Category Archives: Visuals

Know thyself: A conversation with Dr. Lisa Mitchell about writing

By Madeline Walker with Lisa Mitchell

Last week, I wandered over to Cornett to visit Dr. Lisa Mitchell, Associate Professor and Graduate Student Adviser in the Department of Anthropology. We sat together in her cozy office on a cool March afternoon to talk about writing—a favourite topic for both of us.

Dr. Lisa M. Mitchell

I asked Lisa about her own graduate school experience—could she share any tips gleaned from writing her dissertation? Lisa admitted that she didn’t become as “deeply reflective about how to write and especially what to do if writing doesn’t go smoothly” until she had her own graduate students.  We agreed that we often learn best by teaching. Lisa’s experience supervising graduate students exposed her both to students who experienced writing as pleasurable and to students who experienced writing as terrifying, and this helped her to a realization.  “I needed to get more reflective about my own writing practice and what I might offer to them to work through problems or how to take the writing to a deeper level.” Here Lisa touched on a theme she returned to several times during our dialogue: self-reflection in writing. As we become aware of our writing process, we come to know and accept ourselves as writers, and therefore we become more effective at writing, making the most of our idiosyncratic methods.

Garnered from both her own writing experience and her experience supervising, Lisa shared some of the ways she guides graduate students when they run into writing trouble. “Don’t assume that writing is easy and don’t assume it’s something natural. Take it as an  aspect of your learning process. It’s a skill and needs to be practiced. Do it regularly so it becomes a habit and something you think about through that regular engagement.”

Lisa noted that in anthropology, writing is sometimes the site or space for analysis, and students may get stuck in their writing because they are “still in the process of figuring out the analysis and trying to sort it out.”  She went on to describe several ways to overcome barriers that arise when we try to think things through before writing them down.  “When I start a piece, it’s not unusual for me to have a very hazy, broad idea of what I’m talking about, but when I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I am working out the analysis as much as I am working out the narrative structure.” Lisa paused thoughtfully. “When things don’t go well, when you start to stumble in writing, change it up a little bit. Pick a different topic for even a few minutes or a day or two. If you’ve been sitting with your computer, stop and try pen and paper. In some of my classes, I have a session where you get a sentence fragment to start and you have to keep writing for five minutes.  Just do freewriting. Unleash the initial apprehension about starting a writing session.”

Lisa also finds that using visual tools can help shift stuck writing.  “I rely very heavily on making diagrams with my students when working through not just writing but analysis. I need to move between the word, the mind map, and the flow chart, and sometimes it is enormously helpful to sit and talk about what you are trying to write and try to represent it visually. So you have both a sense of the component elements of your writing, but also there is something very freeing, very stimulating in moving away from the word and putting it into circles and arrows.”

Another method Lisa uses when she needs to change things up is voice. “I turn on a recorder and just start talking. Sometimes it’s just me and my dogs and I’m going to start somewhere, sometimes in the middle or sometimes I think this is where I want this paper to end up. It’s a bit time consuming because you have to go back and see if there’s anything you really wanted and at times there is and at times there isn’t, but generally that process begins to bring to the surface bits and pieces that I know need to be in the piece I’m working on.”

Lisa then stressed the importance of sharing your writing: “We end up writing in little closed off spaces and there is much value in thinking about how you can make the writing more social. Talk to other people about writing – don’t assume that other people are writing without problems, without crisis.  Sometimes, talking to other people about what you are writing is a way to express it differently.”

This led Lisa to think about how she shares her own work with colleagues: “I think particularly among faculty we are unwilling to share our unfinished, our unpolished drafty drafts, and I think there is enormous value in working through even some of the basic foundational elements of an argument or the structure of a piece by being willing to open yourself up a bit.”  She elaborated on the metaphor of writing as conversation, a metaphor that can liberate us from the intimidating prospect of writing a thesis or dissertation:  “Think of writing as a creative process. If you load it up by saying ‘I have to write my dissertation,’ that’s such a daunting process, whereas if you say ‘I want to ask some interesting questions’ and ‘I want to engage in some conversations,’ it’s so much more doable, and it also feels like something that is much more like our everyday lives. Although there are certain requirements for a dissertation or a thesis in the level of academic language, and you are engaging sources in a way you wouldn’t ordinarily in everyday conversation, by metaphorically framing what you’re doing as engaging in a conversation and asking interesting questions, you don’t take on that huge burden: ‘Now I must create original knowledge’ in five or seven chapters or whatever.”

I agreed that the conversation metaphor is very useful in academic writing, mentioning a helpful writing text based on the idea of dialogue, They Say/ I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Graff and Birkenstein (2010).

As the clock crept closer to the end of our allotted time, I asked Lisa for any further thoughts on how she writes best, and she reiterated the importance of opening up about your writing:  “I sometimes think the reason we don’t talk about what we’re writing is there’s always a risk that we won’t finish it, so we don’t talk about it.” “Yes,” I said, “like telling people you’re quitting smoking then starting again.”  Lisa laughed. “The list of things we would like to write is always longer than the list of what we actually manage to write, but I don’t think there’s any real shame in that. Sometimes part of the creative process is working through the possibilities and then settling on the one or the two that you’re ready to actually write.  I tend to think of myself as a non-linear writer, so I really am one of those people that sometimes just starts in the middle. I kind of know where I should end up, but I’m not too sure where I’m starting from. I think by this point in my career I’ve made peace with that process; I don’t stress about it very much anymore and I’ve also made peace with the fact that sometimes I start articles or writing pieces that don’t get finished. Sometimes I lose interest, and other times I can’t figure out a way to tell the story that is compelling to others. It may be something I found deeply interesting, but I think why would other people care about this?”

