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Harvard Writers at Work Presents…

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Top Five Reasons to Come to the Writing Center

by Colin Diersing

1. We can help you talk through a bunch of scattered thoughts and turn them into a thesis.
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2. You’ll be paired with a trained writing center tutor who knows how to help you understand your professor or TF’s expectations.
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3. We’ll help make your argument clear early in your paper.
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4. The writing center can offer moral support.
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5. A writing center appointment can be a great incentive to stop procrastinating and actually write a draft of your paper.
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Comparing Texts: More Than Frenemies

by Maia Silber

When comparing two sources, it’s easy to fall into what I like to call the “friends, enemies, and frenemies” trap. If the two sources present similar perspectives, our first instinct might be to label them “friends”—Source X and Source Y both argue that standardized testing should be used to evaluate high school teachers. Alternatively, if the sources clearly contain opposing viewpoints, we cast them as “enemies”—Source X argues that standardized testing should be used to evaluate high school teachers, but Source Y argues that it should not.

It might seem like the way to add complexity to such theses would be to define the sources as “frenemies”– Source X and Source Y both argue that standardized tests should be used to evaluate high school teachers, but only Source X argues that student reports should also be used to evaluate high school teachers. The problem with the “frenemies” approach is not that it’s inaccurate—any two writers, like any two people, will agree on some points and disagree on others—but that it does not account for why or how the authors agree and disagree.

A good comparison, someone once told me, finds the like in the unlike and the unlike in the like. To present a more complex account of how two sources relate to one another, it’s helpful to remember that writers can be more than frenemies—they might, for instance, relate to each other in the following ways:

THE SPRINTER AND THE JOGGER: The sprinter and the jogger each have the same goal—the finish line—but they’re going to get there in different ways. Source X and Source Y might be making the same argument—each claims that standardized testing should not be used to evaluate high school teachers—but for different reasons. Source X might argue that standardized testing should not be used to evaluate high school teachers because standardized tests don’t reliably predict students’ academic success. Source Y might claim that standardized tests do a great job of predicting students’ academic success, but still argue that standardized tests should not be used to evaluate teachers because students with high IQs will score well regardless of time spent in class.

TWO COOKS IN THE KITCHEN: Have you ever watched one of those TV cooking challenges, where both chefs get the same ingredients to create their dishes? They each start out with similar combinations of milk, eggs, and flour, but one bakes a pound cake and the other a puff pastry. Source X and Source Y might both be using the same tool—the value of meritocracy, say—and come to entirely different conclusions. Source X argues that standardized test scores provide the most objective way to measure teachers’ performance, but Source Y argues that in-class evaluations provide a larger picture of teachers’ merit.

THE THEORETICIAN AND THE PRACTITIONER: When comparing a secondary source to a primary source, you can imagine discovering a cure in the lab and then testing it on real patients. Does the cure work? What real-life variables not present in the lab might affect it? Did the lab report anticipate its success rate, and if not, why? If Secondary Source X argues that standardized testing should be used to evaluate high school teachers, and Primary Source Y charts students’ standardized test scores against teachers’ in-class evaluations at public and private high schools, what might looking at Source X and Source Y together tell us about the real-life situations where standardized test scores accurately do or don’t accurately measure teachers’ performance?

THE DOCTOR AND THE PATIENT: A medical analogy might also be fitting to describe another way that primary and secondary sources interact. Say that a patient comes to a doctor’s office complaining of a problem—he’s been exercising every day and can’t lose weight. The doctor asks him about his eating habits, and finds that he’s been consuming a high-calorie diet. Primary Source X (the patient) finds that standardized test scores don’t reflect teachers’ performance ratings at low-income schools. If Secondary Source Y (the doctor) suggests that standardized test scores are affected by school resources and funding, how might this account for the data in Primary Source X?

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Welcome Back!

We will open for the semester on Thursday, September 11. Please check back for new writing advice!

