How Theology Professors Write

Brendan Sammon, Ph.D.
Professor of Theology

Quick Facts

Pen or Pencil?
Computer, but if I’m writing in a journal: pen.

Favorite word?
Smote.

Favorite place to write?
The Green Engine Café.


SJU Writes: Describe your writing process. Where does it begin?

BS: I suppose it begins in desire. There are two channels. The first being what already started for me in academia. I have a history of theological thought. The other would be creative and where those things take me. In terms of the process, I will write ideas out. The initial part would be writing down ideas and trying to articulate them. Those that I think can be directed into something more fruitful will take on an outlining process.

SJU Writes: Do you ever find inspiration when you are teaching?

BS: Yes. There will be a kind of interaction between what students know and what I know. Part of the theology of beauty means writing about the way in which the human attempts to create what we call “art.” How humans reflect, speak about the divine, speak about transcendence, speak about God and God’s presence in a variety of ways. There’s so much happening in a work of art, that’s why it pulls us in, but there’s a lot taken for granted. So, a good analysis of that would help us better foreground what it does for us and how it allows us to see things that aren’t so easily visible.

SJU Writes:  Explain your revision process.

BS: Endless. You get to a point where you never feel like it’s finished, but you have to release it at some point. Revision will entail lots of reading, looking at different ways to articulate an idea. I’m looking for context and  clarity,. These are ideas expressed that I want expressed. I’ve learned to distance myself from my writing because when you start publishing, you get rejected.

SJU Writes: Do you have any suggestions for students who are writing in your discipline?

BS: Clarity. And developing lines of thought. I think all writing requires a degree of self-awareness, and I think that the better the writing, the more self-aware an author is. I think students tend to become overwhelmed with the ideas, and they find it difficult then to articulate a line of thought. Or they will do it at the last minute. It’s what people put in that they get out.

SJU Writes: Why do you write?

BS: For the same reason I eat, sleep, and breathe. As another way to engage in the world and make a contribution of some kind.

—Rachel Zablocki M.A ’19

How a Songwriter Writes

Daisy Abrams ’19
Music Major and Singer Songwriter

Quick Facts

Favorite word?
‘Autumn.’ I just love the season, but it’s also a fun word

Favorite music to write to?
Probably Elliott Smith because he’s so bare. It’s a good inspiration to get in the mode.

What are you reading right now?
I’m reading the collection of Mary Oliver’s poetry.


SJU Writes: Do you have a favorite part of the writing process?

DA: Every time I start writing a song, I get a little intimidated, like, ‘What if I don’t have any good ideas?’ So I guess my favorite part is every time I prove myself wrong. I think everybody has their way of expression, and they can get in touch with that. It’s just a matter of working it like a muscle. And the more you do it, the more you get that infinite ability to just tap into something.

SJU Writes: What have you written recently that you really like?

DA: I wrote something called “The Early Riser.” I liked it because I was in this state of wanting to be productive, and I felt if I could just get up early every morning at 6 a.m. that would mean that I’m getting to a better place with achieving my goals. That song was about that battle of wanting to do these things and feeling like I can’t.  I really like that song because it continues to be relevant. It’s about my inner self-sabotaging habits that I have sometimes. It really felt like a genuine thing that I was writing, and when I play it, I really feel that.

SJU Writes:  It must be gratifying to put into words what is hard to comprehend on an emotional level.

DA:  That’s why I love writing music because I feel like the music part adds that element of the thing that you can’t put into words. If you were to just speak out the words, maybe you’d take something from it, but I don’t think that they’re meant to stand on their own if you’re writing a song. So I think that the music plays an equally important role, and the lyrics tell you what I can tell you, and the music finishes the rest.

—Julia Furey-Bastian ’20

How a Philosophy Professor Writes

Caroline Meline, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy

Quick Facts

Favorite word?
Word.

Oxford comma or no?
Yes. The more commas, the better.

What’s a word you always misspell?
Weird. It breaks the rule of i before e.


SJU Writes: What kinds of writing are you doing right now?

