I’ve not blogged for quite a while, mainly because I’ve been pretty busy. I’m in the final year of my PhD now and I’ve did quite a bit of teaching last term. I really like teaching and it is great experience, but it takes up a lot of time when you’re still getting the hang of it. I’ve learned quite a bit through doing it, and it’s been a useful experience overall. Also I’m going to try to update here regularly again, it’s nice for me to have a writing space that isn’t as focused or structured as my thesis. I thought I’d share some of the things that struck me while I was teaching though, as a lot of these things I wish I could have told myself when I was doing my first year. Most teaching is about content and information, which is great and necessary, but there’s more to academic study than knowing the information. You have to know how to put it across, which can be tricky and isn’t always obvious. I learned through trial and error and getting feedback on my essays, which is great, but I think it could be useful to know some of these things up front.
So, some tips for undergraduates.
1) Read everything. Yes, it’s not always the most exciting thing and some academic texts can be dry. But you learn more than just factual information when reading. Academic writing is of a particular style, which you only find in academic writing. If your feedback says your writing is too casual (or as I was once told; journalistic) read more academic works, it helps you understand the tone you should be aiming for. That doesn’t mean you have to use as many big words as possible or be purposefully obscure. Academic writing is clear and understandable, but trying to argue a specific point. My favourite example of academic writing is Oppenheimer (2006). Also from reading everything you can, your essays will be easier to write, because you’ll know what you’re talking about. Writers block? Go and read some more. It also means you’re using more sources of information, which better supports your points, shows you have a greater understanding of the topic and gets you better marks. Instead of studying for a degree, it used to be said that you were reading for a degree. Reading is a big part of it.
2) Do more than one draft. I was always someone who struggled to get to the minimum word count on essays. Looking at the word count every five minutes did not help this. Working to the word count is generally a bad way to approach writing. Undergraduates don’t tend to redraft work, once it’s long enough, spellchecked and the references are in the right place, that’s usually good enough. But you should. Don’t look at the word count on your first draft. Write down as much as you can. Put in all the relevant information you can, regardless of how much it is. It’s always easier to edit out things than it is to have to add things in (and after all that reading, you’ll hopefully have a lot to say). A first draft is rarely your best work. Print it out (the different format makes you see it differently), go through it and mark on everything that needs tweaking. Be it a spelling error, a phrase that needs supporting with a reference, a point that needs expanding, or something that just doesn’t make sense. You can then go through your essay and add these things in and take out the bits that don’t work. If you can, get someone else to read your draft too. Something that might make perfect sense to you might seem very unclear to someone else. I was surprised when I started marking how obvious it is to spot a first draft or an essay that was rushed. It shows in your work. So plan your time and make sure you can do more than one draft.
3) Check your references. I have surprised myself with how angry I can get by people not using the correct referencing format. Each time it happens through an essay it becomes more and more annoying. Referencing conventions aren’t particularly difficult, get to know them. When making notes of who to read or what articles to look up, use those conventions so you are familiar with them. It should become second nature. Don’t think that your lecturers and markers won’t notice if a reference isn’t right. They will. So just put it in the right format. The point of references is to make information findable. If you’ve made an interesting point, I might want to look into it more, so tell me where I can find the information. If you can’t find the full reference for a source, is it a good source? I’d be wary of something that didn’t have a date of publication. References don’t only tell us where something can be found, but support your argument. If you’re writing about young offenders, and mention a particular statistic, why should I believe you? If you can cite a study from a reputable source, that’s evidence of your point, it’s a reason for me to believe what you’re saying. And if it’s in the correct format? You’re on to a winner. It’s difficult to get someone who is annoyed to side with your argument. So using the right referencing style is a very easy way to not annoy your marker.
These might seem like really obvious points, and I hope that most people don’t need to be told this stuff. But it’s always worth reminding ourselves of the basics. The first year of university is a big change for most people and if you’ve not had to write an academic essay before, the obvious basics might not be so obvious.
Oppenheimer, D.M. (2006) “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly” Applied Cognitive Psychology 20 pp:139-156