Thursday, December 8, 2011

Writing Your (Undergraduate) Paper in Seven Days

First: There's a bit of a plagiarism meme going around (see Flavia, Tenured Radical, and most recently, Dr. Crazy, for that sixth sense that catches things that the software misses). I've got an old post on the subject here, so I won't belabor the point, except to say that running across plagiarism makes my heart sink.

But I've got a nice thing to share, too. It may even be related to plagiarism, because I'm sure that at least some plagiarists take these drastic measures because they get up against the wall on a deadline, usually due to poor time management.* They see a paper that seems really big to them, and they put it off because it just seems too big to face today. And tomorrow, it's worse. And eventually, they're up against a deadline, and they either turn in a crappy paper, or get all desperate and do Something Rash.

If there's one thing that this writing group (along with bitter past experience) has taught me, it's that structure, and working incrementally on a regular basis, is my friend. Would this work for my students in a class where they work on a medium-length independent paper project? Sure, they have to turn in a proposal/bibliography, and then a revised proposal/outline, and there are conferences to keep them on track. But they could still put off the actual writing of the thing, with the results noted above.** So I worked up a little guide that I called "Writing Your Paper in Seven Days." I used that "Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks" book as a mental jumping-off point, and tried to think of the manageable daily chunks that a short-ish (6-8 pages) undergraduate paper could break down into, and I think I came up with something useful, and workable for even the most intimidated undergraduate. Every day has a suggested task, an estimated time-to-complete, a "what you'll need" list, and about a page of narrative instruction and tips. Bearing in mind that this is for students who have already developed a question and done the research, here's how it broke down:
  • Day One: Writing a strong thesis statement (15-45 min)
  • Day Two: Organizing your Ideas: Outlines and Topic Sentences (90 min)
  • Day Three: Writing up your Evidence Portion (4 hours -- may be broken up into two or more writing sessions)
  • Day Four: Introducing and Concluding (60 min)
  • Day Five: Putting on the finishing touches and smoothing out the Rough Edges (90 min)
  • Day Six: Productive Rest
  • Day Seven: Proofreading, and the Final Checklist (60-90 min)

I scheduled it so that the long day would fall on a weekend day. And I think this is adaptable for longer papers -- you'd just have to break the "writing your evidence portion" up into several days, each dedicated to a particular major section of their outline that represented 3-4 pages.

Granted, I'm sure that not everybody used it. And granted, I haven't started reading the papers yet. But I've had a couple of students tell me -- unsolicited, mind you! -- that this helped them organize their time and not let the bigness (to them) of the project intimidate them into putting it off until the last minute. So that's my big teaching moment for the semester, I think.

Now: Let's get grading!

*And sure, some of them plagiarize as a first resort, because they lack ethics. Grrrr... But I think that some are potentially decent students who dig themselves into a hole and don't know how to get out except by cheating. My "solution" can't do a damn thing about the former group, but it might help the latter.

**One of them did just that. I know, because when he came into my office less than 48 hours before the paper was due, not having even developed a research question yet (much less having done any research or developed a thesis statement), he flat-out told me, three times in the space of 15 minutes, that he was "just going to stay up all night Wednesday and get it done," and that "It's not a big deal." And this morning, I collected his paper -- all one page and two lines of it, completely thesis-free. ::sigh::


Bardiac said...

I'm guessing most of us who teach writing a lot would suggest something more like this:

Brainstorming--what interests you, what do you know, what do you need to find out. Develop problems and questions that you're going to try to solve or answer. Two days, 30-60 min each.

Research--find out the answers to what you don't know. (In your text, at the library, wherever.) Take notes. Variable (depending on the assignment)

Draft thesis--using your brainstorming and research, draft a thesis, bubble map the essay or do other organizational work; decide what points you want to make

Draft paragraphs--using your previous work, draft paragraphs to make your points. Keep a second file open (or use a bibliographic program) to cite your sources as you go.

At that point, I'd be with you on your schedule. But a major difficulty with student writing is that they try to make a thesis before they know very much about the question or problem, and then they look for stuff that supports their thesis rather than trying to understand the question or problem

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Bardiac -- I agree with you. If you check out the bit right before the plan, you'll see I said that this schedule is for after they've developed a question and done the research.

Bardiac said...

Doh, my apologies for not reading more carefully.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

No problem -- I noted the time stamp, and chalked it up to lack of sleep.

Janice said...

Though it sounds overwhelming, I think it is also useful to add up the total of suggested time in your seven day writing scheme (which I may well adapt for some of my students next term). Why would I want to add it up? Because it shows to the students that we think these papers are a BIG DEAL and involve real work, not just grabbing random articles two days before the paper's due and then writing it all up the night before.

zcat_abroad said...

This is a great idea. I look forward to hearing if it improved the writing. Even if it didn't, showing the students that essays don't just appear, but should take them some time is a great thing. Could I borrow this?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Use, adapt, do what you will -- that's what it's there for! Anything that makes student writing better anywhere is a good thing.

Contingent Cassandra said...

This is very close to what I have my writing-in-the-disciplines students do (though, at least theoretically, on a more spread-out schedule, but also for a slightly longer -- 8-12-page -- paper). The only thing I'd change is combining Days One and Two (I, too, ask for outlines with topic sentences, preferably ones that also contain transitions that connect them to each other to tell a logical "story" of the developing argument), mostly because theses do, indeed, develop over time, and, though I'd like them to have a preliminary one (in fact, I expect to see one in the formal proposal they will have completed before this point), I also don't want them to labor over and thus become attached to one before they've written the body of the paper (and, I hope, discovered new things in the process).

I absolutely agree that writing the evidence portion comes *before* writing the introduction, conclusion, and any necessary background sections (sample & methods for science/social science, historical and/or theoretical background for humanities). If one isn't careful, especially but not exclusively in undergrad papers, such sections have a way of taking over the paper. I'd suggest they devote the day saved from laboring over a preliminary thesis either to splitting up the evidence portion over two days (which would also make them think about subsections of that main body section -- not a bad idea as they're beginning to write longer papers), or to writing the background section(s) after the body is finished (though I suppose background sections could also be written on the intro/conclusion day).

I'll be interested to hear how they come out. And I'll be interested to hear what you do with the 1.1-page wonder. I seem to be getting a lot more incomplete and/or fragmentary work that students hope will get some kind of credit this semester than before. During the semester, I've simply been handing such work back saying "this isn't complete enough to earn a passing grade yet," but the end of the semester is crunch time, and I suspect I may be dispensing some Ds and Fs.

A-Dubs said...

Such smartness. Thanks for posting this bit!

Anthea said...

Interesting to read this blog post since it's what I was taught to do when I attended secondary school and knew by the time I was an undergrad. By that time I was writing at least one or two essays a week, every week of the semester.

Gerald said...

So I take a few minutes off from grading papers to read blogs and look at photos and then you order me to get grading. Sheesh. Some break...
Oh, but the 7-day cram-plan for papers is good...

TriPartite Academic said...

would love to know what you think after you've read the papers--have you asked your students about the process if any of them used it?

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