CM: I have been doing op-ed writing and working on small pieces that are personal essays lately. I have a book that I have been working on for a long time called The Constant Dieter: A Philosopher’s Guide to Losing Weight. It has a lot of interesting things in it that come from both my scholarly life and my personal attempt to understand myself. And I have research articles, scholarly articles, that I have been working on for conferences.

SJU Writes: What’s your favorite piece of writing you have ever produced?

CM: The last piece I got published in The Inquirer, an op-ed which was about the death of my dog Stretch. For now, I would say that is my favorite piece because I wrote in that kind of state I don’t get into very often where I’m not really trying for it and what I’m going to say just comes out.

SJU Writes:  Have you always enjoyed the writing process?

CM: I did not develop a love of writing until I was in my thirties. I had a hatred of writing when I was an undergraduate. I was so anxiety-ridden about working on a paper that I would really work myself into a state. For me, once I get going, it is always better. I am a perfectionist. My standards are high, too high, which can cripple a person.

SJU Writes: What advice would you give to undergraduate and graduate students embarking on their own writing journeys?

CM: This is the main advice I would give, and somebody gave it to me. I was writing a master’s thesis at the time. I was so stuck and paralyzed and terrified that I thought I couldn’t finish the degree because I couldn’t write the thing. My advisor said, ‘I am going to make a contract with you and you have to agree to this. You will write a draft of each section without any revision and then tell me how it is going.’ And it worked. So my advice to students on writing is to talk on paper. Just talk, and let it happen, and don’t criticize until later.

—Gina DeRosa ’19

How a Music History Professor Writes

Elizabeth Morgan, Ph.D.
Professor of Music History

Quick Facts

What’s a word you always misspell?
Pachelbel

Pen or Pencil?
Pen

What are you reading now?
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen


SJU Writes: What is the best thing you’ve ever written? 

EM: I was really proud of the introduction to my dissertation in graduate school. I was writing about women making music in homes during the time of Jane Austen. I feel like I captured a sense of the world that I was writing about in my own prose. I felt that sense of full creative spirit in everything I wanted to say. It was a really fun process, and I was really proud of it. I still feel good about that.

SJU Writes: What kinds of writing do you do right now?

EM: The main thing is academic writing, mostly for academic journals, so they’ll be read by other musicologists and historical musicologists. The thing that’s been exciting to me, as a musicologist, is that I’ve found there’s a place for creative writing in my scholarship. I study music-making in homes, which is often not well documented. And so, I read a lot of fiction to inform my understanding of what people were doing at home.

SJU Writes: What is your writing process?

EM: I will write to work through the ideas. Once I have a bunch of prose, I do something called a reverse outline. I go through it, and for each paragraph, I then write a one-sentence summary of that paragraph’s main idea. Each sentence has to make sense as a  construction of an argument, or I know I have a problem.

SJU Writes: What is your favorite aspect of the writing process?

EM: I like it when you feel like you’re solving a puzzle. It could be on the smallest level, but also on a really big level. I had a big article that I wrote and, as a process, I drew a diagram of the article because as I was writing, I realized there were really four angles that I was looking at this one body of music from. I drew up a diagram of that basic concept. At the center were the main things I really wanted to communicate about this repertoire and the people who played it and then the four different places I was coming from. That was like a solution because I couldn’t figure out how it would eventually be structured.

—Angelique Frazier ’20

How A Spanish Professor Writes

Elaine Shenk, Ph.D.
Professor of Spanish and Sociolinguistics

Quick Facts

Favorite word?
Estrafalario,
which means eccentric in Spanish

Favorite punctuation?
Dashes. I know that I shouldn’t, but I like dashes!

What are you reading now?
It’s called The Age of Opportunity by Laurence Steinberg, and it’s all about adolescence because I have an adolescent.  I’m trying to understand him, and it’s the best book I’ve ever read about adolescence.


SJU Writes: What is the best thing you’ve ever written?

ES: In college, we had this little booklet that was creative writing . I’m not a creative writer at all really, but I got the idea that I felt like writing a fictionalized account of something that had happened in my family. It was about my dad. He had a pretty bad farm accident and was sort of close to death, so I wrote it, and it was this ethereal ending where you couldn’t really tell if he died or not.  It’s bizarre, but I remember being really caught up. I don’t know if it’s just because I was a young child when it happened, or it was my brain’s way of processing that that happened to my family and the crazy impact that it had on us for the rest of my life.  So, I found myself just riveted to writing it, and I’ve never felt since or before like that.  I will never forget how I felt writing it. I was so in the flow.

