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Reflections on Writing

By Dr. Brian Campbell


I wanted to take time to share some thoughts on how I developed my writing skills.  Suffice it to say, I was not an overnight success.  I am relating this story because I know that many of you did not do well on your first writing assignment.  My story begins in Pennsylvania.


As some of you probably know (from reading my bio), I did my undergraduate degree at Grove City College, which is located in Grove City, PA.  GCC is a private Christian college that maintains a very high academic standing.  I felt I got a great education there and I fell in love with psychology.  Therefore, I decided that I would try to get a higher degree in the subject and I started thinking about graduate school.


Because my father was born in Scotland (and came over on a boat and emigrated through Ellis Island), I decided to pursue my doctorate in Great Britain.  Without knowing much about the British system, I just sent out applications and prayed that I would be accepted somewhere.


To my surprise, a lecturer at the University of St. Andrews reviewed my application and decided to accept me into the doctoral program for psychology.  I had very little knowledge about the system.  I just grabbed my golf clubs (St. Andrews is the home of golf), and flew to St. Andrews…


As soon as I arrived at the psychology department, I sensed that something was very different about the British system of education.  Wow, was I right.  Here are a couple of highlights.

First of all, they treat students like scholars, with a great deal of respect.  Second, the doctoral system is based entirely on independent research that is conducted under the supervision of an academic mentor.  My mentor was named Dr. Robert Grieve.  He was a developmental psychologist whose research focused on psycholinguistics (the study of language development and pathology). 


Another difference of the system is that there are no tests and no classes!  Did you get that? —No tests and no classes!  All I could think was, “What a difference from the American system.”  Instead of passing tests, my work was judged on its scientific merit and the criteria for passing was:  “An original contribution to mankind.”


Now, the important point I want to make is that I was a complete neophyte, engaged in an unfamiliar environment with no clear sense of direction.  To begin with, I felt I was pretty stupid when compared to my fellow students, and I definitely felt inferior to my supervisor.  In fact, I soon discovered that Dr. Grieve possessed an incredible intellect. 



One day, when I had finished a rough draft of a research publication (that Dr. Grieve and I were working on), I observed something remarkable!  I still clearly remember the event—it turned out to be incredibly unsettling.  As we sat there looking at the paper, I realized that I had not yet completed the reference section of the article we were writing.


Realizing my omission, I spoke up and told Bob, “I’ll go and get the references so that we can complete this section.”  Bob turned to me and said, “Oh, don’t worry, I think I know all the references.”  What?  I thought!  Are you kidding?  Sure enough, I watched in amazement as he wrote out—we did not have computers—about twenty references, complete with the title of the journal articles, book titles, authors, publishers, and dates.


As you might imagine, I was astounded!  I thought there were hidden cameras somewhere.  After the initial shock wore off, I asked him how he did it.  He responded that he “just sort of remembered things like that.”  At that moment, I had the horrible feeling that maybe I was in the wrong place.  After all, if I was going to be expected to be this brilliant, I was really sunk!  I remember thinking something like, “Mommy, help!”


After the initial shock wore off, I decided I would remain humble the rest of my time at St. Andrews, and I would try to learn as much as I could from this incredible intellect who was supervising me.  My overall objective was to be able to think and reason like Bob.  I knew deep down that I would never really reach his level, but I decided to try.

Over the subsequent weeks, months, and years, Bob and I met frequently and discussed my research and other psychology topics.  Because of all these meetings, Bob’s critical thinking skills “started to rub off.”  At some point in time, I realized that I was starting to “think at another level.”  I was not just accepting what I was reading, I was critically evaluating it and developing my own independent thoughts and conclusions.


Bob was a fantastic writer, so his writing skills also rubbed off a bit.  However, I must tell you that the very first paper I wrote for him (which I thought was perfect) came back with so many red lines on it I could hardly see my original paper.  Once again, humility, and a desire to “think like Bob,” and “write like Bob,” were my mantras.


I loved the system in Britain!  Unfortunately, when I came back to the U.S. and took a job as a professor at Nova University, I got a big shock.  I was teaching doctoral level clinical psychology students in our two (Ph.D. and Psy.D.) APA approved doctoral programs.  I was expecting a lot from the students, and I assumed that they would be eager to learn (as I was in St. Andrews).  Boy, did I get a shock!


I had a small seminar class with only 15 doctoral students.  I gave them the assignment to read some articles that I made available and come to the class prepared to discuss the articles.  To my surprise, on the first day of the discussion group, I opened up the discussion and then turned to the students for their input.  Surprisingly, only a handful of students had read the articles, and none of them had anything intelligent to say about the articles.


When I asked why they had not read the articles, one of the students said:  “Based on the syllabus, it didn’t look like you were going to test us on those materials.”  In fact, these were the sentiments of most of the class.  They didn’t read the material because they thought they wouldn’t be tested on it.  Needless to say, I was not only shocked, I was disappointed and a little angry.


Over time, I realized that the American system of education is focused on tests, and not as much on learning.  It still drives me crazy when people focus on tests, and test grades, instead of focusing on what they are learning.  In my opinion, most of the students in the U.S. are so heavily focused on tests and grades, they find it very difficult to “step back” and critically evaluate what they are learning.  In Britain, I “learned how to learn.”  In the U.S., most students “learn how to take tests.”


Finally, this brings me back to the topic of writing.  In formal, professional writing, it is critical to avoid spelling errors, punctuation errors, grammatical errors, etc.  As you go out into the working world with your counseling degrees, you will most certainly be judged by your writing skills.  There is even Biblical precedence for being careful with your words (click here).




Dr. Campbell

P.S. I hope to be able to guide you through the process of developing professional writing skills.  In all humility, my desire is that you “start thinking and writing like Dr. Campbell,” just as I learned to “start thinking and writing like Dr. Grieve.”  So, let us proceed on our journey.