On being an essay machine
Part of the deal Kevin and I have made with our Urban Computing students is that after class on Thursday evening, I scramble to get a brief essay up by Saturday midnight; they’re then supposed to react to the essay in comments by Tuesday latest, so Kevin can use their responses as seed stock for the next week’s lecture. (And trust me, it is a scramble, because I’m rarely able to get a single word written until Saturday morning at the earliest.)
As you can imagine, this is an approach that has its fair share of weaknesses, but there’s also something nervy about it that appeals to me, like live drama on national television.
The lack of a safety net mostly works for me…mostly. While I ordinarily function best under pressure, I haven’t been that happy with the majority of my output so far this semester. It’s not even as if these essays are intended to be publication-quality to begin with – they’re supposed to function as brief, synoptic and more or less gentle introductions to the set of ideas we want to deal with – but even so I feel like they’ve fallen short of my expectations for them.
Until tonight, that is. It’s Saturday midnight, and I just pushed live a piece I’m for once not entirely ashamed of. I mean, OK, this one isn’t going to win any prizes either. There’s too much going on in it, what’s there is too poorly strung together, there are too many places where the high-flying ideas are undermined by an inadequate armature of argument and evidentiary support, and all in all, if I had to grade it, I’d be forced to be pretty harsh. But it’s also true that, for the first time, I really got a kick out of writing it.
Hopefully, some point after the end of the semester, I’ll have time to go back to these, clean them up, tie them more explicitly into the students’ assigned readings, and generally render them a little more presentable; that they seem to be serving their intended function admirably is no excuse for their general lack of quality. And maybe with the time pressure off, I’ll be able to unwind, unpack and in general go deeper into what has been a very engaging series of topics.
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