SJU Writes: What is your least favorite aspect of the writing process?

ES: Trying to go back to a piece of writing that I feel is unwieldy and making it work.  Especially in my academic papers, I tend to put it all on the page and get it out there so that I end up with a twenty-page, single-space document when I actually need about a ten-page, single-spaced document.  I hate having to take sections out that I feel I worked really hard on and realizing they aren’t crucial.  

SJU Writes: What advice do you have for students learning to write in your discipline?

ES: Revise, revise, revise. Before that, think in Spanish, not English. Then if you feel like your structures are really simple based on what you can produce in Spanish, you can always expand on that. You can put linking words to connect sentences.  But don’t take from English and try to translate into Spanish because that will never work. And then, revise, revise, revise.  It gets down to just little tiddly grammar, little pieces that aren’t that important, but they do make an impression with the overall result. I think sometimes students in my discipline feel like, “It’s just a couple accent marks or agreement.  Why does it matter if it’s really ‘o’ or ‘a’?”  But, if you work on that at the very end of your writing, you will come across as a much stronger writer.

—Hayley Burns ’20

How A Young Adult Novelist Writes

April Lindner, Ph.D.
Professor of English

Quick Facts

Do you prefer pen or pencil?
Computer

Favorite music to write to?
Italian pop music

What are you reading now?
Magdalene by Marie Howe

 


SJU Writes: What is your favorite aspect of the writing process?

AL: Rewriting. I really get tied up in knots about coming up with the first draft of anything, but when I’ve got the first draft down, it’s a matter of tinkering and patching things together. That’s the part I like—the craft part.

SJU Writes: What is your least favorite aspect of the writing process?

AL: The blank page (or the blank screen). 

SJU Writes: What is the best thing you’ve ever written in your life?

AL: I am particularly fond of my novel Catherine, which was the second of my three novels that have been published. It’s a young adult novel and is the one that was read the least, but I think it’s the better of the three.

SJU Writes: What kind of music do you like to listen to when you write?

AL: really like to listen to Italian pop music, partly to get in the mood for the novel that I’m working on and partly because I’m trying in my spare time to practice the language. So, it’s a very low-stress way of practicing it. And the words are foreign enough to me that they aren’t as distracting as American pop music would be.

SJU Writes: What advice do you have for students learning to write in your discipline?

AL: No matter what the discipline is, my advice is always the same: Read widely and deeply in the discipline you want to write in. If you read only from a particular poet, for example, you will sound like an imitation of them. But if you read lots of different poets, then all of them will combine to add to your voice.

—George Frattara ’20

How Classics Professors Write

Henry Bender, Ph.D.
Professor of Modern and Classical Languages

Quick Facts

Do you prefer pen or pencil?
Pen

Do you have a favorite place to write?
Yes, I like to write in my study

What are you reading now?
A book on the history of Christianity, and a book on monuments in Rome.


SJU Writes: What kinds of writing do you do?

HB: Most of my writing is comments updating things I have been studying literally all my life. I have travelled to Europe, specifically Italy, over 130 times as the topography of Rome is changing all the time. So, I spend a lot of time reading up on these things. I do rewritings of some of my own publications, and I am hoping to publish another book before the end of my life.

SJU Writes: What is your favorite aspect of the writing process?

HB: Of the writing process, I think getting your ideas and formulating your ideas from mind to word is the challenge. I mean, even the ancients speak about that. When you get an insight into something, for example, when you read a poet in Latin and you get ideas or interpretations, you want to write them down. You may see that they’ve been cited already by commentators, b. But it helps to solidify impressions on the meaning of a poem if you write down your impressions and try to make them coherent. Then they can be shared in the context of the classroom. So that kind of writing is frustrating, but it’s good.

SJU Writes: What is the best thing you’ve ever written in your life?

