re:write

The goal of my music and ethics class is to have the students write a thesis paper, 25-30 pages of well-developed argument. I set milestones along the way: by this date, you need to have a thesis selected, by this date you need to show me ten pages of writing, by this date your draft needs to be ready for peer review, that sort of thing. This week is one of those deadlines, when I meet with the students to review the first 10 pages of their paper and a fully developed outline of their argument.

thesis-papersI ran across one of the students in passing, and he mentioned that he didn’t have anything to show me (I wish he were the only one). He then mentioned, rather flippantly, that he wasn’t all that worried, because he knew that he could knock out a “great paper” in no time once he had finished his research.

I left the encounter feeling very frustrated, for two reasons.

First, nobody can knock out a great paper in no time. The best anyone can do is knock out a great draft of a paper, a first writing. This is a recurring theme from my students; I keep getting first drafts handed in as final papers, because they’ve waited until the last possible moment to write them. When there are obvious errors, errors that any decent editor would have caught just by sniffing the ink, I know that nobody has read this paper but you. Nobody has edited for you. Nobody has done a critical review for you. Which means you’re handing in a paper expecting me to do it. Well, I will, but I do my editing with a red pen in one hand and a gradebook in the other.

Flip open any great book, any well-crafted work, and you will find the author thanking a whole list of people who graciously interposed their critical eye between the author and you, the reader. They are friends and colleagues, loved ones, and professional editors, all of whom serve the monumental and laudable goal of making sure the author doesn’t look like an ass. As a student, you have access to all of those same tools – peers, friends, family, a writing center staffed with editors. Their goal is make sure that your ideas connect to your reader with minimum hindrance by the medium. Writing is not a solo endeavor, not really, not at its best, but when a paper rolls off the printer 10 minutes before it is due it must be. And as a result, I end up grading your first draft.

My second frustration goes much deeper. In 16 years of schooling nobody, including me apparently, has managed to communicate to this student the actual value of writing a long format paper.

I don’t care about the paper. Really. The ink is pointless. I care very deeply about the process of writing a paper, because I believe that it is still one of the best ways to organize sustained, focused, rational thinking about complex topics. I care very deeply that you learn how to do that kind of thinking. The reason I was so frustrated by the student’s response is that the most important part of that process happens after you finish writing the paper.

Writing the paper is a prolonged period of pressure, cramming ideas into your brain, fighting to make logical connections between disparate bits of data. The intensity of pushing all of these ideas into a coherent, organized stream of thought requires reduction, and is mentally exhausting. You finish, hit print, the paper is done, run to class, hand it in, head home, take a nap, and then something magical happens. All of those ideas that you have been pressing down on begin to float freely. They start to shake loose from your organized stream of thought, loose from their moorings, and they rise. They bump into each other in new and interesting ways. They reorganize, like water molecules crystalizing together in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. You begin to understand things in new ways, ways that you were prevented from seeing before because your brain got in the way.

Two days after you finish writing a paper, the ideas you spent so long collating will have reorganized into something that really makes sense. Brilliant connections emerge. Small threads that barely emerged in the initial reading take on new significance as your brains chases them down in the noise beneath conscience thought, using the mental energy recently made available by the lifting pressure. That’s when you sit down and rewrite.

The way to make a writing project really useful is to research, write, release, rewrite, research, rewrite, release, rewrite, continuing the cycle until you arrive at conclusions that have the inevitability of all great ideas. That’s the way to arrive at mastery of a topic. When the topic at hand is your own value structure in an ethically complex situation, that kind of clarity is essential.

It matters to me. What you think about these topics matters to me. How you arrive at your thinking matters to me.

You will stand in front of a school administrator and have to argue that the purpose of education is the development of persons, not the development of merely useful skills, to argue that cutting music education is a dereliction of duty, and it is vitally important to me that you do it from a place of deep knowledge and the passionate conviction of rightness.