The ancient Greek aphorism “Know thyself,” from a memento mori mosaic from excavations in the convent of San Gregorio in Rome

I responded: “What I am taking away from what you have said, Lisa, is that self-reflection, self-knowledge about being a writer is extremely important. Once we know what kind of writer we are, we can make peace with that, work with it, instead of thinking we ought to be a certain way.” Lisa nodded in agreement. I left feeling validated—I am one of those “start in the messy middle” writers, and I was happy to know that others worked productively, even confidently, in this manner.  Thank you, Lisa, for sharing these ideas.  There’s no shame in being the writer you know you are. . . in fact, it’s cause for celebration. Writer, know thyself.



Lisa M. Mitchell is Associate Professor and Graduate Advisor in Anthropology at UVic. Her research interests are at the intersection of bodies, technology, and inequalities. She has conducted research on prenatal testing, perinatal loss and reproductive politics in Canada, on the visualizing technologies of medicine, especially ultrasound fetal imaging, on experiences and meanings of body and risk among impoverished children and their families in the Philippines and among street youth in Canada, and on bereaved parents’ use of social media.





Pictures tell stories: An interview with Dr. Thomas Darcie about writing for engineers

Dr. Thomas Darcie

By Madeline Walker

Dr. Thomas Darcie (also known as Ted) joined UVic in 2003 after a long career at Bell AT&T and is currently a Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He is known as a leader in the development of lightwave systems for analog applications in cable television and wireless systems.

One morning in early June, I  had the opportunity to meet with Ted in his office in the Engineering Office Wing. Dozens of articles—evidence of Ted’s productivity—were spread across his desk. A cool breeze entered the open window.

Ted has supervised many graduate students in Engineering over the years, and I wanted to hear his ideas about writing in his discipline.

“How is writing in Engineering different from writing for another disciplines?” I asked.

“In Engineering, you’re trying to get across a complicated idea as succinctly as possible. I think in other disciplines they tend to use more words to express things. Certainly when there is a lot of mathematics involved, you try to let the mathematics tell the story, and you’re writing words to support the mathematics.”

Ted and I talked about the kinds of challenges writing presents for his students. “I see challenges at every level of the writing process,” he said. “There’s the top level, the organizational structure of the story to be told. Then this breaks down to paragraphs—what is supposed to be in a paragraph and what separates paragraphs. Then there’s sentence structure, use of words, punctuation, syntax. I see challenges for writers at all these levels.”

“How do you help students face these challenges?” I wondered. “Do you work with them on their writing?”

“I do. We spend quite a lot of time cleaning up drafts. I mark-up drafts – I take a document and address all the levels at the same time. The first cut is the organization cut – what goes where. Then after the organization makes sense we break it down. It takes time, and in extreme cases I’ll work through several drafts with a student.”

I was curious about what Ted identifies as the biggest problem in graduate student writing. He used a metaphor to illustrate how students sometimes miss the point of writing: “People tend to want to write about what they spent their time doing whether or not that aligns with the story that needs to be told. A student might spend 80% of their time trying to polish something without breaking it, and they succeed. Then they spend 80% of their manuscript writing about the polishing, but what the reader wants to know is the outcome.” Ted’s example tweaked my memory; I’d seen corresponding situations in other disciplines, for example the data-driven thesis in the social sciences. A student might discuss her data for pages and pages without drawing any conclusions about it.

We moved from talking about problems to talking about successes. I asked Ted what characterizes the best engineering writing by students. “It’s well organized. Organization is key,” he answered. “In organized writing, the writer establishes a direct line between the introductory objective, the analysis, the results, and the meaning. The direct line is very important.”

I asked Ted to tell me more about the “direct line,” an intriguing phrase that reminded me of the “red thread” that some people refer to in argument-driven writing. “Well,” he said, “a technical manuscript is a concatenation of results, graphs, and equations, and you can tell the story with no words by lining up your graphs, figures, and equations in the right order. You can fill in the blanks between by joining those visuals. Visuals are telling the story, the words are just supporting the visuals. I badger my grad students to give me the story line in the visuals. Write in point form between the pictures, then expand each point into a paragraph. I’d much rather see a concatenation of 20 pictures telling a story than a concatenation of 20 paragraphs telling a story because I know which one would be better organized. You don’t need words to tell a story. Once the pictures are lined up, it’s easier to get the words right.”

The breeze from the open window lifts the top pages of the articles blanketing Ted’s desk. I thank him for his insights and go out into the bright day. I muse on disciplinary writing differences. My own love for art helps me know at a deep level that you can tell a story without words. I just hadn’t thought about how that idea can be applied in academic writing. I will now approach the engineering and math students I meet with this new perspective. For these disciplines, the word is often helpmate to the picture, and as Ted says, “once the pictures are lined up, it’s easier to get the words right.” Thank you Ted, for helping me to see writing in a new way.

An example of pictures telling stories
Credit: Smith, Jooshesh, Zhang, & Darcie. (2017). THz-TDS using a photoconductive free-space linear tapered slot antenna transmitter. Optics Express, 25(9). 10118-10125., p. 10120.