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The Undergraduate Whisperer: No "Right Answers"? Wrong!

03/12/2012 05:06 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2012

Did you hear about that philosophy final where the professor came in and wrote "Why?" on the chalkboard? And a student got an A+ by answering "Why not?" I guaran-effing-tee you this has never happened in the history of college. This is one of academia's least-interesting but most-pervasive urban legends, and its survival is contingent upon one of college's least-true adages: that courses in literature or philosophy -- especially philosophy, apparently -- have "no right answers." This may be one of the reasons students (not my students) are sometimes incensed when their exams and essays come back with poor grades.

This legend's pervasiveness does have a kernel of truth: The problems we encounter in the Humanities don't have the same kind of "right answers" as, for example, most mathematics and so-called "hard sciences." But there are still ways to get a Humanities paper (or essay question) with varying degrees of right and wrong.

The rightest answer to any paper prompt follows exactly this formula, no matter the college, subject or professor: AR + C + YI.

AR stands for "Actually Reading" -- I hate to tell you, but unless you have a really harried professor with a book deadline and tenure review and a baby on the way who skims your papers at 3 a.m., you do have to read at least the most important parts of your assignment. You will have to understand the intricacies of the plot and authorial voice if it's literature, and the development of the argument if it's philosophy. If these are lost on you, this is a terrific opportunity to email your professor -- or attend office hours, which are special hours where we sit in our offices just waiting for you to drop by with questions. And you never do, except for in the precise moment we happen to crack open a bag of Doritos.

C stands for "Class." You know how in class the professor will focus on certain passages of the reading and then say things about those passages? You should talk about those passages in your paper, and refer to what was said in class. But you can't just regurgitate notes from class verbatim and have a "right" answer; to it you must add:

Your Idea. The "right" way to do the Humanities is to read, think about what you read, pay attention in class, figure out what you agree with or disagree with from class, and then offer your own argument to either strengthen or rebut what happened in class. College papers differ in length, scope, and requirements, but I guarantee you that every good one has some combination of AR+C+YI. This is "right" because you accomplished the purpose of your class: to read and parse difficult texts, develop your knowledge of those texts in class, and synthesize everything with your own idea.

Here, then, is the formula for a not-as-right answer: HAM/BS. Every marginal-to-bad paper I have ever gotten uses one or both of the following:

HAM= "Half-Assed Mimicry," or, being a pandering ham. I understand that unless I force it, a lot of my students aren't going to do all, most or even some of their reading. I know this because as an undergraduate I barely read a word (belated apologies to every professor ever). But. If you can pay some attention to most classes, and barf back a coherent approximation of your notes, taking care to use the passages your prof highlighted in class, you'll probably pass. I say probably because some profs are less sensitive to the slacking needs of undergrads than I am. If, also like me in college, you have a profound gift for spacing out as well as for not reading, then that leaves you with what I like to call the Schuman Circa 1996 Special:

BS. Open your reading to any page. Extract a quote. Think of literally anything that might be interesting about this quote. Write down every word that comes into your mind. Repeat until you reach the required length, and then conclude with one terrible sentence about nothing. You did it! I have graded (and created) reams of this hour-before-class drivel for many of the last 20 years. It's not fun to write, it's absolutely punishing to read, and you don't learn anything from it. Hence, it is about as close to wrong as you can get in a discipline where "wrongness" apparently doesn't exist.

However, a HAM/BS, or even straight BS, is still better than the alternative: something plagiarized, which could get you kicked out of school, or, worse yet, turning in... "Why not?"