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Gentlemen: I must confess serious doubts about the efficacy—or even the integrity—of the “classic” exam period editorial, “Beating the System,” you reprinted recently. I almost suspect this so-called “Donald Carswell ’50” of being rather one of Us—the Bad Guys—than one of you. If your readers have been following Mr. Carswell’s advice for the last 11 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 world “impressing.” We admit to being impressionable, but not to being hypercredulous simps. His first two tactics for system being, his Vague Generalities and Artful Equivocation, seem to presume the latter, and are only going to convince Crimson-reading graders (there are 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 he is of the Wheatstone Bridge-double differential CH3C6H2(NO2)3 set. These people are mere cogs; automata; they simply feel to make sure you have 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 human type filling out your picture postcard. What does he want to read? How, in a word, can he be snowed?
Now, let me insist and insist again, by Vague Generalities. We abhor V.G.’s, we skim right past them, we start wondering what kind of C to give from the first V.G. we encounter; and as they pile up we decide C- (Harvard being Harvard, we do not give D’s. Consider C- a failure). Why? Not because they are a sign the student does not know the material, or hasn’t thought creatively, 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. 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 40. Then our lynx eyes 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 and Freud.” (V.G.); “But whether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing is difficult to say.” (A.E.) Now one such might be droll enough. Buy by the dozen? This, the quantitative aspect of grading—we are, after all, getting $5 a head for you dolls and therefore pile up as many of you a piece as we can get—this is what too many of you seem to forget. “Coleridge may be said to be both a classical and a romantic, but then so may Dryden, depending on your point of view. In some respects, this statement is unquestionably true; but in others...” On through the night.
I hope my inference 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 hooped letters with circles over the i’s.) Not, I remind you, necessarily to people who have locked themselves in Lamont for a week and seminared and outlined and underlined 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 points out, this takes too long. There are other ways.
His third suggestion, the Overpowering Assumption, I think is best. But not for the reasons he suggests—that the assumption is so cosmic that it might 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, paradoxical 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 all 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 bluebook, 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 St. Augustine flattened by a phrase or reading about the “Xian myth.”)
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, antiacademic languor at this stage as well may 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 barbarities, 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 to any question even tangentially nudging on the Middle Ages.
And now, you see, having dazzled me, 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—a name, a place, an allusion, an object, a brand of deodorant, the titles of six poems in a row, even an occasional date. This, son, makes for interesting (if effortless) reading, and this is what gets A’s. Underline them, capitalize them, insert them in the top, “Illustrate;” “Be specific;” etc.? They mean it. The illustrations, of course, need not be singularly relevant; but they must be there.
If Vague Generalities are anathema, sparkling chips of concrete scattered throughout your bluebook will have you up for sainthood. Or at least Dean’s List. Name at least the titles of every other book Hume wrote; don’t just say Medieval cathedrals, name nine. Think up a few specific examples of “contemporary decadence,” like Natalie Wood. If you can’t come up with titles, try a few sharp metaphors of your own; they at least have the solid clink of pseudo-facts.
That’s the secret, really. Don’t write out “TIME!!!” in inch-high scrawl—it only brings out the sadist in us. Don’t (Cliffies) write offers to come over and read aloud to us your illegible remarks—we can (officially) read anything, and we may be married. Write on both sides of the page—single bluebook finals look like less work to grade and win points. This chic, shaded calligraphic script so many are affecting lately is handsome and is probably worth a good extra five points if you can hack it.
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 all without studying if you try. We did.
This letter first ran on January 26, 1962.
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