You will hold the phone in a long pauses, knowing that you cannot possibly agree to play under the circumstances being presented, also knowing that it is real money you are turning down, and it is important to me that you know why you are saying “no”, or that you know what it will cost you to say “yes”, and that the knowledge be more than merely notional, that it be the result of sustained and careful thinking.

You will run down your list of players to contract for Easter services, and you will skip the names of better players to hire those share your faith (or you won’t), and it is important to me that you have grasped with full rigor the tension between art-as-art and art-as-function when you make that choice, that the conversation between theology and aesthetics has taken place in your mind before you make your calls.

It matters to me how you have arrived at your thinking on these, and the dozens of other topics that emerge as thesis papers.

There are other ways to do this thinking, but this is the way that has been placed in front of us, for now. If it matters to you like it matters to me, embrace this process of read/think/write/rethink/rewrite. Don’t cheat it by counting words and chasing ink. Give it the time it deserves.

41 thoughts on “re:write

  1. Scott

    I agree with what you have to say, but what about the issue of time? Full-time undergrad students, especially music majors, are being pulled in 67 directions in the same day by different classes, ensembles, family members, mentors, employers, worship pastors, roommates, and their own physical needs (eating, sleeping, practicing). I would guess that a lot of students wish they COULD develop a better paper, but the reality of their life is such that there is only a sliver of time available, and their minds are too crowded to allow those things to decompress.

    Some folks have a bit more time and mental RAM but are just lazy. If you’re only talking about those people, then I’m right with you. Not everyone that turns in a first draft is lazy or flippant- perhaps just defeated by busyness.

  2. sharolyn

    Wow, Mike. You’re not kidding!

    I would love to hear somebody’s conversation between theology and aesthetics. I’ve never come to a satisfying conclusion there. Maybe it’s because I never took this class. :P

    There are surely students on both ends of the spectrum (defeated by busyness vs. a glutton to laziness) and it takes insight, grace, and sometimes a crystal ball to tell where the student lands. -If it is even a job of the professor to diagnose. What an “ethical” question!

    Jason and I reflect on the vast difference in price of our college degrees, and he is quick to point out how much more writing I did. Many more words (the product of this PROCESS you describe) were expected of me, even when the topic was outside of my major. On graduation day I felt like I had EARNED my degree. It is refreshing to hear the expectations are still high.

  3. Daniel Semsen

    I need to confess something.

    I was never really taught how to “think”.

    Yes, I am a graduate of APU. Yes, I took FWS, Senior Sem, and all of the other classes in between, but somewhere along the way–in the midst of the performing and practicing and everything else music-majorish–nobody bothered to stress the importance of developing a rational thought (and carrying it to completion).

    Even now, this measly paragraph or two has taken far too long to write–and it STILL stinks like crap.

    I’m sure much of the blame falls on ME, not just my teachers and professors, but I am NOT a deep thinker like y’all.

    That said, I appreciate your passion for this…carry on…

    carry on.

  4. Chad

    Scott said: “Full-time undergrad students, especially music majors, are being pulled in 67 directions in the same day by different classes, ensembles, family members, mentors, employers, worship pastors, roommates, and their own physical needs (eating, sleeping, practicing).”

    Scott – with all due respect… when it comes to responsibility and different needs pulling at you, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Honestly. College is one of the most carefree times of your life. Cowboy up!

    I will say from regretful experience that those who do not learn this in college are doomed to misspend most of their 20s. I would give anything, and I mean anything, to have my current work ethic 10 years ago.

    I would have a clone army singing my songs across the universe by now.

  5. sharolyn

    It’s hard to make a blanket statement about anyone. I only need to do a minimal amount (less than 10 hours per week) of money-making work to live during college. Once, during Freshman Theory, a classmate fell asleep. Al told her to go back to her dorm and take a nap on her bed. He knew she had worked a full shift at Bakers Square late the night before. That’s grace. And he knew she was pulled in many directions. Come to think of it, she did not graduate with us.

