Academic and Professional Writing: Graduate Students

Academic and Professional Writing:
Graduate Students

Academic and Professional Writing, a.k.a. "The Little Red Schoolhouse" or "LRS" (English 33000) is an advanced writing course for graduate students in all of the divisions and university professional programs. The Little Red Schoolhouse helps writers learn to communicate complex and difficult material clearly to a wide variety of expert and non-expert readers, including the readers in the academic community you are currently working to join. It is designed to prepare you for the demands of academic writing at the level of the dissertation, the academic or professional article, and the academic or professional book.

This academic year, LRS will be offered for graduate students in Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer quarters. If you would like to register for the course, please go here for further instructions. If you are currently taking LRS, you may see course announcements and handouts on Chalk. For detailed course information, read on.

Little Red Schoolhouse (English 33000) course goals

You've worked hard on a paper, proposal, or chapter for months. You've gathered your materials, schmoozed at conferences, and endured conflicting advice from everyone who takes an interest in your progress, from your advisors to your family to your cat. Now you're ready to write your opus at last. You begin to imagine receiving your degree. You begin to imagine a life after grad school.

But when your draft comes back from your readers -- bad news. They can't pick out the key points of your argument. They latch on to some remark that you believe is tangential to your main point -- an afterthought you threw in at 3:00 AM, the product of a little carelessness and a lot of caffeine. And they can't understand how the concepts that have haunted you for months can function as contributions to your field.

What happened? Are your readers stupid? Are they so obsessed with their own work that they can't summon enough intellectual effort to try to understand yours? Anything is possible, but neither supposition is a safe (or diplomatic) one to make about academic or professional readers. What you can safely assume, however, is that good ideas can be obscured by writing that doesn't conform to readers' expectations of what academic and professional prose should be. Rather than grumble about your readers, then (though of course you can do that too), you can respond to this kind of miscommunication more productively: you can learn effective ways to communicate within the academic or professional community you are seeking to join.

The Little Red Schoolhouse is a course designed to help you do just that. We approach writing not as a collection of arbitrary rules, but as a study of readers. Readers predictably find certain sentence structures, paragraph structures, and text structures to be more clear than others. And different readers look for different structures. The writing strategies you use for an audience of experts in your subfield won't work for a more diverse audience, such as a grant committee or hiring committee composed of specialists in a variety of fields. We teach writing principles that can be applied consistently in many different fields, and provide you with opportunities to practice adapting these principles to suit the needs of different audiences. We can also help you learn to identify and revise parts of your work where you can safely predict that readers will lose track of the main idea or fail to appreciate its significance.

LRS structure, workload, and grading policies

The course's structure and workload have been designed to help writers learn to focus on readers. As a student in LRS, you will spend one of the class's two weekly meetings in a lecture focused on a principle of clear writing. You will then practice these principles in two ways. First, you will write one paper a week for ten weeks. Second, you will meet in a seminar once a week with six or seven other graduate students to read and discuss each other's work. These seminars, which are led by a Writing Program Lector, will allow you to hear how at least six real-world readers respond to your work. They will also provide you with an opportunity to prepare a formal, written critique of one other student's paper each week. These critiques are an integral part of the course, because they allow you to practice communicating about writing in a way that goes beyond reporting subjective responses (e.g., "I liked it," "It stunk") to offer genuine constructive criticism and concrete suggestions for improvement.

Grades in the course are based on the papers students have written, on the paper critiques they produce, and on their participation in seminar discussions. Paper requirements differ for graduate students who are taking the course for a letter grade (A, B, C, D, F) and those who are taking it for a "Pass."

Papers for the letter grade and "Pass" options: Students taking the course for a grade write eight assignments designed by the Writing Program (see the Assignments section). If you take the course for a grade, you cannot fulfill the assignments by turning in papers or sections of papers originally intended for some other purpose. (An exception to this rule may be a rewrite assigned at the discretion of your Lector.) If you take the course for a "Pass," you must still turn in eight papers, but after completing the first three Writing Program assignments, you may then turn in revisions of current work for the remainder of the quarter.

Who may take the course for a "Pass": Because LRS is an advanced writing course for graduate students, an "A" in the course indicates that a student is a superior writer at the graduate and professional level. An "A" is (frankly) hard to get. If you are a graduate student taking the course simply to improve your writing skills in your field, therefore, we encourage you to check with your department or program to see if you may take the course for a "Pass." (NB: The Law School does not allow its students to take the course for a "Pass.") If your department or program permits, you may take the course for a Pass if you inform your seminar's Lector of your intention by the date your Lector specifies at the beginning of the quarter.

Common questions about LRS

Can English as a Second Language students benefit from LRS?  Yes, but it should not be considered a substitute for the kind of specialized training in English idioms that many students need in order to meet the demands of extensive graduate and post-doctoral work in English. It is true that many ESL students have taken LRS at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and report that it has been immensely helpful both for their writing in English and (in many cases) their writing in their native language. The course helps all students think about the needs of their readers and how best to structure their work to meet those needs. The course also provides all its students with the opportunity to write and get feedback on eight papers a quarter, and that practice alone has boosted many students' English skills. Still, LRS does not directly address many important ESL concerns, especially concerns related to the proper use of idioms, definite and indefinite articles, and the labyrinthine complexities of English verb tenses. For courses explicitly oriented toward ESL matters and the conventions of North American academic writing, you may visit the English Language Institute

What kinds of assignments do LRS students write? All students turn in eight papers. Most papers are between three and five pages long; the final paper of the quarter is around eight to twelve pages. If you're taking the course for a Pass, you may turn in sections of your work after turning in two or three LRS assignments. If you're taking the course for a grade, you must complete an LRS assignment for all eight papers.

Our assignments specify two things: the nature of your audience (are they experts in the subject? beginners? somewhere in between? Are they deeply interested? completely apathetic?), and the nature of your rhetorical task (are you trying to persuade readers? simply present information?).

The paper's subject matter, however, is up to you: you will summarize research in your field, analyze material in your field, and make arguments about matters important to your field. Thus economics students write about economics, literature students write about literature, biology students write about biology, and so on.

LRS Registration

Registering for a section: You register for English 33000 as you would for any other course in the Humanities Division, but to assign students to seminars, we require that you register for a section with other students from the same or similar program. For further instructions on LRS registration this quarter, please go to the LRS info page.

Who may register: You may register for LRS (English 33000) if you are a University of Chicago graduate student in the Humanities Division, the Social Sciences Division, the Biological Sciences Division, the Physical Sciences Division, MAPH, MAPSS, the Booth School of Business, and a number of other M.A. and Ph.D. programs in the University. Please check with your program to determine whether the course can count as credit toward your degree. You may also register if you are a professional school student in SSA, the Divinity School, the School of Public Policy, and a number of programs in the Pritzker School of Medicine.

Many professional schools require that their students follow a special procedure to take a course in the Humanities Division; please check with your program to determine their requirements. Law School students may take English 33000 only for a letter grade, not for a Pass.

If the course closes: We do not maintain an ongoing waiting list for graduate students. If the course is closed you may, however, sign in with Writing Program staff during the first two days of class. What are your chances of being admitted? In most quarters, some students from the ad hoc waiting list are admitted to the course when registered students drop the course or do not show up. Once the Writing Program staff has determined that there is an open space, you must then register in order to receive course credit.

If you still can't get in: If not enough registered students drop to allow you to enter the course, you may wish to take the course in another quarter or you may audit. If you audit, you may attend the lectures, but you will not be able to attend seminars, write papers for the course, or receive course credit.