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Strategies for the first year

August 10, 2012
By Matt McCluskey, St. Lawrence University

It's that time of year again. All around the North Country, teenagers who just weeks ago were finishing up high school exams are now getting ready for college. Future roommates map out their shared territory from a distance, matriculating students stake out possible schedules, and families take more trips to Walmart than they ever thought possible.

Students may also be thinking about the values and habits that will guide them during this exhilarating and daunting adventure, asking such questions as, "How am I going to deal with alcohol when I'm on campus?" "Where will I get involved?" or, "Will I go to class every day?" What they may or may not realize is that answers to questions like these will be crucial in determining their ultimate trajectory in college. Choices about study habits will also be critical, regardless of where they'll be enrolling. Every autumn, college students across the country inevitably submit papers that are the result of all-nighters. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of these products are painful reading and can place students on a slope toward underachievement and academic probation. As students get ready for the fall, it's worth thinking about how they might embrace an intentional, thorough, process-based approach to their academic work. After all, college is a huge investment: of money, of spirit and energy, and of some of the most dynamic years of one's life. Parents and students alike consider how to make the most of it.

One useful exercise is to consider how to deal with a semester-length research paper. In some classes, professors will lay out a set of tasks throughout the semester to guide and monitor their students' work, a common practice in courses designed for first-years. In others, especially as one takes higher-level courses, professors will expect more autonomy. You may be given an assignment that is due in mid-December, and how you will proceed will mostly be up to you. Some students will let the semester slip away and write at the last second, producing work that is satisfactory to no one. Others may try to do better and design a good long-term plan. This piece is dedicated to helping new college students find such a process. With the right planning, students can avoid the crappy products of all-nighters while embracing a chance to benefit from good research, writing and critical thinking. They may even surprise themselves and enjoy the experience. The hallmarks of such a plan are embracing revision and breaking major tasks into manageable chunks. Imagine the following conversation:

"OK, I've got my syllabus, and I know I have a paper due in December. What can I do now?"

Lots, actually. First, you can jot down a few problems or questions that spark your interest. Do a few free writes to help organize your thoughts. You might explore an interesting problem that has arisen in class, a hypothesis you want to test, or an assumption you want to challenge. You want to look for a question that puzzles you enough that you will enjoy spending three months learning everything about it.

The first month is an ideal time to visit folks. Professors can offer invaluable guidance as you decide what questions will drive your project and, for most students, how to narrow one's focus. Librarians can help direct your search for scholarly sources and can introduce you to other gems like archive collections or data sets related to your research interests. They can give you guidance on the types of sources you'll need, how to use them and how to independently take additional steps with your research.

"It's October. What can I do now?"

You will reach a critical moment for your project at mid-semester. This is when you need to be doing your primary research. Make sure to use a wide variety of scholarly and other reliable, relevant sources. Take notes while reading through sources - this will be important when it is time to make citations. Use the works-cited page of your best sources to branch out to new materials. Don't forget to engage with course texts and think about how your project will build off of the ongoing scholarly conversation on your topic.

Once you've completed your primary research, you'll probably have some idea about what you want to achieve with your project and what your argument will be. It makes sense to get a working thesis down on paper now, along with an initial outline or idea map.

"Now it's time to do some formal writing, right?"

Right. As snow begins to fall in November, you want to be engaging in the formal writing process. Good writing requires multiple drafts and plenty of time for revision. Follow your informal outline or idea map, have your research notes accessible, and cite your sources. Don't worry if your first draft is a bit of a mess. As composition scholar John Bean points out, the French word for first draft is brouillon, an apt description of a healthy, creative disorder.

When you've completed that deep thinking known as a first draft, it's time to take a short break and then engage in a patient and thorough revision process. Remember, revision is very different than proofreading (that will come later). Revision means thinking deeply about "big picture" questions. While revising, you might ask yourself if there are sections that need to be reconceived, especially promising sections that beg for more development, or additional evidence to be gathered. You might refocus your thesis and claims, concentrate more on how your paper builds off of ongoing academic conversations or check to see if your rhetorical choices are appropriate for your audience. Many students will design a more formal outline at this stage and engage with potential counter-arguments.

During the revision process you will write at least one additional draft and perhaps more. Leave yourself plenty of time to reflect on your ideas and your communication plan. You may end up doing more research to address new questions or to test your original hypothesis in another way. This is also an ideal time to engage in peer review, visit your college's writing center or go back to your professor's office hours.

"Is it time for finishing touches now?"

Yes. Happily, you will address many minor errors during the revision process, so you can leave proofreading and sentence-level editing to the end. Be aware that spellcheck won't catch everything, so proceed carefully. You also need to check over your citations and formatting now. Citations properly give credit to other people's work, demonstrate the credibility of your product and provide a helpful road map for your audience. It is something your academic community will take seriously.

"This seems time-consuming."

To be honest, it is. But perhaps the more important question is how we use our time. Do we stress ourselves out, get sick and ultimately disappoint ourselves with a low-quality product that results from an all-nighter? Or do we work slowly and steadily, and open ourselves up to the possibility that, when done well, writing can be fun, and that with the right process, it can help us develop as better students and thinkers? Process-based writing can take us beyond the boring regurgitation of disparate facts, and introduce us to a world of discovery, deep thinking, conversation and fascinating argumentation.

College brings much freedom. First-year students typically spend about 15 hours in class each week. It's how one uses the other 153 hours that makes the difference on this crucial investment and whether a semester's potential slips from our grasp.


Matt McCluskey is coordinator of academic support at St. Lawrence University.



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