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Eric Nelson

Using examples from his own teaching, Eric discusses what readers expect from academic writing and how reading itself helps one become a better writer.

Featuring
Eric Nelson

Interviewers
Maija Brown
Zack Pierson

Editors
Johanna Mueller
Zack Pierson

Advisors
Farha Ahmed
Daniel Balm
Linda Clemens
Debra Hartley
Huy Hoang
Kirsten Jamsen
Katie Levin
Mitch Ogden
Kim Strain

© 2010, Center for Writing
writing.umn.edu/sws/voices
Please do not quote without permission.

I think one very short sentence that I like--it’s in the book [Pocket Keys for Writers, 2009] that I’m paraphrasing, of course, but it’s in my current book [that I’m using in my class]: “Readers don’t want to know just what you have observed--read, researched, found, blah-blah-blah--they don’t want to know just what you have observed; they want to know what you have to say about it.” And I like the way she puts that--Ann Raimes, the author that I’m talking about--“they want to know what you have to say about it.” It doesn’t use the word “opinion,” because somehow that’s kind of limiting to me, and students may think, “I have no opinion,” but they damn well better have something to say if they’re at a university. So, I like that short... I like that short piece of advice. In terms of helping students appreciate what that means, I think peer reading is a great thing because you find, in any group, that a lot of people do understand what that’s about. And I think reading, again, reading papers of former students, which are provided by a teacher, that’s very helpful. And reading all sorts of stuff everywhere is very helpful.

Our talk about this reminded me of a Japanese teacher, who was also--obviously--a highly advanced student of English in Japan. And he told me that he kept his English alive by reading--I believe it was--Time magazine, and I was really impressed, so... I told him that, and he said, “Yeah, well, of course, I skip the first and second paragraphs.” Because the first and second paragraphs are about Leave It to Beaver, and who the hell is Leave It to Beaver? Or what is Leave It to Beaver? [Leave It to Beaver was a popular TV show in the 1950s that idealized white, middle-class suburban life in America.] But if he gets to the third paragraph and sees something about changing roles in the family or something, then he knows what it’s about, and Leave It to Beaver is not that important. So he recognized that, and, as a reader, that helped him a lot.

Now, as a writer, I think those add something to our writing. I mean, they’re... We do it for a reason; they’re interesting and attractive to readers. Somehow they even add some sort of credibility to me, and I encourage students to do something like that. So, we might read--we have read many times--something that is about... --it was written by a student but published in a newspaper--about... it was questioning universities’ heavy investment in technology, in light of the fact that students are spending a lot of time playing World of Warcraft or whatever like that, downloading stuff. One of the sort of typical arguments that come up with technology all the time. But the student who wrote it, wrote it in a very detailed way but also in a very readable way by saying--I think at one point it says something like--“When you go to the library you see all these people at computer screens: what are they doing?” Now, he did not say, as his next sentence, “They are doing nonacademic work.” He said, “They’re playing World of Warcraft, they’re downloading the latest Britney Spears, they’re blah-blah-blah.” So he used those details to make his general point.

And, in the case of students who are writing about their own culture, they can do that, too. I mean, if they’re writing about the highly competitive education system in Taiwan, there’s no reason they can’t tell about the sad story of some student who dropped out or something like that. They can go to a very detailed level and find their own Leave It to Beaver. But explain it.

Students may come from backgrounds that encourage them to be very humble, with respect to writers whose work they read and teachers. And they may not feel they have “permission” to say certain things, and, just today in one of my classes--I can’t remember what the content was, but--the student looked at me and said, “I can say that?” And other students have very often asked if it’s okay to use “I” and, of course, sometimes it’s not, but often it is. And it’s probably more often than not it’s okay at a university at the undergraduate level. I guess my hope is that students of mine who move on to academic classes can learn from those discussions that display other students’ contributions and critical thinking. And maybe they won’t have the strength to jump in and offer their own, but I think they are very often thinking the right things but just haven’t got permission to say them.

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