Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Writing With Class

I’m teaching three classes this semester, Learning, Historical and Applied Perspectives, and Writing in Psychology. I developed that last course with a colleague, Du Bois Williams, a number of years ago, because we saw a big need for better communication skills in our students. I always enjoy teaching it.

Du Bois and I wrote the text that we use in the class, and later a third Colleague, Elliott Hammer, added his efforts to that text. I learn new things every time I teach the course and I hope to have some insights for you here on the blog across the semester. Today is the first class, and I’ll be introducing the format and talking about the resources the students will need.

Writing can take place with very simple tools, a pencil, some paper, and a mind. But it’s good to have some resources to back up what you already know. Besides our text, I tell the students they’ll need:

1. A dictionary. I carry the Oxford American Dictionary around with me, because it’s the biggest paperback dictionary available. I have the Random House Unabridged Dictionary for home.

2. A thesaurus. I use Webster’s New World Thesaurus in dictionary form. I was reading another writing in psychology guidebook the other day and it said, “avoid the thesaurus, use everyday language.” I believe this is absolutely horrible advice. There’s certainly something to be said for everyday language, but the problem is that many students don’t have nearly the vocabulary they need in the first place and a thesaurus is a good way to build one.

3. A book on grammar. I use The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer.

4. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. You've got to have a style manual specific to your discipline.

5. Although I don’t require them, I suggest students look into getting a dictionary of psychology, and I strongly suggest they have a look at two of the best books on writing well that I’ve ever read, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

* * * * *

In other news, poet Greg Schwartz has put up a review of my haiku chapbook, Wanting the Mouth of a Lover, over at his Haiku and Horror Blog. He had some nice words to say and it means a lot coming from another poet, and one whose own work I respect so highly. Check it out if you’ve got a moment.


Ello - Ellen Oh said...

So funny Charles - I just added Strunk and White to my required book list for my syllabus. It's amazing how many students don't seem to have the basic elements of how to write. It can be so very frustrating!

Your class sounds fascinating! Wish I was taking it!

Paul R. McNamee said...

I believe a thesaurus is a good tool.

Hopefully they use a thesaurus correctly. Some people think words are interchangeable and they just pluck words from the thesaurus to avoid repetition and they don't choose the correct word for the context or to create a specific conveyance of thought.

Lisa said...

I have a relatively new Webster's dictionary and thesaurus, but as I have been looking up lots of words lately, I've found that there are quite a few words I can't find in it, but this online dictionary http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ has been very helpful. Since these are presumably pretty young students, maybe some online resources might be useful.

BernardL said...

Communication is a skill sadly lacking due to the popular culture of 'talking stupid', which leaves the exchange of ideas in need of mental telepathy. In dealing with my two grown up mush mouth kids, I've also perceived a need for enunciation being added to the curriculum. :)

strugglingwriter said...

Good luck with the classes.

I want me a copy of the Fiftieth Anniversary edition of that book!


Lana Gramlich said...

You can lead a student to good tools, but you can't make them (think?) use them, unfortunately. Best of luck & thanks for the opportunity to create a cover for the guidebook.
Congrats on the review, too!

Crushed said...

Have you seen the episode of friends where Joey uses the Thesaurus to write his best mam's speech? ;)

'Monica and Chandler have humid aortic pumps'.

Greg said...

thanks for the link, Charles. that psychology writing class sounds like a great idea. i was a psych major, but we never had access to a class like that.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ello, as I said to my students this morning, it largely depends on what effort they are willing to expend.

Paul, good point. I always talk to them about looking up any word you're not sure of. And we have vocabularly building lessons and exercises for class.

Lisa, we actually have a list of websites in our guidebook that feature online dictionaries and so on.

Bernardl, I know my students' vocabularies often hold them back from truly understanding some specific subject matter.

Strugglingwriter, I want a copy as well. I have copies of Editions 1, 2 and 3.

Lana, thank you sweetness. Everyone is remarking on the great cover photo.

Crushed, no, I missed that one, although I've actually watched quite a few episodes of friends. I'll have to try and catch that one.

Spy Scribbler said...

I've been reading grammar books, lately. I've been second-guessing all I know, lately. It's odd.

SQT said...

Great advice. I have almost all of those books but the psychology one-- what a great idea!

Having a dictionary and a thesaurus is a must. I often think I know the meaning of something because of seeing it in context so many times, but I'm usually a little off on one specific or another. Double checking never hurts.

Leigh Russell said...

Sounds like a first rate course. I agree, we can all do with help when writing and you're clearly encouraging your students to get into good habits. Well done on the very positive review.

Mary Witzl said...

I am a huge thesaurus fan: I always like to keep my Roget's nearby. I agree with Paul (above) that people need to use a thesaurus correctly, but I sometimes think that the best way to learn how to do this is to misuse it a little first.