HB: think one of the books that I have written, the book I wrote on Catullus, a Roman poet, is probably one of the best things that I’ve done as far as facilitating for students the opportunity to engage a Roman writer.

SJU Writes: When you are confronted with a writing task, how do you approach it? Do you spend days fretting about it or do you immediately start jotting down ideas?

HB: think with writing, you do the thinking and reading first—that is, like tilling the soil. You can’t grow the crops unless you have soil and moisture to make things grow. And then you write. But to rush into writing is not a good academic thing to do. On the other hand, to put it off is avoiding the challenge of dealing with your interpretations with the thoughts that have to be weighed. But with the different types of papers you have there is nothing wrong with jotting down your ideas as they come and then leaving them alone for a while, and then go back and re-organizing them.

SJU Writes: What advice do you have for students learning to write in the discipline of classics?

HB: would say: 1) think, 2) jot down your thoughts. I had a teacher once who told me whenever you get an idea, put it on an index card. You might not come back to it for a while, but in classics, which is Latin and Greek literature that has been poured over for centuries now, it’s pretty hard to find something new. But your interpretation of a poem is like an interpretation of a painting. When you look at a painting or you hear music, and you look at literature, there is a common denominator in there. You could say that there are certain aesthetics that you pull together. Those are things that are important to pay attention to. How do you do that? You organize your reactions and jot them down and then come back to them and see if you can tie them together into some coherent whole.

—Mary McDermott ’17, M.A. ‘19

How a Student Activities Director Writes

Beth Hagovsky, Ed.D.
Director of Student Activities

 

Quick Facts

Favorite punctuation mark?
The hyphen.

Favorite music to write to?
The Hamilton Soundtrack.

Misspelled word?
Committed and committee. All the t’s and e’s.

 

 


SJU Writes: What kind of writing do you do as a director of a department?
BH: For the most part, the majority of my writing is emails: replies, questions, you know, that kind of thing, answering inquiries.  A handful of times over the course of a year, a director in student life, like myself, will be asked to compile reports that might be paragraph-based or they could be asking for a more bullet point, executive-type summary of things.

SJU Writes: What advice do you have for writing a professional email?
BH: You have to reread. I think a lot of people don’t reread their emails before they send them. Maybe use the editor functions your email allows you to use. I also would say don’t do it from your phone.  I don’t think it is nearly as easy to send a grammatically correct and professional email from a phone as it is when you are sitting at a laptop or a computer and you have a minute to really compose your thoughts.

SJU Writes:  You have a doctorate in education. Was your dissertation one of the more difficult things you’ve ever had to write?

BH: Yes and no. I genuinely enjoyed the dissertation process, so I wouldn’t necessarily say it was difficult. I’ll be honest. The most difficult stuff I ever wrote was back in high school and college. In some classes that I had, the teachers, or faculty, were sticklers for how to write , and would make you revise and revise and revise until it was done correctly. I’d rather write another dissertation than have to do those kinds of papers again.

SJU Writes: Do you think any of that structured writing has stayed with you in your professional writing?

BH: Oh my gosh, sure! I mean, OK, so I’m probably a bit of a contradiction because I’m also the person who sends every email in lowercase letters. That being said, those folks back then–they were both English instructors–really informed how I write in terms of grammar. Also the woman who edited my dissertation for me, a friend of mine and a lawyer, really made sure I nailed the grammar. She was a wonderful editor.

SJU Writes: What’s your favorite thing that you have written?
BH: When I was in fourth grade, I entered this short story competition for the city. I don’t remember what I wrote. What I remember is that I won a prize for it, and I got a ribbon, and I got to pick out a pumpkin from this weird pumpkin patch at the awards ceremony. But I just remember this feeling that I wrote something, someone read it, and I got positive recognition for it. So that’s what I take away from that experience even though I don’t actually remember what I wrote.

—Dominique Joe ’20

How English Professors Write

Melissa Goldthwaite, Ph.D.
Professor of English

 

Quick Facts

What are you reading now?
Color Purple

Favorite word?
Extratextual

Oxford comma or no?
Yes

Favorite punctuation mark?
Dash


SJU Writes: Who’s the best or most influential writing teacher you have ever had?

