W2W Podcast

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the Writer to Writer event, so instead I listened to a recording from the Sweetland site. The speaker I chose is Dr. Howard Markel, a pediatrician, writer, and medical historian who teaches here at the University of Michigan. He’s written and co-authored several books about medicine, and has contributed articles and opinions to a variety of publications. Most recently, he published a book about the Kellogg brothers.

Markel’s description jumped out to me because science writing (and scientific writing) are important to me. Not only do I need to be able to write about science to pursue a PhD in a technical field, but I’m interested in learning how to better communicate science to the public. Also, many other STEM majors I know “hate” writing, so I love hearing from other scientists who value writing as much as I do.

I found Markel’s comments on audience particularly interesting. Markel mostly writes for  NPR listeners and NYT readers, a generally well-educated crowd, so he said he can comfortably use a certain level of vocabulary. This made me wonder whether it’s “okay” for a writer, particularly someone writing about more niche, technical topics, to assume their writers have a certain level of education. Doesn’t that automatically make what the writer has to say inaccessible, or is the source (NPR, NYT) already inaccessible enough that the writer’s efforts won’t matter? Especially in the context of science writing, I think making information accessible is important, since scientific knowledge is often badly communicated to (or withheld from) the public.

Markel’s audience (I’ll just call them NPR listeners) was also present at the Moth showing. I remember feeling very inspired by the Moth show, but also sad that the crowd was so homogenous — I’m pretty confident that the majority of Moth listeners are white, liberal, and middle- to upper-class. After that event, I started wondering to what degree a writer, podcast host, storyteller, etc should tailor their work to a specific audience, particularly if that audience already receives criticism for being elitist and exclusive.

In addition to making me think about audience, Markel’s talk sparked some interesting dialogue about what makes science writing effective. He mentioned that to be a good narrator, a science writer should insert themselves into the story, but not so much that they become the main character. Markel said he feels that science writing is becoming too author-centic, although in his opinion, younger generations seem to prefer that type of science writing. I think inserting oneself into a science story can help to humanize the topic (as in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), but actually, one of the best science articles I’ve ever read puts the spotlight on people affected by the topic, not on the author.

A legend dies!

This is my last blog post!  My legendary prose ceases today…  how tragic!

Let’s get right to it.

Throughout the semester, you have all seen Guthub grow into a semi-finished product.  I say semi-finished because I’m only comfortable saying it’s “done” when the image in my head materializes onto the screen.  This has benefits and drawbacks.  The benefit is Guthub will always be improving, but the drawback is far more serious:  I will never be satisfied.

While I’ll be motivated to add features related to emailing suggestions, bug reporting, and improving the user experience, there’s no solid finish line.  This non-existent finish line is the relief I want to feel at finally creating a finished website that I feel comfortable listing on LinkedIn or my grad school applications.  The problem is that I have no idea when that’ll happen.  Because this is a website that is designed to be interactive with users, I have no idea when optimization will be done, let alone how to do it in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong:  I see how impressive the website looks.  I really am proud of what I’ve accomplished this semester and everyone’s input has made it infinitely better.  But I’d be lying if I said I was satisfied.  I guess I don’t know when it’s okay to step away from the computer and press submit.  I mean, I know I can do that now, but this goes beyond the classroom.  In other words, I want to advertise this site for side income and most importantly, to grad admission boards.

The website isn’t ready.  Yes, for this class, I’ve reached beyond the point that I needed to get to.  But for the actual purpose of this site? Not even close. The apps are polluted with bad user experience and are still missing the major features that are needed to make the app actually usable and a website that people would pay for.

The thing is, I enjoy this dissatisfaction.  I like making a hobby out of improving my site.  But it’s getting to the point that the features I want to change require more time than a traditional hobby would allow.  I have school, albeit only for a few more weeks, I have work, I have friends, I have cats, I have a boyfriend, not to mention my plans to start grad school next year.  In order to truly create the website I want, I can’t have most of my time taken up by other responsibilities, the progress would be so slow I wouldn’t be able to release the site for years.  This doesn’t even touch on how much work would be required to actually address any bugs or issues users are facing in a timely manner.

