Of Vague Professor Notes and Even More Vague Instructions



There aren’t a lot of papers whose process were memorable for me. But there was one that stood out, when I was a freshman in my community college. I had to do research about Mesopotamian River or something, I can’t really remember all the details. I just know that it involved a lot of time and research. What I do remember clearly though, is the big, red F I got on that essay and much like Kate’s professor, my own instructor’s left a “come see me” note on my paper.

I tried following her instruction but every time I would show her my intro and thesis, she would make vague comments about how my intro wasn’t right and that I kept using the wrong tenses. For some reason, she was really focused on that particular grammar problem, but still not giving much commentary on other aspects or what she was really looking for.  I essentially gave up on that particular paper but tried my best to mold my future papers into her liking, which is easier said than done when I didn’t really know what she wanted.

Unlike Kate, I didn’t choose to seek other sources of help out. Which is a foolish move on my part, but I’ve never really been the type of student who goes to tutoring help (and to that extent, professor help) unless required to. Maybe it’s pride or maybe it’s stubbornness, regardless, it tends to be my weakness. Eventually, I did ask a couple of classmates to see how they fared in their papers and through that I was able to get a better sense of her expectations. In the end, I passed that class with a C, which given my struggles with that class, I honestly considered it a blessing. After all, it was better than failing out right. I had never really failed a paper as badly as I did before that class. But in realizing that the professor’s vague instructions, a part of me didn’t find much reason to put effort into my work. My freshman self saw no incentive to try and do better when I had no way of knowing the proper steps to take to get to where I needed to be.

I think about Nelson’s “school culture”, and the ways that students adapt to vague instructions. I like this quote she brings up about how,

“students attempt to manage the ambiguity and risk of academic tasks by focusing on the products they are required to produce instead of on the intellectual processes they are being asked to engage in and by inventing coping strategies that allow them to circumvent the demands of particular assignments. In other words, students find shortcuts for producing acceptable papers” (417).

I’m no stranger to those shortcuts. I imagine we all have paper(s) that we’ve BS’d,  and if not, you are all better people than I am. But short cutting becomes a way to survive the class, a way to get by. It’s not a great coping strategy because it doesn’t really get a person to think about the “intellectual process”. But when the grade is all that matters, what is the incentive then to extend beyond creating content only for a passing grade? I think that’s an important question to think about especially when school culture relies so heavily on a strict guideline to determine the worth of our work and not always on what we as students are learning or getting out of that work. So then it becomes this thing we’re your stuck between a rock and hard place. Do you take the riskier and harder road like Helen in Nelson’s reading? But have a higher chance at failing to meet the criteria or even failing the course entirely? Or do you take a more Kate/Art/Debra approach? Not really that thought provoking or engaging but at least you can fly under the radar with a passing score. For me, looking at it through that light, it becomes easier to see why shortcuts are the more viable option. Maybe not the “right” option, but in the culture of school it can become a way to adapt to a system that sometimes doesn’t really care about what your opinions are, only how well you can follow a format.

  2 comments for “Of Vague Professor Notes and Even More Vague Instructions

  1. Allison Clark
    February 26, 2017 at 5:53 pm

    As someone who takes shortcuts, especially with assignments I dislike or do not understand, I really relate to your point. It boils down to this: if I can do this in an easy way and get the same grade as if I expended the effort, what is my motivation to do it the hard way?”

    In some classes, there was no point to doing things the hard way. It was time consuming, and you didn’t get much more out of the class.

    For example, in my math class we were assigned optional homework. Each mathematical concept we learned had ten or so problems to practice it, but they were all the same with different numbers. Now, the homework questions were all the problems on the test, so if you did them all, in theory you should get a super awesome grade.

    However, you could also only do one question to make sure you understood the concept and get a high grade on the test.

    You cold also simply pay attention in class and take notes and get a high grade.

    Thus, since it brought me nothing extra to do the homework, I didn’t.
    We spent most of our class time going over HW, so it was quite the shortcut also.

    I took a short cut for a subject I didn’t care for because I could.

    However, in my English classes, even when I could take shortcuts (such as reading the sparknotes) I tried not to. Sometimes shit happens, I’m too busy to do all the reading or whatever and I have to read a summary, but even then I go back and read the text when I can.

    I could very easily, for most of my classes, figure out a shortcut. But then I wouldn’t learn this amterial- which I’m going to need for my career. I want to teach language acquisition abroad and literature in the states, so I need to focus in those classes.

    This is my motivation to not take shortcuts, and sometimes I think students miss this idea. College is not just an endurance test; it is teaching you essential information for your career. Perhaps the practical, hands on stuff will be vastly differnt when we go out into the world, but our base knowledgte is essential.

    One thing you said really spoke to me on this; “But when the grade is all that matters, what is the incentive then to extend beyond creating content only for a passing grade? ”

    I completely agree with you- why not take short cuts if the only goal is to pass, as with most GE classes? it makes sense. I will never, ever ever ever ever ever use the stuff I learned in that math class again, and passing it for my degreee was my only incentive.

    PErsonally, it’s stupid we have to take those classes at all and represents college as a business rather than an education system…

    But aside from that, you’re right.

    However, not every class is like this, and I think students need to address their own meaning to why they want to work hard, or not. I think you also touched on this, and it really hit home with me.

    You made a lot of excellent points that I think resonate with students of all ages; if I’m taking this class because I must, rather than because I want or need to, why should I try?

  2. Ginamarie Wallace
    February 27, 2017 at 1:09 pm


    This is a wonderful post for such a shitty experience! I am one of those people that think using red pen to grade papers is not at all helpful but, rather, more psychologically damaging and that paper is more than likely going to get shoved somewhere never to be seen again instead of a student wanting to work to make it better. Myself and a lot of people have probably had similar experiences, especially with GE classes, where getting a passing grade in a certain class can be more of a celebration than getting an A in another class. I really like that you use the word “survive” to describe your experience because that is exactly what it is and shows the fact that with some of these classes learning is not the main objective anymore.

    Also, great picture!

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