Write On, Write Well: Lessons From a Semester Abroad

This spring semester, I am enrolled as a visiting student at Hertford College, University of Oxford. While now I am back home on Long Island taking my Oxford courses online (just as Princeton students are Zooming into their own lectures and precepts in these strange times of COVID-19), I was able to spend about two months in Oxford. It was a truly wonderful experience; the city is beautiful, the people kind, and the academics engaging and rigorous.

The course of study at Oxford is quite different from that at Princeton. There, students do attend lectures, and sometimes seminars, but most of their academic work is conducted in preparation for tutorials. Tutorials meet most weeks each term, and consist of an hour-long meeting with a professor, either one-on-one or with one or two other students. For each tutorial, students must write an essay of around 2,000-2,500 words to discuss with their professors. Professors give the prompt in advance, and students are expected to craft a response based upon weekly reading lists. These lists are usually quite long, and students are by no means meant to read each item (this would be almost impossible; my reading lists for history courses usually had around ten prescribed primary sources, and thirty or so books and articles suggested for further reading). Rather, students must explore the different sources, be selective, and find works which are relevant to the argument they wish to make. Even though this curriculum differs notably from Princeton’s, it still taught me valuable lessons about my writing process that will help me at Princeton and beyond. Working on tutorial papers, in sum, has made me approach my writing with better time management, more confidence, and more appreciation for the craft of the essay.

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How to Pull Yourself Out of a Thesis-Writing Slump

We’ve all been there. We all know what it feels like to take a break⁠—whether it’s on purpose or by accident⁠—from a lengthy paper; it can be overwhelming when you realize that you messed up your writing process timeline. Personally, I recently took a looooong break (think: three weeks, give or take) from writing my thesis. Part of it was by accident; due to COVID-19, all Princeton students were told to move out and head back home for the remainder of the semester. The stress of packing, saying goodbye to my friends and the campus, and moving out caused my thesis to take a backseat in terms of priorities. Once I arrived home, I purposefully decided to extend my break from writing my thesis in order to unpack, get settled, and get used to online classes. One day lead to the next, and suddenly, I had spent three weeks away from my thesis.

It’s hard to hold yourself accountable about your thesis during breaks.
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Tips on Writing a Philosophy Paper for Non-Philosophy Majors

Writing a philosophy paper can be intimidating for non-philosophy majors.

Last spring, I took PHI 203: Introduction to Metaphysics and Epistemology. I had never taken a philosophy class before in my life, and in the beginning it was difficult to wrap my head around the theories brought up in the readings and precept, let alone execute a coherent argument in a paper. Throughout the course, I learned a lot not just about the theories and arguments in philosophy, but about the distinct style of philosophical writing itself. In drafting the papers, I realized just how different writing a philosophy paper is compared to writing papers in other humanities and social science disciplines. This post contains some tips on how to approach a philosophy paper for those unfamiliar with the field: 

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A Few Tips for Successful Writing

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The cover of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. In this post, I suggest that consulting a style guide such as this can be a useful step toward improving your writing.

As regular readers of this blog will know, several other PCURs and I are in the throes of writing our theses. Personally, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing: what makes it effective, what strategies are successful, and what I can do to improve my own. I am by no means an expert writer, but in this post I will share a few tactics that have proven useful as I progress towards a submission-ready senior thesis. While this reflection stems from my own thesis experiences, I hope that writers of all class years and departments might find in it some principles of general applicability.

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Writing Lessons from my Creative Writing Workshop

This semester, I took my first fiction workshop in Princeton’s Creative Writing Program. I had taken two poetry courses in previous semesters and wanted to try something new. (Pro-tip: if you haven’t yet taken a CWR course, definitely consider applying for one before graduating).

Creative writing is, in many ways, a break from academic writing. It does not center on data, analysis, or argumentation. Instead, workshops focus on developing compelling images, characters, stories. Creative writing also has access to a wider variety of forms than academic writing, which tends to adhere to a narrow set of relatively conservative styles.

My Creative Writing professor, Yiyun Li, leading a Fiction workshop.

However, some of my workshop instructor’s writing advice has translated well to my academic writing. After all, writing is writing, and many of the same challenges confront both creative and academic writers. Below I’ve collected five of her best pieces of writing advice:

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Research Resources: Unsung Heroes, An Interview with Writing Center Fellow Johanne Kjaersgaard ‘22

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.

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Johanne, a sophomore from Aarhus, Denmark 

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. 

