Recently I promised to follow up on just how I rewrote that final paper for the course I took at the Ed School this January because I think the strategy I used probably works for many of the classes at HGSE and, to my dismay, many other classes all over the place. In the tutorial below, I walk through how I wrote my paper to show you exactly how these methods might take form in practice. After all, worked examples bring principles to life.
I couldn’t dedicate a lot of time to redraft my paper. Although I worked hard to come up with a new idea that synthesized what I had learned during the course, to demonstrate more fully that I had drawn on the sources explicitly for my inspiration would require a lot more thought and time than I had to spend fixing up a paper for a pass/fail course that I took for fun. I already came up with new ideas and understood old concepts differently. Now I needed to sit down for a few hours, write fast, and be done with it. So I decided start over from scratch. Here’s what I did:
- Don’t pick a thesis topic. Instead claim that the situation at hand—in this case, the historical blight that continues to trouble urban education—is complicated and that the solution must therefore be complicated, too. If you say anything more specific, then your grader can argue with you. Eschew statements of substance. It’s impossible to wrestle with a ghost.
- Next summarize each of the readings one at a time, one paragraph at a time as they appear on the syllabus. Restrict your attention primarily to the readings you did. If the syllabus is split into sections with obvious themes like “Segregation” or “Finance Reform”, preface those summaries with a paragraph explaining why that theme is important.
Be sure not to inject your own thought. Summaries should not introduce new ideas or material. Tow the party line. The readings were selected because they are important. Demonstrate that you understand how important the readings are by rephrasing their main points. Again, try to leave out substance whenever possible. Justification and nuance only give the grader something to disagree with. You can get the details wrong even if your summary is correct.
For example, if you ask a kindergartner the shape of the world, she’ll invariably respond, “It’s round.” That’s what we teach kindergartners, after all. And her answer is correct. If you push a little further, though, and ask her to draw the shape of world, she may very well draw a pancake. Round, but wrong. What’s the moral? Elaboration is dangerous. Simply restate generalizations mentioned in class without backing them up. The teaching staff will assume you know what you’re talking about.
Aside: It pains me to offer the above quotation without qualification. Saying that students will automatically learn from role models just because role models are around is shortsighted. Such a strategy is just as effective as locking up kids learning to read in a library because being around books confers kids with ability to read. Sadly, that’s just not how the world works. Using resources is tough stuff. That’s why teachers exist, at least in part. Otherwise we could just shut kids up in prison cells outfitted with the newest and best educational tools and expect them to emerge smart and successful. But when you’re writing a paper, it doesn’t matter if your argument makes sense or lacks evidence, as long as it sounds good.
- Sprinkle in numerical examples whenever possible. The earlier you can unload a statistic into the paper, the better. Numbers always make arguments more authoritative. You can easily pull numerical examples from sources you didn’t actually read ahead of time. They can be used without presenting appropriate context and they quickly add to your paper’s reference count. In the following example, the statistic I quote has no direct relation to my claim. But the words sounds more or less similar, so the numbers do their job: my argument carries force. Notice how I follow up with another another sweeping, data-free assertion? It doesn’t follow from anything I’ve mentioned, but that’s beside the point. Numbers are really powerful. Use them to your advantage.
- Acknowledge your own personal failings. Without being specific, produce broad mandates that will make up for your human frailties. Papers in education need to draw on personal experience and exhibit emotional appeal. Try to make your writing obviously smack of social justice, even if you end up being backhandedly racist. Any sentiment backed by good intention is ipso facto valid in this sort of class. The image of the noble savage was an especial favorite in this class. Of course you’ll need to swap out the word savage with something more suitable like “diverse”, “urban”, or “disadvantaged”. Do not define your terms. It’ll only make you sound condescending and/or prejudiced.
- To illustrate the validity of your thesis, include at least one source to disagree with. If you can show that someone else is wrong, then you must be right. This tactic has been enormously successful in all sorts of political campaigns. (E.g., if evolution can’t explain the origin of life, then God must exist.) Moreover, there’s a fantastic chance that your professor will indicate which of the readings is wrong in lecture or during a class discussion. Just reiterate whatever the class decided was mistaken. Ostensibly, the course prepared you to write your paper. Don’t do any extra work. It’s already been done for you.
Lastly, address some of the shortcomings of your approach. You merely need to acknowledge their existence and provide a slightly refined restatement of your thesis as the solution.
If you can’t come up with a chink in the armor of your framework, then try to answer the following interview question: What is your greatest weakness? Your answer should pretend that a strength is actually a weakness and then explain how in reality your weakness is a strength. You know, “My greatest weakness is that I work too hard.” “I’m a perfectionist.” Straw men always fall easily.
- In your conclusion, don’t be afraid to paint that better world we all could live in. That is, if only people took what you learned in your class seriously. Again, infuse your words with the spirit of social justice for a strong finish.
Good luck and happy writing!