Writing Without Reading

I wrote this for The Peak. It was published on November 28, 2011, to much fanfare (maybe). It was edited by Kelly Thoreson, features editor. This is the original version, not edited by her (it is a little longer).

Writing Without Reading, the James Plett Way

Managing both a social life and a work life (both in Skyrim and in the “real world”) with school isn’t easy. As young scholars we try to imagine that we’re cloistered in this magnificent ivory tower on top of this god forsaken mountain, when in reality, we totally aren’t. For the first few weeks of class, it’s ok – you’re doing introductory stuff so you can afford to blow it off by not doing the readings and showing up to class late (if at all), but if you keep that up, it’ll catch up with you pretty quickly.

But you know that and that’s why, even though it’s the last week of classes and you don’t know anything about anything (putting you in the same category as MBA students), you’re sitting around reading The Peak. You’ve got a stack of unopened books sitting at home, you’ve been to just a few classes, and you have an essay due but you don’t understand one out of every three words in the assignment outline. You’re screwed. Right?

You would be if I wasn’t here. Presented for the first time ever is my quick and dirty guide to succeeding without reading everything. Follow these steps and you’re guaranteed to get an A/pass with credit.

Go To Class
Yeah, maybe this is closing the barn door after the horse has taken off and ruined your crops or something (or whatever it is horses do when they escape), but such is life. If there is one sure-fire way to succeed in class, it’s to actually go to class. Counter-intuitive, I know.

In my first year at SFU, I and my two friends would drive in from Surrey for an 8:30 class. Rather than actually go to class, two of us would ditch, sign out a laptop at the library and play SNES roms of Metroid and Killer Instinct. Needless to say, I did awful that semester and my pal dropped out. If you’re going to be on campus, go to class. And when you’re there, pay attention. Don’t sit there on Facebook like some dork (another pro-tip? Lecturers know when people are paying attention or not; expect that to be reflected, in some way, in your final grade). And if you can’t handle a morning class, one, you’re a wuss, and two, just don’t take it.

Finally, don’t download the slides and lecture later instead of going to class, that’s stupid. Just go to class.

Wikipedia
I shouldn’t need to explain this, but I do. Look on Wikipedia but whatever you do, do not quote it. Don’t  quote it directly, don’t quote it indirectly, don’t paraphrase it, don’t do any of that. There’s two really good reasons why you shouldn’t: one, it’s probably not allowed. Two, and even more important, whoever is marking your paper has gone over the Wikipedia for whatever you’re writing on, guaranteed. If they catch you plagiarising, you’re screwed. So just don’t do it.

Read a Little
Now that you’ve hit the Wikipedia, you’ll know of a few key spots that you should read. Do that. It might take an hour or two, tops. You’ll be glad you did.

Avoid Circumlocution
Circumlocution is a fancy word for beating around the bush. There is one sure-fire way to tell if someone knows what the hell they’re talking about, and that’s basically by how straightforward the argument is. If you find yourself using a lot of fancy ten-dollar words, talking in circles, and using tautology (the repetition of a statement or fact in a way that is not helpful), odds are you’re circumlocuting. If you’re circumlocuting, you’re demonstrating you don’t know what you’re talking about. And that will kill you on your paper.

Be Specific
Believe it or not, when you use concrete examples, write in a clear and concise style, and sound like you know what you’re talking about, people notice. You want to get bogged down in the small details here (unless the scope of your argument demands otherwise), because paying close attention to minute details is proof you’ve read what you’re talking about (especially when you haven’t). See, you’re never expected to know everything about everything. You should have a good understanding of the overall thing that you’re talking about, and you should have a solid understanding of a few small things contained within.

Think of it like a movie: you remember one or two scenes and the general plot, that’s about it. Writing an essay on some stupid book is pretty much the same. Vaguely allude to the plot, concretely reference a scene or two, and you’ve got it made.

If You Don’t Know What It Is, Find Out (Or Don’t Use It)
I worked as a Peer Educator in the Student Learning Commons at SFU for a year, and if I learned any one thing, it is that people use words and grammar without any care for how they’re actually supposed to be used. People put quotation marks around things just for fun, sprinkle semicolons over their papers like it’s going out of style, and use a thesaurus on every other word in order to sound smart, despite the fact that very few words in the English language mean the exact same thing as another word.

