Summer Reading Review: The White Queen

Angela Roberts, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor White Queen is a historical fiction novel by Philippa Gregory. It provides a fascinating account of the life of Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner who marries the Yorkist King of England Edward the IV, in 1464. Gregory weaves the historical facts of the wars of the Plantagenets in with a mystical fiction surrounding the couple.

Elizabeth is a beautiful young widow whose first husband died fighting for the Lancastrian side in one of the early Cousins’ Wars (aka Wars of the Roses). She falls in love with King Edward, the Lancastrian enemy, and they secretly marry. Edward’s advisors and family never accept Elizabeth and when he dies unexpectedly, her family is in danger. Edward’s oldest son with Elizabeth becomes king; however, Edward V is only 12 years old. So Edward’s brother Richard becomes protector of England until Edward V comes of age. This never happens because Edward and his brother are taken away from Elizabeth to the Tower of London. They are never seen again. Edward’s brother Richard becomes king, so Elizabeth believes he had her sons killed.

Elizabeth is descended from Melusina, who was a river goddess in European folklore. Gregory uses this myth to add a mystical element to the novel that helps to give Elizabeth some power in her male-dominated world. Elizabeth’s mother was caught with some lead figures for charming (or using magical powers), and some people believed that her daughter used this enchantment to become the queen. Many people believed in the power of witchcraft during this time in English history. This is another reason  Edward’s family and advisors disliked Elizabeth and wanted power taken away from her family.

I wanted to read this novel because I love the historical fiction genre and have always wondered what happened to the two lost princes. It is a longer novel that contains many historical facts about the people and battles of the wars; however, I would highly recommend it.

Creative Limits: Placing Barriers on Topic Selection

Eric Holmes, Kaplan University Composition Instructor


Scott Adams (2004) once stated that, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes,” (p. 232) and our classrooms are places for students to be creative and to learn from their mistakes. However, we must steer our students toward success and thus balance their creativity with their responsibilities in the course.

As a composition instructor, I have seen students struggle due to a seemingly simple task: topic selection. While innocuous, choosing the wrong topics to write about can cause students stress and lead to poor coursework and a lack of enthusiasm for the course, which leads to poorer grades.  Ideally, students choose topics that play to their strengths, pique their interests, are not needlessly difficult, and add value to their educations.

As instructors, we assign coursework to give students the best chance of success while teaching them the most valuable information about composition. With this in mind, placing limitations on student creativity in regard to topic selection not only makes it easier for students to decide on a topic but also leads to better coursework. In my career, I have seen students choose topics to write about that do not play to their strengths and/or makes researching and drafting needlessly difficult. From this, I have found that there are five factors that make a topic a hindrance:

  • Lack of knowledge
  • Lack of interest
  • Emotional pain
  • Lack of available data
  • The topic needlessly adds to existing workload

These factors make the student experience being uncomfortable, and to remedy it, I teach students to follow five metrics in regard to choosing a topic to write about. These five metrics address the aforementioned factors that lead to student angst. Here are the metrics that students need to consider when selecting a topic:

  • The topic should be something that students know about.
  • The topic should be something that students care about.
  • The topic should be something that is comfortable.
  • The topic should be something that is available.
  • The topic should be something that is value-added.

To some, the idea that students must choose a topic that they already know about is counter-intuitive. After all, students are in your course to learn.  However, the focus must be upon the certain skill that students are there to learn.  With this in mind, I advocate that students choose as familiar of a topic as possible. In doing this, they are streamlining the writing process by avoiding a task that will involve considerable time and energy better spent elsewhere, as learning even basic information about a new subject is labor intensive, and that labor is better spent working on writing. The point is that when developing a new skill, it is best to play to your existing strengths. That strength also extends to how much students care about a topic.

If students choose topics that they have no interest in, the entire process, from finding evidence to drafting and finally revising/editing, will be laborious. Enthusiasm goes a long way toward success, and it is important to tell students that they will be spending considerable time with their topics, so choosing ones that they care about is vital. Any task is easier when it is enjoyed and students will, as a result, write better and earn a higher grade.

