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Adventures in the New Humanities: Slow down, you write too fast

Professor of History Judy Kutulas holds a paper with multicolored additions and corrections stapled to the pages.
Professor of History Judy Kutulas says personal computers have made the process of writing and editing a paper much faster — but the critical thinking that powers the content still takes time. She demonstrates how she edited and re-edited papers on her typewriter in college, stapling multicolored additions and corrections to the pages. “When there were enough colors and flag-flaps, I knew I had a paper,” she says.

This post is part of a blog series, ‘Adventures in the New Humanities,’ by Judy Kutulas, the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities.

I’m about to launch into one of those “I walked five miles to school in the snow uphill both ways” stories that parents are famous for. Mine starts with the reality that when I went to college, papers were written on typewriters and mine was a prized possession, the first expensive object I ever purchased on my own. Her name was Fräulein Olivetti, after a character in my German textbook. I was in college, so I named everything.

It was on dear Fräulein O that I evolved my system for writing papers, facilitated by my mother’s employers and their huge supply of multicolored scrap paper that she brought home. The first draft of any paper I typed on plain white paper, but as I edited and re-edited, I would attach multicolored additions and corrections that I stapled like little flags flying off the sides of my pages. When there were enough colors and flag-flaps, I knew I had a paper.

Fräulein Olivetti, the typewriter that belonged to Professor of History Judy Kutulas, sits on her desk.
Fräulein Olivetti, the typewriter that belonged to Professor of History Judy Kutulas, sits on her desk.

Here comes my five-miles-through-the-snow-uphill-even-though-I-lived-in-California point: writing a paper was hard. Unless you were Jack Kerouac writing On the Road, you couldn’t just sit down and crank a paper out in one fell swoop. You had to write a draft, edit it, and then painstakingly type it, individually number the footnotes and turn the typewriter platen in order to superscript your footnotes. And you had to do it carefully since typewriter erasers tended to rip holes in the pages and Liquid Paper made it painfully obvious you had made a mistake. In the time it took for me to type the final copy of my 100-page honors thesis off of my colorful draft, my roommate knit an entire three-colored cardigan and a matching hat. By the end, poor Fräulein Olivetti needed a new ribbon.

Even if you paid someone to type your final copy for you — a great source of income for the faster typists — you still had to have a draft. That meant that every student, out of necessity, had to plan ahead and spend a fair amount of time figuring out what they thought about the topic at hand. Even the panicked, last-minute version of a paper couldn’t be all that last-minute.

Professor of History Judy Kutulas as a young writer.
Professor of History Judy Kutulas as a young writer.

When I was in graduate school and personal computers came along, it was a hallelujah moment. Not only did spelling and grammar programs signal errors so you didn’t have to find them yourself, so too did a program number and renumber end notes and superscript them. Eventually along came the thesaurus function and rendered your thesaurus irrelevant. All that was nice, but what was really wonderful was the ease of editing. You could move whole paragraphs around with a click or two and replace text instantly with a better version of what you meant to say. Word processing handled the more mechanical elements of paper writing so that you could concentrate on the actual text.

The UCLA equivalent of our Writing Desk had to buy a special program for its newly acquired word processors in order to prevent users from rewriting the same sentences over and over. That’s how excited we all were about the prospects of easy paper rewriting and editing.

Today’s students might have it easy by comparison, but I don’t always see quality results. Rather, I see an awful lot of Kerouac-esque stream-of-consciousness essays probably written at the last minute along with some written in two or three separate sessions where there has been no continuity or consistency of thought from part to part of the paper. Since drafts aren’t forced upon them by the technology, modern students often don’t see the utility of them. And to be completely honest, when I was their age, if I could have word processed, I would have probably been cockily confident about my ability to Kerouac my way through an essay in one sitting too.

I get it, our students are busy people — although, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, on an average weekday, college students spend only 3.5 hours in “educational activities,” most of which, presumably, is attending classes and 4.0 hours on “leisure and sports.” Much of the time spent studying, moreover, for first-years is devoted to a strategy that proved successful in negotiating high school: rote memorization. That leaves almost no time for paper drafts.

There is currently a “slow” movement in the academy, launched perhaps by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s book, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. This post, with its title referencing an old Simon & Garfunkel song (“Feelin’ Groovy”), borrows from that concept and applies it to student writing. How can we persuade or inspire (a very optimistic word) our students to slow down and produce some groovy writing?

When I tell classes the story of my honors thesis, they look at me uncomprehendingly — and not because of the typewriter, which some of their grandparents still have in their basements. No, it’s because so many of them simply can’t imagine a longer paper that, like a baby, took nine months to be born and emerged whole rather than as a series of subsections conceptualized separately and pasted together.