I hate working on someone else’s schedule.  So much so, I’m hesitant about grad school, which will inevitably lead to being under someone’s wing in their lab when I’m a postdoc.  Do I want this?  I’m finding myself more and more attracted to the idea of self-employment and getting most of my money from this site.  But that’s a risk.  A huge risk.  Risk doesn’t even begin to encapsulate how much of a risk it actually is.

Some days I want to take that jump.

Some days I don’t.

Regardless, I’m excited to see where I land.

Writer to Writer Literati Event

While I was at first skeptical about leaving my warm bed on a cold Tuesday night, I left the Writer to Writer event extremely happy and pleased. This was the first event I have attended where a successful writer and academic was interviewed by another successful writer and academic. I thought that this dynamic was incredible because both Shelley and Dr. Thompson were always on the same page. They truly understood each other and this made the audience feel like they could understand them as well. I felt as though I was included in the conversation.

Literati was a great venue to have Writer to Writer. It felt homey and inviting. It is a wonderful feeling being in the audience with people who love writing just as much as you do. Everyone there trekked out on the cold Tuesday night because they wanted to be there. This feeling could definitely be felt throughout the room. As Dr. Thompson spoke about specific details about her research and as she read from her book, the audience was all on the edge of their seats.

I have never taken a history class at the University of Michigan, so before the event I was not sure what being an historian exactly entailed. I loved how Dr. Thompson compared being an historian to being a detective. It was so inspiring listening to Dr. Thompson because she is so passionate about what she does. I hope that one day I can be as passionate as she is in my professional life.

What struck me as most useful and insightful was how Dr. Thompson said that there is always a story, but it is about how you choose to convey the story that matters. As a writer, your voice is so important because it is yours and only yours. How we choose to convey stories and experiences to the world shows the world who we are.

I left wanting to know more about how Dr. Thompson decided how she wanted to convey the stories she researched. As she explained, she is writing for so many people and from so many different perspectives. How is she able to come to her decisions? If I were in her position I would struggle making a decision, and then probably change my decision many times before sticking with it. I also find it so amazing how she stuck with her book for thirteen years. That amount of commitment is truly inspiring.

I did not ask a question at the Q&A because frankly I was just enjoying listening to other intelligent people. I appreciated hearing from not only Dr. Thompson, but also other people in the audience who had important questions and comments to say as well. I loved how people in the audience nodded when people would ask Dr. Thompson questions. It seemed as though we were all on the same page and really created a sense of community.

Overall, the Writer to Writer event was inspiring. I wish more college students would attend because it really makes you think about yourself and what it important to you. I learned insights about how to be a better writer, but also insights about life as well. For example, I learned the importance of balancing a tragic event so that it does not undermine the event but does not dissuade the reader, and I learned that even the best of the best can always improve.

Listening to the Writer to Writer Podcast

I wasn’t able to attend the event at Literati bookstore (what a shame, I heard the topic and felt SO FOMO), so I listened to one of the other episodes in the Sweetland Center’s Topics in Writing Podcast. I listened to the episode with Elizabeth Wardle, Professor of Writing at Miami University, discussing the topic “Teaching to Encourage Transfer Across Courses and Context”.

I chose this podcast because I was curious what professors of writing think about how writing classes are supposed to build “general writing skills” even though writing anything is always so specific to the rhetorical situation! I guess it is something we discussed earlier in the course but I just wanted to come back to this idea and reflect, especially in light of the fact that we are almost done with the Gateway course and I am wondering how this class has changed how I approach writing from here on out. Moreover, I have plans to be an English teacher after graduation, and I also just want to think about how I might teach my students to be effective writers beyond the classroom.

