How many times have you had to slog through the process of writing a paper? An assignment is due next week, or tomorrow, but you struggle to put words on the page. Maybe when you have the freedom to choose your topic, you connect, but when a topic is assigned to you, you’re at a loss.
It’s hard to complete any academic work—not only writing projects—if you don’t care. The educational researcher L. Dee Fink cites data indicating that “the majority of seniors graduate with less academic motivation” than when they entered college (Fink, 2013, p. 3). In his conversations with students, Fink observed that “they have difficulty seeing the value or significance of what they are learning” (Fink, 2013, p. 5). You may share that difficulty, especially when it comes to writing assignments.
Writing studies scholar Michele Eodice (2019, 2020) and her co-investigators surveyed 700 students to find out what makes a writing project meaningful: how do students connect to their work? The researchers discovered that students found a writing project meaningful when they made a “personal connection” (Eodice, 2019, 2020). My goal in this essay is to give you strategies for making a personal connection to any writing project—even those that don’t immediately spark your interest.
Before we get to those strategies, it’s important to know a bit more about what Eodice and her team mean by a personal connection. They don’t just mean personal writing: the kind of writing where you use “I” and bring in your own experience or perspective. Instead, they understand the concept of “personal connection” more broadly and see students’ connections as falling into three categories:
- and subject matter (Eodice, 2019).
When we think of making a connection to a project, we almost always assume the excitement has to do with subject matter—that is, caring about the content of the course or the paper. That’s one way of
making a personal connection; in fact, that’s how most professors assume students connect, according to Eodice’s research. Professors also tend to believe that acquiring academic skills is enough to make projects meaningful, but that’s not really the main reason for students (Eodice, 2020).
There are at least two other ways of making a personal connection with your academic work (not just writing), which are just as important—if not more. These reasons have to do with you as a person, your past and future. For example, one of my former students—a future veterinarian—stayed motivated in science classes by remembering something that had happened to her: she once rescued a newborn rabbit, placing it safely back in its burrow. Even though the content of her science course wasn’t her main interest, she was able to motivate herself by thinking, “the bunny!” In other words, she made a conscious effort to connect to her work through her compassion for the baby rabbit; the memory of “the bunny” and her love for animals kept her going in tough classes that prepared her for veterinary school.
Beyond individual reasons, students might find a course or writing project meaningful because t helped them connect to their family, community, or classmates—what Eodice (2019) calls the social dimension. Another of my former students found it meaningful to write a detailed plan for a basketball practice in his course, Principles of Coaching, because he dreamed of returning to coach children in his community. A third student had a younger brother who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and she spent time trying to help him with online learning during the pandemic. Connecting to the experience of working with her brother, she chose to research the experiences of neurodivergent college students: to investigate the challenges they faced, but also to show how they might overcome these challenges. A student from Cameroon, who grew up speaking both French and English, conducted a study of multilingual college students and how they navigated the shift to an American university. Each of these students found a way of exploring their identities or connecting with others through their writing
So now you hopefully have a broader sense of what a personal connection can mean: beyond an interest in the subject matter, the connection might have to do with your individual path or with the people you care about. How can this help you? When you’re facing the prospect of writing a paper that just doesn’t spark immediate interest for you, stop for a moment. Clear ome space to reflect. Try writing in response to these questions, or just taking the time to think about them:
Reconsider the subject matter from a new angle.
- Is there a dimension of the topic, which might not be obvious at first glance, that you actually do care about? Does the topic connect to your passions and interests in some small or unexpected way?
- Does this project help you prepare for the future, paving the way for work that connects in a more direct way to your passions?
- Even if the topic itself fails to grab you, are you able to see its broader significance? Could it contribute to a scholarly or public conversation in a meaningful way?
Connect the project to yourself as an individual:
- How might this project help you express something from your own perspective or experience, perhaps something that might otherwise remain hidden?
- Could it begin to create a bridge towards your future?
- Are you trying new research or writing skills, and in doing so, building your sense of yourself as an author?
- How could it help you develop an aspect of yourself—for instance, your love of animals or your identity as a multilingual student?
Think about the social dimensions of the project:
- Does the project help you understand or connect to a family member or friend—for example, because of a shared interest or because of their profession?
- Could it enable you to have a conversation or build a relationship with a professor or classmate? Does it offer you the opportunity for collaboration?
- Could it be a way of entering more fully into a community of scholars, researchers, or other professionals?
By reflecting on these questions, you may find an alternative way of making a personal connection to your writing project, beyond an interest in the subject matter.
You might also consider whether you can connect to your writing project in the most immediate and direct way—by using “I” and bringing in your own experiences. In Jenna Pack Sheffield’s Writing Commons article, “Using First Person in an Academic Essay: When Is It Okay?” she explains that there are occasions in academic writing when you can use “I.”
When you find yourself slogging through another writing project, feeling disconnected, it’s worth asking: How can I make a personal connection? If not through subject matter, could it be because this project helps me connect to others, envision my future, or develop as a writer? Where is “the bunny”—the powerful experience or dream that keeps me going?