Friday, February 27, 2009

The Writing of Undergrads

Words cannot express how relieved and outright thrilled I was when I began reading the second of two summer research funding applications I had to comment on this morning. Discovering that one of my students could write, and write well, may well be the highlight of my week.

I have somewhat-accidentally acquired two undergrads to mentor in the coming. Undergrads are a bit like puppies; you give them a smile once, and you can never get rid of them. It started out just having them run a project for me, so I could devote time to my various writing projects; then, before we even got approval for the project, they both asked about summer projects, and summer funding.

In general, this works out very well for me. I was committed to two non-dissertation projects, and they're each taking over one, in what seems like naturally fits - they were already interested in the projects. So I can step back into a supervisory role on those projects, and focus on my dissertation. But first, in my incredibly hectic pre-sister-visit week, I had to help them write their summer funding applications.

One the one hand, we have a rising junior. I actually worked with her when she was a high school senior, on a related project. She's great as a research, but definitely not as a writer. I've struggled through several rounds of revisions with her already, getting frustrated at either her resistance to comments or inability to make use of Word's track changes features. Her writing is, well, what one expects of someone with only two years of college who is not an English major. It should be possible to work with her, and I'm dedicated to teaching writing skills, but it will be work.

On the other hand, we have a rising senior, who is hoping to do a senior thesis based on his project. I had never seen his writing before, and it was with great trepidation that I opened his draft. The level of expectations for senior thesis writing is a step above that of even student grant application writing. If his writing was terrible, I'd be in the position of wondering if a senior thesis was possible; if it was only passable, I'd have given myself two students who would need extensive help in that area. Which explains why I felt my heart lighten as I read a paper with organization, clear descriptions, even humor. Oh, there were plenty of typos, but those I can just fix, I don't have to teach.

The prospects of mentoring over the summer suddenly seem much better. I've lucked out for the second year in a row in getting a senior thesis student who is intelligent and knows how to write - meaning my job is to help them with the actual research, not understanding simple concepts or putting together a well-formed paragraph. It gives me something to look forward to about next year.

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