Writing workshops at LMU
Beating the white-out
More and more universities in Germany offer writing courses for students. But do workshops and events like the Writers’ White Night at LMU really improve the quality of academic writing?
It’s 9 o’clock in the evening and the scene in LMU’s Lehrturm looks rather like the living room of a large commune. There are about 30 students here, and pizza cartons, cookie packages and drinking cups are also present in abundance. But then there are the laptops, and the concentrated gaze which each student focuses on his or her monitor. For this is LMU‘s White Night for Reluctant Writers, when students who normally shy away from the sight blank sheet of paper or a blinking cursor at the top left corner of a screen can finally get down to those long postponed writing jobs.
One such student is Manuel Beck. He is determined to get his paper on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change out of the way this evening. Beck is in the American Studies program, and he arrived here in the late afternoon. His goal is simple: He wants to write the final pages of his text. “The funny thing is,” he says, “I actually think the topic is very interesting, but I find it hard to work on it at home.” Home is where Manuel can always find (apparently) more urgent things to do – tidying up, checking mails, doing the washing – anything other than sitting at his desk and setting down his thoughts on the IPCC. “And then there is the fear of failing to meet the goals one has set for oneself,” he adds, “and the thought that, in Bachelor degree courses, every single grade counts.”
Other universities have been holding White Nights like this for some time now, but this is the first at LMU. Organized on the initiative of the Writing Center in the Faculty of Languages and Literatures, it has obviously hit home: No less than 300 students have registered. Actually the response has forced the organizers to find other spaces at short notice to accommodate the crowd.
The project’s aim is quite simple – to enable students to spend a whole evening writing, in a relaxed atmosphere but in a concentrated manner, and in productive dialog with other students. It’s not like working in the library. Here, one can eat and drink on the premises and discuss one’s topic with one’s fellows. And if one does run into a blank wall, teachers and tutors from the Writing Center are on hand to help, ready to dispense advice on formulating academic prose in general or answer concrete questions on the specific assignment. Their overall theme this evening is how to overcome procrastination, the tendency to “put it off ‘til tomorrow.” There are workshops on motivational strategies, on ways to conquer those demons that try to stop one getting that urgent essay down on paper.
Down with procrastination!
“One method that seems to help many students is free writing,” says Dr. Cornelia Rémi, one of LMU’s writing advisors: Take a blank sheet of paper or open a new file and simply begin to write – as fast as possible and with no regard for punctuation or spelling mistakes, while staunchly resisting the temptation to go back and correct the sentence one has just hammered out. “The idea is that this headlong approach allows one to escape the inhibitions imposed by one’s ‘inner censor’”, Rémi explains. “Once underway, one is free from the compulsion to get everything perfect and can simply follow one’s train of thought.” At some point, you have to revise the whole thing thoroughly, but you at least have something to work with. That all-important first sentence, which represents such a hurdle for students like Manuel, now needs only to be reshaped. “Free writing is a way of getting a lot of material down on paper in a hurry.”
Getting past that first hurdle also presents philosophy student Martin Kasper with a problem. He has one more assignment to do to complete his Bachelor’s course. “But I keep putting it off,” he admits ruefully. “And I’m still looking for a central theme that can structure for the essay. Either I‘ve lost the thread of the argument or I only imagined I had ever found one,” he says. Now he wants to try the free writing approach. “It’s supposed to help people like me.” On the occasion of LMU’s Writers’ Day (held several times per semester) in February, when workshops and counseling sessions were also on offer, Martin attended Cornelia Rémi’s workshop on writing types and writing phases. “To begin with, we all took a test – and I was classified as a gadfly and adventurer,” he says (clearly pleased by the characterization), before adding “only with respect to my approach to academic writing, of course.” It might sound frivolous, but the typological exercise is designed to help students analyze their writing strategy and its weaknesses.