If you use it in your paper, you should know exactly what it means. Every word, every hyphen, every parenthesis, every comma, every god-damned semicolon. If  you aren’t linking closely related independent clauses with that semicolon, you’re using it wrong. If you’re using commas because that’s where you’d take a breath, one, what the hell are you thinking, and two, you’re stupid.

There are tons of resources online and in print that explain how to use semicolons, colons, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes (etcetera), how to write effectively, how to properly cite your sources, you name it. There’s no excuse for ignorance.

Hand It In On Time
You may be tempted to e-mail your professor and explain how your grandpa croaked so you need extra time to write your paper on Henry James and his love of pedantry (you don’t know what that word means so look it up). Don’t.

When you hand in your paper by the due date, your marker is reading it with every other paper. Sometimes there are only a dozen others, sometimes there are ten dozen others. If your paper is amazing, it’ll shine. If it’s mediocre, it’ll blend in.

If you hand it in a week late, your marker may only be reading that paper. So it has to stand on its own. Now, given that you’re reading an article about how to bullshit your way through your final paper, it probably won’t be able to stand on its own. Just guessing.

So the moral, here? Hand it in with every other plebe in your class.

In Conclusion
That’s it. This is all I’ve learned in my years at SFU. Some of this is obvious, very little of it is mendacious (look it up), and it’s all awesome.

Final tip?  Never end a paper with anything like “in conclusion”. If it’s the end of your paper, why do you need to tell the reader that? Obviously it’s “in conclusion”. It’s like writing “The End” at the end of a movie: obviously it’s the fucking end, the credits are rolling.

addendum:

I will be honest — this article isn’t as good as I wanted it to be. Things just didn’t click right, I guess. I like it fine enough though. Some of this is practical advise that I’ve used and is helpful — as I point out, very little of it is tending towards mendacity and/or cheating, which is great. There are obviously ways to “cheat” in university that I don’t mention here. A lot of this article is about stuff that’s very important to me, most notably good grammar and punctuation use.

I’ll admit that I make mistakes too. I misuse commas and semicolons and misspell words and all sorts of general writing no-nos. It happens. But I still hate it. Working as a tutor at SFU was one of the best things I’ve done, but also one of the most frustrating. People would approach me with horribly written papers and it was my job to sort through their mess. Often it would be an EAL (English as an Additional Language) student asking that I “edit” their paper even after I tell them that we don’t do that. Our mission was to help students help themselves, not to edit their papers, but that’s what they expected of us.

So I’m a little touchy when it comes to grammar. If you’re handing in an essay or whatever as a professional, polished piece of work and it’s riddled with apostrophe, comma, and semicolon errors and filled with typos, you’re a jerk and I hate you. Also — oxford comma 4 lyfe.

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Obama Tough on Budget

I originally submitted this to The Peak and it was published in the September 19th edition. It was edited into a transcript, which I didn’t entirely like. Here’s the original for your perusal.

Obama Tough on Budget

In a speech delivered at the White House yesterday, President Barack Obama outlined a strategy to tackle the rising US National Debt.

“It’s not going to be easy – doing the right thing rarely is. We – myself and Vice President Joe Biden – looked down every avenue, trying to minimize the damage. It’s a fact that our national debt is rising; we’re spending more money than we’re making, and that is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Beginning today, things are going to change”, the President said at the Obama family’s Sunday dinner.

“We’re starting right at the basics: toilet paper. Value brand only, from now on. Same goes for soap and shampoo,” he added curtly. “I’ll try to cut out trips to the salon, which means you have to too, Michelle,” he said with a wink. “Kids, less eating out. Michelle, more bagged lunches for the kids. I’m going to cut out Starbucks trips and instead bring coffee from home. That means a short-term capital investment in a Thermos, but it will pay dividends in the end. Shorter showers to cut down the heating and water bills. We’re shutting down the A/C for the rest of the summer, such as it is, and come winter we won’t be turning on the heat. If you’re cold, put on a jacket or an extra sweater.”

“There are some corners we couldn’t cut, of course. Netflix, for example. It only costs a few bucks a month I figure, so that won’t make a huge debt, and really we’re saving money by using it. Along with that means fewer trips to the movies. I’m cancelling the home phone, since we don’t use it anyway, and adjusted our family plan. It means fewer minutes and texts, but I set up Unlimited Incoming calls. If you need to talk to someone, call them, ask them to call you back, and hang up,” Obama said.
“It’s not going to be easy – the road ahead is tough, but I believe, God willing, the American spirit of ingenuity and hard work will pay off. Thank you, and God bless America”, the President concluded, returning to his meatloaf.