Something in particular that struck me when listening to the podcast was when she talked about how students and instructors may approach the same genre with very different ideas of what it encompasses. She mentioned that an instructor may assign the same “write a journal” assignment semester after semester, but every student comes to it with their own different idea of what it is, and that could be a huge stumbling block in the student’s ability to write what the instructor is looking for. I think it is so important then, to think about how individual experience informs their conception of particular genres, and how crucial it is to bridge any gaps in conceptualization between instructor and student, so as to prevent frustration on both ends.

Another point she brought up was about “meeting requirements”. Often, in writing assignments, it is easy to fall into the “fulfil the set requirements mindset”, which is basically follow numerical requirements set on an assignment. Easy right? 10 pages, double spaced, font size 12, 3-5 academic sources. I found it really enlightening when she talked about how she felt that requirements really depended on each student and their individual topic and admire how she could individually discuss with them what they might need, and make them aware of it themselves. As a student, it would probably be frustrating to get the answer “it depends” all the time, but it is so true! There is an ideal number of [insert item] for every writing assignment, but it is so dependent on context, topic, rhetorical situation etc., and I agree with her that it is a more valuable learning and growth experience for the student to wrestle with what their specific writing needs are.

If I had been present, I really wish I could have asked how she might encourage students to apply their writing knowledge beyond classroom settings, such as writing for non-academic purposes, and what she thinks of teaching transfer, not just across academic disciplines, but also making connections to how they and their writing might function in the world.

Topics in Writing Podcast: Linda Adler-Kassner

I was busy Tuesday night with another mandatory presenter as part of my BA 200 class. From the class discussion it appeared everyone enjoyed Heather Ann Thompson. I alternatively listened to an episode of the “Topics in Writing Podcast,” choosing Linda Adler-Kassner, a Dean and Professor of Writing at the University of California – Santa Barbara. The discussion revolved mostly around students’ experience in writing classes and the challenging, educational process which is learning to write. Here’s some takeaways:

  • Good writing isn’t one thing.

Adler-Kassner spoke towards the idea that students often search for a definition of what good writing is, when, in reality, that definition is malleable, shifting across cultures. Different ideologies, expectations, and audiences all influence how a piece of writing is received and analyzed. This gets back to a major part of this course which has been our discussion regarding the importance of understanding audience. A piece of writing can be incredible in the writer’s eyes but if the audience doesn’t connect with the writing in the same way, it will be negatively-received.

  • learning writing is about building a framework that is transferrable across topics, courses, and situations.

The process of learning how to write was also discussed heavily. The skills a student learns in a writing class should be applicable to the other subject matters they decide to take. In this way, learning how to write is more about building a framework, and understanding of the skills and structures employed in strong writing and applying them across different academic situations.  In this light, more connections need to be made across disciplines both between instructors and in content to solidify student’s understanding of what is expected of them.

  • Writing is a subject not an activity.

Students often see writing as an activity, something they do in the process of learning other subjects. Writing students, however, understand that writing is a skill that can be learned just like any other subject they are studying. Successful learning in writing is measured through the application of skills learned continually through writing. In other words doing it. Another part of learning writing is realizing progress—understanding growth in writing—because it helps build a better understanding of good writing.

  • Reflection is crucial. in understanding your learning and writing, accepting struggle, the more you know the harder it becomes

Reflection is a crucial part in understanding your relationship with writing. A common misconception students have is this belief that you can grow as a writer to the point where it is no longer challenging. Linda Adler-Kassner dispels that notion explaining how it actually gets more difficult as you become an expert. The more you know, the more techniques, skills, and knowledge you can employ, the more complex the process becomes. This is important to recognize because it will change students’ understanding of the craft as a whole.

A Rambling Reflection

Literati, as a space, encompasses the energy that all bookstores have. It is warm, somewhat crowded, and smells like coffee. Heather Ann Thompson filled that space with a lively personality with a lot of interesting things to say.

