Why Bullshitted Papers are Underrated

Why Bullshitted Papers are Underrated

By Sara Codair

It’s the last day of class before finals. While some students have their notebooks and netbooks open, ready to take notes, others are glancing at their phone, counting down the minutes until I give them permission to leave. They’re all exhausted. Most have been working all day, yet they still showed for this last class, hoping to learn something, or get the extra-credit for perfect attendance.

Phrases like “C’s get degrees” and “Night students just want to get their A’s and get home” float through my head as I try to focus on framing the wrap up discussion.

I don’t remember how it began, but the bookworm in the back row declared that every essay she ever wrote, from elementary school through my  English Composition II, class was completely bull-shitted.

I stared for a minute, mentally rereading her essays. She was one of the strongest writers in my class, and an avid reader. She’s someone who, if I met under different circumstances, that I could have been friends with, and I don’t say that about too many people. We could read and talk about books for hours if life didn’t make us do other things.

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Goose thinks writing is snack…

I smiled. “Isn’t all writing bullshitted?”

 

The class stared at me, probably thinking I had lost my mind.

“What’s a novel?” I asked. “Isn’t it just stuff people made up? Isn’t that bullshit?”

And she thought about, and tried to explain that novels are things people are passionate about. Yes, they are made up, but they are crafted and polished before they are sold to people who live for them.

I asked her about her last essay, one exploring and defining dystopian young adult novels. She admitted she actually liked that essay, so she spent more time writing it

I smiled again. “Well, writing is better when you care about your topic. I wish all essays were open topic, but unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.”

The debate went on, growing from the concept of “bulshitting” essays to the kind of writing we do in college and its usefulness, or lack thereof, in the “real world.” While no one won it, I hope that the students left with a few insights.

The students who claim they bull-shit their papers do not give themselves enough credit. They can sit down, and think, and make words appear on the page. They can generate four or five pages of half-decent prose a couple of hours. Believe it or not, that is a big deal.

 

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Writing might be easy for the students who are over 21…

The most challenging obstacle I often face when teaching writing is getting students to
actually write. Many will stare at the screen, agonizing over each word and sentence, afraid to make a mistake or just unsure how to convey their ideas.

 

I told my students that if they could bull-shit a paper, then they had taken the first step to becoming a good writer. In order to write, first, people need to be able to dump what they are thinking onto the page. Second, they need to shape into some kind of genre or convention. In the case of the students, they need to revise their ideas into an introduction, thesis, body paragraphs and conclusion. Third, they need to edit it and make sure it follows the format their teacher wants.

They are generating ideas inside and putting them outside.

While I didn’t go into any gross details in class, I often compare writing to bodily functions. When I say writing is shit from bulls, I take the metaphor quite seriously.

 

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Horses are good at eating and shitting too.

We consume information like bulls consume grass. We digest it, just like they digest grass. We break it down and use it up. We excrete what is left in the form of words.

 

In a more advanced class, one filled with people who were there because they wanted to be, not  because they were required to take the course, I might get into the nitty gritty details of crafting sentences and fine-tuning arguments. However, in a first year writing course, I am happy if my students leave with the ability to put ideas on the page in a coherent manner, and follow guidelines when they turn it in.

When students get an A’s on bullshitted papers, it’s not because they fooled their teachers. It’s because they weren’t censoring themselves like the students who agonize over every sentence. Getting words down on paper is the first step to developing as a writer. Being able to bull-shit a paper is a sign that  students are already halfway up the mountain.

I can’t make someone a master writer in one semester. What I can do is give them the tools to get words on the page, and empower them. I can help build a grain of confidence.

I can  plant seeds in their bullshit, and hope that one day, there is enough shit their to make the soil fertile so their ideas grow.

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©2017 Sara Codair

Framed by Flash:Eliminate Fluff and Teach Transfer

As the summer rolls on, it gets closer to time when us teachers need to start thinking about the start of the next semester. Here are some thoughts on how to use Flash Fiction and Flash CNF in your classroom.

Framed by Flash: Eliminate Fluff and Teach Transfer

By Sara Codair

Flash fiction and micro essays can teach students to write tight prose where every word carries meaning, they can eliminate the presence of “fluff” or “bullshit,” and they teach students to be ruthless editors.

