The Looking Glass

The Looking Glass

The Department of Psychology


Diane Lewis

Soapbox -- speak, orate, rant, rave, expound, harangue (MS Works 4.0 Thesaurus)

I'm not really certain how many of you are familiar with the concept of the "Soapbox." Historically speaking, I believe it goes back to England, when those who wanted to communicate political and social ideas did not readily have access to the various media available today. So, to get to the "grass roots" population, speakers would find a street corner, climb on a soap crate and pontificate to whoever would listen. Well, in my family, we have a soapbox tradition, if you will, whereby anyone who feels so moved by passion or need for verbal disgorgement, can request or seize soapbox time. This most often takes place in the kitchen or at the dining room table and the speaker usually stands, sometimes even on a chair, in lieu of a soapbox. The rule is: you get five minutes to make your point. After that time you are fair game for heckling, harassment, or simple rejection. So, if you have something important to convey, you best do it in the first few minutes, or you're likely to be talking to the dirty dishes. Soapbox monologues have no other rules, but if the language gets too rude or abusive, those present reserve the right to "bail." Enough said. It's time to get to the point before I lose all of you.

I've encountered many students in the department,

as well as in the Writing Center,

who have told me they just can't write

-- never could, never will.

I don't care what your reason is, if you can't write a decent essay or a good research paper, you need to reevaluate your priorities immediately! Yes, I mean each one of you -- you know who you are. I don't refer to your beliefs about what constitutes a good paper; I refer to the norms and standards of our academic institutions, starting with the professors in this department. You may be asking yourself; I wonder how good she is at writing? My response is -- not good enough! I am still working on improving my writing and will probably do so until the day I die; but, good enough to pass the WPE and work as a graduate consultant for the Writing Center. Good enough to get paid to interview NBA (yes, THE NBA) ballplayers for Hoop Magazine; good enough to write proposals for government contracts and get paid for it. So, back to you!

The fact is, that students are supposedly here to get additional education to enhance earning capabilities in the future. I realize some students are here simply to keep peace in the family and avoid having to deal with getting a job in what is presently a very difficult market, especially without a degree. I also know, there are many students, like myself, who are working, have families, and are back in school to improve their income potential. It doesn't matter what the reason, if you don't know how to write succinctly and in grammatically correct English, your future success and earning power will be severely limited. Now, I will grant an exception. If you are a non-native speaker, and choose to remain personally and professionally within the milieu of your native language, then your success will be tied to the demands of that particular culture. As a future researcher, I am keenly alert for exceptions, but here, as in research, the focus is on the majority of cases, not the exceptions.

I've encountered many students in the department, as well as in the Writing Center, who have told me they just can't write -- never could, never will. If you've made it this far, I am obliged to tell you that I find it hard to accept this as truth. I admonish anyone who feels that way to carefully consider the rationality of such a statement. First, you've had to write something, somewhere in the process of getting here. You've taken the EPT and have to meet GE English requirements. Even if you've managed to avoid it by somehow commandeering outside assistance, then it's time to find out what you can do. You can't get out of here without passing the WPE, which only you can complete. I might add, passing the WPE (Writing Proficiency Exam), although necessary, is far from sufficient in terms of future success in graduate studies or management levels of employment. Now is the time and this is the place to rectify whatever shortcomings exist in your writing skills. "Ahhh, but...." Some of you are saying, "I have a wonderful computer that does grammar check and spell check, so what more do I need?"

I say, "You need to get a reality check!" Spell checkers are extremely limited for identifying correct words when you don't have a clue about how to spell -- especially if you are spelling phonetically. Furthermore, I have yet to find a grammar check that can correct poor syntax or a writer's lack of understanding of their subject matter. And what if, God forbid, your disk wipes out, your hard drive crashes, we have a power outage -- what if you actually have to write this by hand! It's your worst nightmare, right? Effective written communications require a writer who knows and understands clearly the material or concepts that are to be conveyed in the writing process. If you, as the author of a paper, read a journal article and don't fully understand what you are reading, and then attempt to put this information into a research paper, you will most likely get "busted." By this I mean, the reader of your paper will either become confused because your message is unclear, or they will notice the inconsistencies in the continuity of the information presented. This particular problem is one seen frequently in the research papers of students in the Psychology Department.

