Alphabet Soup for the Soul

In class today, I covered three topics that could be summed up by a set of acronyms initialisms. You may know some of these:

  • RTFD
  • GIGO
  • GTD

The context of the discussion was student papers for an introductory class. The papers were due back in early October, but as I graded the first batch, I found that they were almost universally terrible. It was pretty demoralizing for me, as I’m sure it would be for them.

The papers were so bad that I held off on returning them until after they took the midterm last week. My thinking was to let them focus on the midterm exam and worry about their poor performance on the paper afterward. I also wanted to devote some time in class to discussing the paper, and it seemed too cruel to berate everyone on the same day they take an exam.

Today, we had a heart-to-heart about undergraduate writing, and I used a little alphabet soup to make the point.

Read the Directions

One of my paper-saving initiatives is to have students get the assignment guidelines from my 1998-style course website. They can access them on their tablets or computers. And if they can carry killing trees on their conscious, they can even print the guidelines.

Relying on students to get the guidelines on their own might have been a mistake. It seemed like some students simply wrote this assignment without reading the guidelines.

For example, the assignment had a very strict word count of 743 words. Students submit a hard copy so I can’t count each word to see if they hit the word count. But I can tell when a paper is much longer or much shorter due to the agony factor. And reading some were quite agonizing

But that wasn’t the biggest sin of not Reading the Foremost Directions. I gave a really concise example of how to cite courses in text. It wasn’t some crazy “proprietary” system, just a simplified version of MLA-style parenthetical citations. But very few followed that. Instead,  an abundance of papers listed three or four websites as their research sources, rather than trying to craft a proper reference list.

Garbage-In, Garbage Out

As for the students who didn’t follow directions, it was a clear case of garbage in–garbage out. The assignment called to read at least one chapter from our textbook, Communication in History, to distill the historical impact of print. Students were assigned to read a more contemporary account of print, The Late Age of Print, and to determine whether the recent evolutions change the historical function of print. 

It was pretty clear that many students simply didn’t read one or both of the readings. The most common type of paper was an opinion piece on how ebooks are convenient but not as great as print because, you know, “what if someone steals your iPad?” Many also alluded to the smell of the paper that is lacking with ebooks.

Without reading the directions and going through the steps of the assignment, they produced nothing of value because they ingested nothing. Garbage In. Garbage Out.

I spent a significant amount of time outlining the difference between opinion and analysis. A common question from undergraduate students is “oh, so do you want us to write our opinion?” The answer is a resounding NO! Opinions, as we all know are like …, and no one wants any part of it. I certainly don’t. But I am interested in a student’s analysis. That requires reviewing sources and coming to a conclusion that they will base on those sources. 

For example, I think ebooks are for the most part pretty great. I can customize my reading experience (i.e., selecting my typeface), get a book delivered instantly, and carry around a lot of books without it burdening me as I ride my bike. But in at least one of the readings, we read that the development of print was responsible for challenging the authority of the Catholic Church and even leading to a scientific revolution. That’s a pretty big impact, and it’s one that I have yet to see ebooks, for example, match. Therefore, I am going to argue that ebooks lack the revolutionary impact of print, based on the much longer history of the latter. Although my opinion is that ebooks are awesome, my analysis reveals that they don’t yet seem to qualify as revolutionary.

Get This Done

Finally, I gave students a poor-man’s version of the GTD philosophy. GTD means, as we all know, “Getting things done.” It’s the subject of a cult favorite book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, and is the basis behind one of my favorite apps. My version the GTD speech was to have students collect, process, and focus on their tasks. As I assigned them a paper to write, it was up to them to write it. Perhaps it might be more useful to determine what steps they needed to take to start their assignment, including setting aside some time to actually do it. 

It’s unlikely that my students understood the entire idea behind GTD, based on my brief description of it. Moreover, as I finished explaining GTD, I saw some students grazing on their phones, which they all have, or notebook computers, which only very few students use. That was a good time to remind them that the whole GTD process, much like doing well on assignments or exams, falls apart unless they have an unrelenting focus.

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