Every student wants to know “How long should this paper be?” I think that’s a pretty reasonable question, but for some reason instructors sometimes treat this question like one of the deadly sins. Ironically, when your instructor is asked to present a paper, they are given the answer to that very question at the beginning! Conferences state how long the abstract should be, how long the sessions are, how many participants and often how long they personally have to speak. Unfortunately, the smart-ass answer some people like to give to this reasonable student question is “when you feel it’s done.” Indeed, may all those instructors be plagued with 50 page papers for the rest of their days. Again, this is a moment of strategy on the part of you the student. What you are really asking is “Based on the relative importance of this class to me when weighed against my core interests, the amount of effort required for my other classes, the GPA I hope to maintain across all my classes this year; what am I being judged on for my grade so I can compare that into my course load and understand when I want or have to put in more effort vs. minimal effort for the desired result.” No one ones to hear about minimum effort, granted. Personally, I don’t want to hear about your minimal effort I only want results. If you are a bloody genius that can whip out a brilliant paper in two hours, hey more power to you. Undergrads take a lot of classes because they HAVE to, not out of interest and want to save their real effort for the classes that they have the most interest in. I am not going to ding you for that, but don’t be so dumb as to brag about it because the class is just that easy, unless you really just want more challenging work. Most instructors enjoy bright interested and gifted students, asking to be challenged will rarely go badly for you.
Part of your strategy is understanding that your instructor is also concerned with time management strategies. Every assignment given to a class means X number of papers to read and grade, questions to answer and whining students to deal with. This is on top of the need to publish, serve on committees and worse if the professor is coming up for tenure review. If a teacher has four full classes a semester and assigns nothing but papers to each class. Call it 4 classes X 30 students each X 4 papers per student X 10 pages each, that comes to 4,800 pages of work that have to be read and graded each semester. and that number is on the conservative side.
Knowing your instructor and their expectations is a big part making strategic choices. If you don’t know the needs of the client, then you really are shooting in the dark. Make it simple, GO TALK TO THEM. This is what office hours are for. Unsure if you are headed in the right direction on a paper? Why on earth wait until you turn it in to see if you guessed right? Go to them with an outline of the idea and your approach to the paper. When they offer “suggestions” as to a better approach, or more reasonable topic (more on reasonable topics later), take the suggestion without complaint or excuse. If they think it’s a bad idea, don’t take it personally. Move on to a different idea. Don’t expect your Prof to indulge your interest in science-fiction or fantasy literature in a class on medieval literature. If you really love renaissance festivals and spend all year long making your costume for it, they may not be interested in letting you claim that as a “class project.” Your idea may simply lack sufficient credibility for academic work. MOVE ON. More time is wasted by students stubbornly hanging on to some idea that their Prof as already said is simply a load of dingo’s kidneys. MOVE ON.