The power of no

No. Just have a go at saying it. Nnnooo.

If you’re anything like I used to be, you don’t say this word very often. You’re the sort of person who people ask for help a lot, and you’re the sort of person who almost always says yes. That’s part of the reason that they ask you.

And, if you are this sort of person, chances are you’re also the sort of person who likes to do things properly. You put your all into everything. If you’re going to do something, you want to it as well as possible.

What this all means is that you quickly turn into someone who’s trying to do everything for everyone with every ounce of your energy. What that means is that you’re always busy, and you get a lot done. What that equates to is something that’s very impressive, a little intimidating, and ultimately unsustainable.

One of most useful lessons I’ve learnt since becoming a teacher is that I can’t do everything for everyone all at once. Being in a job in which that’s simply not possible has reminded me what a futile effort it is to be a people-pleaser all the time. In this somewhat ironic way, the most demanding job of my life has also been the most liberating.

Learning to prioritise what’s most important to me, and letting go of the rest, has so far been one of the biggest learning curves of my twenties. And that’s necessitated learning to say no once in a while. I totally recommend you give it a go.

What to do with a shock grade

Having just heard of yet another story of a student getting a drastically different grade out of an essay remark (she went from a B to an A+), I just wanted to remind you that you’re well within your rights to ask for a second opinion on any assessment work. By now you should have a pretty good idea of what constitutes a C, B, and A essay so if you get a shock grade without any clear indication of why, it’s a smart move to follow it up.

If you’ve checked your work against any assessment specifications or marking schedules you may have been given before submitting it, and still can’t find a reason for getting the mark you did, politely approach your marker to ask for a bit more feedback. Even if your grade doesn’t go up, you should get a much clearer idea of where you went wrong and some tips on what to do better next time. If you’ve approached the marker, and are still left with a mark that doesn’t make sense to you, take it to the head of the programme.

Creative cooking for stingy students

When I wrote An Insider’s Guide, my editor suggested that I change the references to ‘the $2-a-meal-rule’. It was outdated, she said, and surely needed to be adjusted for inflation. No, I said.

While I was happy to take her advice on most parts of the book, I remained resolute about the $2-a-meal-rule. It was, and remains, perfectly realistic. Even though I’m now officially a professional (full teaching registration having just been confirmed – hoorah!!), overdue grocery trips, credit bills and savings goals mean that there are days on which I still follow the rule. Just this week, for example, I’ve whipped up:

Cajun wraps: leek (on special), bacon (bulk frozen) and chickpeas ($1 a can) – sauteed with salt, pepper and herbs and served with salad in pita pockets (from the freezer). 

Moroccan salad: grated carrot (last one of a big bag), couscous (in the pantry since ages ago) and olives (cheapo brand but still good for cooking) – mixed with mint from the garden, almonds from the baking shelf and spices.

Stuffed slow-cooked spuds: onion (pantry staple), silverbeet ($1.99 for  a massive bag), tinned tomato, tuna (in a can) – cooked with Worcester sauce, seasonings and chilli and served on a baked spud.

Mussel fritters: steamed chopped mussels ($2.79 a kilo), egg, flour, herbs and seasonings, beaten together and then pan fried and served with salad.

Vege lasagna: lentils, leftover veges, tinned tomato and spices slow cooked, layered with pasta and cheese sauce, and then baked.

All of these meals have been delicious and healthy and filling. All of these meals have come well under $2 a meal. Student cooking isn’t about cooking crap; it’s about being creative with what you have. It’s about trying anything, wasting nothing, and never being tied to the constraints of a recipe. It’s not about fancy ingredients or expensive cookbooks, it’s about using the very creativity and independent thinking that your BA is all about.

Time chunking: the secret to a well-risen essay

An essay is never finished. You work on it until you run out of ideas, time or energy and then you hand it in. It will never get 100%, because it always could have been better. There’s always another level of analysis that you could have gone to, or a better example that you could have used, or a clearer way that you could have worded a point.

Accepting this was a vital step in me getting better at writing essays. Once I had, writing an essay became less about trying to reach ‘perfection’ (an undefinable and ultimately unattainable status), and more about working out how to produce the best piece of work that I could in the time that I had. I stopped trying to frantically race against time, and started to methodically manage it, breaking down the time I had until the deadline into three even chunks: planning, writing and editing. By focussing on just one key skill in each chunk of time, I could make sure that I did it as well as possible.