Whether or not I will be able to change the culture of flash-frying papers into one that involves slow-roasting is an open question, but it’s a challenge I’ve undertaken for years now. My job title doesn’t officially include teaching writing, but like all of us at a liberal arts college, I teach writing. I start with the conventions of whatever discipline I am teaching, describing the kinds and parts of essays. I excel at forms and conventions of writing, having been very fond of writing parodies back in my Fräulein Olivetti days, parodies which could not happen were I not excruciatingly familiar with Star Trek or Dr. Seuss books (and, yes, I just admitted my youthful nerdiness — as if the fact that I named my typewriter left any doubt in your mind).

To my classes, I explain the parts of an analytic paper with clear examples, often walk them through the process with last-year’s assignment, and, in seminars where longer papers are required, let them edit a page or two out of my honors thesis, where they gleefully point out my over-use of semicolons. I impart the wisdom I learned from the girl down the hall in my dorm, an English major who taught me how to write a strong opening paragraph with a thesis rather than a topic. Most students find this helpful, or so they tell me.

But it’s 2020, not 1975, and I was a nerdy history major. Most of my students can’t see any practical reason for learning to write a history paper beyond the general education WRI credit that prompted them to sign up for the class in the first place (unless they are history majors and, even then, most of them don’t plan on making a career out of writing history papers). Worse yet, if the class doesn’t carry a WRI credit, why am I making such a fuss about writing anyway?

Indeed, why am I? Their context is very different from mine. It wasn’t just that 100-page honors thesis that took a school year of mainly self-directed work to produce. It was also senior seminars that assigned a book a week and papers to be shared so the class could discuss them. It was a culture full of investigative journalism, letters to friends, epic bestsellers, and liner notes on albums. It was a reading and writing culture.

Our students live in a listening and watching culture of podcasts, streams, and audiobooks, one where multitasking is valued. Unfortunately, that sort of multitasking is anathema to really good writing. Writing drafts is one of the easier activities to cut out of your day if it’s competing with classes, labs, studying for tests, and might have to come out of the 8.8 hours a day the average college student devotes to sleeping. That last bit was meant to be sarcastic.

Still, I refuse to believe that rewriting is an outmoded skill, and here’s the reason why: rewriting is a crucial part of critical thinking, and critical thinking is just as important in 2020 as 1975. Maybe more so.

I refuse to believe that rewriting is an outmoded skill, and here’s the reason why: rewriting is a crucial part of critical thinking, and critical thinking is just as important in 2020 as 1975. Maybe more so.

Drafts are where the critical thinking happens. For a few lucky souls, critical thinking can happen while you are multitasking. For most of us, though, it can’t, no matter how much we want to believe otherwise. Paper-writing is style, but also substance, content as well as form. I called it slow-roasting for a reason; slow because it ought to take a while and roasting because you have to turn up some brainpower. You’ve got to think it through to produce a finished, satisfying, meaningful piece of work.

The trick with students is to emphasize the roasting and even the marinating that came before it rather than the time devoted to the writing because we’ve all engaged in some version of that wishful belief that time devoted to something is the variable of quality. You have to make clear that paper drafts are a means to an end, critical thinking to produce thoughtful, analytic writing.

Here’s one phrase that can help convey the end result of thinking about a paper: “the click moment” (you know, when everything clicks into place). People like the idea of the click moment because it sounds like it happens automatically. Assure your students that you usually hit a moment of serious doubt and panic just before the click moment happens. That part is reassuring, but true.

Be restrained about the scholar-know-thyself abstractions, though, as they seem to scare new college writers, who don’t really need to be prematurely informed about writers’ block. One way of easing into writing conversations is to talk about writing an essay exam. Teaching students how to write an effective exam somehow just seems more practical and straight-forward to them. This is what I tell them: “you can find historical information online really quickly, but I want to see that you have enough historical knowledge to identify relevant and accurate historical information, order or organize it in a meaningful way, and then explain it in clear prose. That’s the point of this exam.”

Then I show them how I would do that, using a question off of last year’s exam. I jot down examples, briefly note their significance, order them, define those as paragraphs, and indicate what my introduction and conclusion might look like. I’ve taught writing, only presented it as practical information. I pose questions along the way to encourage active engagement with exam questions. What does the prompt ask for? What words give me clues about how to structure my answer? Do I want a chronological or thematic arrangement?

An essay exam question is a simpler, cleaner, less intimidating version of an analytic essay.