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How to Survive a Writing-heavy Semester

The Rocky-Mathey library, where I wrote most of my papers last spring.

It’s always recommended to balance your course workload appropriately with a good number of paper classes and problem set (p-set) classes. While it’s definitely not ideal, sometimes you just end up taking multiple classes with a demanding reading and writing workload–which means you can also end up with four or five final papers. Some students may actually prefer having only papers and no exams, and vice versa. Exams are a one-and-done deal, whereas final papers allow an indefinite amount of time and access to endless resources–but this can be stressful in its own way. Sometimes, you never know when you’re truly done with a paper, and it can be difficult to allocate time effectively when you’re juggling multiple written assignments. 

Being a prospective English major, I tend to pile my coursework with a lot of reading and writing-heavy classes. Last spring, I took four humanities/social science classes and had four papers due for Dean’s Date. Needless to say, in the beginning I felt overwhelmed by the thought of having to write and polish several papers in what felt like not nearly enough time. As a general rule of thumb, I’ve learned that time management is especially crucial when having to complete multiple Dean’s Date assignments, and that planning ahead on your papers can make your life so much easier. 

Aside from time management, here are some tips so that you can avoid feeling a sense of impending doom by the time Dean’s Date rolls around:

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Writing for Fun? Part 1: Creativity and Academic Writing

We are constantly writing––composing emails, blackboard posts, essays, and dean’s date papers. In this two-part series, I am interested in understanding the different forms of writing students explore on campus. Specifically, I interview students who write for campus publications to see how they approach the writing process in their extracurriculars.

In this post, I Interview Serena Alagappan ’20, the Editor-in-Chief and a writer for Nassau Weekly. Serena is a comparative literature major who, for three years now, has shared poetry, cultural critiques, profiles, and fiction through the Nass. In my interview with Serena, we discuss creative writing and the connection she has experienced between her academic and personal writing. Serena encourages students to explore writing through the Creative Writing program and shares advice on how students can carry over the freedom and expression of creative writing into more formal and rigid academic subjects.

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The Junior Paper: A Halftime Report

1879 Hall, home to Princeton’s Department of Religion, where in a few weeks the author will submit the final draft of his JP.

My friends and fellow students, springtime has sprung forth from the recently-frozen New Jersey soil. Spring Break is in the rear-view mirror, and we march toward Dean’s Date, finals, and summer at a steady clip. But another set of deadlines draws even nearer, deadlines whose immediacy can be seen on the tired faces of many upper-class students. Yes, friends, I’m talking about independent work, JPs and theses, the academic tulips of the Princeton spring semester. Continue reading The Junior Paper: A Halftime Report

Stick to What You Know: Relying on Past Experience to Tackle your Senior Thesis

As we head into April, many Senior Thesis deadlines (including my own!) are fast approaching, so I naturally thought it would be fitting to reflect on my thesis experience. Over the years, many PCUR posts have been written about theses and rightly so given that they are such a significant component of the undergraduate research experience. Many of these posts and much of the discourse surrounding the Senior Thesis emphasize what makes this project exceptional, framing it as the capstone of our college careers, an unprecedented challenge, and quite possibly the longest paper we will ever write.

While I by no means disagree with these characterizations, I want to present a slightly different perspective in this post. Instead of focusing on how theses are exceptional feats, I reflect on the ways in which I have found my thesis to be similar to past academic work that I have done at Princeton.

It’s a Woodrow Wilson School department tradition that all of the seniors jump in the Robertson Hall fountain after they hand in their theses.

I’m writing my thesis on state-to-state differences in the provision of maternal health care for pregnant and postpartum women in U.S. state prisons. I wrote one of my Junior Papers (JPs) on this general topic, so my thesis wasn’t entirely uncharted territory. But the content was not the only part of my thesis that felt relatively familiar—I found that my past research experiences at Princeton had appropriately prepared me to collect data, structure my thesis, and address broader research implications as well.

To gather data for my thesis, I primarily relied on state correctional reports, a legal research database, and information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. While I had not used all of these sources before, I had experience using similar datasets and research databases either for my JPs or for other research assignments. For instance, as I mentioned in my most recent post, I had met with a subject librarian to learn how to find and use data and reports from Senegalese governmental agencies for one of my JPs. When I embarked on data collection for my thesis, I relied heavily on the past guidance I had received on these types of searches. Continue reading Stick to What You Know: Relying on Past Experience to Tackle your Senior Thesis