At the same time, it is important that students avoid discomforting topics. Many students attempt to write about topics in a cathartic effort to come to terms with trauma, such as the loss of a loved one. However, the self-inflicted misery that comes with choosing such a topic comes with another cost: poorer work. This is a result of students avoiding the work needed to do well, as the writing process serves as a painful reminder. To drive this point home, I ask students to recall a painful moment and then ask them if they like to think about it. When they respond no, I connect that answer to the decision to avoid such a topic for their paper.

Given the ubiquity of the Internet and the false belief that all information is online, many students are tempted to choose a topic that is too Avant-garde. This is not to say that the topic is inappropriate but rather too new for there to be any substantive knowledge about it. For the sake of student sanity, I urge them to choose topics that have available data, as it is frustrating to be unable to find information on important topics in a world where a Google search for “Charlie Sheen tiger blood” yields more than 100,000 hits.

Finally, I urge students to choose topics that are value-added. While a seemingly empty buzzword, value-added in the context of topic selection means that the topic itself serves another purpose outside of the course. For example, if students are taking another course that requires a paper, they can use the same topic for both. While this statement may raise a plagiarism accusation, writing two different papers using the same topic and body of data is not plagiarism, as the papers contain different content that meets different criteria for different courses. By using the same topic and research data for two different assignments, students can use the time and energy saved to focus more on the act of writing.

As educators, our role is to give students every tool needed to be successful and these metrics are effective for helping students narrow down potential topics without diminishing their creativity. By using these five metrics, students will choose topics that play to their strengths, pique their interests, are not needlessly difficult, and add value to their educations.

Composition and Topic Selection


Adams, S. (2004).  1001 smartest things ever said. In S.D. Price (Ed.). Guilford,

CT:  Lyons Press.

Weighing the Books

By Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center

My home office-by-day/studio-at-heart is one of my favorite places for many reasons, and about 200 of them are books.

My Bookcase Before

My Bookcase Before

Some have literally saved my life; others have just stuck to my bones.  Each shelf holds a genre, and each genre holds a part of my story.  On my shelf of children’s classics, for instance, I have The Little Prince.  It was my mom’s when she was a girl, and folded inside is the book report I wrote on it in 7th grade; I can still remember crumpling up the rough drafts of lined paper, and there was a dozen.  Back then good writing had a lot to do with good hand writing, I thought, and I wanted mine to be good.

The Little Prince Book Report

The Little Prince Book Report

Another special shelf holds my reference books including Simon and Schuster’s International Dictionary: English/Spanish, Spanish/English, a 1,597-page hardcover that weighs a ton and a half.  I majored in Spanish in college, studied for a semester at the Universidad Veritas in Costa Rica, and for a year at the University of Puerto Rico—I still have my Antología de Textos Literarios from UPR and a soulful collection of postcolonial literature by Caribbean authors.  I bought the big dictionary when I was waist deep in Spanish classes.  I needed it for survival.  And in the eight times I’ve moved since finishing college, I’ve had to decide if I would again pack it up and take it with me, even though the only times I’ve cracked it open have been almost exactly those same eight times I moved, just to weigh my need for it.

I also have a paperback English/Spanish dictionary, a thick book as well but with the same words and not big and heavy.  And when I opened that one to weigh its importance, my initial thought was I don’t need this one if I keep the big one, but then I saw my mom’s name printed inside the cover and remembered how she kept up with her Spanish all those years I was studying it.  So my decision was made: The mammoth dictionary would go to Goodwill, and my mom’s paperback would stick with me.

In a blogging course I took a few years ago, a woman in my breakout group said she gave all of her books away, all of them.  She could no longer look at the stack looming on her nightstand.  She said she reads e-books now—no clutter, no guilt.  And she loves books.  She was finishing her now published novel at the time, which I read, reviewed, and gifted to my mother.  I loved it.  My shelves may be full and my nightstand too, but I have a living library.  Books come and go.  I don’t keep all I read or even read all I keep.  But there’s no way I could let go of my copy of Running with Scissors that Augusten Burroughs signed for me after his talk at the Florida Suncoast Writers’ Conference in 05.  That book was powerful.