MG: Two writing teachers come to mind. One was my undergraduate writing teacher, William Jolliff. He taught both poetry and advanced writing, and from him I learned that all of the writing that I did, whether it was essays or poetry, could be creative. So I didn’t have the divide that some people feel between academic and creative writing. And he was also funny and smart. I think about him a lot. He was a great teacher.

The other person that I think of is my graduate dissertation director, Andrea Lunsford. I think about her more in terms of modeling for me how a professional in my field should be and interact. I was her research assistant, and I saw how she was every day,: how she interacted with other people in the field, how she did her research, and her writing. She was a role model for me.

SJU Writes: Do you write with the advice of a particular person echoing in your mind as you compose?

MG: Well I can give you two examples from the two teachers that I just mentioned. One thing that Bill Jolliff said to me when I was anxious about miscommunication in writing was, “Mellissa, just because words don’t communicate absolutely, doesn’t mean they don’t communicate at all.” That calmed me down a little bit, and I worked on communicating what I wanted to communicate, instead of worrying that I would be misunderstood.

The other thing that stands out in my mind is something that Andrea Lunsford said to me. For my dissertation I had to interview someone who I was nervous about interviewing, and I can get very wrought, so she said to me “Melissa, just do it.” And I did it, and I felt a lot better afterwards. So, when I get myself worked up about something that I need to do, I remember her words: “’Just do it.’ I know it’s a Nike commercial, but it’s also very good advice.

SJU Writes: What advice do you have for students trying to write in your discipline?

MG: I would say read a lot. When you’re reading, try to figure out how the writer does what he or she does. Pay attention to your own responses. If there is something in what you’re reading that you think is really amazing, figure out why it’s amazing. Maybe it’s because it’s something you identify with, but maybe there’s something about the sentence structure or the way that the writer is doing what he or she is doing that makes you respond to it. And if you feel put off by something, try to figure out why you’re put off by it.

—Gia Primerano ’17, M.A. ‘19

How Chemists Write

Peter Graham, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Chemistry

Quick Facts

What are you reading now?
American War

Favorite word?
Penultimate

Favorite place to write?
Office on campus

Favorite punctuation mark?
Semi-colon


SJU Writes: What kind of writing do you currently do?

PG: I do academic writing. I also write some for fun, some poetry, not really for general consumption, just for myself and sometimes my wife.

SJU Writes: When you’re tasked with a writing assignment, how do you approach it?

PG: If I need to think something through, I will just start writing stream of consciousness. That’s probably how I write anything. I just get my ideas into text. It’s probably unusable, but it makes sure I get my ideas out and that I’m thinking straight.

SJU Writes: Do you ever find that you write with the advice of a particular person echoing in your head?

PG: One of my friends who I went to graduate school with is a professor at Muhlenberg. We always help each other out, reading each other’s papers. He’s a really good writer and a really good editor. So, I’m always thinking, “Joe’s going to be mad if I leave this in here,” because he’s always going to read anything I publish.

SJU Writes: Do you find it more useful to go about peer revision through a more collaborative or directive approach?

PG: My Ph.D. advisor didn’t give a lot of feedback. He would just change it. So, it would come back, and you would kind of figure out what you did wrong. My post-doc advisor was really good for that stage in my career. He basically left my work untouched unless it was wrong. Then he would be like, “that’s not the best way to say that” or “can we rephrase that,” and it was a little bit more collaborative. I think it’s better to say, “I think this could use fewer words” instead of just correcting it.

I see this when I revise lab reports for students in Inorganic Lab. The first lab report, a lot of times, I just rewrite sentences or cross out three sentences and write one sentence to show them, this one sentence can say everything you said in three sentences. I’ll stop doing that, certainly, later in the semester. 

SJU Writes: What advice do you have for students trying to write in your discipline?

PG: I think it’s always good to learn the correct terminology and use it. When editing, be as concise as possible. You have to go back and cut it down. What distinguishes scientific writing is being very clear. When you can summarize a big idea in very few words, it’s like saying “E=mc2.” You have all of that information packed into a tiny little package. It makes it seem very powerful.

—Leslie Briggs ’17, M.A. ‘18