Critics were quick to point out Barack Obama was drinking Buckler Beer at dinner – a low-alcohol variant of Heineken, an import , but the President defended the decision, saying that “Joe [Biden] brought it over” and that he still preferred Bud Light.


Arts 1, Sciences 0

This was originally published in The Peak, in the fall of 2011 (I think — might have been summer). I cannot find a link to it in the archives and cannot remember when it was published. It was edited by Humour Editor Colin Sharp but this is the original version, which wasn’t edited by him. So there ya go.

The Arts Proven to be Better than the Sciences

In a new study published just this week in the Journal of Science, scientists at SFU have conclusively concluded that the Faculty of Arts is in fact, better than the Faculty of Science.

“Well, we crunched all the numbers and, yeah, it kind of surprised us, but that’s science for you. Proof,” said Jon Freeman, chief researcher of the group, who slightly stunned the academic world earlier this year with his paper that proved Communications is not a real major. “It’s shocking, yeah, but… well, fuck, there ya go.”

Some were obviously pretty happy with the results.

“Well, it’s good to know,” commented Michelle Bachmann, a lecturer in the department of Political Science. “We always knew, I think, deep down, but, well, I saw all the science the scientists did and this proves, beyond a doubt that the Arts are in fact better.”

Others weren’t quite as thrilled.

“It’s garbage,” Brian Smith, professor of Mathematics remarked. “Their science? Yeah, totally off. I bet you if we had proper scientists doing science here, we’d get different results. I think their numbers were off.”

Freeman remained optimistic, however. “Well, I still think there’s hope, you know, for folks in the sciences. We may not be better, but, well, we have science, so isn’t that all that matters?” remarked Freeman. “And well, you never know with these things. We used to think the sun revolved around the earth, and then we used science, and bam, here we are, orbiting the sun.”

addendum:

It seems that all too often, value is placed on science instead of the arts. Arts majors, I find, are just as guilty of this pedantry as are science majors. Science majors argue you can’t get a job with a science degree, arts majors argue you can’t critically think or even read without an arts degree, etcetera. While I’m a bit of a snob/purist/nerd in that I believe learning for the sake of learning is more important than anything and that if you’re going to school “to get a job” you may be missing the point of education (obviously the argument is more nuanced than that but whatever), I think both sides of the fence are really missing the point. The ideal point, I think, would be a merging of the two fields in some ways. I think the difference between an “arts scientist” and a “science scientist” is best seen in the geniuses Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Albert Einstein once allegedly said “put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” In a short anecdote, Einstein is able to explain, essentially, his magnum opus. Hawking, as smart as he is, is nowhere as good with words. I find that, as much as I disagree with his politics and even though I understand very little about the current trends in the field of linguistics, Noam Chomsky has the same way with words as Einstein (though nowhere as brilliant).

So the point of the article is several-fold: one, with any scientific revolution, the world of science gets turned on its dome, so scientists should remember that while what they say is a “fact” today, tomorrow it might not be. Second: science isn’t law, period. Third, science can never prove which is better, so it’s a moot point. Only the arts could, and were it to, it would be missing the point of itself. And there’s some other brilliance in there I’m sure.

Also: I unintentionally wrote the political science professor as being named “Michelle Bachmann”. Must have been subliminal or something.


So You’re Going Bald

This piece was originally published in SFU’s student newspaper, The Peak. They’re pretty rad people. This was edited by Features Editor Kelly Thoreson and shot by photo editor Mark Burnham. The bald spot is my own, the shirt is Calvin’s.

Were I to rewrite this, I’d probably add in a few paragraphs about other things, but, you know, word limits and such. 

That's what a balding man's head looks like.


So You’re Going Bald

Odds are if you’re reading this, you’re either balding and in denial, balding and not in denial, or some kind of hairy freak, doomed to never have to crane your head in weird directions to see how thin things have really gotten. It starts harmlessly enough — you see a photo of the back of your head and see more scalp than you’re used to. “Hey, that’s weird!” you’ll say, and you might feel around back there and shrug. That’s just the way your hair parts, you’ll think. Or, you’ve just had a really stressful semester. Sure. So you’ll get some special shampoo, maybe some Rogaine, just to touch things up. It’ll be fine.

