer is no.)
8. What do you think is the most important thing students should know about writing in your class?
What are some writing mistakes that you make that you’d like to caution students against?
Trying to sound “intelligent” by using big words. Look, I’m a word geek. That’s why I teach English and I write. I love words. I love GOOD words. I strongly recommend you make it a practice to keep yourself alert to the new words you encounter in everyday life and stop and look them up when you don’t know them. This is the most natural way to increase your vocabulary. I also recommend getting a paper dictionary. I love the ease of www.m-w.com, but it does not offer me the ability to see 40 other words on a page along with the one I’m looking up. Paper dictionaries are great for growing vocabulary. All that to say, work on growing your vocabulary. Theright word in the right place can make all the difference. However, use the words that come most naturally to you in your writing. If you are more likely to say “use” than “useage,” write “use” in your paper. Simple, clear communication is your goal.
You are communicating ideas. Writing is simply a vehicle for doing that. We’ve got a lovely language that is flexible and strange and has all sorts of cobbled-together rules for use because it’s been a cobbled-together language from the start. And some of those rules are worth noting and remembering and following and some of them should be thrown out the window with the silly people who made them up. English is a living language. The rules you learn today may be out of date by the time you’re forty. Such is the nature of having a living language. But the essential thing you need to keep in mind is that you are communicating ideas. Whatever rules you follow, whatever words you use, whatever style guide you choose, it all needs to be in service to that goal: to clearly communicate the ideas in your head through the medium of writing to your reader. Sometimes clear communication is a matter of getting your commas in the right place. Sometimes it’s spelling the words correctly and not mixing up your homophones. But sometimes clear communication means you throw out the rules and you put the words down on the paper as they tumble from your mind. Sometimes we just need to get them out and the order and the spelling and the grammar is subservient to the thought and passion and feeling behind them. That’s okay. Just write. Put words on paper. Record thoughts. That’s how future generations will know who we are.
(Though you might want to find a friend to proofread your paper before turning it in to your English professor.)
Thank you to Carolyn for sharing her wisdom and advice! We hope that you’ve learned something, even if you haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in years.
If you are a teacher and you’d like to be a part of the Ask a Teacher Series, please shoot us a message! We’d love to have you!
And you can check out the rest of the Ask a Teacher Series here!