Strunk & White's Elements of Style is great, but boy, our students are leagues apart! Plenty of mine don't know how to use plurals and are unaware that you don't need auxiliaries with simple past affirmative sentences. I've just been through 13 compositions with "Today I was studied two hour." S i g h...

Anonymous said...

Those are good books Charles. I like your suggestion of the psycholoy book.

Good comments on the review of your haiku.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Are writing skills continuing to deteriorate in your neck of the woods? Our students all take three writing courses, pass a test and still you tear your hair out.

Chris Benjamin said...

didn't even know you were a poet. congrats on that great review.

poet, scholar, novelist --sorry but you are now too qualified-slash-elitist to be president.

Erik Donald France said...

Congrats on both counts!

That's very very cool, and the other classes sound intiguing, too.

Cloudia said...

I feel the excitement of a new semester, thanks/
GREAT advice for ANY writer. Paul makeds a good point. I often see word usages that are "off" and find it hard to explain why, but my ear is a strict mistress. Can't wait to see what else you post on topics related to the class.
congratualtions on your fine review. well deserved, I'm sure. aloha-

Charles Gramlich said...

Spyscribbler, sometimes second guessing leads to better guessing next time around.

SQT, I use my dictionaries almost religiously.

Leigh, I hope I don't have to spend too much time breaking them of bad habits.

Mary Witzl, some of mine aren't much better. I overhear some real manglers of the language.

Jack, thanks.

Pattinase, I often feel I'm fighting a losing battle. There just seems less and less care. I see a big increase in phone text speak these days.

Benjibopper, but I'm way too smart to run for president. lol.

Erik, thanks. They seem pretty good so far.

Cloudia, thanks, I appreciate that.

the walking man said...

Why have I never read a resource book on "how to write?"

The simple tools always seemed sufficient.

My the reason of my failure I suppose.

Monique said...

I'm with Paul. I love finding different words but you do have to be so careful. English is a wonderful language with so many words and so many different definitions. Sadly the kids of today don't seem to respect that and use text in almost everything. Grammar and spelling seems to have gone with the wind.

Vesper said...

The courses you're teaching sound wonderfully interesting to me, Charles. And that's a good list of books.

I apologise, but I must say that I just love your colleague's name, Du Bois Williams. Sounds like a good name for an interesting character... :-)

Sarai said...

I will have to look into these books. And I have to say I've learned that a thesaurus can be a writer's best friend.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, I've read a bunch of them. Some have helped, some haven't. I think "how to" books or guides are better for specific writing tasks, like "writing in psychology" than they are for general writing. I've always been very curious, too, about how other writers work.

Monique, any tool can be misused, but I'd rather them try and end up misusing a word than never trying at all.

Vesper, Du Bois is a great character herself. She is the granddaughter of W. E. B. DuBois, and was the first faculty member hired in psyc after I came to Xavier.

Sarai, I wear my thesauruses (thesari?) out.

Anndi said...

I wish I'd had a teacher like you when I was studying for my degree.

Kudos to you, my friend.

And congrats on the positive review.

Tyhitia Green said...

I bought Strunk and White some time ago. I also like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. :-) I also just bought Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. I need to pick up ON WRITING WELL.

Your class sounds wonderful. We we never offered such a class when I majored in Psychology.

j said...

Your post answered a lingering question that I would not voice... "What do you teach?"

And now I know.

I have my thesaurus from High School and still use it today (though you would not know it on my blog considering my fixation with words like thingy, stuff, and 'you know what I mean').

Grammar? I bought a book a year ago and I know now that I am HOPELESS. Going to click the link now!

ivan said...

You wouldn't admit this to an undergraduate, but I'm sure you've already thrown away your dictionary and thesaurus.

Seem to me that's about the point where you become a writer.

Quick. Look up Syzygy. :)

Drizel said...

Awesome.....can't wait to learn more:)

David Cranmer said...

Dictionary... check. Thesaurus... check. Book on grammar... uh. I could benefit from your class even though I'm not a Psychology major. Where do I sign up?! Sounds like you'll get your students up to speed in no time.

Steve Malley said...

My dictionary/thesaurus is a free download called WordWeb, larger than any of the bound dictionaries I have at home and handily portable on my laptop.

And yeah, you just can't beat Strunk and White!

Charles Gramlich said...

Anndi, you flatter me. Thanks!

Demon Hunter, thanks for the tips on books. I'm always looking for good ones. We never had a course on writing in undergrad (or grad school) either and I think they can be of help.

Jennifer, I'm an "experimental" psychologist and teach mostly research and application courses as opposed to clinical courses.

