It’s spring cleaning time! Time to pull out the old storage bins and rummage through your life’s wreck. If you’re reminiscent over your college days you might find college papers in there with your Calvin and Hobbes mug and the 3.5 inch floppy disk of poems you clacked out on your Mac, at the precipice of adulthood overcome with the bigness of it all. As you take out the folder with your college papers and return to those caffeine-fueled nights, with professor after professor bearing witness to your intellectual potential, preserved there in green ink at the margins, understand that pretty much none of what follows is for you. Not too many decades ago college professors with job security were paid well to teach small classes, and as such, they were afforded the time to write thoughtful personal comments on college essays. They took an interest in you and gave you the impression that what you wrote mattered. These days the kinds of professors most likely to grade college essays come from that same pool of hyper-educated and experienced teachers, but they’re hired on temporary contracts to teach required classes with large numbers of mostly uninterested students. It’s very unlikely, given the number of pages of amateur writing these underpaid professors have to read and comment on, that the marginalia will extend beyond the short repeated phrases they have at the ready. And so this primer is for the millennials, the bright young things fed into the sausage grinder of student debt, today’s college students who have very little choice but to attend the P.R.-hyped sports-stadium-birthing institutions run by Mercedes-driving managers and funded with less and less public money. It’s very likely their graded papers come back through email, so today’s students won’t even get the satisfaction of dumping them in the trash as soon as they’re dismissed from class. Here are their underpaid overworked professor’s comments translated, for the sake of better future papers and in the spirit of goodwill between college professor and college student, neither of whom benefits enough to justify this age-old ritual of paper writing.
“Thesis needs work”
Like it or not, a paper should have one over-arching idea, something that can be backed up. You have all the stuff that might back up an idea, but you seem unable to articulate the thing that kind-of/sort-of covers all the diverse facts and opinions you’ve tried to cram into your Word document. Go take a walk. Take a deep breath. Is there a thread you can pull out of all of this? If not, make one. If so, throw everything else away or tuck it to bed somewhere beyond page one. As you tuck it to bed, imagine telling it a story. But before you tell it a story, you say, “I am going to tell you a story about…” Does that help? Do you know what you wanted to say now?
“Paper lacks focus”
That thread we were just talking about? You have four or five of them and they are not connected. Your reader will think you are someone who doesn’t know that reading is supposed to move from one idea to the next. In reality, what you don’t know about is research. You either didn’t know how to find or you didn’t take the time to locate the writing most relevant to the points you want to make. You made points relevant to a random bundle of writings that really don’t belong together. A walk isn’t going to fix this. Unless the walk took you to the library like a week ago where a librarian could have shown you all the sources of digital information that the university pays for, for your benefit. Everyone has Google. Google is free. It’s great for what it is, but what it is not is scholarly or academic. And you? You’re in college now. You are paying for access to magazines, journals, and newspapers. The computer will search them for you. Most likely everything you need is there to be viewed on your computer, or your iPad, or your phone. You just have to learn how to do it, and then to take the time to do it. Google is too quick and easy, and it shows.
“Needs more careful proofreading”
Some professors like to mark up every single spelling, punctuation, or grammatical error you make. Some choose this phrase instead. It’s not being lazy, because you were the one who was lazy. At the end of a horrendous performance on American Idol does each judge point out every slip-up or missed note? What would be the point? You are simply being told that you are not ready to swim in the deep end without supervision. So go find supervision. You probably know someone who would be willing to proofread your paper for you. Give them pizza. Pay them ten dollars. Or, how about this? Those squiggly red and / or green lines under the words and phrases in your paper… that’s called “spell check” and “grammar check.” If you don’t see them, it’s because you don’t have it turned on. Turn it on. Keep fiddling with the word order until those squiggly lines disappear. Quit trying to sound smart and try to sound slightly more natural. And if you’re not sure how to spell something, then for God’s sake use the dictionary on your phone and look it up.
“Doesn’t follow MLA format”
Remember the good ole days when you could just type up a paper any ole way and that was fine? No, you don’t, because those days never existed. At least not for as long as you or your parents were alive. It used to be that secretaries would study manuscript formats at typing school. You don’t have a secretary. You have you. This is when you go to Google and you Google that shit. There are YouTube videos to teach us pretty much anything, including how to format a paper. By doing this you are distinguishing yourself as someone who… 1) can follow directions 2) knows what those directions mean 3) is not dumb 4) is not lazy. All of this before your professor even reads a word. While some professors may not care how your paper is formatted, since it is an easy way to beat you down, most will choose to do so when given the opportunity. Don’t give it to them. Spend the extra time it will take to format the paper correctly. You’ll notice time has been a recurring theme here. It cannot be skimped on effectively.
