Blocks of text...and for what?

I refuse to look at the “Victors and Vanquished” of the Spanish-Amer-Indian relations. It’s extremely long paragraphs devoted to make you critically analyze and think about primary sources. But in what context? In what understanding? Ah, past historical facts and opinions not too relevant to our time.

Oh? After you are done with the 5 page paper and you hand it in, we’re not going to discuss it anymore! We are going to just keep moving on because this is not just a class about 16th Century mercantilism.

But Professor? Why are you making us slave over 5 pages then? As you demonstrated in class, you will analyze tirelessly our papers because you are passionate about this subject (even though I’m not). Then you will butcher up our references because your curiosities lead you there (even though I cherry picked those curiosities from this $15 primary source collection with light commentary to frustrate me). Then you shall wave your red pen (or dare I say, even pink!) and dot my i’s, cross my t’s, and strike out that reference to Hernan Cortes as a douchebag (even though he really was). Oh wait, then you shall take a long look at my paper, analyze the musing that I mustered at 3 AM in the morning, mumbling about these quotes and Quetzal-somethings, and plant a big fat grade. I did exactly what you wanted, right - critically analyzed the primary sources to unlock the vortex of intelligence in my mind?

Look I’m sorry Professor. I don’t mean to lash out on you. It’s just, writing is not fun anymore because of all these rules. You need to have 1” margins. You need to justify the text and make sure the title is not underlined (unless your published according to MLA). Oh, make sure your essay has a beginning, middle, sandwiched with details, and a closing. Nice and neat now, with a completely predictable flow and boring terminology. And seal it with a prayer ‘cause Allah knows you need it!

These designations from academia to produce formulaic papers are infuriating me. My friends hate writing. My friends, friends hate writing. My friends, friends, dog hates writing. They are all subjected to write in a very precise, calculated matter just so that its predictable, and predictably easy to grade and send off.

Yet great analysis of the texts of history or the equations of Einsteins or the ionic bonding between molecules begins with taking a step back. Thinking (and subsequently writing) needs to be exposed to the insane, volatile environment. That means relating my paper to modern times. That means, talking about how Cortes’ invasion of Mexico is like the territorial invasion of Bengalis in a primarily Indian neighborhood will surely cause some heat, nay curry to start cooking.

Okay, maybe that was a poor analogy, don’t get me wrong. But it gets you thinking. This type of conversational tone that I am presenting in this post is precisely how we can further our understanding of abstract ideas. I’m glad your passionate about what you are teaching. But don’t forgot, your passion derived from randomness, from abstract comprehension, from a stalled train that resulted in you getting off at the wrong stop and running into the museum only to be caught jaw-dropped.

Vignettes and short essays force people to write concisely, to the point, and explore their ideas in their head, not just regurgitate and rephrase what’s in the text. You want to crack my head open? Don’t give me ridiculous restrictions in unnecessary places and more leg room in the width of my paper. Force me into a fight-or-flight scenario. Let me compare apples, oranges, bananas, and squares. 

Ask me to think more and express it in less. I will bear more fruit. Promise.

Ashraf Ali