Writing in Different Disciplines

Writing in Different Disciplines

Are you wondering how you the papers you write in one course differ from those you write in another course? Check out our series of Brief Guides to Writing in the Disciplines to learn about the conventions and expectations in different disciplines.

Need some help with your research paper?

Need some help with your research paper?

Is Your Introduction Any Good?

by Christina Twicken

In this blog post, I pan for some nuggets of gold in the introductory paragraph of an influential essay written by famed scholar and philosopher Cornel West entitled “The Paradox of the Afro-American Rebellion.”  Here is the paragraph:

The distinctive feature of Afro-American life in the 60s was the rise on the historical stage of a small yet determined petite bourgeoisie promoting liberal reforms, and the revolt of the masses, whose aspirations exceeded those of liberalism but whose containment was secured by political appeasement, cultural control and state repression. Afro-America encountered the modern American capitalist order (in its expansionist phase)—as urban dwellers, industrial workers and franchised citizens—on a broad scale for the first time. This essay will highlight the emergence of the black parvenu petite bourgeoisie—the  new, relatively privileged, middle class—and its complex relations to the black working poor and underclass.  I will try to show how the political strategies, ideological struggles and cultural anxieties of this predominantly white-collar stratum of the black working class both propelled the freedom movement in an unprecedented manner and circumscribed its vision, analysis and praxis within liberal capitalist perimeters.[1]

I share this introduction with you because it teems with lessons by which to live.  Here’s a breakdown of why this introduction is so intellectually and academically “on-point.”

  • Begins with a hook which directly introduces the tension that the paper will explore (the black middle class’s complicated location within the ideologies and structures of liberalism)
  • Moves to explicitly state [in the underlined region] the observations (evidence) that the essay will mobilize
  • Employs the first person to directly indicate originality and contestability
  • Offers a succinct thesis statement [in bold] which contains:
  1. A clear reason why this thesis is worth arguing (to identify and examine a paradox)
  2. An argumentative atmosphere (I could ostensibly come back at West and suggest an alternative vision of the paradox or perhaps a resolution to the paradox)
  3. An explicit allusion to the subject matter around which the analysis will be framed (political strategies, ideological structures, cultural anxieties…)

The best way to improve writing is to read good writing.  Don’t go and copy West’s thesis (!), but mobilize him as a model for judging the writing you do.  Does your introduction hit all of the bases? Does it have a topic? Does it outline the kind of evidence that the essay will use to prove its point? Does it explicitly state why such a presentation of evidence is important/revealing/inspiring/groundbreaking/original/unobvious/interesting?


[1] Cornel West, “The Paradox of the Afro-American Rebellion,” Social Text no. 9/10 (1 April 1984): 44.

WELCOME BACK

The Writing Center will open for the semester on September 13 at 9 a.m.  We look forward to seeing you soon!

Ecker Prize

The Ecker Short Story Prize for first-year students

Spring Term Deadline:
Wednesday, May 18, 2011 by 5:00 p.m.

The Ecker Short Story Prize honors a short story written by a Harvard freshman.  Submissions will be accepted electronically.  To enter, submit an original short story (or several stories) totaling no more than 25 pages to the submission dropbox on the Harvard College Writing Program website.  To submit, you must log in to the Harvard University system at the top of the page:

Go to: http://writingprogram.fas.harvard.edu
               Click on Exposé Magazine
Use the “Submissions” tab to access the Ecker Short Story Prize dropbox
Entry requirements:

  • All submissions must be double-spaced
  • All submissions must be submitted in Microsoft Word or a compatible program
  • All submissions must be written in English
  • Fill out the entry form on the submission page
  • Include the title of the story on the first page of the manuscript
  • Don’t include your name anywhere on the manuscript

Freshmen are eligible to submit stories for the Ecker Prize at both the fall deadline and the spring deadline.  If you submitted a story in January and want to submit an additional story at the May deadline, the submissions cannot total more than 25 pages.

The winner will receive a generous award, with the possibility of online publication.

Questions? Contact Karen L. Heath at KLHeath@fas.harvard.edu