I’ve been talking a lot lately about essays. This is partly because, as of today, I am done with classes at Oxford College (woo! and also, wah!) and so I and my friends are writing lots and lots of term papers now (including mine on Facebook and death). But mostly, it’s because several of my friends have had some very similar interactions in the last few days. They go like this.
SANE PERSON: Done with my paper!
CRAZY CLASSMATE: How long is it?
SANE PERSON: Fifteen pages. You?
CRAZY PERSON: Oh, 35. I want to get it published.
This has happened with us on papers with 12-page limits, on papers with 20-page limits, and on papers with one-page limits. Someone-typically multiple someones–turns in a paper 10-20 pages longer than the maximum word limit assigned by the professor. This bothers my friends.
It’s offensive to begin with because, if nothing else, turning in final papers twice as long as requested indicates that students do not value a professor’s time. The professor presumably knows how long it takes her to grade 20 five-page papers, and so that is what she has budgeted. When one person (or five) turn in papers of 10 pages, then the professor is put in a bind. Plus, speaking from a purely self-interested standpoint, turning in papers which are longer than requested takes away time from every other student in the class, meaning that their papers (the ones that followed the requirements!) are likely to receive a less thorough evaluation than they might otherwise. It’s not that the people who turn in extra-long papers are bad people, but they are being inconsiderate. There needs to be a reassertion that maximum word limits are there for a reason, not just for shits and giggles. Grading takes time. Turning in unasked-for huge papers wastes that.
More worryingly, approaching papers in this way seems to indicate an underlying problem of a culture which values quantity over quality. Students are encouraged to do more: more clubs, more classes, more honors societies. Little attention is paid–by faculty and staff or by students–to doing better. At best, this leads to substandard work and clubs dominated by the same small group of people who are minimally invested–the same complaint that I’ve been making at HackCollege over the last few weeks. At worst, as Lena Chen has been discussing on her blog this week, it leads to a college culture which promotes mental illness and anxiety disorders. Colleges need to look at what they are doing as institutions to encourage this approach to learning.
The last, most irritating issue that this approach demonstrates is a complete isolation of students from the publishing process. Longer papers don’t get published. Journal articles, just like books or blog entries or tweets, have length requirements and limits which are a part of the form. A 500-word thing isn’t a tweet; it’s a blog post. A 47-page paper isn’t a journal article; it’s the beginning of a thesis. If students knew this–knew what journals looked for and how to begin to be published–they might alter their writing styles. But in an undergraduate setting, papers are treated as something that get longer the older you are, rather than as a way of conveying information in various depths. That 500-word blog post isn’t a lesser thing because it isn’t 20 pages–it’s just a different style of writing, which is something students are never taught to consider. So long as what students do in the classroom remains as isolated as it is from what professional academics do with their research, this problem isn’t going away. The fault for this lies squarely with liberal arts colleges.
For the most part, people writing excessively long papers is just annoying. On some level, however, I worry that this is a manifestation of several things that annoy me about liberal arts education as it is currently structured. Some of the solutions to these problems lie with the students themselves–particularly respect for others’ time. But the other issues I see here are the result of university culture, and on some level I do think that schools have an obligation to deal with that.