( The following article written by a grader, first appeared in the CRIMSON on January 26, 1962 ).
I have, I must confess, serious doubts about the efficacy-or even the integrity-of the "classic" exam-period editorial, "Beating the System." I almost suspect this "Donald Carswell '50" of being rather one of Us-The Bad Guys-than of You. If your readers have been following Mr. Carswell's advice for the last eleven years, then your readers have been going down the tubes. It is time to disillusion.
He is right, of course, about the third alternative, and a very sensible one it is-working out some system of fooling the grader: although I think I should prefer the word "impressing." We admit to being impressionable, but not hypercredulous simps. His first two tactics for system-beating, his Vague Generalities and Artful Equivocations, seem to presume the latter, and are only going to convince CRIMSON-reading graders (and there a few and we tell our friends) that the time has come to tighten the screws just a bit more.
Think, Mr. Carswell (wherever you are) think, all of you: imagine the situation of your grader. (Unless, of double differential CH3 C6 H2 (NO2) set. These people are mere cogs, automata; they simply feel to make sure you've punched the right holes. As they cannot think, they cannot be impressed; they are clods. The only way to beat their system is to cheat). In the humanities and social sciences, it is well to remember, there is a man (occasionally a woman), a humane type filling out your picture postcards. What does he want to read? How, in a word, can he be snowed?
Not, let me insist and insist again, by Vague Generalities. We abhor V.G.'s, we skim to decide what kind of C to give from the first V.G. we encounter; and as they pile up, we decide: C-, (Harvard being Harvard, one does not give D's. Consider C-a failure.) Why? Not because they are a sign the student doesn't know the material, or hasn't thought carefully or any of that folly. They simply make tedious reading. "Locke is a transitional figure." "The whole thing boils down to human rights." Now I ask you, I have 92 bluebooks to read this week, and all I ask really, is that you keep me awake. Talk to me. Is that so much?
Artful Equivocations are even worse; lynx-eyed sly little rascals that we are, we see right through them. (Up to Exam No. 40. Then our lynx eyelids droop, and grading habits relax. Try to get on the bottom of the pile.) Again it is not that A.E.'s are vicious or ludicrous as such; but in quantity they become sheer madness. Or induce it. "The 20th Century has never recovered from the effects of Marx or Froud." (V.G.); "but whether this a good thing or a bad thing is difficult to say." (A.E.) Now one might be droll enough. But by the dozen? This the quantitative aspect of grading-we are, after all, getting five dollars a head for you dolts and therefore pile up as many of you apiece as we can get-this is what too many of you seem to forget. "Coleridge may be said to be both a classic and a romantic, but then, so may Dryden, depending on your point of view... In some respects, this statement is unquestionable true, but in others..." On through the night.
I hope my implication is clear. The A's go to people who wake us up, who talk to us, who are sparkling and different and bright. (The B's go to Radcliffe girls who memorize the text and quote it verbatim, in perfectly looped letters with circles over the i's.) Not, I remain you, necessarily to people who have locked themselves in Lamont for a week and seminared
and outlined and typed their notes and argued out all of Leibniz's fallacies with their mothers. They often get A's too, but, as Mr. Carswell sagely observed, this takes too long. There are other ways.
His third suggestion, the Overpowering Assumption, I think is the best: but not for the reason he suggests-that the assumption is so cosmic that it may sometimes be accepted. It is rarely "accepted": we aren't here to accept or reject: we're here to be amused. The more dazzling, personal, unorthodox, paradoxic your assumptions (paradoxes are not equivocations) the more interesting an essay is likely to be. (If you have a chance to confer with the assistant in advance, of course-and we like to be called "assistants," not "graders" -you may be able to ferret out one or two cosmic assumptions of his own: seeing them in your blue book, he can only applaud your uncommon perception. For example, while most graders are politically unconcerned, not all are agnostic. This is an older generation, recall. Some may be tired of seeing St. Augustine flattened by a phrase or reading about the "Xianmyth."
Carswell's further discussion of the O.A. is quite to the point-he himself realizes its superiority to any E., however A. His illustration includes one of the key "Wake Up the Grader" phrases- "It is absurd." What force! What gall! What fun! "Ridiculous," "hopeless," "nonsense," on the one hand: "doubtless," "obvious," "unquestionable," on the other, will have the same effect. A hint of nostalgic, anti-academic languor at this stage may well match the grader's own mood: "It seems more than obvious to one entangled in the petty quibbles of contemporary Medievalists-at times indeed, approaching the ludicrous-that, smile as we may at its follies, or denounce its barbaries, the truly monumental achievements of the Middle Ages have become too vast for us to cope with, or even understand; we are too small, and too afraid." Let me offer this as an ideal opening sentence on the Middle Ages. And now, you see, having dazzled me, having won me by your personal, involved, independently-minded assertion, your only job is to keep me awake. When I sleep I give C's.
How? By FACTS, Any kind, but do get them in. They are what we look for, as we skim our lynx-eyes over every other page-a name, a place, an allusion, an object, a brand of deodorant, the titles of six poems in a row, even an interesting date. This, son, makes for interesting (if effortless) reading; and that is what gets A's. Underline them, capitalize them, insert them in outline form; make sure we don't miss them. Why do you think all exams insist at the top. "Illustrate:" Be Specific:" etc? They mean it. The illustrations, of course, needn't be singularly relevant, but they must be there. If Vague Generalities are anathema, sparkling chips of concrete scattered through your bluebook will have you up for sainthood. Or at least Dean's List. Name at least the titles of every other book Hame ever wrote: Don't just say "Medieval cathedrals." name nine. Think of a few specific examples of "contemporary decadence." like Natalie Wood.
That's the secret, really. Don't write out "TIME." in inch-high scrawls-it only brings out the sadist in us. Don't (Cliffies) write offers to come over and read to us your illegible scrawls-we can (officially) read anything and we may be married.
But above all keep us entertained, keep us awake. Be bold, be personal, be witty, be chock-full-of-facts. I'm sure you can do it without studying if you try. We did. Best Wishes-A Grader