Monday, December 31, 2007

Polishing the Golden Shovel

My senior year of High School I took AP English. I hated that class, but I have to admit I did learn a little about writing. One thing I learned was you got a higher grade if you included your own insight and opinions into your "book review" type papers.

My junior year of College I took History of Aviation to fulfill the last of my History credit requirements. It was a horrible class. The material was interesting, and the books we used were decent, but our professor was… well, boring. And the tests and assignments were simply a waste of time. It was quite literally like going back to freshman year of High School with "chapter summary" 1 page papers in 5 paragraphs due every week.

I can’t recall exactly what grades I got on the first few papers, B- or C comes to mind though. The professor had underlined roughly half of my essay (not to indicate anything, I think she was just one of those people who underlines as they read so they don’t loose their place...). Then she’d scrawled, "more examples" or something to that effect on the top. I was kind of peeved. I’d read the material, and I thought that was obvious given the content of my "essay." And like I’d learned in AP English in High School, I’d added in a lot of my own personal take on what the reading had taught me and how it applied to whatever idiotic prompt we’d been given that week. That was clearly not what the professor was looking for.

It took me a few papers to finally realize that this was a class where it didn’t matter what I was learning, or how well I was writing. This was a class where I had to figure out what the professor wanted to see in those papers. It didn’t matter if what she wanted to see made sense, or was good or bad, or furthered my education... It only mattered that she wanted to see it.

So I developed a method for writing those papers. I would look at the prompt we’d been given. Then I’d skim through the material we were supposed to read. When I found a sentence or paragraph that applied to the prompt somehow, I’d underline it and add a mark at the top of the page so I could find it again. When I’d finished skimming the material, I’d go back through and find everything I’d underlined. I’d summarize the sentence and put the page number. Then I would number each quotation 1-n in an order that would sensibly answer the prompt. Finally I’d write my paper. The introduction would restate the prompt. The rest of the paper would be direct quotes (or sometimes paraphrased quotes, always referenced) with transitions between them. The conclusion would restate the prompt. Each of my little 1 page essays would include about 8 to 12 quotes.

Let me drive that home. I literally wrote NOTHING except to transition between quotations. I’m not overstating this, that’s all I did. And while I think I did a decent job masking it with my transitions, it was still quite obvious.

I got As on every paper for the rest of the semester.

My dad once taught me a term which summarizes what I was doing here wonderfully. When I would tell him about some stupid paper I had to write he would say, "Polish your golden shovel!" This referring to all the Bull Shit you’re about to shovel into your paper and attempt to masquerade as golden writing.

Of course, usually when you’re putting your golden shovel to work it’s not as blatant as my History of Aviation story. In fact, in normal use it’s a very valuable skill to have. Sometimes you have to sharpen the saw, and other times you have to polish the golden shovel.

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