The Research Paper
The writing requirement for my Art History course was simple enough. Pick a topic form our reading and do a research paper. Since my recent studio work had been sculptural and involved repetition and systemic structures, I chose Serialism, an art movement.
The initial readings went well. One article led to the next with references to other artists and tangential movements. I kept expanding my topic to include Solipsism, Minimalism and every other ‘ism’ connected to this non-art. Somehow I found myself in the basement of the Geography building studying waveforms from seismographs, phoning math teachers trying to understand the structural connection between math, music and art, and reading the ranting of philosophers on artificial intelligence.
The due date for the paper crept dangerously near and I had not written a word.
With my desk overflowing with journals and books on interlibrary loan, the term ended without my paper. My instructor graciously extended the option of an incomplete. It was my condemnation.
Of course I did not write the paper that week, or that summer. Only in the fall, unable to avoid daily contact with my teacher did I begin to write. The profusion of garbled words that spewed forth form my pen was only equaled by the dirty dishes and piled laundry at my unkempt home. I would write on one small aspect of this epic text for 45 diarrhetic pages only to begin a new expulsion on an unrelated topic the following morning. I did not eat, I rarely slept, and friends who would regularly ride bikes with me became concerned. I did not leave my desk. I was not well.
As the academic window for the incomplete began to close, I had no choice but to go to my instructor and confess my condition. Her solutions were simple and direct. I would edit down my voluminous copy to a narrower text. I would throw away most of my work.
When the final draft was submitted the following week I was liberated from the albatross that had been around my neck for an entire term of my life. I could not however completely dismiss the six months of research that I had gained, only a fraction of which was now represented in my paper. So I turned it all in, my paper, the notes, the Xeroxed articles and every unused chapter from my work.
When Janet returned the materials she penned this note. "Lucy, on principle I never give and A to any work completed under an "incomplete". However, since you have provided me with the material for my new Topics Seminar in 20th Century Art, I have no choice. Excellent Work."
Recollection of a college paper
My freshman year at the University of Dubuque I had a composition teacher named Dr. Anna Aitchison (sp?). She had already been there forty years, and was well on her way to becoming the legend she is today. In our spring semester we had to write a research paper complete with note cards from our research. Being naive, I chose the Hundred Years War between England and France--yes, all of it!
In our first conference on the paper, Annie, as she was affectionately referred to (but never addressed as), suggested that I limit myself to a finite number of battles. I chose three. Without my dictionary I may not get the spelling right, but they were the battles of Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. (In a great Faulty Towers line, Basil, who has presumably forgotten his wife's birthday, responds to her question as to what day it is by remarking that it must be the anniversary of one of these battles. I always wonder how many people know what he refers to!)
Annie gave me a B+ on the paper, a grade below the one I wanted. In our final conference, she remarked that it appeared I had worked very hard on researching the paper, and then written it all at the last minute. This was exactly true, and I denied it.
Some years later the University of Dubuque named a beautiful new dormitory Aitchison Hall for Annie Aitchison. Having been among a group of students promoting this honor for her, I was asked to speak at the building dedication banquet. I told this story and confessed to Annie in the presence of hundreds of her fans and former students that her perceptiveness had been a little more than I could handle at the time. She was of such a nature that everyone there could relate to my story. And, of course, this was only one of a great many things I learned from this remarkable woman.
"Ever to confess I am bored…"
Did I learn something about writing from one of the papers I wrote in college? The paper that stands out most in my mind (from my undergraduate days) was a paper I wrote about John Berryman for my Modern Poetry class. I don’t remember what the assignment was. I don’t really remember that I learned to analyze Berryman’s poetry that thoroughly. I don’t even remember that I learned anything about writing (at the time) from the experience. What I do recall is this: I had some slight acquaintance with some of the significant details of Berryman’s life. As I read his poetry more carefully, I became interested in possible autobiographical references, historically accurate and metaphorically accurate, perhaps even predictive of his future behavior. The interconnections became more and more interesting to me, until I finally begged the teacher for an extension of the deadline for the paper so I could read more of Berryman’s poetry, more of his biography, even briefly interview a family member. I am not so sure that I consciously learned something about my own writing at that time. I did learn that great satisfaction could be gained from digging into an interesting topic. I enjoyed trying to discover relationships and connections that were not laid out simply on the surface. This technique undoubtedly helped me create sections and order in later writing projects.
Let's Start with Chaucer!
I thought that I was a good writer
'Til I had to pull an all-nighter
Said, "Chaucer's a breeze."
But I earned two "D"s!
My course load then got a bit lighter.
This limerick is about my first college English course, "English C-34: Chaucer," which I took during 3rd quarter of my sophomore year. I had studied and enjoyed Chaucer in high school, I did well on the AP English exam, and I considered myself a competent writer. I assumed that this course would be tough, but that I'd be able to handle it. I was wrong. The first paper I submitted earned a D/D--Ds for both content and execution! This is the worst grade I ever received on a paper (I've failed my share of exams but have never even gotten a "C" on a paper). This is the most "in over my head" that I have ever felt in any academic situation. Not only were the assignments beyond my abilities, just the act of reading Chaucer consumed an extraordinary amount of time and effort.
Chaucer was the first of two classes that I dropped during college. Though probably not the most noble course of action, it was valuable experience: this was the first time I found myself unable to "write my way out" of a sticky academic situation. Until this point, my writing skills (which used to be considerably better than they are now, by the way) had virtually guaranteed at least a "B" in classes where written work was the majority of the grade. Thus, this ego-damaging experience opened my eyes to my limitations, but also made me aware of how I had been using my strengths. I also learned that the earth didn't stop spinning because I dropped a course; sometimes, knowing when to jump ship is a sign of wisdom rather than a weakness.
Next: Methods of Teaching
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