Thompson spoke about many things that I am sure we have all thought about but have never taken the time to articulate. Thompson prioritizes taking the enormous amount of knowledge that exists in classrooms and giving it context.  Her contempt of academia for the purposes of academia was obvious – that is why she identifies as both an academic and as a public intellectual.

I sense this effect in my own writing – I am drifting towards writing for professors and GSIs. I find myself adding lofty jargon to my writing that, I half-heartedly believe, elevates my writing to sound more “professional”. Right now, there is a huge implication to inaccessible knowledge. As a student studying public policy, I learn more and more every day about the lengths politicians will go to make legislation dense and full of technical language. This language only serves to make the regular citizen struggle to understand how they are governed. So, even though the information is “available”, it is not “accessible”. This is not an accident. Even in academia, when the motives aren’t as malicious, creating inaccessible knowledge does a good job of creating information only the “elite” can access. Thompson is chipping away at that practice, from the inside.

Another thing I really enjoyed about Thompson’s talk was her struggle with writing trauma. Thompson explained how it is hard to find a balance between overwriting and underwriting graphic situations. On one hand, you want to properly express the weight of the situation. However, being too explicit can actually push people away from empathy, creating an almost voyeuristic effect instead.

One of my friends, Karolina, has a lot to say about this idea. As a black woman, she is constantly bombarded with pictures and videos on social media that show black bodies being abused. In the last couple of years, videotaped police shootings have begun to circulate on social media. These videos are posted in the hopes of raising awareness for the issue. However, many experts maintain that though these videos are effective at horrifying individuals into actions, they are more damaging to the cause.

Research suggests that for people of color who have frequent exposure to the shootings of black people can have long-term mental health consequences. According to Monnica Williams, director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville, graphic footage “combined with lived experiences of racism, can create severe psychological problems reminiscent of post-traumatic stress syndrome”.  It does a great job of desensitizing the rest of us to horrific shootings like this. Do we have to see continued footage of black men, women, and children being shot to spark enough outrage to act? I do not think so. (Or at least, I hope.) These videos are circulated generating hundreds and thousands of views, which means someone is profiting while black people are suffering. Karolina, after failing to rid her social media experience of these types of videos, has taken an indefinite social media hiatus. Even still, she still gets sent these videos by well-meaning peers.

Thompson articulates this struggle incredibly well. Overall, I was inspired by her approach to writing. She does it because she considers it her duty share stories that her privilege gives her access to, even though writing may not come naturally. “There’s no choice,” Thompson said. “You weigh in now or you don’t. You write now or you don’t.”

Lit––––(erally) listening to Heather Ann Thompson at –––erati.

https://www.literatibookstore.com/literati-coffee

The buzz on Literati’s second floor is quite present. Students, scholars, professors, a child, parents––all gather as writers to hear what Pulitzer Prize winner Heather Ann Thompson has to say, not only about her book Blood in the Water, but also what she has to say as a writer. Lingering coffee aromas, chair legs’ burps as they drag across floors for friends to sit with friends, a little girl’s constant feet shuffling, laughter, silence, and intellect fill the room. You can hear the eager ears in the room, and smell the thirst for inspiration. Writer’s block does not exist here.

What struck me most was Heather Ann Thompson’s encouragement for writers to have confidence in their opinion, and weigh in on their voice. Otherwise, “we would all be literally reiterating the source!” she says.

This encouragement is important for me as a writer for two reasons: the first, as a writer, I am not confident––in the slightest––in what I have to say. Looking back, I have been taught since the tenth grade that solely embedding quotes from the source accurately constructs a research paper, with no room for the author’s reflection or input. It seemed, at the time, that the “A” paper I needed looked like a bunch of research collaged in an essay form. Here, I can now see the craft of how writers walk a fine line between providing factual information for the reader to interpret, while also incorporating their own voice. Without voice, the piece would just be a reformatted version of the original source.

