Unlearning (or “The Difficulties Presented for Aspiring Writers by the Present Conventions of the North American University System”)

For every one criticism I might level at my alma mater, I can say ten nice things. Among those criticisms are even things that are not the fault of the institution but of the larger system and my smaller university is to be praised for being flexible and making the best of an unperfectible system. Nonetheless, the system encourages some bad habit that have to be unlearned.

Word counts and page counts – we have all suffered them. I understand them to an extent. Students should be able to express a certain depth and breadth of knowledge on a given subject and two pages often doesn’t cut it. But what happens when you just don’t have that much to say on a topic?

Again, it is reasonable for educators to expect a certain depth and breadth of knowledge from their students. I am certainly not trying to suggest that I, the student, should get to set the bar on how much understanding is acceptable. But all students have unique learning styles. For everything my professors told me in class, there were ten things I wanted to go home and study independently. I wanted the big picture, to make all the connections. My professor makes a passing comment on Latin grammar, I go teach myself Latin. The problem then arises on exam day when I only have that one tenth understanding of the exact material being tested.

Papers presented a similar problem. I would be expected to write 2000 words on a topic and I could manage 500. I could write 50,000 on the given topic as related to others but the system asks me to focus. Which means that I (and many many other students) have had to learn the bad habit of finding the least efficient ways to express information. Clarity is not so important as how much space the sentence fills on the page.

This is a rather dreadful side effect of the system, especially for a student of writing. During the summer after graduating I worked at a Tim Horton’s as a baker. It was a busy location so efficiency was key. The problem was that I didn’t know how to be efficient. My coworkers would come in from the front and say “10 Boston Creams” whereas I would make my entrance and proclaim with theatrical perfection, “Lo and behold, dearest coworkers and brothers in arms against the ravenous tide of donutivorous itinerants! All but the lactose intolerant weep this night in Boston! Two less a score are needed.”

I exaggerate but you understand the principle.

My dad would tell anecdotes of putting out newspaper ads where you paid by the word. It is a helpful way of thinking about brevity in writing.

Belaboring the ratio, for every ten wonderful things I learned at university there is one that I have had to unlearn; the system is not perfect. I have learned grammar, style, and the proper use of the semicolon but brevity is a lesson for no sooner than today.

And getting there will involve a fair amount of unlearning.


An appending thought: Longer semesters would allow slower (read “broader”) learners like myself to cultivate the broad, deep, and focused understanding that the word counts are asking for, but this is perhaps an unrealistic suggestion. Better to self-correct one’s own bad habits and do the best possible within the system.


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