If you understand the material, but don't know how to skillfully paraphrase or put the information into your words, then you need to make an active commitment to learning how to do that. This can be done in various ways. You could buy a book (available at the student bookstore) which includes instructions for paraphrasing as well as examples. This, of course, requires several additional steps, that is, reading the stuff and practicing the process. You could also take a free workshop offered by the Writing Center on "Research Documentation." Again, this requires the additional effort of getting the schedule and attending a workshop that typically lasts for one hour. I am a graduate student in the Psychology Department, and teach one such workshop and therefore have an intimate knowledge of the writing needs of Psychology students. I would strongly suggest that you run to the nearest phone and call the Writing Center to register for one of my workshops being offered this quarter.

For those students with more fundamental problems involving sentence structure, vocabulary, appropriate use of prepositions, and verb tense, the effort is more remedial. That is to say, the corrective measures will most likely include making a commitment to learning the basics of grammar and punctuation that were previously overlooked in your elementary or high school years. I hear moans and groans... well, you could pay someone else to do it for you, but that takes money. So, we have a kind of "catch-22" developing; to make good money in the field of Psychology, you must be a proficient writer. And, if you are not a proficient writer, you won't have enough money to pay someone else to do it for you. Hmm.... You could change you major, but that's the easy way out. LEARN HOW TO WRITE!

This last statement brings to mind Dr. Michael Wapner's infamous lecture on foreclosure a.k.a. commitment. I am not certain if he offers his wisdom on the subject in any class other than in Cognitive Psychology, nor whether any other professor waxes as eloquently on the subject. The bottom line is that you have to make the commitment to achieving the goal -- whatever it might be. This commitment might mean that you have to give up something else such as partying, sports, television, or other recreational activities. Do I hear more groans and accusations of sounding like a parent or faculty member? Well, the truth is, that you too are either already an adult (at least biologically), or maybe a parent. At the risk of being redundant, if you want to be successful in the field of Psychology, you must become a skillful writer. The key word here is "successful" and how that applies to your goals or ambitions. I have yet to find an area of psychology that doesn't require such skills to achieve success, but I am open to suggestions.

So, what is a student to do? A little soul-searching would probably be in order. Assuming you are sincere about wanting to be a successful psychologist, critically evaluate your writing ability and make a careful determination of the areas needing improvement. I would suggest that you seek assistance with the process, since you may be unable to accurately identify all the deficits. Armed with this knowledge, devise a strategy or program for obtaining the missing skills. This would probably best be done by writing out a schedule of reading, classes, workshops, tutoring, etc. (A special acknowledgment is appropriate here to Dr. Lowenkron, our resident expert behaviorist.) However you decide to achieve the results, make it an integral part of your life. The more you write, the more efficient and effective you will become. Soon you will see positive results.

There are numerous fringe benefits to becoming a proficient writer besides the relief from intense anxiety every time you are required to produce a paper. As mentioned before, there is economic incentive. Other benefits include, but are not limited to: improved GPA; stronger communications in other areas of living; more professional options; and the timeless factor of self-efficacy. Although there is no doubt we could all readily assign blame to past circumstances to explain our inadequacies as writers, it is a moot point. It is up to each one of us to take responsibility for our personal and professional development. It might be hard work, but I believe in each one of you and your potential to become an adept writer.

The Writing Center (extension 3-5350) is located in the south library on the second floor, next to the Testing Center. Workshops are currently being presented for those preparing to take the WPE later this month. The new schedule for workshops such as "Writing the Research Paper" and "Research Documentation" will be available from the Writing Center the second week of October. They are open six days a week for one-on-one tutoring. They also have computers you can use. All of these services are free and offered at various times to accommodate students' needs. I will also see that flyers are posted outside the Peer Advisement Office for those who are interested. Got to run. PEACE! (Yeah, I'm still carrying around remnants of the sixties.)

Prepared -- This edition update by

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