by Alexis Teevens '13
I think writing papers for classes is hard. There are roadblocks everywhere: unclear prompts, terrible introductions, weak thesis statements. And that doesn’t even include all the distractions I have to deal with. Sometimes the Red Sox are on national TV, or my roommates might want to have an impromptu dance party. Seriously, it’s a struggle to finish a five-page paper without going crazy.
Now try imagining writing a thirty-page journal article, or wait, an entire book. With no deadlines. No assignment prompt. No guidance. All you have is a topic that you find interesting, that you think other people might want to read about. That sounds like daunting to me, but it’s what our professors deal with all the time. Just ask Art History Professor Michael Clapper.
Professor Clapper proved a great resource for learning about what F&M professors do when they’re not in the classroom with us. He pulled out notebooks covered with cramped writing, detailing the intensive process he goes through while researching for a book or an article. His notes have their own notes. When I asked him about the extra writing in the margin, he explained that you have to write down ideas as they come to you. The writing process starts as soon as you start researching, he explained. Research is a combination of other topics and your own insights, and if you don’t write those connections down as they occur to you, things get lost.
To prevent losing important ideas and concepts, Professor Clapper encourages students to go back and forth between researching and writing. Students get stuck in research, he says. I can completely understand that. Starting a paper is the worst. It’s so much easier to just keep researching, keep looking for that perfect idea that will make writing the paper a breeze. That’s why Professor Clapper wants his students to write something, anything, to just get the ball rolling. The process of writing helps you understand what exactly it is you’re trying to do, he explained. It actually saves a lot of time you would waste tracking down useless information. His theory makes a lot of sense, but it still looks like a lot to do.
The research component is hard enough. Professor Clapper has pages upon pages and notebooks upon notebooks. I was overwhelmed just looking at them. And then he told me that’s not even the hard part. The hard part, he said, is actually getting published. When a professor finally finishes an articles, he or she sends it off to an editor, and that editor decides if it’s good enough to send off to readers. These readers look at the article critically and make comments about what works, and what doesn't. From those comments, the editor makes a decision: publish, reject, or revise and resubmit. Professor Clapper explained that most people get the “revise and resubmit” instruction after their first submission. But then how much do you revise? How many times do you go back and rewrite before trying to go to a different journal?
Just thinking about those questions and that process makes my head spin. Getting grades from a professor is nerve-wracking enough. It sounds like a lot of pressure to submit a piece of writing that you have slaved over for who knows how long and then wait for it to get criticized. But, on the bright side, Professor Clapper explained that this process makes scholarship better. It makes writers think more about what they’re saying and what they’re trying to prove. It definitely makes me appreciate the scholarly articles I read in a whole new way.