    The first semester of my Senior year I pulled 22 units in order to graduate in four years. My Tuesday night professor allowed me to be ten minutes late to EVERY class because it was physically impossible for me to get to the other campus any earlier from my previous class. That’s grace. He knew that (at that point) I was pulled in many directions. He was also secure that he was teaching a great class, and I had a buddy that would fill me in on anything I missed.

    But I see what you’re saying, too, Chad. Claim every bit of carefree-ness you can! College can be a blast.

    Daniel, does it make you feel better when I ramble on like this? :)

  6. sharolyn

    Chad, remember: ALL generalizations are bad.

    Mike said: “I do my editing with a red pen in one hand and a gradebook in the other.” Students, at this point, I advise you to back away slowly and avoid eye contact.

  7. aly hawkins

    Oh, Michael. How I wish that some of the authors I have edited could have read this. You would be truly appalled at the number of first drafts I have edited into publishable (sometimes only barely) books. The old axiom is still true: “Anything you have to say is worth saying well.” And I’d argue that it should start earlier: Anything you have to think is worth thinking well. No one can do that in a first draft, not even the greats. (This is why Anne Lamott says that the secret to great writing is sh*tty first drafts.) How can you possibly know that what you’ve written works if you don’t live with it a little while?

  8. Scott

    Whoa-ho, Chad, how old do you think I am? I am not some whiny undergrad making lame excuses for himself. I have cowboyed up, so watch it or I shall hogtie you. :)

    I know ALL about how it gets worse. But you have to admit: college is, for a lot of people, a night-and-day difference from high school in terms of distractions (shall we call them time-management challenges?). All I’m saying is that if someone turns in a 1st-draft-esque crappy paper, it might not be that they don’t care or know the value of critical thinking, but that they suck at time management.

    Just playing devil’s advocate here.

  9. Chad

    Sharolyn, are you seriously making a case that college is more stressful and demanding than adult life with marriage, kids, and career?

    I’m not trying to pick on anyone, if anything, I’m a cautionary tale about the need to understand that college is merely training for real life. If college is overwhelming you, you better really think long and hard about what’s ahead.

  10. michael lee Post author

    I think for some students college is much more difficult, more time-consuming, and more stressful than life after college will be. It’s not the norm, but it’s true for many.

  11. Chad

    Really?!?! Wow. I will not disagree as much as repeat that this was not and is not my personal life exeperience.

  12. sharolyn

    Chad, “ALL” generalizations was just a joke. But I sympathize with a certain classmate who was in a musical production and a male quartet and other things all at the same time and was not all too “carefree”. College is a ride, with all its hopes and heartbreaks, unexpected twists and turns. And figuring out who oneself is.

    It’s easy to idealize someone else’s life.

    NOW GET THOSE PAPERS IN, PEOPLE!

  13. Chad

    OK, here’s my last point, and then I’ll shut up.

    I think college is more carefree because the stakes are lower, and you’re too young to really know it. Yes, the time requirements may be greater, but I think the stakes are lower. They’re lower on purpose, so that you can practice and prepare for when the stakes are real, and present.

    If I have a bad semester, I lose my job, or I lose a great gig, and then I can’t afford to support my family, and it’s not even remotely abstract. I get no do-overs. I can’t retake a job like it’s a failed test! I have no sick days. I have no personal days. Any working musician will tell you that a blown gig stays blown. Only a rare opportunity opens up a door that’s been shut.

    Erica and I are taking our first vacation in four years next month.

    Four Years.

    And you know what? It’s like moving heaven and earth to make it happen. Not just the money end, but the logistics.

    So, again… Scott.. and any and all college students who might read this… I’m not trying to nay-say about your stress. Come next week, you’ll be studying / drinking beers long after I’ve hit the hay. My point isn’t that you’re NOT working hard, my point IS that your ass is not REALLY on the line yet. You’re practicing for when your ass IS on the line, cause it’s coming at you faster than you can imagine.

    Good practice means you’ll be ready for the big dance.

