So You Think You Can Write a Paper?

Rachel and I occasionally enjoy the talent shows that currently populate the airwaves, although I really miss the gong. Last night we were watching “So You Think You Can Dance” and I was struck by how much like writing and grading papers the show is. Perhaps the facts that I just finished the Spring semester by reading about a thousand pages of student final essays and journals and I’m about to wing to Colorado for a week of reading high school essays in the AP World History Gulag are shaping my thoughts?

There’s a real contrast between the singing shows (“American Idol” and “Eurovision” just wrapped up) and the dancing shows. With singing there’s very little talent or skill involved in the selection and outcome. A basic ability to loudly hit intended notes most of the time is of course critical, although not even that is essential, as Sanjaya mythically showed. Once through the wringer of this very basic requirement, contestants are judged chiefly on their style and emoting. It helps if the notes they miss are at the top of their range, since this makes them sound intense, sincere, and a little vulnerably desperate. (Bono has made a whole career out of this trick.) Winning one of these shows is like winning the lottery, which is lots of why they’re mass favorites.

The dance shows are much different. Although the quasi-celebrities on “Dancing with the Stars” can get away with some pretty minimal competence for quite a while — e.g. Billy Ray Cyrus, Marie Osmond — eventually a focused and systematic ability to get the body to move in exactly the right way is key. For the amateurs on “SYTYCD” this is even more true. They don’t have celebrity going for them; more of them than needed are conventionally and/or edgily attractive; shaking it is no advantage since doing some genre’s version of that skillfully is the aim of all. To even be considered past the first round of the show, which true to format is mostly dedicated to weeding out and publicly humiliating the wannabes and clueless losers, they have to be pretty good dancers.

Judging the goodness of a dancer turns out to be a lot like judging the goodness of a student paper. It’s actually quite a while before the judges get to the more properly aesthetic or ‘subjective’ levels of assessment. First they look for levels of competence. Level one, I noticed last night, involves the distinction between ‘moving’ and ‘dancing’. Dance wannabes who can’t move are like students who can’t articulate thoughts in complete sentences. The judgment is easy, and so is the prescription. Work. Much. Harder. (I would like very much to be able to say what those judges say next, which is some version of “Go away, and don’t come back until you’re at least moving and it’s not a torture to watch you make that godawful twitching.”)

Movers are people with a basic ability to control their bodies in relation to music. You wouldn’t be embarrassed to be on the floor with them at a bar. They’d be in play on “American Idol,” but on “SYTYCD” they’re not even in the game. In the world of student papers the movers are the kids with a basic ability to control written language in relation to a thought. They may be perplexed or offended that this is not enough, as are many show contestants. I find here that my grading is more “AI” than “SYTYCD,” because my movers will usually get some kind of a D or low C when really, they ought not to be getting through to the next round at the college level.

At the lowest level of skill the dancers can do actual choreography without looking too spastic. They have muscular control and some sense of genre; they’re not just interpreting their feelings by flailing around. You can see what they’re up to, although it’s pretty rushed, choppy and imprecise. There’s a general tone that says ‘dancer’. In student papers, I’d begin to see a recognizable introductory paragraph with an assignment-appropriate topic statement here; maybe some raw flair but probably not much of a thesis; and rambling yet underelaborated paragraphs with something like evidence and a tenuous thread of continuity between them. We’re solidly into the C range here.

Next up in the world of tv dance are the contention fodder, whose destiny is to get culled through the early competitive phases of the show, much to the consternation of their adoring hometown fans. They’re moderately skilled in all the technical aspects of their genre. Although the performance is a bit mechanical and they have no real feel for what they’re doing, they hit their marks and positions with some flow and formal grace. They’ve mastered the plastic smile but haven’t got the nuances of making it look like authentic joy. A paper like this has all the elements it’s supposed to — correct but probably not fluid writing, by-the-numbers introduction with topic/question/thesis, logically outlined body paragraphs with evidence reasonably chosen and analyzed. There’s nothing much wrong with a solid B dancer, or paper. They’re fully competent; you could eke out a living with that. I get a whole bunch of this kind of paper from kids who were in the top 10% of their high school classes. They’re the ones for whom an A is an entitlement and a B is a cosmic injustice.

Competence is not excellence. I remember seeing Baryshnikov some years ago. Not knowing much about ballet I was really impressed with the dancers in the opening numbers. They seemed very good, and I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be waiting for with the big guy. Then he came out and did his thing, and within moments it was clear. Where the other guys were technically proficient dancers, his mastery was so complete that what he did was more than mere dancing: it was artistry using dance as the medium. There was no sense that he was dancing at all, no feeling of choreography or effort to perform. He flowed and glided and soared about the stage as if he was translating a special thought into motion on the fly. Skillfully creating, as Hines says below, “the illusion of the first moment.” I suspect this is what the movers think they are doing.

Genius is not a fair standard for either dancers or student essayists, but it helps to clarify in my mind what’s happening in the shift from a B paper to an A paper, just like the shift from a competent dancer to a really terrific one. The dancers who have a shot at winning the show are going to do more than master the steps and movements of the various genres and choreographies. They’re going to understand the inner logic, inherent grace and opportunity for expression in those forms and use that to create something that’s uniquely, virtuously and fascinatingly their own.

Back when I first started teaching, for Revelle College at UCSD, I worked as a T.A. in the writing program attached to the core humanities sequence. We got a lot of support that did a great job of showing us how to take the students up to the B range. But they did not and I’ve never seen anyone since explain coherently how to make that next step. I had a student named Martin who was with me through the whole five quarters of the sequence, and he worked his way up from the low C to the high B range, then stuck. And stuck, and stuck. Then finally I read a paper of his that was a new sort of thing — fully masterful and genuinely interesting. An A paper. So wanting this for all my students I asked Martin what had done the trick for him. He said, I don’t know. Something just clicked.

Since then I’ve had many students make that leap, and I still ask them how. And it’s always that something just clicked. I’ve never seen that click happen without a solid, practiced, mastered and habituated grasp of the fundamentals of competence, however. It’s when that’s in place that the magic has a chance to happen.

EDIT: Heehee! Good for them:

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6 Comments

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  4. Nice post. The difference between an A and a B is indeed the difference between Baryshnikov and the rest. I haven’t seen American Idol, but I’ve seen some of SYTYCD, and you’re dead on about the levels of competence there.

  5. Thanks Undine. I find I’m fairly liberal on the lower end of the grade scale, especially since I use grades to send messages of improvement and encouragement even when actual quality thresholds have not been crossed. (There’s a way of improving within a C that becomes difficult and frustrating to capture with a C+ at a certain point, so I may ‘inflate’ to B- there.) And nothing says uninspired uber-competence like an A-. But I really try to protect the hard A for baryshnikoid excellence.

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