Barbara Junisbai, assistant professor of organizational studies, was selected as the Writing Center’s fourth Grapples and Oranges Featured Teacher for encouraging student writing with thorough and personalized feedback. Professor Junisbai encourages students to insert their voices into the discourse while pushing them to create complex and intriguing theses and essays. She is a constant and enthusiastic support and aid to students throughout the writing process.
Interview with Professor Junisbai (conducted by Divya Bambawale ’17)
If you weren’t a professor today, what would you be?
If I could do anything at all, I would travel around the world learning languages and consulting on projects related to governance, civil society, and democracy. Part of the reason why I like being a professor is the freedom to travel and do research abroad and to integrate that experience into my courses. I feel incredibly lucky to be a professor; it suits my dreams and my goals better than anything else I can think of. When I am not teaching, traveling, and writing, I can usually be found at home with my kids and working in my garden. So one of my passions seems to be going to far away places and immersing myself in something new, while another is staying at home and immersing myself in the familiar.
What was a pivotal moment in your development as a writer?
As long as I can remember I have been the kind of person who writes better than they speak. I was never good at speaking off the cuff, and it would take me a very long time to formulate my thoughts. As I was growing up, I enjoyed writing because it gave me the chance to sit down and really think about what I wanted to say. It gave me that space. But I was not very confident in my own voice; I often struggled with asserting my own view, even in college… and—I hate to admit it—even in graduate school. A pivotal moment for me was an assigned paper in my first semester of grad school. The prompt was something along the lines of, “What place do values have in political science?” We had previously read scholars who argued social scientists need to be value neutral and other scholars who argued that everything has value and everything you do comes out of that value. For my paper, I synthesized the two viewpoints, came up with pros and cons, and gave as many examples as I could. I started writing really early and was proud of the paper that I turned in to my professor. When I got it my back, there was one note at the top of the first page: “It’s clear that you really know what scholars have said about this topic…but what isn’t as clear is your position. What do you have to say?” I was completely taken aback. I realized that I was trying to use others’ voices to make my own argument. This was because in high school and college I had been trained to write in this way. I think many of us are. And so today in my courses, I emphasize that students should develop their own voice and frame their writing as a way to contribute something all their own. To think of writing as a way to add to an ongoing conversation that is taking place among many different voices, specialists and non-specialists alike.
What writing advice would you give your undergrad self?
I would tell my undergrad to take risks, which is something my undergrad self was very uncomfortable doing. To underscore the value of risk taking, I ask students write a “version 1,” to use that version 1 to try out their ideas in a safe space, and to then solicit constructive feedback from their peers and me before writing a “version 2”… or a “version 3” if needed. I would also tell my undergrad self to talk over my ideas for papers with friends and peers. Talk and write, write and talk. And ask someone I trust and value to read my early draft. The process of talking about ideas, taking a first stab at putting them to paper, getting feedback, and rewriting is so helpful. Writing is all about communicating something you think is interesting or worth noting to others—taking your audience seriously and engaging with them. The final thing I’d tell my undergrad self is to draw out or diagram my argument on paper. Actually, I practice this today as a writer and a teacher. A picture or flowchart of what I want to say with key phrases is incredibly clarifying.
What is your writing process?
My first step is finding a question. In the region of world I work in – post-Soviet countries – I constantly come across something I observe that piques my curiosity. As I ask my question, I find out what others who are interested in the issue have said about it. In other words, I use the library databases, the internet, conference proceedings, etc. so I get a sense of the different ways that what I am interested in has been studied. Maybe I find an ongoing debate about how to answer the question. And, if all goes well, maybe my study will add something new or help us see the question (and possible answers) in a different way.
Then I start writing. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes I don’t feel as confident in my position or voice as I probably should be. One way I have found helpful in getting starting with my writing is to distance myself from what I am studying. I sometimes do this by positioning myself as the translator of the data I have collected. I try to find patterns in my data and describe or record those patterns to express what is interesting about those patterns—or the ways that the data surprise us or challenge expectations. I spend some time talking to my immediate colleagues, family, and friends about my ideas and interpretations. They usually mention things that relate to my research; my ideas might remind them of other ideas they’ve come across, whether in a recently published book, on the news, or even a TV show they really like. At this point, I am usually feeling more confident in what I am writing about, and my voice comes out on its own accord. I no longer feel as though I am translating what I’ve observed and putting it to paper. I am adding my take on what I find, offering possible explanations and alternatives. I suppose it’s a kind of trick I play on myself to help me find my voice each time I write. First, I think of myself as a dispassionate observer, and that gives me a kind of boost, enough to then own the writing and claim it as mine.
What’s your favorite writing snack?
Peanut butter and Trader Joes Milk chocolate. I just break off a chunk of chocolate and use it to scoop out peanut butter. Brain food, comfort food, and a boost of energy all in one.