  14. Christy Semsen

    1. Mike- this actually was really inspiring for me as a grad student who is currently procrastinating on a 20 page paper- thanks for the kick. I ALWAYS turned in those first drafts in college that even I didn’t proofread– usually getting an A or B+… though it didn’t take long to realize that doesn’t cut it in Grad school. Thanks for the motivation.

    2. Agree with Chad. My life is way harder/sressful now than my supremely busy college years, and I don’t even have a “job.”

  15. Stick

    I love this post Mike. It addresses that which I’ve struggled with since day one of college. Given that I graduated from college, sevenurmphg years ago (seventeen), it’s been a fair bit of time to mull over and over and over such things. (I’m taking a moment right now to mull over the seventeen fact. OMG OMG OMG. Ok, I’m done.)

    Being that my college years were the least carefree and the most stressful years of my life to date and having been the girl who feel asleep in class because she was working tons of hours to pay for college (hmmmm), still being the girl who wonders if she ever learned how to think and is pretty sure she hasn’t (no cracks about the “girl” thing people!)and being that I started college as a writing major and changed to art and now always always always live with (and change) paintings for as long as possible before I pronounce them done, I have more thoughts about all this than you can shake a stick at.

    I guess I wish that some prof with a brain and a heart as big as those Mike has would’ve taken me nicely by the ear during my first year or two of college and explained all that is in this post to my freaked out college self. I do think it would have made a difference to have heard this spelled out as it is here. Maybe such things should be a part of freshman orientation. I just don’t know.

  16. june

    WHOA! That blathering was from June, not Stick! (I didn’t know my hubs had been using my laptop! Sorry!) For the record, Stick had an awesome college experience and he mulleth not over it. His angsty wife has that covered.

  17. june

    I can’t stop chuckling…”the girl who fell asleep in class…” and then I look at B’s grinning face…

  18. corey

    OK, I haven’t actually finished reading the article, but I’m commenting on one thought at a time.

    Mike your OP is inaccurate. Isn’t it “a red pen in one hand” and then the gradebook is just the fancy coaster for your awkwardly large glass of Maker’s Mark?

    back to the top…

  19. Scott

    p.s. Now that I’ve had my fun being devil’s advocate, I confess that I also wish I had been guided (i.e. kicked in the proverbial pants) to write sooner and better. My Sr. Seminar class consisted of writing 4 mini-papers and then praying to God that you could somehow write short transitions to scotch-tape them together into a coherent paper. We never did much with thesis development or even organized thought. With that said, my paper was far better than most of my classmates’ (I know– we did peer reviews), but it still sucked.

    I wish the music Sr. Sem had existed back then… I would have taken it. You know, to heckle “Professor Lee”, and possibly accidentally learn something.

  20. Leonard

    Mike and all, I am one of those people who turned in rough drafts as finished product. I think you write some great thoughts here. I will tell you this from just one weirdo in Nor Cal.

    I did enough to get by in college because for me college was a hoop to jump through in order to get to what I wanted to do. My best experiences in college were the ministries I was involved with. It was interning at a little church, working on skid row, serving as class president, playing baseball, singing and touring with summer mission teams, late night bible studies with guys from my hall…

    My classes were not memorable to me. Not because they were poorly taught but because in the priority scale of my late teens and early 20′s I just wanted to change the world. I also worked from mid-night – 4 or 5 am every morning.

  21. michael lee Post author

    Chad said:

    “I think college is more carefree because the stakes are lower”

    This is the point I disagree with. I have students where the stakes are unimaginably high. If they fail a class, it means they need to come up with another $3000 from somewhere to take it again. They work 40 hours a week to pay the bills, and have borrowed all they can to make tuition payments. For some of them, having to pay for that class twice puts them over the financial line, and they are forced to withdraw.

    Many already have families and children, and they took a big risk to give up the time and money to come back to school, banking on the hope that it would be a means to a better life.

