Dear fellow students,Can you believe it’s December already? I can’t decide whether this year has felt dreadfully long or freakishly short. Time just feels...fake. But we are humans bound to linear perceptions of time, so we are forced to reckon with the fact that time is alarmingly real. Time drags us along with it whether we’re ready or not: from the eruption of a global pandemic, to a summer we collectively hallucinated, to syllabus week, all the way to the most wonderful time of the year...essay season.
Usually, I’d be grumbling about cold classrooms, slushy tunnel floors, long coffee lines, and late busses. This year, I get the pleasure of directing all my frustrations towards essays.
At the risk of being very unrelatable, I want to tell you about a major, recurring problem I have when it comes to essays. I write way too much.
Case-study: Winter 2020. Lockdown began. I was mentally done with classes and didn’t understand how long all this would last, so I was blissfully excited to stay home for the last few weeks of the semester. I was even more excited about the two essays I was working on. It felt like I had so much time. I did so much research. There was nothing else to do. I kept doing research, probably to delay the part where I had to actually write the essays. My outlines were too long, my first drafts were too wordy, and my final drafts were still five pages over the maximum length.
I feel like most students have the opposite problem, so let it be known: I am the reason there are maximum-page lengths.
When it comes to essays, I’m what we’d call “Extra” and what a professor might generously call ambitious. On the bright side, I’ve never been called out for submitting an essay that was over the page length (which I have done... often). On the dark side, maybe a bunch of professors secretly dread grading my papers.
I have found this problem to be inescapable. I’m just a thorough person. I read through all the tutorials when I’m playing video games, I read and re-read instructions when I’m baking, and I read every single line of every single reading with intellectual care and consideration (one of these is a lie). On the bright side, I am forced to make such drastic cuts that I end up with dense essays where every word is more-or-less earned. On the dark side, those cuts signify hours of research and writing that will never see the light of my professors’ screens.
And maybe this is my way back into convincing you that I’m still relatable. I think we all know how it feels when our best efforts, our most earnest intentions, our honest work, go unacknowledged. If you tried really hard but nobody was there to see it, does that work even exist? Does it even matter?
I had this question answered for me, and I want to share it with you. This is an interaction between me and a professor who had to give me an extension after I confessed that I was working with a 53-page outline for a 20-page essay. I was in despair about how much work I had to cut away. As it turns out, this professor was going through the same thing with her own research, so she knew just what to say:
Me: Knowing that the cuts make the essay better is the only consolation in this process of cutting out the process. Everything else about it is hard and sad. It feels like by cutting out the parts that are unnecessary, I’m admitting they were also not important, even if they were crucial in shaping the essay and took up so many hours of my time. Cutting out all the hard work means the hard work does not get recognized, just the final result. I’m thinking of ballerinas who train for years, who learn choreography, who hurt their feet, only to show the results of all that labour for a few hours a night, to people who will only see the beauty in the final result.
Professor: Yes, it is painful, but we are both old enough to know that what is most painful is also most rewarding. As to the ballerina analogy: you forget that a ballerina’s training goes beyond the nightly performances to rapt audiences. Ballerinas also have an ideal posture that the rest of the world can only yearn for and never attain. So your analogy is actually even more fitting than you thought: the amputated words, like a ballerina’s relentless and painful training, do have benefits beyond the performance itself. A ballerina will hold herself with beautiful poise and grace all the time (she will never slouch!); so those thrown-out bits will make you a better scholar and writer. They’re not truly lost.
I really needed to hear that, and maybe you do, too, for whatever it is you’re going through this essay season.
(And in case you’re wondering whether students and profs really talk like this, consider the following: All the ornamentation that gets cut out of our academic work has to go somewhere.)
Treat this advice given to me like a horoscope: squint really hard and figure out how it may apply meaningfully to your life. Maybe you struggle to meet all your word counts and you wish your professors knew how much work you put in to just barely get there. Maybe you tend to change your essay topic entirely when you’re half done. Maybe you have the superpower of realizing exactly what you meant to say right when you finish your essay, which makes things worse because it’s probably due tomorrow.
I don’t know your struggle; I only know mine. But maybe I can speak for all of us when I say that the steady march of incoming deadlines feels like watching zombies break into the building from the top floor. You don’t know how long you have before they catch up to you, but they’re coming.
Well, I guess we know when our deadlines are coming due. But remember what I said about time feeling fake? That applies especially to essay season.
In an earlier draft of this blog, I bounced back and forth between the “bright sides” and “dark sides” of my life right now, and even though I decided it was self-serving and uninteresting, I recommend finding some time to do this. Sometimes we need self-serving. Sometimes we need to write some things down that aren’t worth anything to anyone but ourselves.
And if everything feels shrouded in darkness right now and the only bright side is that this semester and this year are almost over, hold on to it as tight as you can. We’re almost there. I hope you’re doing okay, whatever that means for you. I won’t say “great” because maybe that’s too much to ask.
By the time you read this, I’ll likely be one with my research: writing with too much ambition, wrestling with syntax and run-ons, and wondering how many commas in a sentence are just too many. I’ll almost definitely be asking for extensions. Knowing me, I’ll also be making online purchases in my spare time and lighting scented candles at all hours to soothe myself. I’ll probably need another tea. And maybe a shower.
That’s it from me this year. It’s been a long one. Or short? Still undecided on my end. Either way, we deserve some rest more than ever, and I hope we find some.
Pandemically, your student blogger,Jaclyn
P.S. English Majors! Do you have a story about learning in and learning through this pandemic? Perhaps a disaster story? A comedy of errors? A tale of triumph? A heartfelt slice-of-life? Or do you just want to tell someone about your day? I’m collecting stories about pandemic learning for an undisclosed (read: super-secret and thus very cool) project for the English Department. I want you to bring your pain, your shame, your triumphs, and your moments of pride to my inbox: firstname.lastname@example.org. Email me for more information, or dive right in with a story of 300-500 words. (But I won’t be upset if you go under or over the word length.)
P.P.S. Surprising no one, this blog post is longer than I intended it to be. If you made it this far, congratulations! And I’m sorry. And thank you.
Jaclyn Legge is a 3rd or 4th year student returning to full-time student life after completing Co-op. She spends her free time calling to the muses for inspiration in her writing, drawing, and shower dancing routines. Her poetry has been published in Bywords.ca. No, she doesn’t want to be a teacher; she considers herself a student in every aspect of life.
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