Saturday, March 19, 2011

Mixed Messages and Crazy Library Procedures

Even though I've been in the British school system for nearly three months now, it can still sometimes be incredibly confusing. ('Oh, no,' you sigh. 'Another blog entry about her stupid academics.' Yes, say I. But take heart, blog readers. Soon school will be finished for me and I will write about the joys of everything that is not school.)

First is the command that we must "write to the title." When I first heard this phrase, I thought it meant that we would be given the title of an essay and we would have to match our topic to that, and that is sort of what it means, but it goes deeper than that. Essays do not get titles here, or at least not titles as we use them in America. To us, a title is "An Examination of Great Britain's Asylums in the Nineteenth Century," which heads an essay on that topic. But here, "title" and "topic" are seemingly synonymous. So, for example, the topic that I chose for my history essay reads thus: "According to Elaine Showalter, Victorian insanity was a 'female malady.' Do you agree?" This is the topic I will write about, but it is also what I will put in the spot that an American "title" would be placed.

It was said to me very emphatically by the teacher (whose name I do not know) who helped me in finding the style sheet that I was to write only "to the title" and do nothing else. "I know that American students often make up their own titles [a.k.a. topics], but we don't do that here," she informed me. At that point, two weeks into the term, I had no idea what she meant and so just nodded vaguely. I was also told by my Adaptations teacher, that I was not to write in first person ("I was told that American students often do that.") I was actually rather shocked to be told this, and told her that actually, writing in the first person was quite frowned upon in the U.S., at least in all the institutions I've attended, from middle school up.

But, as with all rules, there seem to be exceptions to both of these statements. The first is less malleable- many instructors (or at least all of mine) have allowed the option for students to create their own titles. However, these titles must be approved. This makes sense, but I've found that is is difficult (at least for me) to come up with my own titles, which is odd, as I've done it since I was about twelve. Maybe it's because, as a theatre major, I don't write all that many essays on a yearly basis, and so am just out of practice.

The other frustrating thing about these topics is that though we're told exactly what to write on, there seem to be hidden exceptions. For example, I e-mailed my teacher to ask him about suggested sources for my topic and in answering, he added that I should also include Showalter's counterarguments. Going off of the essay title, had he not said this, I would have assumed that doing such a thing would be deviating from the assignment and so wouldn't have done it. Now I'm confused- how far is too far? There are a lot of counterarguments, as I found in my research, but how many can I present before I am no longer arguing my point?

The end part of my history essay title is "Do you agree?" I was perplexed by this, as this implied I was to answer a question in first person. But writing in first person is not done here... right? Was simply choosing a stance on the topic and writing about it from one side enough to show my answer without coming right out and stating, "I agree/disagree"? I included this question in the e-mail to my teacher, and he answered that of course I could write in first person- it is done often, but I could write the essay in third person if I so desired.

*confusion of epic proportions*

I suppose that I should simply take each teacher's answers and apply their specific responses to their specific essays, but I'm very glad that I don't have to do all of this decoding and exception discovery for every instructor.

In any case, I took another of my teacher's suggestions and went to the Wellcome Library today to do some research. This library is primarily a medical studies institute, so of course it would have the sources I would need for my essay. Getting into the library is a production all on its own. If you just want to browse for a short while, you need to leave your bags and coat at the library desk; only a notebook and pen are allowed. If you want to do research, you have to go downstairs to the cloakroom, hand over your coat and bags, and put anything you require into a clear plastic bag, including two forms of i.d. Thankfully, they allow laptops, otherwise my copious note-taking would have kept me there all day. You can also rent a room for the day and sign up for membership.
This seems to be the procedure for many of the big libraries that hold the Very Important Books. I overheard in another class that in the British Library, you're not even allowed a pencil and paper; they're constantly worried that something is going to get stolen, and a notebook could conceal a torn-out page (so could a pocket, but I guess they can only go so far in their security measures.)

The library is awesome. It's intensely quiet- you can feel the intellect in the air. Even the stairs have padding on the edges so that you make no noise when you use them. They have an incredible mixture of medical texts, from ancient to contemporary, that cover every topic from dentistry to hypnosis to sex to depression, all in several languages. The section I needed was so overwhelmingly large that I knew I could never read all the books that would help me in a year.

And this is just half of one room, on one level.

I stayed there for a few hours, even though I only ended up needing one of the books I had stacked in front of me. I now have about six thousand words of quotes and a few of my own remarks and ideas next to them, so now there's no excuse for me not to write this essay, not even the fact that I've found all of the episodes of John Adams for free online. And as frustrating as all of this is, as scared as I am to attempt this and get it wrong, I got a little reminder yesterday as I was marking The Female Malady that this too shall pass:
A message from the universe, perhaps, or at least from a fellow student, reminding me that as much as essays suck, outside the library/room/my head is an amazing city full of experiences waiting to be had... once my writing is done.


Captain Stennous said...

Good luck with your paper writing, Rach! I'm so thankful that American essays aren't nearly so confusing between profs.
Here's another message from the universe: compared to events on the cosmological scale, your essays are ultimately insignificant, so don't worry about them too much. :)

Rachel said...

Thanks :) Yeah, I'm ready to get back to American academics.

And I've definitely been trying to think about that. Besides it not mattering on a comological scale, no casting director is going to be like, "Hm... didn't do too well on that history paper last year, did you?"

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