Learning to Write an Academic Paper — Guest Post

I am so grateful to the author of this piece (who wished to remain anonymous in this forum) for being willing to share. It’s so easy to forget how hard it is to learn to write in different styles. And with that, I’ll turn it over to her…

I am a 24 year old History graduate turned wine-industry member, non-for-profit society director and small business owner.  I work seasonally for a winery and vineyard on Salt Spring Island, BC.  In the fall and winter, I am the head coordinator of an intercultural society on my island, the Gulf Island Intercultural Society, while in the spring I am one of a three-person team which organizes and hosts Italy Off The Beaten Track, a two-week long Italian language and culture course which is held in Abruzzo, Italy.

When I was first asked to write this article, I was unsure how to separate it form my personal journey to find life/job/career satisfaction.  Now, having written it, I realize I can’t.  So I hope you are able to take something away from it which is useful, even though it is not just a story of learning to write for academia.  That being said, it took me years to feel comfortable forming an academic argument.  By the time I did feel comfortable, it took me exactly two academic papers to realize that I hate it.  It is a skill I have now, and one I will forever be grateful for because it is while learning about it that I learned about what I wanted from my schooling, what my goals were for a career and life, and where I was going in general.  It is, however, still my least favourite thing to do, and I am grateful everyday that I don’t do it for a living.

I think the hardest part was getting professors to understand that when I went to their office hours, asking what I was supposed to do for my assignments, I really was starting from square one.  Rewind to me at the end of high school.  I came from public school in BC where, sadly, my English teacher placed more emphasis on bizarre anecdotes about Latin America than learning the basics of forming a thesis or argument.  My history class was no better.  I ended up taking a gap year and then being accepted into a program to do my first year of university abroad in the UK.  When I asked for help, what I received was a lecture on time management and the need to use primary documentation.  Not how to use primary documentation, just that I needed to.

As for how to form an argument and thesis, well, we never even got that far.  It was like we were speaking a different language.  And we were.  But I expected a first year prof. to understand that I was struggling and help… sadly that didn’t happen.  Despite numerous meetings with the professor, I still had no idea what to do or how to go about doing it.  After a true (academic) disaster of a year, and for reasons which will forever be a mystery to me, I chose history as my major, and commenced year two.

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[Though this became my mantra, anyone close to me could see how depressed I was about my performance at school.]

Here, we enter the big leagues.  In high school I was a keen, self-directed ‘A’ student, a golden example of a motivated, personable young person who wanted to learn.  I tried to continue this trend in university, being told I would be in the minority of students if I introduced myself to each professor at the beginning of the semester and told them I was interested in their class and looked forward to learning with and from them.  I couldn’t get enough of talking with professors after class and attending extra-curricular talks.  That being said, my grades in lecture classes with research paper assignments were… well, my motto became “C is for “cookie, and that’s good enough for me”.  Which it wasn’t, but I couldn’t seem to get a hold of anyone who understood that I didn’t know what I was doing, that I needed instruction from the very beginning and that, yes, I was that person who the system failed, and was thus asking dumb, basic questions like “how to I write a thesis?”  The only word to describe this  experience is devastating.  Without my identity as that ideal student, whom all the teachers know and love, I was just another body at the university, not, apparently, very bright, or heading for any kind of accomplishments.  It was also completely confusing, since I had positive experiences in person, it was just the papers which did me in.  As my self-confidence fell, so too did my desire to keep trying to get better.

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[This is just how I felt each time I got a paper back with a C or B]

Thankfully, at this point I got lucky, and happened to get placed in a class with a PhD candidate as my instructor.  This was a seminar class, and now suddenly it was all about articles, comparing the arguments in them, and different interpretations of history.  Slowly, each week, I experienced revelations, big and small.  What do you mean there is no history?  Truth is negotiable?  Well, this was interesting, but my lecture classes were beyond painful and I nearly didn’t come back from Christmas break.  Except for this one thing – the feedback comments from my seminar professor.  She said I was improving, she could see I was trying and was engaged.  She also noted an improvement in my comments in class, and that my contributions were always bang on and/or interesting interpretations of our readings.  This was the light at the end of my tunnel.  I sought this instructor out – asked her questions, and found she actually meant it when she has told us to come to her with our questions, comments, concerns.

It is this class where I began to finally understand what was being asked of me when I was asked to write a paper.  When you read 3-4 academic articles a week, every week, for an 8-month course, and come together which other students and truly the best facilitator of discussion I have ever met, to summarize the contents of an article, look at its sources and then compare how it is done with the other readings for the week, you can’t help but begin to see the pattern of academic writing.  Then I was asked to write a paper for this class and got a chance to try out some of my new thoughts on how a paper should look. I received more feedback and learned more – don’t leave writing to the last week, you need to edit, and a fresh pair of eyes catches errors you never will.

Enter third year.  I was taking the one class I could with an instructor I connected with, but it wasn’t till the winter term.  So how could I keep progressing in my learning of academic writing?  Why, simple – I haunted her office hours, even though not a student of hers yet.  I practiced.  I wrote more papers for other classes, other topics, other professors.  Trial and error were my main methods for learning.  This was slow, and frustrating, but the only option open to me.  Oh, primary documents need to be used like this, not like that.  Keep the thesis to what you can prove, even if it feels stupidly simple – simple and well structured, well sourced, well edited, will serve you better than complicated and intricate when you are still feeling your way around this system you think you might just understand now, even if you can’t seem to emulate the writing in the hundreds of articles you have read.  What do you mean there is politics involved in grading?  Bell curve what?  TA’s hold your grades in their hands?  Really, it takes you the better part of a month to write one 10 page paper?  Finally I got to second term, the class with my golden instructor, great and interesting topic, and ok, open it up, show what you have learned.  And in the end, finally, an ‘A’.  The only one I have received, and perhaps the only I ever will at an academic institution.

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[Yes, my laughter was just this maniacal when I got my A paper back from marking.]

By then I knew – yes, I can do this, and get the grades I want, but I am slow, and worse, I hate it.  I would feel my soul shrink into nothing as I began to plan another paper, no matter how interesting the class or topic.  And after speaking with my professor, who by this point was becoming my friend, I decided to graduate after 3 years, rather than putting myself through a 4th year of pain.  After a year of work (enter my non-for-profit position,) more soul searching and some more luck, I registered to learn about wine tourism and marketing.  I loved the course, and did well.  Really well!  I got a wine-related job even before I finished the year-long program and have work that fulfills me, work I love.

So, how did I learn to write an academic paper?  Practice.  Simple, slow, but eventually successful.  I’m afraid I don’t have a secret website which gave me insight into the machine of academia.  I learned from someone: a committed, brilliant, and kind instructor who was there for support, both to comment on structure and style as well as provide the emotional support I needed to get myself to class each week, to keep trying, even though I felt I was failing every test presented to me by academia for a solid three years. This person had learned the system already, and realized I was looking for the experience of learning, not the mark at the end of the course.

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