By PLA Amy
The advice I received coming into first year university was pretty predictable — don’t slack off, don’t eat more than one jumbo bag of chips per day, don’t fall behind — but by far, the suggestion that came up the most from family, friends, older students, and even TAs was to learn exactly what the prof was looking for, and give it to him/her. Profs were like Rubik’s Cubes: had a specific writing style they were looking for, certain topics they were interested in, and key discussion points they wanted you to hit on. If you magically aligned all of those criteria, you walked away with an A (or a perfectly solid colour, if we are going to keep this simile going).
I spent the next two years at Queen’s treating essays like formulas, catering every argument and close reading to what I believed the profs and TAs wanted until they all blurred together in my mind. As a friend of mine once said: “University is a game, and you need to figure out as fast as possible how to win.” And win I did. I have a bunch of A-grade papers tucked away somewhere in my closet. But I only have one that sits in the corner of my desk, only one that I look at again and again for inspiration, and only one that I am actually proud of.
Last year, rather than picking a topic for my culminating research paper in a history course that I knew the prof would like, or that I knew there would be a bounty of information on, I took the risk of actually writing a paper on something I cared about. The prof advised against it because there wasn’t a ton of research on the topic, but I refused to let it go. I dedicated hours of time to digging up research, finding personal testimonies, and brainstorming. By the time my paper was done, it felt so personal and so meaningful that I was a little bit sad it was finished.
Confucius advised to “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” but I won’t deny that university can feel like work, even in the moments you enjoy it. What I would say is choose a topic you love, and you won’t mind working for a couple of days, or weeks, of your life. Keep in mind the prof’s guidelines, adhere to the proper citation and grammar requirements, and run your idea by your TA, but don’t feel that you have to compromise what you find interesting or quirky or exciting in a text because it might not be your prof’s focus of study.
I would tell you the grade I got on the paper, but that defies my purpose. Pursue your passions, and aim for having a stack of papers you are proud of on your desk or pinned up on your wall, not a whole bunch rotting in the closet. It is through those passion projects that you really “win” at university, in my opinion.