Ivan, I'm afraid not old friend. I hang onto mine, and still use them. Especially my dictionary.

Etain, glad you enjoyed.

David Cranmer, getting them up to speed is more difficult than it would appear.

Steve Malley, I use online dictionaires quite a bit myself. They can be very handy.

JR's Thumbprints said...

My students will tell you: "That's a load of crap. I don't need no resources." You see, Charles, their confidence is what got them locked up in the first place. A little common sense goes a long way.

Scott said...


I use my dictionary and thesaurus regularly...I think they've helped me quite a bit.

Shauna Roberts said...

I honored your blog today with a Prémio Dardos award at my blog: http://shaunaroberts.blogspot.com/2009/01/prmio-dardos.html. Thanks for being a bright light in the blogging world.

Charles Gramlich said...

J. R., I wonder how some of the folks I teach managed to obtain their incredibly high self esteem. Obviously, self-esteem isn't based on performance in some cases.

Scott, I still use mine quite a lot as well.

laughingwolf said...

good references, charles

i have the s&w, roget's 150th anniversary thesaurus, j.i.rodale's the synonym finder, webster's contemporary school and office thesaurus, merriam webster's collegiate dictionary [10th ed], and the 2009 dvd edition of the encyclopedia britannica

but i'm still stuck for words at times :O lol

grats on the review :D

Barbara Martin said...

My Oxford Thesaurus has seen better days, but it always provides the perfect word I'm looking for at the moment.

steve on the slow train said...

I've had little use for most how-to-write books. Zinsser is an exception.

"Avoid the thesaurus" may be bad advice for some, but I can see why the guidebook included it. Not only is the danger of writing what Orwell called "pretentious diction," but there's also the problem Paul McNamee pointed out--that there are few true synonyms. A word gleaned from the thesaurus may not meean what the author intended. Of course, a trip from the thesaurus to the dictionary could solve that problem.

X. Dell said...

I've always found this page helpful when working in cyberspace, especially when I'm too lazy to pull the Sturnk and White off the bookshelf.

Sam said...

I love my thesaurus - can't live without it. And my absolute favorite book on writing is The Elements of Style. I think I own all three editions, lol.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, aren't we all, my friend?

Barbara, I keep one thesaurus at home and another at work because I end up writing in both places.

Steve, yes, Zinsser is excellent. I make sure to tell students that using the thesaurus doesn't mean you can ignore the dictionary to check those words.

X-Dell, I'm headed over to check out that link after I post these replies. Thanks.

Sam, I've got each of the first three editions but I know there is a forth out there as well.

laughingwolf said...

that's the problem with english, i heard there are some 500 or so words added... per week!

Rick said...

Okay, Charles, I'll be the one to admit it. I have all of the books you were discussing, but I try not to open them more than once per year. You've shamed me into opening them twice a year! :)

Pamala Knight said...

Good luck with your class. You've given your students some wonderful tools to get them started. Oh, and thanks for the link to your poetry, it was beautiful!

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, aye, have you ever looked at the Oxford English Dictionary? Volume after volume. SOmething like 800,000 words.

Rick, don't strain yourself now, my friend. ;)

Pamela, thanks for visiting and for the kind words.

WH said...

Zinser, Strunk, and White--they are "musts" for any writer at any level!!!

cs harris said...

I freely admit to using a thesaurus to avoid repetition. There are times when my brain just gets stuck on one word and I need to repeat it. Inevitably when I look it up, I go, "Duh; why didn't I think of that?"

L.A. Mitchell said...

Stephen King takes that stance on the thesaurus, too. Not sure I agree with any rule that's a "never"

Miladysa said...

Interesting as always.

I use the spell and grammar checker on the laptop - get's it wrong every time ;D

Travis Cody said...

Oddly enough, aside from the psychology specific resources you noted, those are exactly the same writing resource materials I was advised to purchase in the very first college English course I took way back when I was 18 years old.

I still have all the original copies I purchased as well. And I agree that a thesaurus is an often over-looked but key tool to developing a strong and varied vocabulary.

sage said...

Interesting class.

Zinsser also has another book on writing memoirs--it's good--he also explores the pros and cons of memoirs (he has reservations about the "tell-all" memoirs).

Charles Gramlich said...

Billy, yes, I'm getting ready to share some Zinsser with the class. Great stuff.

Candy, that's very true. And happens to me all the time. That's just one reason I think using a thesarus is a good thing.

L. A., agreed. Rules are made to be broken.

Miladysa, thanks. I hardly ever use my grammar checker on fiction. And the spell checker is helpful but not a godsend.

Travis, the classics never die, I guess. They are certainly worth it to me. You feel about the Thesaurus just as I do.

Sage, a book on Memoirs? I've got to check it out. I've not seen that one.