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 http://books.google.com/?hl=EN, 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. 

Matters of opinion

What sets a top student apart from an average one? What is it about those two or three essays in the stack of hundreds that sing out? What exactly is the difference between a pass and a fail? A B+ and an A? An A and an A+?

Over the past few years, I’ve supported all sorts of students to set all sorts of academic goals. Most want to pass everything they need to get a qualification. Many want to meet a certain standard – Merit Endorsement, B+ average for Honours, that sort of thing. A few want to get top marks. As a teacher, it’s been my job to help them turn vague dreams into clear plans by setting goals that we can measure and achieve. That experience has left me with the following beliefs:

1) Anyone can pass any reasonable Art-based subject, provided that they are able to follow instructions, record and recall information, read for information and produce structured, evidence-based responses to set topics.

2) Most people are able to do very well in any subject, provided that they are willing to put extra time and effort into thoroughly researching their topic, developing their answers, providing more examples, and presenting their work with pride.

3) Many people are able to get top marks in a subject, but very few ever will. This is because doing so requires something unique: critical thought (aka your own opinion) and the ability to express that thought in a clear, interesting way. If you don’t have that – the ability to question, challenge, offer alternatives – then no amount of extra work is going to boost your marks. You might do very well, but you’ll never really shine.

Contrary to popular belief, people who think independently and critically aren’t necessarily innately smarter in any objective sense. They just work their brains harder. Sure, they might have a genetic advantage – like a runner born with long legs – but you don’t win a race at the Olympics without making rigorous training a central part of your lifestyle.

Most people don’t push themselves to form and express their own opinions. Some are lazy – it’s far less taxing to take on someone else’s opinion than have your own. Some don’t realise it’s possible – they don’t know of any other way of thinking. Most, though, are afraid. They’re scared to think for themselves because in doing so they would set themselves apart and open themselves up to judgement.

If getting top marks is one of your goals, you need a training regime for your brain. The first step is identifying the beliefs that have held you back from developing and fully expressing your own opinion in the past. Then you need to convince yourself that they’re just that – beliefs that can be updated if you choose. As for how to form and effectively express an original opinion – I’ll deal with that in my next post.

Titular control: how to pipe a perfect essay icing

In my book, I describe a clever title as the metaphorical icing on the cake that is your essay. Pretty and snazzy, titles set your essay apart from the rest. They are a chance for you to have fun and show off the nerdy side of you that your lecturers will love. And, they’re not hard. The basic formula for a good title is pretty easy to follow:

(Pun/double entendre): (Description of essay content, including language techniques such as metaphor, alliteration, listing, rhyme, etc)

So, an essay about cultural stereotypes in Disney films, for example, might be called:

Culture shock: casting a light on the stereotypes, symbolism and sectarianism that animate some of Disney’s best-loved characters.

Experiment. Have fun. Get a bit silly. But never submit an uniced essay. For a list of title puns and double entendres to spark your creativity, have a look here.

Cheating: an offence against society

Oxford Dictionaries Online defines ‘inventive’ as “having the ability to create or design new things or to think originally”. For a killer example of word usage ‘total fail’, go no further than this article, released today on Stuff.co.nz, about cheating in NZ unis.

After outlining how unis are going to ‘crack down’ on cheating this year, the article offers “Roll of Shame”, a ranked list of unis in descending order of cases of academic misconduct in 2012. It then provides a list of some of 2012’s favoured strategies, which include: using iPhones in exams, taking in unauthorised notes (on paper, in calculators, on limbs), hiding notes in a toilet, forging medical certificates, trying to bribe markers.

Based on the article’s title, I’d expected a list of ingenious new cheating tactics. I had expected to learn a thing or two about cutting-edge cheating technology. I was disappointed. 2012’s cheating strategies are drearily the same as 2011’s, and 2010’s. They are the same sort of cheating strategies that have been around as long as there has been assessment to cheat in. The only differences in approach come from the new advantages afforded to cheaters through changing technology.

I was thrilled to be disappointed. While I’d hoped for news, I’d got none, and that means that the nature of a uni cheater remains unchanged. Cheaters aren’t inventive. They’re not creative masters of ingenuity, shrewd adapters of ‘the system’. Aside from the hypothetical few who construct intelligent ways to feign intelligence and get away with it (and who are therefore walking paradoxes who almost certainly don’t exist), cheaters are lazy, stupid and tediously unoriginal. They don’t (can’t? won’t?) think and put in place measures to ensure that they can still get the rewards that the real thinkers enjoy.

The article portrays UC as a little ruthless in its strategies for dealing with cheaters: administering $750 fines, sending cheaters to counselling and dishing out 25-hour community service sentences. As someone who put in 100% effort into every essay and exam I did during my BA, those consequences are totally inadequate. Cheaters see something that they want and, rather than working for it, simply take it. Cheating therefore defies the fundamental principles of what being a NZ citizen is all about. Cheating is an offence against society itself, and the consequences need to reflect that.

If I made the rules, I’d ensure that the penalty for first-time cheating would be forfeiture of any subsequent grade higher than a C. My penalty for anyone caught cheating again would be forfeiture of the right to study at any NZ university. Ruthless? Maybe. Unfair? Nope. Cheating is theft, pure and simple and the consequences for it need to reflect that reality.