Saturday, May 21, 2011

Tutorials on the Brain

Well, as I said in my last post, the main reason behind my extreme dearth of blogging of late has been the incredible workload I've been dealing with this term. I've been somewhat annoyed with myself because I've allowed myself to fall into old habits of getting very one-track mind about schoolwork and nothing else (ie - not stopping to enjoy the sunshine, the company of my friends, or life outside the library), but it's hard to do otherwise when faced with this much! I'm a slow reader, and the amount required for two tutorials a week has had me scrambling from flag fall. I admit I'm getting a bit of an ulcer thinking about the next two weeks, where I will be traveling both weekends, but I'm SO EXCITED about the actual travel that I'm trying to not let it get me too down. But those are topics for a later post...

Anyway, so what am I even studying this quarter? I realize, after giving almost blow by blow accounts of my papers last quarter, I haven't even fully articulated my subjects for Hilary Term. I decided to continue in my art history trend (for fairly obvious reasons), just moving back a few decades from my Trinity tutorial to the Post-Impressionist era. I have a new tutor who really pushes me to chew on the readings she gives, analyze the quotes, and come up with some real analysis. She's considerably tougher on a lot of the ideas I come up with than my previous art history tutor was, but mercifully enjoys my writing style much more. In fact, she likes it quite a bit, and has commented each week that it's clear that I've put a good deal of work into my structuring and drafting. Thank you, Trinity Term! I'm still getting the same not-quite-what-I'd-like grades, but I've come to terms with letting it go. I'm getting better critiques than I've gotten on papers at Stanford for years (where the standard of late has been "well done" - good for plumping an ego but not for actually getting better!) and feel like I'm actually thinking about the topics more deeply and clearly than I ever have back home. Since this is the period where I hope to focus my Honors Thesis two years from now (granted that my grades from Oxford don't ruin my already borderline GPA and keep me from being able to apply!!), I'm feeling really good about the course as a whole. At the very least, I'll have a substantial bibliography to start working with when it comes time to start writing back at Stanny!

For my second tutorial, I decided on a whim last term to continue on with the study of World War II that I'd started in Professor Tyack's class. I've always loved WWII (my favorite movie, after all, is Patton) but had never really studied it outside a brief gloss in my junior year US History class. What I learned over Trinity fascinated me, and I desperately wanted to learn more. Though the reading for this class is out of control (on average six or seven full books--or at least, as close to full as I can bear--a week), it's a great change from the art-art-art track I've been on of late, which I've found seriously refreshing.

The style of the tutorial is also different, in that we haven't directly discussed my paper once yet this term. My tutor will have my paper in front of her, but will merely use it as a jumping off point for further questioning and discussion. It's like a quiz and an interview all at once, and I've had to learn to come to class with my notes in the front of my mind. Fortunately, I find it far easier to show off my knowledge in that format than in essays (must be from the years of competing at the national/international level of Know-Down, a sort of Pony Club-sponsored horse quiz bowl competition... and you think I'm joking), and I've ended up enjoying our tutorials quite a bit. It's much more fun to find yourself in an engaging conversation than trudging through an essay, line by line, picking apart the vast multitude of things that are wrong with it (though I know that the latter is necessary for improving).

Another girl in the program asked me a few days ago how long it took me to write an essay. It caused me a bit of pause, because I'd never actually considered it before. Quite a long time! And such a massive change from at Stanford where, I'm not happy to admit, most papers are conceptualized, researched, outlined, and written all in the few hours leading up to the due date. That has mostly to do with the fact that very few Stanford essays require (or even encourage) outside research, but also with the fact that, until coming to Oxford, I did NOT take the planning or revising stages of my essays seriously at all. I would make outlines, sure, but they were always just big lists of quotes or cut and pasted class notes pulled under various headlines with no elaboration whatsoever. Every transition, introduction, conclusion, and original idea was thought up on the fly and handed in without revision. I even handed in papers with spelling and grammatical errors! The idea now makes me ashamed, and seriously makes me wonder why I ever thought I was somehow entitled to excellent grades.

The paper writing process now goes something like this:

1. Reading

My art history tutorial has been merciful this year in that the readings have been fairly light and I can usually get them done in one day (unlike last term, where I would fret for hours and hours over a single, long-winded article). The history tutorial, as I've already mentioned, is a killer, but I'm getting better about doing "Grad school absorption" and being able to pull out the historiography, argument, and pertinent facts from a book without having to read it all. I'm still a slow reader out of hand, but I'm getting better.

2. Culling Notes

(This was by far the lightest stack of notes I've had for a paper yet - also, please overlook the wrinkled sheets!)

After an early week of intensive reading, I usually have between 10 and 40 pages of typed notes from my various sources for each paper - these are just quotes or summaries, with only the smallest amount of my input included. So, I print everything out and go through it by hand, selecting out what fits best with the question in mind and adding a first round of ideas to each.

3. Combining the Notes - Making an Outline

From there, it's a fairly mechanical process of transferring the things I liked from the raw notes into a rough outline. At this stage, I have to decide the general form of the essay so I can drop the quotes/thoughts/etc into the right zones. If I'm thinking super clearly, I can try to order them within the blocks to reflect the shape of my argument, but I don't worry about that too much as the next step sorts that out.

4. Expanding the Outline

This is the step that was most foreign to me before coming to Oxford. I've done all of steps 1-3 before, though certainly not on every paper I write at Stanford. Normally at the end of the third step I just begin to write, coming up with further elaborations and fixing the order of my argument as I go. After getting my structure destroyed several weeks in a row when I first got to Oxford, I decided I needed a new way. Now every rough outline gets printed out, and then I spend between two and three hours expanding it by hand. I try to focus on the order of the quotes/facts within each larger segment, and usually will write out the introductions, conclusions, and major transitions in full at this point. Since I can have a tendency to get too verbose, forcing myself to write by hand is a good way to make sure I don't get too crazy in those important structural moments.

5. Writing!

Depending on how complete I end up making the outline, the actual writing ends up going very quickly. I like this style because it means that by the time I start typing (at which point I'm usually exhausted or running up against a deadline or both) I don't have quite as much heavy lifting to do mentally. I still have to flesh some things out and edit what I've outlined as I go alone, but for the most part the groundwork is already there. If I've written fairly completely in the outline, then the typing process serves the second advantage of being a good chance to revise.

6. Last Edit and Read Aloud

At last! By this point, I'm usually pretty sick of the paper and can barely stand to look at it any more. I print it out and read it aloud to myself one last time, going through and making any last minute changes that pop out at me. Then, at long last, it's time to submit. Phew!

The Final Product

(the finished result! Thirteen pages of glory, finally with someone else's handwriting on it =D)

Definitely nothing to scoff at, work-wise. Weeks like this past one, where I've had four to complete over a seven day period, have absolutely knocked the stuffing out of me. I'm very thankful for the experience, but also admit that I did a fair bit of mental celebration when I realized this morning that I was half way finished for the term! Just seven more papers (of 14 total) to write, and I'll be free =)

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