Running With Scissors, Signed Copy

Running With Scissors, Signed Copy

Yet I read e-books too, and when Burroughs’s memoir Lust and Wonder came out earlier this year, I decided I would download it from Amazon.  His books have been filling up my memoir shelf for years, and that’s my favorite shelf! When it came to weighing their worth to me, they were heavy with great love, but also, just heavy, and for about a day, or at least an hour as I pulled those and about 40 more from my shelves to lighten my load, I considered donating every single one of my books to Goodwill or the local library.  I don’t “need” them, after all.  I could get most (but not all) as e-books; I could take pictures of the inscriptions.  Books are heavy to move and expensive to transport across multiple states as I will be doing very soon.

Good Will Books

Goodwill Books

But here’s the thing: I do need them.  I need them in the way a musician needs music and a painter needs paintings and a lover needs love.  Books are my reason for writing and loving language; they are my reward, my inspiration, and they have shaped the life I live, and in my work as a writing tutor and a writer, I use them all the time.  I’ve reopened a box a day it seems looking for one and then another.  It’s terribly inconvenient having them in boxes, but I must pack to move.  And where I’m going, I’ll make a new studio-office, and I’ll shelve my books on a new bookcase (since mine was too heavy to keep), and I will be home again.

Books Worth the Weight

Books Worth the Weight


Tools for Preventing Plagiarism

By Amy Sexton, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor

One way that the Writing Center supports university students is by presenting live workshops each month on the important topic of plagiarism, and we strive to explore different perspectives on plagiarism with each offering.  Last month, I presented one of our most popular titles, Preventing Plagiarism through Proper In-text Citation.  This presentation was most recently revised by my Writing Center colleague, Chrissine Rios, and it offers students many helpful tools they can use throughout the writing process to prevent plagiarism in their assignments.

We begin the workshop with a look at Kaplan University’s official plagiarism definition, as well as some examples of plagiarism.  One example that seems to surprise some students is self-plagiarism, as many of them do not realize that one form of plagiarism is reusing a previously submitted paper for a new course.  After talking about what plagiarism is and what it may look like, we then turn our attention to strategies to prevent plagiarism.

Preventing plagiarism begins with careful research.  Students must take detailed notes during their research, including recording all bibliographic information needed to cite and reference their sources and properly noting any information that they record verbatim by enclosing it in quotation marks.  At this point in the workshop, I usually relate stories of working with students who waste precious time tracking down necessary bibliographical information because they did not record it during the research process or who unintentionally plagiarize because they forget that they recorded source material word for word in their notes and cite it as a paraphrase in their papers.  Finally, we know that students sometimes plagiarize because they have not thought through the topic enough to   form their own opinions and ideas, so we encourage students to use the research process to think critically about the topic, analyze what they are reading, and ask probing questions.

Next, we look at what effective paraphrases look like.  A common misconception among students is that paraphrasing means to take an original sentence and change it by finding synonyms to replace some of the words.  One effective way to unravel this misconception is to suggest to students that paraphrasing does not mean to “put something into your own words” but instead means to extract the meaning from the original text.  While this may not seem like a huge distinction, this change in defining paraphrasing does seem to make a difference in helping students understand the goal of paraphrasing.

In addition, students sometimes unintentionally commit plagiarism when they paraphrase an entire paragraph or more of source material.  This often occurs when beginning students are learning about a new or unfamiliar topic.  Many times, students erroneously think that adding a citation at the end of a paraphrased paragraph is sufficient.  This workshop offers a good opportunity to talk about this misconception with students and to introduce the concept of using both signal phrases and parenthetical citations to cite large passages of paraphrased material properly.

