Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Undergraduate Utopia

There are about sixteen weeks in a semester. That's about 80 working days, twice a year. 160 days. That leaves 205 days for other things*. There are four years in a typical bachelor program. That 640 days (128 weeks) of being in session, 820 days for others things. In this post I want to point something out about those 128 weeks of "school" that gives you your first university degree: you could be writing a prose paragraph a day.

Imagine the physical analogy. You could probably run about 5 kilometers (3 miles) every day. It would take you 30 minutes. For variation you could swim every other day for thirty minutes, or work out in the gym (most college campuses have facilities of some kind). If nothing else, you'd come out of your college days in great shape. (Barack Obama, as I recall, tells the story of how he got academically serious in simple terms: he stopped smoking weed and starting running every day. You too could be president one day!)

My point wasn't that you should take up jogging. There are 640 school days from commencement to graduation. Just as you might do a bit of exercise every day, you might write a prose paragraph every day. All you need is thirty minutes: write a sentence you know to be true. Then write five sentences that support the truth of that claim. Work on it for style and grammar until you've spent 25 minutes altogether. Then read it out loud. Then read it silently. Get on with your day.

By the end of the semester you will have written 80 prose paragraphs or about two full academic articles worth of prose, probably between 12,000 and 16,000 words. I don't know how that compares to the amount of writing you have to do for your assignments. But it's probably more than you are required to write. In any case, a 20-page term paper will probably consist of about 30 paragraphs. It will take you about 15 hours to draft. If you're in shape, the work will go easily and straightforwardly.

Not only will you have written a lot of prose. You will have supported 80 claims every semester. 640 claims throughout your undergraduate studies. This will make you a more articulate person. You will come out of college in great mental "shape". There will still be plenty of time for class, for reading, and for social life. You will just also have become a capable, confident writer.

I don't know exactly how it would change the world if everyone got into the habit of composing themselves in prose paragraphs for thirty minutes every day. But I think it would be for the better. And college, it seems to me, is a great place to develop this habit. I've even given you 820 days* to develop other habits.

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*64 days a year are in-session weekends. This means that 256 days of those 820 days that you're not working on your discipline can be spent "unwinding" in the usual way. The rest can be devoted to vacationing and summer jobs. Also, there may be some "cramming" in there if your exams are held outside the semester calendar. But, but, but: if you've been working in a regular, disciplined way, you shouldn't really need to cram.

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