Sunday, December 29, 2013

Finals in Grad School

Today's Notes from the Ivory Tower are being pulled from the Fridge. And by fridge, I mean the six or eight bottles of Sparkling Cider I went through trying to write my final papers/projects for my first semester of Grad School. We're gonna get at least one blog entry in this December, and this one is going to be less academia analysis and more a recap of what I did, what I wish I had done, and what might get done next time for finals.

Ok, so a pretty safe assumption to make when one is in graduate school is that one knows how to write. One can write a sentence; therefore one can write a paragraph; therefore one can string many sentences into many paragraphs and many paragraphs into a paper of a predetermined length.

That was the first assumption I threw out the window this exam period.

For some reason, particularly with my 18th Century British Long Poem Paper, I never once assumed I had the ability to write the cursed thing. To be fair, it was a pretty experimental paper; mixing 20th century composition pedagogy with an 18th century genre that is still debated as a genre, but it was something I should have been easily able to read about, form an opinion on, and discuss and/or defend that opinion for "about 20 pages" (unspecific syllabi are you BEST FREINDS in grad school, and no joke!).

So. what did I actually do wrong, and what was just me freaking the hell out about my first 20 page paper that was worth 40% of my grade?

Things I Actually Did Wrong
  • I didn't start researching the paper until three weeks prior to the deadline
  • I didn't start Writing the paper until two weeks prior to the deadline
  • I didn't somehow make it about my Thesis (This won't always be possible, but wherever it is, DO IT, it'll help you later)
  • I drank between six and eight bottles of sparkling cider. By myself.
Things That Were Just Me Freaking Out
  • I didn't think I could write a coherent sentence to save my life
  • I thought my topic was wrong/stupid/too long/too short/too theoretical to work, despite having the topic cleared by the professor in advance
  • I didn't think I could write
  • I drank between six and eight bottles of sparkling cider. By Myself. (Really can't emphasize that one enough....)
And this is for just one paper. I went through a similar process with my Old and Middle English paper, except in THAT case, the paper was actually related to my thesis (Which created its own fun little mindfuck, I'll tell you), and I had a minor grad student meltdown in my professor's office. Grad students  everywhere, be grateful for professors who will listen to your meltdowns and then help you fix them. They are the best people to have around during grad school, and if they're on your committee, even better!

Now that we've laid out the problems of finals, let's talk about fixing them.

To be honest, a lot of the stuff that was Me Freaking Out got fixed once grades were posted. I pulled straight A's on my first semester of grad school, and with final papers being worth between 30-50% of my final grades, clearly I can still write papers. As of writing this blog I haven't gotten the feedback from the papers yet (that'll be mid-January), but the final grades were a huge confidence boost, and my cider habit has decreased back to normal. Some freaking out is going to be normal over finals week, it's a stressful time and the stakes are pretty high.

Not this high, Though.
So don't stress too much about the stress that is Just You Freaking Out.
What we can actually fix though, are the researching and writing habits that led to my writing the papers the night before they're due, slamming each individual key on the keyboard as though they had each personally murdered one of my children, until I get within a page or two of the limit and decide "it's just going to have to be good enough" and email the thing in.
If we reference the handy list above, then the two biggest issues were starting the research, and starting the writing. I don't care if "starting the writing" for you means you make notes on a Starbucks napkin on like, the third, sixteenth and twenty-fourth days of school, as long as you keep those napkins and keep thinking about the paper in some form from day 1. The way I do papers is I build a "Percolatory Period" into my semester; a couple of weeks where the topic and the paper are constantly on the back burner in my brain, and notes and sentences accumulate in various forms until I basically have the paper written in my head. THEN, when I'm writing the paper the night before it's due, I know what I want to say, and I've already sussed out my arguments. There's no mental stress, it's just getting down long-held thoughts and polishing the grammar a little.
As for starting the research earlier... Just get on Google scholar once a week. Or JSTOR. Or Project Muse. Something. As long as you read one or two really cool articles a week, then you'll probably be fine for sources once it comes to writing your paper. And good articles tend to lead you to other good articles, and once you have a sense of what the critics at large are saying on your topic, you can agree or disagree at will, and in an intelligent manner. You just have to do it consistently. And frequently. And all throughout the semester. Granted, it helps if you actually LIKE the topic you're researching, which is why trying to make literally everything about your thesis helps. (As a side note: if you hate your thesis topic, do yourself a favor: GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN.)
A Digression into Making Everything About Your Thesis
While I found that making my Old and Middle English final paper about my thesis is really helpful in that I have actual text I can apply to the Thesis, during the finals period and the writing of the actual paper, I had a meltdown over the whole thing. I love my topic, I loved the paper. Except it was either too big for the scope of the class, or it was AT MOST an eight page paper. Both of those were problems that added to my overall stress, and it wasn't something I had the mental capacity to figure out. This is where amazing committee members come in. To figure it out, I ended up discussing the thesis first, and then paring down the conversation until I was talking about a paper that had to do with my thesis, but would come to the required page allotment using material that was primarily relevant to the class. So it got figured out, but it was a challenge.
The moral of this little story is, Don't Let Your Thesis Hijack your Final Papers. Let Your Final Papers Feed Your Thesis.
Obviously I'm not the first grad student to freak out over her first set of final papers, but here's my story and my coping mechanisms (Cider is seriously delicious), and hopefully someone else manages to avoid the meltdowns!
Hopefully you enjoyed these Notes from the Ivory Tower, and if not, we'll be back next time with something different!
An Update: As of 2/4/2014, my grades have come back in. I pulled straight A's overall, with the final papers pulling A's and B's, respectively. B papers drive me nuts, but thank goodness for Instructor Feedback! I'll be able to make those changes for this semester and write stronger papers.