To hear an esteemed researcher and writer say to press in our own voice, even in research papers, is refreshing for me to hear. I can say the mountain of academic papers and research assignments do not seem so impossible! Sadly, the way I was taught in the tenth grade still haunts me, especially since I occasionally struggle with indirectness and lack of voice. But that is something I try and tackle every time I write!

The second reason this encouragement stood out to me: for Heather Ann Thompson to present this encouragement to an audience of writers in the first place whispers to me that perhaps, I am not alone in my insecurities and fears of pressing in on my own voice. This insecurity of mine is what makes me feel inadequate as a writer…but perhaps we are all still learning!

Writer-to-Writer Talk @ 🔥 L I T erati 🔥

Sorry for the title, by the way. It is late, I felt the urge to blog, and I am somewhat incoherent.

http://midwestliterarywalk.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Heather-Ann-Thompson_Blood-in-the-Water_Small_700x467.jpg

In all seriousness, having the opportunity to attend the Writer-to-Writer talk was phenomenal, especially for the experimental piece I am currently working on. With Dr Shelley Manis interviewing Dr Heather Ann Thompson in an independently-owned book store, Literati, local to Ann Arbor. Throughout the entire talk, I had not heard of this book before (my fault) and had not heard of Dr Thompson prior either (also my fault). The modest space, surrounded by bookcases and the store’s quaint decor, allowed me to be included in the conversation, as if I was in a dialogue with Dr Thompson herself. The comfortableness of the space, too, gave me the confidence to ask my question (though I did nervously fumble a few words once all the faces turned to me).

‘Helllloooo, loved the talk by the way. I really liked that ‘torture’ theme you mentioned earlier. So, when you are in the writing process and are trying to balance in-between from being too vague or too explicit–and choosing what to intentionally include or exclude in your writing–whilst still trying to empathise with and immerse your reader, how do you decide what you want to keep in your writing?’

That is a lot of words. Basically, I was asking, ‘how do you decide what to include or exclude in your writing and how do you avoid being either too vague or too explicit?’

Her response hit home the point of ‘setting up’ your reader to know what is going to happen. I found this concept to be interesting. Dr Thompson highlighted the age-old concept of ‘show, don’t tell,’ as she described her writing process in detail. For example, setting the vibes of a scene or the character’s appearance, etc., all can enable the reader to already connect and feel the scene without it even happening. As she pulled up the example of a gory torture scene from a recent movie, she described how properly setting up the scene to the reader can convey the emotions of the event without having the event explicitly happen. This allows the reader to easily predict what is going to happen, based on a scene that is possibly just a few seconds before the plot’s climax. I think this is great advice to keep in mind when trying to stir up the reader’s emotions, through symbolism and metaphors versus explicit behaviours and actions.

My favourite takeaway from this (especially being a strong supporter of the feminist theory!) is when an audience member asked her a question about the intersection of her social identities when writing Blood in the Water: what is it like to be a white woman writing a book like Blood in the Water (which describes the experiences of people-of-colour)?

Dr Thompson said that, as a white woman who has convenient access to resources to research these issues, she has an obligation. Dr Thompson’s voice raised with a strong fervor as she said that, and the energy and passion (which was one her favourite words, by the way) vibrated throughout the room.

She really did make history come alive.

https://s26162.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Literati-cover.jpg

You can see the Michigan Daily article that covered the talk, too!

https://www.michigandaily.com/section/campus-life/dr-heather-ann-thompson

Literati Event 11/27 Reflection

I want to start off with a question that I wish I had asked — “Is there anything that you wanted to include in Blood in the Water that you weren’t able to, for whatever reason? Why?”

I wondered about that question after I left Literati. For some reason, the idea stuck with me — although Dr. Thompson had produced over 700 pages of cited work on the events at Attica in 1971, there had to be some material that she wasn’t able to keep in the final cut. I’ve struggled in the past with knowing what to keep in a piece and what not to. Although I didn’t get a chance to ask about that part of her process, she did indirectly answer it when she discussed balancing tone in her piece.