You are saying things without backing them up. This is what is known as bullshitting and it doesn’t fly. If you don’t have specific examples or a good logical explanation for the things you are saying, then you’ve only got verbiage. If someone wants a salad and all you give them is lettuce, and they ask, “What kind of salad is this supposed to be?” and you give them more lettuce, and they ask, “Can I have cucumbers, or olives, or onion?” and you give them more lettuce… Well, basically they don’t like you anymore, if they ever did.
It’s not really transitions that it needs, but it needs ideas that actually go together. You’ve put on this LP record and with each new paragraph you’ve picked up the needle and plopped it down in the middle of a new song. It’s jarring. Readers sort of expect one idea to lead into the next (we talked about that, remember?). Your goal is to play one song from start to finish. It’s not a lot to ask. It does take some foresight, planning, and rewriting, however. You have to cut some things and replace them with more relevant things. This is normal. Every writer does this. What you’ve handed in is called a “rough draft.” Which is the thing you start with, not the thing you turn in.
“Light on research”
We all love Wikipedia. It’s fucking great. You can look up Beanie Babies or Jeff Gordon or Gremlins 2. It’s all there. Except for the stuff that’s supposed to be in your paper. Anything you find at Wikipedia that feels like it should be in your paper is an indication that your paper focus is all wrong. You probably aren’t really saying anything but are accumulating facts, which is what Wikipedia is, a Mt. Everest-sized pile of facts. When your professor told you not to use Wikipedia in a paper? They were trying to help you. Maybe you were absent that day, or maybe they never said it because they didn’t want to insult you by saying something so obvious. Well, right here on your paper you’ve forced them to say something obvious.
“This passage is plagiarized – please see me after class”
This is bad no matter how you slice it, but if you are humble and a complete dumbass things might turn out okay for you. At the very least, you’ve taken too many sentences and phrases directly from a source, and because the writing didn’t sound like what would normally come from a semi-educated nineteen-year-old, your professor googled the passage, and there it was in all its glory, on someone else’s web page. Best-case scenario: you cited this source that you cut-and-pasted and also provided an in-text note. In other words, you acknowledged that you used the source, even if you used it incorrectly. Worst case scenario: not only did you not acknowledge the source, you made up a fake one in order to make it seem like you worked on the paper more than you did. Worst worst case scenario: you took an entire essay, moved a few things around, and called it yours. Among the likely outcomes, the professor may ask you to either fix the paper or write a new one, probably with a grade penalty. If you are handed this option, take it thankfully and do your best to actually do the work you were supposed to have done the first time. Another possibility is that you will fail the class and will be reported for academic misconduct. If you find yourself in this situation, accept the penalty with as much grace as you can muster, because you knew that what you were doing was wrong, only you didn’t think you’d get caught. You thought your professor was the dumbass, when it turns out it was you.
A check mark in the margins or an underlined passage or phrase
This is an indication that you’ve done something well. For a brief moment, maybe for a sentence, maybe longer, you’ve done exactly what is expected of a paper. If you accumulate checkmarks and underlined passages like stamps on your sandwich card, you’re well on your way to a free turkey bacon club, which in this case is a metaphor for a good grade, A.K.A. a “B” or better.
Exclamation points are always good. You see, exclamation points really rub professors the wrong way, but they want to be sure you understand that they are giving you a Scooby snack. Everything else could soon collapse into a jumbled mess, but you nailed this particular sentence or paragraph and that’s no small thing.
This one is kind of a mixed bag. It means exactly what it says, but what matters here is whether it’s surrounded by other similar remarks or whether it’s sitting there on page four all by its lonesome. If the former is the case, then you kicked ass. You wrote the shit out of that paper. If the latter is the case, then you are looking at a “B” or “C+” paper. You made mistakes along the way, but your professor wants to be sure you’re aware of the things you’ve done well. This right here is one of them. If you didn’t know that, now you do.
There’s that exclamation point again. If you like being in college and you are kind of good at it, then this is exactly what you were shooting for. You probably learned something when working on the paper and you have fulfilled or exceeded the professor’s expectations. Take yourself to lunch. Call your mom and brag or send a self-congratulatory tweet into the Twitter-verse because you earned an “A.” If you’ve gotten an “A” on a college paper, you have all the tools you need to succeed in life. Except that your next professor might have a completely different set of expectations and grading criteria. Except that life is also not fair and having what it takes to succeed does not = succeeding. Of course, it’s pretty unlikely anyone will ever ask you to write a paper once you’ve graduated, but according to all indicators, you will very likely graduate.
If you’re still there with your open storage bin of keepsakes, with the treasured college paper you’ve hung onto all these years, aghast at the brusque interactions that currently qualify as higher education, then say a little prayer, fold the college paper into an airplane, and toss it out on the winds of change.