No, it won’t. My friend, the recession is in full swing, and it’s on top of your dome. There are several stages of baldness, and the whole process begins with Denial. You might ask your friends and family and they’ll say all’s well on the western front, but they’re lying. Denial quickly segues into the It’s Not That Bad phase (INTB), which most men stay stuck in. The next phase is Recognition, and this is typically the longest phase. It is here that men realize that, yes, they are balding. The last (and best) phase is Acceptance, where men become comfortable with the uncomfortable fact that they are balding. Note that the scale is purely introspective and psychological and does not reflect how bald someone is.

Once you fall into Denial, the choices you make from here on out will be the most important decisions of your life. What follows is a practical guide of how and how not to cope with your new problem.

Spray-on hair:
Spray-on hair products are carried by a number of reputable companies, but that doesn’t matter because this isn’t an option, and there’s one reason: it looks dumb. Really, really dumb. You know when you go to the mall and you want to buy a phone or something and the cashier has painted or drawn-on eyebrows, after having decided to shave their actual eyebrows? It looks horrifying and stupid. This is even dumber and much more pathetic.

Rogaine:
The perennial problem of hair loss is that once it starts, it’s all downhill. You can’t reverse its effects. You can stop it, maybe, and you can certainly slow it down, but that’s it. Rogaine is a spray-on liquid that you need to apply every day for the rest of your life. Is that any way for a man to live? Probably not. You could try it and might be pleased with the results, but the first time you go camping or on a vacation and leave it at home? You’re screwed.

The toupée:
While the toupee is a classic, it has its share of problems. First and foremost, it is a lie. That piece of dead hair on your skull? Not yours — you are lying to every single person you see while wearing that thing. Not only does it look dumb, but say you run into a nice girl, and you two get to talking. Soon you’re on a date and bam, your hair comes off. Embarrassing.

Second, consider the change — one day you go from a man with a huge bald spot to one with a luscious head of hair? Really? And if you like outdoorsy activities or sports, those are out, too. What, are you going to take off your hair before going for a hike or swim or run? No, don’t be an idiot.

Hair plugs:
Hair plugs are pretty much the Cadillac of preventative hair loss measures, were that Cadillac actually a beat-up LeBaron with a Cadillac hood ornament and Hot Wheels flames on the side. Think of it this way: no one looks good with hair plugs. Think of any person in the world, no matter how rich or how famous, who has hair plugs. Now name one that has a nice head of hair. Can’t do it. Even those celebrities who do have ‘good’ hair plugs have to wear crazy hairstyles to pull it off. Here’s my point: if balding was a problem that could be solved by money, Ben Affleck wouldn’t look like such a clown.

The shave:
There was a time when the only people who shaved their heads were skinheads and steroid monkeys, but those days are gone. The complete shave appeals to a lot of men and there are two very good reasons for it. The first, no one can tell you’re balding. The second, however, is that it demonstrates that you’ve seen a problem, and like the manly man that you are, have acknowledged it and addressed it directly. You’re balding, so you might as well speed Mother Nature’s work up.

Admittedly, it is one of the best solutions. It directly addresses the problem and has the added benefit of people not knowing why you shaved your head, unless you let it grow too much. In the meantime though they’ll just think you’re a neo Nazi or something. Win-win.

The Picard:
It is a well established fact that no man is manlier than Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise. He has a bizarre fascination with 20th century stuff and is a man’s man. But Picard’s hairline has gone where few hairlines have gone before — he has the laurel-thing, the crown. And that is probably his crowning achievement. Why? Because just going bald and letting nature take its course is badass. It shows you don’t care what anyone else thinks and that, while you may be going bald, you’re still an excellent negotiator and can pilot a ship better than Kirk (who, by the way, had a full head of hair). Achieving the Picard takes the fullest possible acknowledgement of your baldness, coupled with the serene calm that allows you to quote Moby Dick whilst fighting Borg.

There you have it. Hopefully this guide has kept you from making a terrible decision, unless you’re in denial, in which case you will continue to make terrible decisions until you realize that if your hair looks thin in certain lighting conditions, it is in fact, thin.