    Some are suffering from serious medical conditions, and the choice between rest and school work has very high consequences for their health. I’m not talking about the “emotional exhaustion” disease that every incoming freshman girl from a private Christians high school seems to come down with. I mean the real deal. Hospitals and surgeries.

    They’ve all made choices, and are of course working through the consequences of those choices, most would reject your pity our of hand, but I don’t think you can say that the stakes are lower in college for everyone.

    Our college experience was the result of parents who paid tuition, loans that were easily manageable, high paying side jobs that went entirely to disposable income, and largely unencumbered personal lives.

    Under those circumstances, yes, the stakes are much lower in College than they will be in real life. I take no issue with that.

    But we should acknowledge that not every goes through school under those circumstances.

  22. Chad

    Ok, so in reality…

    Fair enough, Mike. You make a reasonable point, and as you’re the firsthand witness, I’m inclined to acquiesce to you.

    I guess I’m redirecting my comments, then, towards the children of privilege (such as myself) who squander the time that’s been given to them. I’d actually, being a parent now, aim a fair amount of that criticism at the parents of privilege who fail to hold their kids feet to the fire to train them to be adults.

  23. harmonicminer

    Uh…. I wrote my doctoral paper in about a week. In the evenings. I’m sure it could be better, or tighter, or something. But Aly didn’t volunteer to help, so I just turned it in. The “dissertation defense” was hysterically funny. One of the nice things about picking a sufficiently narrow topic is that you know more about it than anyone else. Of course, I was writing about something I had been thinking about and researching for maybe twenty years.

    Having said that: generally I have to agree with Mike about our students not giving it their best, way too often. I’ve written just a gazillion words by this time in my life, and I STILL give anything I care about to my wife, my friends, and sometimes people who think they’re my enemies to read over and comment on before I submit it for real, when it really matters to me, and that includes even “in house” documents for processes in the APU academic machinery, etc. And I know Mike does the same, which means he takes his own advice.

    So any undergrads reading this: take it seriously. Those of us giving it to you follow our own advice, sure evidence that we believe it.

  24. Nick

    I’m sorry to say that I didn’t proofread papers until I met my out-of-my-league wife, and she insisted on looking at one of my papers before I turned it in. I remember handing it to her expecting a quick read-through, and she proceeded to sit in front of me and pick it apart, asking me questions and writing down suggestions in the margins. This lasted about 2 hours. It was a 5-page argumentative essay.

    It was the first time I got an A on a college paper. Sometimes you just need a fresh set of eyes to look at it and a couple of days to think through your argument. A paper is just more authentic if you’ve actually worked through it.

  25. harmonicminer

    Well… the room was drafty, and blew the final draft off the draft table where I was working, so I just turned in the rough draft after all, though I had to write a draft on my bank account to bribe them to approve the paper (my version of dissertation defense). Besides, I’d been working like a draft horse, and I decided I really hadn’t been drafted to right the listing ship of three centuries of music theory (darn that Rameau), which seems sufficiently deep-drafted that a person would have to be draft to try changing course this close to shore….

  26. aly hawkins

    Phil, if ever you hire me to edit your work, you should know that I maintain a firm ban on puns. They make me want to yank my own eyeteeth. (In retrospect, it’s hard to believe Mike and I have been friends for so long without extensive cosmetic dental reconstruction.)

  27. Bill Heatley

    Love the article, love the conversation. I’m in business, I’m a corporate suit and you can see me comin’ and most people are wise enough to call me ‘sir’ and to worry when I smile. I’m the guy who gets to work with what comes out of the end of the college pipe and I have to say honestly, we are in trouble. It’s not that college broke did something to them, its that college just continued the painful process of churning out mediocrity and calling it education. My heart aches at what Mike is confronted with, the almost universal lack of the ability to think, reason and speak in a way that moves, encourages and enlightens the hearer. The general disdain for language is shocking, the level of discource is infantile, the attitude of entitlement distressing…

    Mike, don’t give up, your efforts are worthy of praise and support, continue to expect excellence of thought, word and deed from your students.

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