Dr. Thompson spoke at length of how to deal with communicating trauma. On one hand, too much gore and violence can desensitize a reader to the horror, or could repel a reader. On the other hand, the subject of the book is not rainbows and butterflies and needs to be understood and communicated as the horror it truly was. I appreciated her frankness on the topic, because I think it helped clarify something for me: writing successfully depends a great deal on balance and proportions. When stated so bluntly, the idea seems common sense. Of course an element of writing is balancing different textures. But as I gleaned from Dr. Thompson’s commentary, balancing is actually key to how a reader perceives a text. When deciding on what to keep and what to cut, as a writer I have to decide ultimately what I want a reader to conclude after reading the full thing.

Dr. Thompson’s work is really inspiring, and I’m hoping to read Blood in the Water as soon as I get the chance. It sounds a bit like the works of Erik Larson, who I’m a huge fan of (he wrote Devil in the White City, Dead Wake, and In the Garden of Beasts, to name a few of my favorite books of all time). I also feel inspired to actually try my hand at historical nonfiction — BiW took 13 years to write and it took a lot of digging into sources that weren’t readily available to just anyone, and I think it might be a really cool writing project to tackle some subject that would actually require research into the facts of history, some of which are buried deep.

Finally, I wanted to comment on the event at Literati as a whole. I’ve never been a huge fan of talks or podcasts, but this was actually incredibly interesting to listen in on. Shoutout to Shelley, who created an incredibly warm atmosphere and asked engaging, pertinent questions. Although Dr. Thompson’s content was obviously fascinating, Shelley kept the conversation flow natural and relaxed. Literati itself is a great place to hold an event like this, since it’s relatively small and intimate (and it didn’t hurt that the lights were dimmed and it was snowing outside!). It was as though I were sitting in on a conversation by the fireside, silent but absolutely an active participant in listening.

Logo Olympics: Guthub v. Apple

I have news!

pic of me with my news

So after dealing with workshopping a half-ready website and prepping for a big presentation (in another class), I’ve taken a break from this project.  This was a much needed break.  I was obsessed with adding email functionality to my website, and in the process, broke it minutes before presenting it to the class.

Thankfully, this is in the past.  After realizing just how much time I was spending on the email/bug issue, I realized I wasn’t going to make any overall progress on my website if I kept hitting my head against the wall.

The evening after my workshop day, I got everything back online (i.e. Guthub.org and all the Shiny apps).  The only dead links are for Shiny apps I haven’t built yet.  After having my website full functional again (and a few celebratory gin and tonics),  I put /email and /bug on hold.

But, even though my website was working, I needed a break.  After a lot of candy, too many hours of playing Minecraft, and, like, three Netflix shows*, I was ready to start making more progress on the website and to revisit the (amazing!) suggestions from class that I’ve been pretending where just figments of my imagination.

So I have some updates!

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  1. I’ve added content to /bibliography and /about.  (It’s crazy how much better I felt just adding a paragraph to these pages.)
  2. I’ve downloaded a snapshot of my website.  This means that while my website was fully functional, I downloaded a working version of my website in case of emergency (i.e. WHEN THE SITE CRASHES TWO MINUTES BEFORE CLASS STARTS)
  3. I’ve updated the footer on each page so the text “Connect with us/me.” is in black, and I’ve linked to my WordPress, LinkedIn, and Github account on my /about page.
  4. And most excitingly…. I have a logo!  It’s been added in place of the “Home” link on each page’s navigation bar and there’s a larger version on the main page.  I have a black version, a white version, a white version with grey borders, and a blue gradient version!

Weeee.

Logo in Navigation Bar & Gradient Logo Full Size:

 

Updated Footer:

 

 

 

*:  The Netflix Shows were Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (really good, so many queers!), Schitt’s Creek (SO GOOD, more fully dimensional queers!), GLOW (Good, but no queers… YET, but Allison Brie so it’s ok), and The Haunting of Hill House (So so so good, queers stay winning!)

 

TDLR:  Made a logo also queers