Undergrad Seminar: How long should this paper be?

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.

5 thoughts on “Undergrad Seminar: How long should this paper be?

  1. Donna

    I have never assigned a paper without a specific length. There is always a minimum and a maximum. It is always on the assignment that I hand out and talk through with my students. I can’t imagine an instructor doing otherwise. Length is part of the assignment–what I expect from a 5-6-page paper is very different from what I expect from a 10-12 page paper.

  2. Dylan

    I agree with Donna. I have never assigned a paper without a specific length. It is also odd the blog author assumes all instructors fail do this when in my experience the majority of them clearly state the length for essays in both the syllabus and in-class discussion.

    Is there something the author is not telling us about their own experience of being a teacher or student? Did you not go to the teaching seminars? Have grumpy professors?

  3. Ah the joys of anthropology. People have difference experiences. I was rarely given that bit of information as an undergrad or in graduate school. It was (at the time) a question the often visibly offended the instructor and something people knew not to ask. Nice to hear that there are people out there giving students the needed information. When I taught I always gave a pretty specific set of expectations, including length.

  4. Anonymous

    I sometimes give a purposely mixed message. In a perfect world, the answer is “when you have made the argument well for the question you are answering.” One way to really shock students is to tell them that they have asked an excellent question, and they will surely answer it well in the course of writing their disseratation! This is not really what they have in mind when they write a term paper.

    The concrete part of my answer is to tell them to identify a really narrow point which can be answered in a fixed number of pages. This helps students with their own anxieties, and means that my own grading load is kept under control. Occassionally, I will get a really good student who wants to do more, and also has a good narrow question which requires “more.” Then I relax the page limit. sometimes I arrange for them to get independent study units, as well.

    The last student I did this with wrote a really excellent paper about Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” and social theory.

    As for graduate students (or senior honors undergrads), as Mark indicates, instructions of page length can and should be a bit vaguer. Hopefully, by the time the student reaches these levels, they have a better sense about asking manageable questions which can be answered in the course of a good term paper.

  5. PS. I just realized that my last comment was posted as “anonymous” because I am at an odd computer.

    The best piece of advice in Mark’s posting here is that if there is any confusion in your mind about length, etc., talk to the instructor! That is what we are there for. Too many students fail to bring questions like this–don’t worry they are legitimate questions, even if we may give what sounds to you like a round about answer. But, always ask!

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