Monday, June 19, 2006

And the rant goes on...

To continue my post on how to read and write in an academic way, starting with what to leave out when you're writing an answer to a question:

You have to be selective when using information about a text in an answer; you have to choose, out of the store of what you know, the most relevant points or facts. Please, please don’t vomit out everything you know about something. Yes, I know that’s how they taught you in school. It worked back then because the amount of information you were working with was very small: you could deal with the whole of it without getting swamped. But you’re now out in the adult world where there is no one rationing your information input; that responsibility now lies with you and no one else. When you read, you must organize in your mind the information you collect. I find a good way to do this is to read the book once for the story, or the general argument, then red it again to see how the points are developed (or the effects are made). The second reading is analytical, and helps when you are asked about something in particular, say gender in Little Dorrit. You will then automatically think about the women characters, their fates, and particular incidents that brought out in stark relief their position. You might also think about the gendering of the male characters. In each person’s response to this topic, there will be some broadly similar features, since they all rest on the same text. But within that similarity, there will be sharp differences in interpretation and evaluation. These will depend on who it is that’s holding the opinion. Unlike in school, there is no longer ONE right answer: there are an infinite number, PROVIDED they can be upheld with supporting evidence. If you can get the supporting evidence, and it’s fairly hole-proof, then voila! You have an opinion. Seen in that light, what the teachers tell you in class is also a collection of opinions. They’re usually the ones that rest most solidly on evidence, but they aren’t any kind of gospel, and we WANT you to take issue with them. With time and between institutions, and even between teachers (or especially between teachers) this body of opinions varies. This is no longer table d’hote: this is a la carte.

This reminds me of a story Swapanda tells. A fairly bright girl came and sat for the interview (this was way back when selection was on the basis of interviews). When asked what she read, she named various textbooks in her syllabus. Somewhat taken aback, the interview board asked her if she ever read anything else. She proudly said, ‘Ami out boi pori na’ (I do not read ‘out’ books). In other words, she never read anything unless required to do so by the system. Needless to say, if you follow this method you will be in deep shit.

Well, in college, as I was saying, you have to be selective about what you put in your academic writing. I often see (though I see less of it these days) that regardless of what the question is, people giving an exam invariably preface their answers with a summary of the entire plot. In gross detail. This usually leaves them with one paragraph at the end in which to answer the question. Do NOT do that. Think first, then start answering the question from the beginning, and stick in the evidence as you go along. In truth all that is worthwhile in the vomitatious answer is the last paragraph, and it’s seldom worth the full mark weightage of the answer. Really, if that is what we wanted of you, we wouldn’t bother to ask questions in the first place. We ask questions because art is long, and life and exams are rather short. If you have studied even a little, you will know far more about a text than can fit in a 40 minute answer. The question is there to narrow it down.

When you answer a question, you are expected to show acquaintance with the text. What does that mean? Well, of course you must refer to, paraphrase and if necessary quote from it, but your instances should be geared to your answer. You must choose them to bolster your argument, or to make points about the text. Your selection of the most appropriate and telling bits of text earn you credit. You will not get credit for mugging up huge chunks and spewing them like carpet bombs over the terrain. But this is something that people seem to have worked out these days, it was more of a problem in my time when huge, four-hour tests gave people the leisure to talk an infinite deal of rot. The plot summary was practically de rigueur then, but these days of lightning-fast exams seem to have killed them. However, term papers still get waylaid by them, but I would like to point out that if you are doing your term paper on a fairly obscure text, and it is a major part of your argument, then you will need to give a fairly full description. Use your common sense, and if you haven’t any, use a teacher’s (after asking politely).

I’d also like to point out to you that most scholarly books follow these simple rules. In other words, most of the texts you read in the ordinary course of your studies embody these principles. However, you must read them not only for content but also for ‘meta data’ i.e. the way the texts are put together, the values that inform them, the techniques they use, in order to appreciate this. Give it some thought next time you read a book.


panu said...

"meta data"

I'll remember it the next time I read a Mills and Boon.

Sue said...

@Panu -- And why not? I answered a reasonably scholarly question M'n'Bs in my first year. Tintin might remember it, because he set it especially for me :-)

Elendil said...

There's a QUANTUM leap between school and Uni. Will make an attempt (emphasis on attempt) to remember all that when writing my next answer.