Final paper guidance

The last day of classes was Tuesday, so I did a semester debriefing with my World History sections. To get things started I gave them my “So You Think You Can Write a Paper” handout, which is a sort of humorous but pointed reflection on standards and evaluation, riffing on popular culture.

I’ll use this handout again, because it made quite an impression, but I won’t wait until this late in the semester again. It really shook some of the students up, even though it’s just a reframing of standards and concepts already covered in the syllabus and throughout the class’ work. With final papers due I think the big scary judgment is looming, and this handout really brought that home. Maybe for the best, in some cases.

In any event, in my first section it prompted one student to vent passionately about how my standards had never been clear and what I wanted seemed confused and arbitrary. This broke my heart a little, both because I invest a lot in teaching in general, and because this particular student is very bright and had seemed at first to really embrace the open, investigative concept of the class, then when the work actually hit got frustrated and checked out. A few other students agreed, while another group echoed the initial frustration but reflected positively on the development in their critical thinking that had come from having to figure things out for themselves.

Was this a success or failure? Some students got more from the class than they imagined possible. Others were frustrated and angry. We talked about how in effect there were as many different classes as particular experiences of it, and how it would be possible to constrict the experience by managing more variables from the top down. This would possibly eliminate the worst outcomes, while also perhaps disabling the best ones.

Because of this conversation, I didn’t have time to say much to them about the final paper. Normally I wouldn’t have worried too much about this, since by now from my perspective they’ve gotten ample instruction on how to do good work. But under the circumstances I decided to send them all the following email:

Friends, many of you are locked and loaded for the final paper. If so, don’t allow this email to knock you off track. What follows is guidance if you’re feeling like it all hasn’t quite come together yet.

First, your confusion is a smart and accurate feeling. In my experience it never does all come together – we just produce better and better approximations over time, and get more and more comfortable with not knowing everything. As you learn and practice, you become more aware of further relevant information and more adept at integrating it into a more complete and accurate account. This process is never done.

Second, be confident that you know what to do. All semester we have been practicing the skills you need to do well: investigation, brainstorming, analysis, synthesis, presentation. The feeling of drowning you may have is not that you haven’t been taught the proper swimming strokes, but that you haven’t become practiced enough to trust them. If you lose track of what to do, go back to the syllabus and your class notes – the instructions and standards for a successful paper are there. They will make more sense to you now than they did early in the semester. Every single one of you is better at this now than you were when you started. Trust the process and keep moving forward.

Third, give yourself time and patience to get through the stages of frustration and production. You’ll need to know a lot to write these papers well, and you won’t find it all right away. You’ll need to pull some things together, and how to do that won’t be immediately obvious. You have to start, and you have to continue. Read; take notes; write an outline; do a very sloppy first draft. Get your brain working and keep plugging.

Above all, allow yourself to get curious. If you get curious about your topic, and you want to figure it out, everything else follows. Get curious and figure it out – that’s the task.

Technical reminders:

*The final paper can contain material from your shorter papers. Treat them exactly like rough drafts and use them accordingly.

*The final paper should add significantly to your shorter papers. I’ve already graded those – use them, but give me something new and more to grade as well.

*If you decide to abandon your old papers, think about whether you’re giving up too easily. Starting from scratch is not the project here. But – if you find something else you’re really curious about, and you think you can do the research and figure it out in the time left, go for it.

*Remember this class is world history since about 1500 CE. So your paper should mostly be about something in world history since about 1500 CE. Something specific you can cover in 6-8 pages, of course – knowing how to do that is why we spent so much time on the Miu family.

*Look again at the evaluation matrix in the syllabus. Spend some time on each of the columns. Those are the dimensions of successful work. In great papers they all work together.

*Finally, don’t let it go until the last minute, get desperate, and throw together some plagiarism. That’s the only sure way to fail this class. Give it your best honest shot and you should be at least ok. Put everything together you’ve learned, and you have a chance to do something you can really be proud of.

Again, it’s been a great pleasure working with you, and I look forward to reading your papers. All the best! Carl

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1 Comment

  1. On reflection, I think where I got the handout rollout wrong is that in a late-semester environment already saturated with judgment its attempt at humorous reframing felt demeaning, and there wasn’t safe time to process it.

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