Monday, April 27, 2009

Initium Est Dimidium Facti

"Once you've started, you're halfway there." This old Latin proverb (see title) has been around for a long time, and with good reason. It is true in every arena of life, not least in academics. Starting something, whether a scarf, a savings account or a paper, puts you on the road to your destination.

This week try to begin the projects you have remaining in the semester. First ask, "what, exactly, do I have left to do?"
  • Reading? Spend an hour looking over your books and articles and figure out how to create a study guide for your final. Strategize the time slots for reading specific sections. Find background material on the assigned topic if necessary.
  • Writing? Choose a topic or a thesis, begin your research, or organize a structure for your paper. Go back to the syllabus or written assignment and analyze what you are being asked to do. Think about your plan, and take notes.
  • Sermon? Start by reading your text and taking notes on what you notice about it. Move to commentaries or other resources.
  • Stressed out? Begin to walk or to listen to music or to buy some groceries. Don't worry about finishing for now - just start!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Criticism and Praise

When I was a girl I took piano lessons. My teacher would stand behind me, watching as I played. Sometimes he wrote a comment at the top of my piece of music: "Excellent!" or "Nice!"

Unfortunately, he also wrote comments like, "Practice this!" "Needs work!" or the dreaded, "Get busy, lazy!"

It was not that he was wrong. I didn't practice enough. Some weeks I probably was "lazy," finding anything to fill my time besides practicing. If a piece of music was hard, I often ignored it.

Things don't change that much. We adults still search for the positive comments and do our best to ignore the negative. Hopefully none of our critics are quite as bombastic as my piano teacher, but a test or paper returned with negative comments is still an unwelcome sight.

What if we could invert our reactions to critique? After all, it is usually meant to inspire improvement. What if we saw statements such as: "I don't understand this paragraph!" as a chance to learn something? What if we viewed our critic as a trusted and honest friend rather than a misguided enemy? If a comment about our work is the truth, it is possible (though painful), to examine it and determine how we might make an adjustment.

This is one way academic miracles happen. An average student can make huge strides in the quality of their work if they will accept and benefit from criticism. A good student's work can become even better.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Clear Thinking

If you think clearly, you will write clearly. Writing is your thought process, in a document. If your paper is wandering, it is because your thoughts are not focused. Conversely, if you have "thought it through," it will be obvious in your writing.

Characteristics of Clear Thinking
  • It is organized. It follows a road map, in an orderly progression. It does not go "four-wheeling" around the countryside.

  • It is logical. It starts with a premise; gives strong, valid evidence to make reasoned arguments, and forms pertinent conclusions that follow from that evidence.

  • It makes transitions. It does not make leaps, but rather builds little sentence-bridges to connect the ideas.

  • It asks questions of itself. Have I overstated? understated? Does my argument consider all of the other positions, or the nuances?

  • It accepts boundaries. The scope of a paper, argument or conclusion has limitations. Clear thinking recognizes these and acknowledges them up front. I am doing this. I am not doing that . . .

Clarify your thoughts before writing in order to write more quickly, more fluidly and in order to produce work that makes a genuine contribution.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Goldilocks and the Three Topics (a dialectical three)

Once upon a time, a young woman was choosing a topic for her 15-page church history paper.

First, she thought she would write on "The Church in the Middle Ages." She found 2400 books that told of 240 people arguing about dozens of doctrines. She had no idea how to corral them into 15 pages. Her first topic was TOO BIG!

Next she thought she would try "Typical Lunch Menus at the Cluny Abbey." This topic would integrate her interest in cooking. "Brilliant!" she thought. Alas, she could only find one paragraph on the subject. There didn't seem to be enough information for a 15-page paper. Her topic, it seemed, was TOO SMALL!

Finally she settled in on the topic: "Monastic Corruption and Cluniac Reforms." She could describe and analyze this topic in 15 pages. There were enough resources. She would know exactly what to look for when she did her research. Ah, yes, this topic was JUST RIGHT!

Now it was time for a break, so she went to the kitchen and made a delicious stew. She was sure the monks at Cluny would have enjoyed it. The End