So, if I had three weeks until the deadline, I’d spend the whole first week gaining background knowledge, finding my sources of information and planning out my points. I’d resist the urge to jump into the writing, because by that time I’d learnt that research is the foundation to a good essay; only when my week was up would I move onto the writing. I’d then do that for another week, making sure to finish writing a week before the deadline. I’d always spend the last week editing and presenting my work properly before handing it in.

Think of it like making bread. You can’t just chuck the ingredients in the oven and expect to get a decent loaf. You’ve got to combine the ingredients, let them rise, and knead it all together before you cook it. It’s a process, not an event. Essay writing is just the same.

Google Books for quick references

Tip of the week: Google Books search function.

Pricelessly useful for:

1) Searching for key terms that might not be in the glossary.
2) Refinding that quote/scene/description you forgot to write the page number for.
3) Finding specific terms or evidence (looking for examples of similes in a particular novel? Search Google Books’ electronic copy of the novel for ‘ like ‘ and you’re bound to pinpoint a few).

Just go to, search for the book or topic you want, click into the right book and scroll down to the search box on the left hand side of the page. Even if you can’t read the whole book, the ‘snippet view’ will give you enough info to be able to locate crucial bits for your essay without having to trawl through the entire thing. Once you’ve sourced the page it’s on, you can easily look it up/reference it. Easy!

How to say what you want to say and be taken seriously.

1) Say it in as few words as possible.
– A good 1000 word essay is one that started off closer to 2000 and got honed down to the bare essentials. Unnecessary words clutter, confuse and compromise: cull them ruthlessly. Be okay with short sentences alongside longer ones.

2) Say it in the clearest language you can find.
– If you’re struggling with a sentence, stop, delete it, ask yourself ‘BS aside, what am I trying to say?’ Then just write down what comes into your head. Be okay with putting things simply – your reader will thank you for it.

3) Make sure that each word is the best one for the job.
– Don’t listen to the thesaurus haters. Use one. But use it intelligently. Words chosen for their perfect accuracy will make them nod involuntarily and say ‘yes!’ under their breath as they read – an experience that all great essays inspire.

4) Reference A LOT of other people’s opinions before expressing your own.
–  If you want to be taken seriously in an academic essay, you have to show that you’ve done your research. References are currency with which you buy the right to have your own opinion. One of your own costs about ten of other people’s.

5) Make sure that opinions sound like opinions, not like fact.
– Facts should be referenced. Anything that ‘shows’, ‘proves’ or ‘confirms’ something is a fact. Opinions, on the other hand, are what are ‘suggested’, ‘implied’ or ‘indicated’. They can be logical, likely, even probable, but never definite.

Questions top students ask

My last post was about how, while anyone can pass any course, the only students who’ll reach the top are those with their own opinions. Academic greatness isn’t necessarily the result of innate intelligence; it’s something that a lot of people could achieve if they just changed their outlook. The ability to have an opinion isn’t an intrinsic part of a person’s personality; it’s a habit that can be learned and adopted.

If my observations from my teaching life are correct, that’s great news for those of you who want to be top students but aren’t. You can become one simply by getting into the habit of opinion-building. Here are three easy steps to get you started:

1) Listen. Weirdly enough, the more of other people’s opinions you take on board, the easier it is for you to find your own. In order to take those opinions on board, you need to do two things, all the time, prolifically and indiscriminately: read and listen. Read and listen to things you hate, to things you love, to things you understand, and to things that make no sense. Other people’s ideas are the root of your own: soak them up greedily. Never walk away from anything you read or listen to without knowing what it means. Develop an insatiable appetite for ideas.

2) Question. Get into the mindset that there are very few straight facts in the world. Most ideas that we have are opinions, well-reasoned or not, that help us explain our world a little better. Ask yourself: Where does that idea come from? Who thought of it first? Is it based on fact or emotion? What emotions is it based on? What does it offer people? Is it a solid idea, or could it be easily knocked over? What are its limitations?

3) Compare. Humans are creatures of comparison; we make sense of what we don’t know by comparing it to what we do know. All over the world, we associate age with wisdom because we believe that the more a person has gone through – the more previous situations they have to compare to – the better their decisions are going to be. So, once you’ve understood someone else’s idea, you need to turn it into your own through a process of comparison. Ask yourself: How does my own experience support or challenge it? What alternative ideas are out there? What does the opposite belief look like? What would the middle ground look like? 

You might not find your own opinion straightaway. But, get into the habit of actively listening, questioning and comparing, and you’re well on the way to producing top-level opinions. For how to actually express these opinions in a way that’s clear (but not boring), intelligent (but not try-hard) and confident (but not arrogant) – in other words, in the way that’ll get you top marks – tune into my next post.