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.
I 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.