I’ve just finished reading first-year final exams and the better students clearly absorbed the tips for writing a history final I dispensed during our review session, resulting in focused, analytic essays. I was definitely feelin’ groovy about those.

Mastering the art of exam-writing only gets you so far, however. There is no rewriting, no drafts, and, consequently, less critical thinking in the shortened time frame of an exam period.

But I have another technique for getting people to slow down: writing day.

Students get to work during a writing day in History 272 last year.
Students get to work during a writing day in History 272 last year. Two students in the front, Francesca Bester ’21 and Fritz Swearingen ’21, will also be in the American Comedy seminar Professor of History Judy Kutulas is teaching this spring — which means they’re returning for more writing days.

On writing day, everyone sits together in the classroom (obviously not possible right now) and writes in silence with me sitting outside the door for individual consultations. I make a big deal out of writing day, often bringing treats. I call it my gift to my students, the gift of time, the opportunity to get a jump on critical thinking.

Then I tell them what one of my undergraduate professors told me, that your first PAPER DRAFT (yes, I probably emphasize it in an unnecessarily loud tone of voice) ought to be in the form of an essay exam, using the techniques we already discussed. The first draft, I assure them, is best written in one sitting. Later they should critically examine what they’ve written, looking for analytic holes, better examples to support points, and places where they need to make their framework more visible, but they don’t need to do that right away. In fact — and here I smile sweetly — it works better if their subconscious mulls it over for a while. I stop short of suggesting naps, but that’s because I’m a bit of a sourpuss about that 8.8 hours a night of sleep they are getting already.

There is always the danger that students won’t return to what they’ve written or will return at the very last minute and make only cosmetic edits. Still, I’ve planted a seed, prompting more students to seek me out in office hours to talk about what they’ve written during writing day.

To me the challenge of teaching writing is reconciling the practical with the abstract. Offering practical tips or giving the gift of writing time doesn’t necessarily translate well into students recognizing the absolute value of slow writing and the ways it yields critical thinking.

To me the challenge of teaching writing is reconciling the practical with the abstract. Offering practical tips or giving the gift of writing time doesn’t necessarily translate well into students recognizing the absolute value of slow writing and the ways it yields critical thinking.

One technique I’ve found to maybe bridge the gap is to introduce the idea of genre and have students write in a different one. If I understand the science, writing creatively instead of analytically facilitates new brain pathways, something we all need, but it also forces you to think about how you are going to convey what needs to be conveyed. Although some of my students are initially horrified at the thought of creativity in a history class, most generally warm to the idea of writing a letter in the voice of a Rosie the Riveter to a boyfriend overseas or figuring out what should go in a paragraph-long museum label to accompany a photograph from the civil rights movement. It seems interesting, challenging, and yet, somehow, easier, than writing a straight analytic history paper.

Genre is a conversation all of our students started in the first-year writing classes. Mastering genres is the point of writing across the curriculum. Being able to write in multiple styles for different ends is an important life skill. It’s also a practical process that rests on understanding the abstract. You can write all the cutesy blog posts you want, but if they don’t have substance, they won’t pass muster. Trust me — I know.

This spring I will teach the last American Studies class, American Comedy. It’s a seminar and carries a WRI credit. Traditionally, the American Studies seminar finishes with individually researched term papers. Some of them are excellent, but the crash-and-burns are heartbreaking for us all. Nearly all of those crash-and-burns are the result of students trying to flash-fry instead of slow-roast a term paper, plus there’s always that one person who doesn’t wait for the click and feverishly picks a new topic at 2 a.m. This, of course, never works out well.

This year rather than a term paper, we’ll do a series of smaller writing assignments in genres responding to kinds of comedy we might study, like stand-up or improv or humorous essays. The genres are still evolving as well, but will likely include a review, a podcast script, and a blog post. The talking-about-writing requirement of the WRI will, thus, be devoted to discussions of genres and structures, while the rewriting part will be the final portfolio of shorter works students will submit. This all seems more effective and appropriate for students, none of whom intend, so far as I know, to continue on in the field of American Studies

Sadly, I won’t be able to fully report on the outcome this time because by the time spring semester ends, someone else will be the Boldt Chair and I will be retired, giving me considerable extra time to slow-roast that book about sitcom history.

For the record, this post went through uncountable drafts and much editing, particularly to remove too many semicolons. Generations of St. Olaf students are not wrong about my overuse of semicolons.

Judy Kutulas is a professor of history at St. Olaf College, where she teaches in the History Department and the American Studies program, along with American Conversations. She is the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities, charged with helping to revitalize humanities teaching and learning at the college. Read her inaugural ‘Adventures in the New Humanities’ blog post here.