The first assignment I had to complete for one of my classes this year almost gave me a panic attack. The demands for the piece — worth 15 percent of my final grade — were frighteningly minimal. They simply asked, “Tell me more about yourself.”
No rubric, no word count, no grading scale and no real writing prompt. What a nightmare.
I was stumped. There had to be a catch, right? It had to be at least 1,000 words, right? Or something?
I labored over this piece, questioning every word I included and cursing the professor for not telling us exactly what he wanted: “Ugh, too many to-be verbs. This is way too cheesy. Let’s add a fancy synonym there. Ooh, the semicolon — professors love that.”
Too many hours later, I looked down at the piece that was meant to capture who I was. The final product couldn’t have been further from the truth.
I wasn’t always this way. I didn’t always complete assignments religiously clutching onto rubrics and guidelines. I didn’t always suffocate my thoughts, opinions and words for the sake of getting a good grade.
When I was six years old, a crayon was my weapon and a color-me-in shape was my battlefield. Wrapping my awkward little fingers around the body of purple or blue, I’d find the way the ends of my lines refused to kiss every solid barrier enclosing the shapes in front of me electrifying. But somewhere in today’s education system, I was told I wasn’t creating art. That the triangle-faced-square-nosed people I would carve on paper weren’t beautiful. That no matter how excited it would make me feel, the tip of my crayon had to remain within the predetermined boundaries. And somehow, I listened.
Today, I can’t write a paper for any class without looking at a rubric. My eyes skim past passages in articles that I find interesting only because I’m too busy highlighting points that I’m sure my professor will quiz me on. I silence the thoughts that contradict my argument because, after all, I’ve been asked to assert the point and a neutral opinion, even if it’s the truth, won’t get me more than a 75.
And I know it’s not just me. The truth is, for many of us, the letters A, B, C, D and — God forbid — F, mean more to us than the letters we put on paper.
During my Winter Term program last year, our professor told us she would grade us on the number of questions we would ask presenters during site visits. As you’d probably imagine, all presentations we attended began the same way, “Hi, I’m John Doe from so and so and … ” Before he could finish, ten hands would fly in the air and the generic, pre-prepared questions that we probably pulled from college applications would ensue. “What do you like about your job? What are some of your life’s greatest challenges? What’s your biggest regret?”
The point is, we never gave John Doe the opportunity to speak because all we cared about was the number of points we racked up by the end of the day.
Contrary to what we like to believe, many Elon University professors don’t give us concrete guidelines not because they’re lazy but because they just want us to think. Rather than begging for recipes to get As and Bs, just write. Chances are, the less you ask yourself, “What does my professor want me to write?” and the more you ask, “What do I want to write?” the more you’ll end up learning.
We pay a whole lot of money to attend this school, and it’s painful to think that many of us — myself included — have to remind each other that we attend this institution to learn, not to regurgitate facts, write robotic essays and research the easiest A-granting topic.
Chances are, I’ll get a C for the tell-me-about-yourself paper. And that’s fine, because I learned something.
To create means that a part of you is invested in the final product — not the final grade. My weapon may no longer be a crayon, but I’m going to spend the rest of my academic career focusing less about grades and venturing outside lines and rubrics.
Color with me?