How to Write a Seminar Paper: Process Writing in Action!

It’s hard to believe, but this past week, I was in the midst of writing my last seminar paper. (HOORAY!) I have always found “seminar papers” to be an exhausting intellectual exercise that is relatively useless. (Yes, I’m using quotations because I think they’re a weird mutt genre that continues to unnecessarily confused graduate students). There are probably articles that discuss how you would go about writing one, but when I first started writing them, I wasn’t smart enough to do that kind of genre analysis/meta-level research. Instead, I suffered. I felt like I could never do enough research to support my claims and that I was just spewing sad, empty, graduate student spittle. Now that I’ve finished my exams and (successfully!) defended my prospectus, I am finding that my last seminar paper is SO MUCH EASIER TO WRITE than all of my other ones. I sense that this is because I’ve finally figured out the metacognitive “moves” that are required in such papers (and their final version, the humanities academic article): you have to “join the conversation“–have something to hang your argument on–in order to be successful.

Now, I’m not saying that this paper was easy to write. Not in the least. In fact, my final product only ended up being 12 pages plus a bibliography…which wasn’t quite the 20 my professor had in mind. I have been thinking about what to write for weeks and finally, in these last few days of the semester, had time to shove some thoughts on a page. For me, research and writing (and in this case, process writing) are interspersed. I read two things, I write down one idea. I read ten things, I try to put together a short summary of what all of the things mean or what they might mean for my project. I write down two questions, I google scholar search for some answers. And in case you’re wondering what that looks like, I attempted to document the process as it happened in this post!

Prior to Research/Writing Days (i.e. the entire semester): 

I used my exam list as a jumping off point. At first, when coming into the class, I thought I would want to write about scientific illustration in the renaissance and how it has changed/stayed the same today–and its continued rhetorical impact. About one month into the class, I started wondering if this was actually going to be an applicable topic; later on, after reading Vico (who uses an illustration at the beginning of his New Science and claims that it explains the entire book), I would find many good starting places, but something came up organically instead. While reading Sheridan via The Rhetorical Tradition, I noticed that Sheridan (and others–at the time, I couldn’t remember who) mention the “deaf man” when talking about rhetoric. I brought this up in class even though I wasn’t sure anyone else had noticed or would find it interesting. Thankfully, CL, our brilliant professor, had noticed and made an insightful comment that the figure of the “deaf man” was a sort of test about how rhetoric worked at that time–if even a “deaf” man could understand you, you were effective. I highlighted, bolded, and changed the color of my notes to signal that this was something I should remember as we got closer to paper submission.

This made me think about the issue of disability and rhetoricity, which I had also read about during my exams. In turn, I checked out a few books that I attempted to read cover-to-cover so that I could get a sense of the “conversation[s]” in progress to which I might respond. These books included: Jay Dolmage’s Disability Rhetoric, Margaret Price’s Mad at School, and Jordynn Jack’s Autism and Gender. I took notes and recorded a lot of quotes which seemed like they might be relevant.

Research/Writing Day 1: 

After CL’s comment, I decided that I wanted to join the conversation about rhetoric, rhetoricity, and disability and relate it to what was happening with Renaissance rhetoric. I first turned to a somewhat-often-cited article in the subfield by Catherine Prendergast, who uses the example of her friend with schizophrenia to argue that individuals with mental disabilities lack rhetoricity. Cynthia Leweiskci-Wilson, Katie Rose Guest Pryal, and others challenge this idea with their own responses; Leweiscki-Wilson says that rhetors with mental disabilities need to expand the definition of rhetoric and what “counts” as communication to make it possible for them to become rhetorical/gain rhetoricity. Pryal says that these rhetors may use different available means of persuasion. In any case, I found all of these related things by playing around on Google Scholar. I searched for “disability and rhetoricity,” “rhetoric and rhetoricity,” “disability rhetoric,” “faculty psychology,” and more. I knew about the Prendergast piece from my exams, so I used it as a point of departure for the rest of the rhetoricity research.

I also examined Dolmage’s bibliography in Disability Rhetoric, Prendergast’s bibliography in both of her chapters, and played the who-cites-who game to try to see who has written the most recent articles about disability, rhetoric, rhetoricity, and more. One of my other favorite games, the “citation game,” helped me decide which pieces to read first. (By the “citation game,” I mean using the “cited by” numbers that Google Scholar provides to see how many people have referenced a certain piece. I think this is an imperfect technique for a variety of reasons, which perhaps I’ll have time to explain later, but when I’m on a deadline, this technique reassures me that I’ve at least seen the titles of some of the most important works in a subfield.