In the last part of this workshop, we look at what proper citation looks like including in the text and on the references list.  Specifically, we look at the differences between in-text citations for quotations and paraphrases and talk about why paraphrasing is often preferred over quotation.  Finally, we review a sure-fire strategy that all students can use to detect issues with plagiarism in their writing: matching in-text citations and references.  Sometimes, students may include a reference for a source they used on the references page but forget to include an in-text citation to show where they used the source material in their writing.  Ensuring that each in-text citation has a matching reference and vice versa can help students see where additional citation may be needed or discover that they overlooked including a reference on the references page.

By reviewing definitions and examples of plagiarism, careful research, effective paraphrasing, proper attribution of  all borrowed source material, and corresponding citations and references, students attending this workshop leave with a tool box full of useful strategies that they can use to proactively prevent plagiarism in their writing.


Why What We’re Teaching and What They’re Learning Matters in the Long-Term

Jan Stallard, Kaplan University Composition Professor


When students ask “When will I ever use this again?” I always have an answer. When I began graduate school, my mentor had a cartoon pinned to her door. It showed a nervous man at a job interview who had just been tasked with writing an on the spot essay about Moby Dick. It made me a bit nervous myself because I knew I would need to read that monster of a book that term! As I moved from a first-year student to a full-time instructor, that cartoon became an indelible reminder about what all of us—students and instructors alike—should really be doing.

It’s true that no one has asked me, an English major after all, about Moby Dick in a job interview. I’m willing to bet few others have been asked to solve a geometry proof, recite the Constitution, or create a timeline of ancient Rome. However, I’ve certainly been asked to put on my critical thinking cap to tackle hypothetical problems and break down complex tasks into more manageable parts. And what do all of these skills have in common? They are rooted in critical thinking.

Students love to ask, “When will I ever use this again? I’m going to be a _________________.” I adore this question because I have my answer ready. Writing is a record of thinking, and I can guarantee the jobs students want require thinking. This is the value of making room for writing in every class. When it’s approached thoughtfully, it’s the realization of planning, critical thinking, and double-checking.

We might feel hesitant to have these conversations with students, but I’ve found them to be remarkably productive. It’s not a justification of my job or their coursework, but instead a reality check on what this is all about. Becoming a competent writer isn’t just a plus of education—it’s a necessity that doesn’t need to take a backseat to content knowledge and practical experience.

You’re likely to get these “When will I ever use this again?” questions. Be prepared and make connections that will go way beyond your classroom.

  1. If you know what I mean, why does it matter if I have errors?  If autocorrect has taught us anything, it’s that typos can be a disaster. My students tend to have a better awareness of this, and I think it has a lot to do with autocorrect gone wrong. Transferring this over into their own work takes a nudge. This is a terrific time to make the parallel between an actual human eye proofreading versus a machine doing it. Students too content to let Word do their spell and grammar checking are setting themselves up for failure and embarrassment. Great ideas don’t look great when errors distract from them. Credibility and correctness go hand in hand.
  1. Why are we writing essays when I’m only going to write emails/reports in my job?  A first answer is that they’re going to be writing throughout college. When I’m looking for a long-term answer, I always go back to the writing process. No matter what they write, clarity, organization, and thoroughness are essential. Essay writing encourages writers to think about details. It also teaches them to defend a point of view, which is a common skill in the workplace. The crossover between using evidence in an essay isn’t much different than using data and observations to justify a decision or make a recommendation whether that’s in a conversation or those aforementioned emails and reports.
  1. Why do we have to use APA/MLA?  Students have a fair point if they’re not going to pursue additional education, but the formatting isn’t really the greater purpose of citation styles. Intellectual property should be treated carefully. In the age of the cloud, it seems like information is free for the taking, but this is 100% not the case. Giving credit to others, whether it’s research or ideas from colleagues, does matter. As far as the actual formatting goes, I remind students that many jobs have templates and specific formatting to follow. The goal isn’t to memorize any of this but to depend on it to make your work match someone else’s standard. Plus, details matter. Almost or close enough don’t tend to sit well with future teachers or employers.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of questions, but it does represent the core questions I see again and again. Make note of questions you see repeatedly and prepare short-term and long-term answers for students. Adding these questions and answers to your repertoire will make you an instructor who better connects with students and their long-term goals.

