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I just turned in a final paper. When it was finished, I gussied up the spacing and switched the font to Georgia. I stapled it neatly at a 45-degree angle, with a professional-looking cover page on top. Before my TF takes in a single word, he can deduce that I’m a smart guy and he’s about to read a great paper.
Here’s the problem: It’s not a great paper. I didn’t have a lot of points to make, so I made them glamorously. I used lots of adverbs. My title has a colon in it. There are 21 words in an average sentence, six letters in an average word. An online analysis tells me I’m writing at a 16th grade level. My TF is gonna love it.
Steven Pinker wrote in the Chronicle recently that academics have their heads too far up their own rears to write well. They know so much, he says, that they can’t imagine what it’s like to be a layman. But I think the problem is more systemic than that. Academics put out lousy writing because they went through 20 years of schooling that rewarded lousy writing.
What causes this upside-down incentive system? It’s signaling, plain and simple. You don’t have time to write good papers, and graders don’t have time to read them. No one ever got fired for buying IBM, so they slap a check-plus on whatever looks good. Consciously or subconsciously, you tune your writing to do just that: to look good. Who cares if it actually is good?
This is why my academic writing stinks. I’ll hammer out a response paper the hour before it’s due, throwing in as many “normative”s and “dichotomy”s as I can muster. “Do I sound smart yet?” my writing pleads. It’s all icing—like the staple and the font choice—layers and layers of icing on a tiny, bland cake. My TFs will often tell me I’ve improved as a writer over the semester, when really I’ve just figured out which kind of bullshit they prefer. Why risk writing something good in the hopes it’ll be recognized as good, when I can write garbage I know will be recognized as good?
This is also why section kid bothers you so much. You roll your eyes when he ends every sentence with “by any stretch of the imagination.” He’s building a McMansion of words, all oversized and gaudy and totally empty. Your TF’s eyes glazed over at the first, “Just to run with that for a minute…” She’ll give him full marks for participation. You hate him for shamelessly playing the game. But can you blame him?
This is even a driving force behind grade inflation. In a world where good ideas get good grades, the average would be around a C. Real eureka moments don’t come often. But in a world where fancy words get good grades, any skilled hoop-jumper can learn the formula and churn out regular As.
This is dangerous. The high marks seem nice today, but when we get spit out into the real world we’ll see the harm it’s done. I’ve nearly forgotten how to write simply. When I’m not paying attention, I quickly recommence pontificating mellifluously. Your boss won’t want 12 pages double-spaced; she’ll want clarity and pith. Interviewers would rather you be a real human who says things like “chill” and “legit” than some academic robot who won’t stop talking about intents and purposes.
So why not get a head start and cut the crap now? Spend more time coming up with ideas and less time beautifying them. Start your paper when you hit a thesis you’re excited about, not when you think, “I could probably argue that.” If you have a good point to make in section, you’ll sound just as smart leading with, “I dunno though,” as with, “Just to push back on that.” And to paraphrase a proverb: If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything at all.
It’s not our fault that the system’s broken, but it’s on us to fix it. We have to change our habits even if we’re incentivized not to. Yes, a high GPA will help you get a job, but it’s your skills that’ll help with every step after that. Don’t boost your grades by developing toxic habits. Develop good habits, and the grades should follow. When you bullshit, you’re just bullshitting yourself. Stop it. Write well.
Milo B. Beckman ’15 is a government concentrator in Eliot House.
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