I then went about pulling quotes–from things that I’m reading (i.e. scanning) via Google Scholar research as well as other things I’ve read before that new pieces prompted me to reread or think about. I also copy/pasted/cited quotes, which I put in a Notes document, that made me think about my dissertation project or that seemed like they might be helpful.

As always, research leads me to a variety of fruitful paths and dead ends. I looked at people’s CVs and personal websites (out of curiosity and to see if I’d missed a major publication that might help me), dissertations (for bibliographies and to see the latest work in the field), information for journals I might submit the eventual article version to, and more. Although sometimes I feel resentful that I’ve spent so much time exploring and not enough time putting smart words on a page, my weird Wikipedia-like knowledge sometimes comes in handy later. For example, I was trying to trace the trajectory of publishing in disability studies, and one of the ways I do this is to read people’s acknowledgements so that I can see who mentored them and who they’re friends with.

All of this made me think about Laurie Gries’s discussion of how things “become rhetorical” in her 2015 monograph. While Gries is talking about the Obama Hope image in particular, I think that there is an interesting piece there about the process of becoming–which I think happens for rhetors with disabilities because, historically, disability has been understood as a deficit and an individual problem; a defect that must be surmounted. I didn’t end up discussing Gries in the paper, but her idea of “becoming rhetorical” stuck with me as I tried to parse out the rhetoric/rhetoricity/disability thing.

Throughout the process, I read 5-10 book reviews to get a sense of if the book was worth tracking down. If the book was available in a “read online” version via UNC libraries, I skimmed it, but sometimes I still read the reviews to figure out which chapter(s) to focus on. I often keyword searched within these texts to see if terms like “renaissance” and “rhetoric” came together in the same spaces or if it was just coincidental. (Note: searches for the term “disability” were often fraught because if a Java program was “disabled” on a page, that got pulled up, too).

Part of my research process was also figuring out what was and was not easily available to me. For example, the Disability & Society journal is not available through UNC. I could look through it later and request articles, but I skipped it for now.

I came out of this with about 1.5 pages of notes, including significant quotes and an outline-ish thing. I also had a short bibliography to help me keep track of my sources, which I copy/pasted from Google Scholar.

From time to time, I also rechecked the assignment: How many pages? Are there any special goals I should keep in mind? Etc.

Research/Writing Day 2:

I copy/pasteed my work into a new document and review what I had done so far. What lines of inquiry seem to be the most fruitful? My notes/outline-ish thing have the making of an introduction, but I noticed that, based on what information I had, I wanted to revise some paragraphs into entire sections.

I played around with some quotes and assembled them into some kind of paragraphs–about 1.5 pages of the introduction. I tried to use language that was clear and unsophisticated–I can always go back and revise it later. For me, I don’t feel good about writing unless I have a strong set-up.

What’s weird, at least this time, is that I wrote in chronological order. I often find myself paralyzed if I don’t have an outline and a clear idea of what I want to say before I begin writing. I should do more free-writing–I know I should–but sometimes it makes me feel like my ideas are even messier than they are. Instead, I prefer consulting with friends and advisers if I’m a) completely confused and directionless and can’t even ask a question, and/or b) have a few possible directions and want feedback about which seems most promising.

 

Research/Writing Days 3-5:

I repeated the processes above and used the Pomodoro Technique to try to produce as much writing as possible without having an anxiety attack or aggravating my joints. As I was writing, I figured out that the *REAL* thing I want to focus on is how disability rhetoric helps us define and redefine rhetoric and rhetoricity in expansive ways, ultimately changing the character of rhetoric. The “deaf man” idea probably still can be worked into this, but I really need to go reread my primary texts again so that I can figure out if this is going to work. I submitted the paper with a sort of break in the middle in which I tried to piece together some of the renaissance rhetoric evidence…it was rough. I was trying to also think about imagination, which is something that becomes important in renaissance rhetoric and renaissance definitions of rhetoric, and how that speaks to disability studies, but I got stuck and tired. I ran out of steam.

In turn, I need to go back to this paper because I’m going to use it for the RSA Works-in-Progress workshop…but I would like to take a nap first. (Though it’s only 8:55am). Hmmm.

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