For this year’s Winter Seasonal Series, entitled Research Resources: Unsung Heroes, each correspondent has selected a faculty member, staff member, or peer working for a research resource on campus to interview. We hope that these interviews will provide insight into the variety of resources available on campus and supply the unique perspective of the people behind these resources. Here, Soo shares her interview.
As part of the Winter Seasonal Series, I interviewed Johanne Kjaersgaard ’22, an international student from Aarhus, Denmark. A prospective Politics major, she currently works as a Fellow at the Writing Center, one of the most widely-used academic support services on campus. Writing Center Fellows take on a variety of tasks, from guiding students in formulating and structuring papers to also offering advice to juniors and seniors in developing their senior theses and navigating their independent research projects.
What do you do? What do you wish students knew about what you do?
At the Writing Center, we help with any part of the writing process – from pre-writing brainstorming, discussing evidence and claims to workshopping the actual text, thesis articulation and structure to final edits, clarity and sentence level flows. Some students seem to avoid coming to the Writing Center before they have a full paper or something “presentable,” but where the student faces the messiest stage of the writing process is perhaps exactly where we can be the most help! For example, if someone is struggling with separating their ideas and structuring their argument before anything is even on the page, we can help with that too!
How did you arrive at this job and why did you choose it?
Through workshopping papers in my writing seminar freshman spring, I realized that I really enjoyed thinking about how to construct and communicate arguments and that this process was also helping me develop my own research intuition and writing skills. Compared to other tutoring positions I’ve been in, writing conferences in my experience have a much more dynamic and mutual flow; it’s a lot of questions, a lot of discussions, and back and forth. At the Writing Center, the student is the expert on what they want to say – we’re here to help put it in clear and compelling terms.
What problems/questions do students usually come to you with?
It’s quite a range to be honest – I think a lot of students are also finding themselves stuck in a way where they aren’t always sure what the problem is. A lot of students will bring up things like “logic” and “flow” when asked what their concerns are, which can mean many things–are the claims made substantiated by the evidence? Does the structure of ideas and argument develop the thesis in a clear way? On the sentence level, is the writing clear?
One issue I often see come up in my conference room is clarifying motive and its different layers. Setting up the relevance and stakes of a text–whether its an academic, argumentative paper or a grant application–is vital not just for “engaging the reader” but really for giving the thesis significance. Because of this relationship, if the thesis has been articulated, it is usually so that it also contains at least a hint of a motive. Uncovering, interrogating, and clarifying this hint, could be one use of the conference room.
What is the most common advice you give?
Don’t worry and use “why” questions to your paper. Writing is a painful process but I contend that it shouldn’t be something that has you worrying! For me, remembering that crunching out a paper is a process operating in two main arenas, one of thinking and building an argument, and one of communicating and writing it down, helps me break down the steps ahead. Since the process may move in and out of these two arenas, it is completely normal if the first draft is some weird place in between. If you’re stuck, thinking about these arenas may help make the task of editing less daunting.
The “why” question is my most powerful writing tool. When making a claim, the “why” question can be used to check if there’s evidence to support the claim (why do you think X?), it can help identifying motive and tying sub-arguments back to the thesis (why is X important/for the thesis?), and it can push analysis further through asking about specific parts of the evidence (e.g. why does the author use this symbol/plot/scene here? Why does the article focus on this aspect over others? Why do policy makers keep emphasizing A instead of B?). The “why” question can be invoked during your brainstorming, as you’re writing, or when reading over and editing your paper, and so the mindset of the “why” question is my go-to advice for a range of challenges in the writing process.
What is your favorite or most rewarding part of your job?
Of course working with students and seeing them leave the conference room more confident about their work is extremely rewarding, but still, my favorite part of being a Writing Fellow is the papers–I find myself learning a lot as I am exposed to a range of fields and also just new approaches to analysing familiar topics. Brainstorming in conferences can be especially fun in this way, as I work with the student to develop their analysis on the go and construct arguments. As a Fellow, I approach the papers coming into the conference room as a detective trying to distill the arguments and ideas, sort of like solving a puzzle, except sometimes the key requires shifting the overarching scope and frame of the task. Doing so is a stimulating and exciting exercise, which helps me refine my own modes of thinking and conducting analysis, that is, writing.
How does this position fit into your future academic plans?
Being a Writing Fellow definitely has quite directly applicable skills for the general research and writing-heavy undergraduate program at Princeton. Further, as someone thinking about graduate school and research-based career opportunities, I’m excited that my work helps me refine my ability to build arguments and articulate them in a clear manner. On a more general level, I think my approach to academic research has sharpened regardless of whether there’s a lot of writing involved. The more papers I workshop, the more convinced I am that writing rarely comes down to the mechanics of punching out lines of text in the voice of a “serious academic writer.” Rather, writing is centered around the clarity and quality of an argument, which is important in any type of research. In other words, I think working as a Writing Fellow has made me a stronger academic thinker and helped me grow as a student.
Writing Center Fellows can thus provide a wide range of support at any given point of the academic research and writing process. As Johanne highlights, Writing Center conferences do not require a finished product–students are encouraged to come seek advice in the process of formulating their thesis or to simply talk through their ideas with a Fellow. And especially for student-held positions like Writing Fellows, guiding other students in the writing process and aiding them in their independent research can be a highly informative experience for the fellow’s own academic and research pursuits. If you’d be interested in being a 2020-2021 Writing Fellow, you can check here for the application deadlines in Spring 2020!
— Soo Young Yun, Humanities Correspondent