College Teaching

SOAR Symposium: The Value of Research and Presentation

Dr. Tamara Fudge, Kaplan University Professor in the School of Business and Information Technology


Kaplan University’s second Student Online Annual Research Symposium (SOAR Symposium) is slated for this September 13 and offers our students and our alumni a great opportunity.

Imagine the chance to delve into meaningful career concepts outside of the classroom,  hone research, analytical, and organizational skills, create meaningful visual elements, exercise verbal communication, and take a leadership role within a webinar atmosphere.  It will take time management and communication skills to get it all done, too!  What is even better is that the SOAR Symposium offers both professional experience and a way to enhance the participant’s resume.

There are a few different ways students can  participate in the SOAR Symposium.  They can present with a PowerPoint presentation in an Adobe Connect room live session or develop a “poster” (an infographic).  Optionally, the participant can prepare a paper to go with his or her topic that may be suitable for professional publication.

These methods of information sharing have significant value. They require research, which in itself is good critical thinking practice for the workplace.  As Lipowski (2008) notes, “continuous assessment of policies, procedures, and programs [in the workplace] is necessary because science and technology can render them obsolete.”

Additionally, visual representations such as infographics and PowerPoint charts, graphs, and images aid attendees in understanding, processing, and remembering information (Parsons & Sedig, 2014). We can see that it is not just the participants, but the attendees who benefit from the Symposium.

It is also a leadership experience: presentations are a demonstration of assertiveness. This professional competency is also validated in participants’ preparedness to answer questions (Berjano  Sales-Nebot, & Lozano-Nieto, 2013). This public speaking experience is powerful on a resume.




Berjano, E., Sales-Nebot, L., & Lozano-Nieto, A. (2013). Improving professionalism in the engineering curriculum through a novel use of oral presentations. European Journal Of Engineering Education, 38(2), 121-130.

Lipowski, E. (2008). Developing great research questions. American Journal Of Health-System Pharmacy, 65(17), 1667-1670 4p. doi:10.2146/ajhp070276

Parsons, P., & Sedig, K. (2014). Adjustable properties of visual representations: Improving the quality of human-information interaction. Journal Of The Association For Information Science & Technology, 65(3), 455-482. doi:10.1002/asi.23002


Determining Audience in the Social Media Age


Lisa Gerardy,Kaplan University Writing Center Specialist

One of the most important parts of a piece of writing is the audience. When a student takes a writing class, no matter if it’s composition, creative writing, or any other writing course, identifying the audience is very important. The perceived audience can change the way a message is delivered, both in writing and in verbal communication.  If a student is writing an essay geared towards kids, he or she may use a kinder voice, but if the student pictures a stern professor, he or she will likely be more formal.  The same is true for professors and administrators.  The perceived audience can change the writer’s tone and message.

For some of us, our first experience with writing for an audience was when we wrote letters to Santa.   Santa is a very definite audience.  Children know who he is, and they know what to write to him.  As we get older, and write for a variety of people, for both professional and personal purposes, it can be tougher to determine how to communicate with our audience.  This is because we begin to make assumptions about our audience.

With the invention of the Internet, and social media specifically, communication has become immediate.  Thus, everyone’s virtual audience has grown.  Instead of having in-person discussions, or phone calls with friends and co-workers, we can now log into Facebook and learn everyone’s opinions on religion, politics and many other topics.  That is when the judging begins.  In short, we learn too much about each other’s personal lives, which should not affect our professional relationships.

When we email a colleague, we may remember that political post we saw on her social media page, and change what we say based on assumptions about the recipient of the email.  If we befriend students, we also learn about their opinions and personal lives. Before social media, we would just focus on the message, on the task at hand, if you will, first, and then the audience.  Now, the audience plays a bigger role because we assume more, which changes the way we deliver the message.

So, when communicating with anyone, colleagues, students, family, or friends, we have to be careful not to pass judgement because of information gained via social media.  We can’t place everyone in a little box.  When we look at Facebook, Twitter, and other sites, let’s focus more on those common kitten pictures, and less on the election year rants.  It will keep communication professional and collegial.