Last year, one of my colleagues showed me an assignment for having her students write 100-word essays. Thinking it would be a great way to lessen the onslaught of questions like “is my paper long enough?” or “How many words should it be?” I followed the outlined steps myself, promptly adapting and expanding it to better suit my courses and teaching styles.

Now, I frame my first-year composition courses with flash fiction.

We start the semester by reading a selection of essays and stories from 100wordstory.org. The students analyze the pieces both for meaning and structure, noting how they were put together and how the smaller pieces contribute to the meaning.

Next, they write their own 100-word essay or story. At first, they complain about having to hit exactly 100 words.

“Can’t it be like, 102?” they ask.

“Exactly 100,” I say with a smirk.

“I can’t even go one over?”

I shake my head.

Then they do it, revising, editing and incorporating feedback until they have a polished piece that is exactly 100 words. They write a reflection about the skills they used and the value of concise language, and then they move onto to longer, more traditional college essays.

They remember the process and strategies they used in their flash, and through both discussion and trial and error, they learn to apply them to longer essays. The result? Their essays are tight, concise, and contain minimal fluff. They also practice the art of transferring skills from one task to another.

That it isn’t the end of flash in my classroom. After they finish their long research paper, we return to flash. By now, they’ve gotten a good handle on their writing process, so we focus on analysis and editing.

I’ll give students a 500-word story from the Mash Stories Shortlist, usually one that has a strong message, and have them analyze it. I’ve used my own piece, “Above the Influence” and a 2nd place winner, “Playback” by Conor Yunits.

Students examine the language, structure, plot and imagery and use that to make an argument about the meaning of the piece. Next, they write their own piece.

It reinforces the skills they started with earlier in the semester and practiced throughout, but since it’s a shorter piece, they can more or less zoom in and really focus on skills. And since they have used and adapted the same methods for different genres of writing, they have practiced transferring a skill from one genre to the next, and hopefully, they will be able to continue this act of transfer as they progress through their college careers.

 

 

Making the Space

The space a class is taught in often has a profound impact on the students’ attitude and the ambiance of the classroom’s community. It’s not everything, but it can go a long way. As an adjunct, I have virtually no control over what room my class is taught in, so I’ve learned to make the most of what I have.

This semester, I have one particularly rowdy group. Their attention is easy to loose and difficult to hold. The classroom we are in has tables that 2 to 4 students can sit at.20160412_161229The tables are lined up so the students all sit facing me. It’s set up for a traditional, lecture style class.

In other places I’ve taught, and even in other buildings of the same school, I’ve had classic college desks, desk/chairs on wheels, and tables on wheels.

The heavy, not moving rows of tables are by far the worst. The students wind up expecting a lecture. They sit with their friends or hide phones under the big tables and cruise through social media all class.

They were okay for the first few weeks of class, but quickly dissolved into random interruptions, side conversations, abuse of phones and chaos.

So by midterm, I got fed up. I knew I needed to make some kind of change. The content I was using in class worked fine with other groups, so I thought I’d try changing the space and structure.

I got to class early and dragged the heavy tables together in the center of the room so it was set up like a conference room instead of a lecture hall.

The students were confused when they came to class, but quickly adapted. They didn’t all get their usual seat by their friends, and even if they did, they couldn’t easily hide their conversation or phones. It wasn’t just me looking at them, but their classmates.

When we started a discussion, instead of asking for volunteers, we just went around the table. Students were allowed to say pass if they weren’t comfortable talking, but few took that option in a majority of the discussions. Eventually, I did allow the discussion to take a more natural form, but by that point, it was much easier to moderate.

While I still noticed a few people texting, no one was having side conversations and the interruptions were minimized. Students were more respectful of each other and of me. They listened and made eye contact with the people who were talking. They stayed on topic (mostly). Everyone who did talk contributed something valuable to the discussion whether it was presenting their research or on strategies for avoiding procrastination.

By making a few adjustments to the layout of the room and structure of discussions, I transformed a the rowdy class that gave me anxiety to one I look forward to teaching again.