“You’re such a SEAS kid.”
I hear this line or creative variations of it almost every day. Sometimes I think us engineers in the School of Engineering and Applied Science deserve it. Once, when a friend casually remarked, “It seems like graduation is light-years away,” I absentmindedly responded, “Light-years measures distance, not time.” She then immediately threw that “SEAS kid” line at me. Another time, when a large group of my Columbia College friends were discussing their Literature Humanities class and were debating about certain philosophers and their beliefs, someone asked me what I thought. I winced, painfully admitting that I did not know a single one of Aristotle’s philosophies. The “SEAS kid” line was hurled again. On late Sunday nights, when a lot of us physics students are working on our long weekly physics problem sets together in our floor lounge, engaging in loud heated debates over topics such as rotational inertia or projectile motion with drag forces, at least a couple of non-engineering students will walk by the door, stick their heads in, and say things like, “You crazy SEAS kids,” or, “Engineers. Ha!” Perhaps engineers really do think, process information, and carry out tasks in a distinctive way. And perhaps these engineer-like tendencies carry over and unravel themselves when we attempt other supposedly nonscientific activities as well, writing being one of them.
Before writing anything for University Writing, the lens essay, the conversation paper, the research paper, or even this retrospective essay on my own writing, I would become extremely agitated. As soon as I sat down in front of my laptop, I began squirming in my chair as a multitude of uncomfortable questions popped up. There’s a paper due in 12 hours; what do I do? Do I even know anything about this topic? Wait, why am I writing about this subject? Should I change the topic instead? I need a food break! To me, writing a paper is like dismembering a ticking time bomb. I can feel the number of hours and minutes left before the deadline decline in an inverse relation to my exponentially rising frustration.
In order to ease my anxiety, I consoled myself with the fact that writing can be like science, and thankfully, science is not one of those entirely relative disciplines without concrete answers. Since I always feel like each step in writing any paper is governed by a consistent process, I joyfully discovered that the background procedure to writing a paper can be directly related to and governed by the steps of the scientific method. Yet while this discovery helped steady my pulse and slow my erratic breathing because I am comfortable with the steps of the scientific method, the writing counterparts of these steps were not so painless and were a very trying process this semester, to say the least:
1. Identify the problem or question. This is the brainstorming process for the topic of the essay. It also involves choosing which sources to use to best back up the central argument. This is the easiest and most obvious step of the scientific method with respect to science, since usually someone uses the step process after he or she has recognized that there is a problem to be solved. Because this step in science is self-explanatory, I thought this step in writing would be similar. However, I have learned, in a long brutal way, that if you do not spend sufficient time on this initial step in the writing process, as easy as it may sound, you will pay for it after the first draft is complete. This is exactly what happened to me in the first two essays. I realized that even if someone has a general topic in mind, the first draft may still turn out rather catastrophically if the topic is not planned out well or is not detailed enough.
In the first essay, in which we were supposed to use a concept from one of the class readings as a “lens” on a subject of my own choosing, I almost disregarded this step. I thought, “Okay, I’m obviously going to write about Vivian Gornick’s essay ‘On the Street: Nobody Watches, Everyone Performs’ and her notion of street theater.” Little did I know that simply defining an author and a vague concept as a topic provides a setup for a rather horrific, confusing first draft. I then faced the mental anguish of writing many more drafts than necessary because I did not spend enough time on this first step. After the first draft was done, I realized that I had many problems in connecting separate experiences into one flowing essay while incorporating Gornick’s ideas and language. Then I separated the experiences into geographic location and wrote the entire essay explaining the differences in location with application to street theater. In the middle, I had problems defining street theater in terms of kinds of performances, and then after I wrote a last sentence about masks, I decided to make the entire essay about two different kinds of masks. I finally changed the topic into masked and unmasked performances in the last draft, feeling extremely queasy from all the unneeded mental exertion. Had I planned out and spent more time identifying and narrowing down the topic in the beginning, I would not have written so much unnecessary and ultimately deleted material, and would not have had to deal with such a messy array of random topics and ideas.
Since I am accustomed to taking the first “identify the problem” step for granted in science, I sadly made the same mistake again with the conversation essay. It had even bigger, messier consequences. I jumped right into the essay without much background planning and ended up writing, once again, many unnecessary pages of drafts. In my first draft, I tried to compare the arguments in Jonathan Lethem’s essay “Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn” with Jonathan Franzen’s “Sifting the Ashes,” but afterwards I realized the essay was too loosely connected. I had intended to write about both the personal and documentary-based histories of the two essays, but I did not do enough planning to realize ahead of time that the two essays would be quite impractical to use together. Therefore, I started over completely from scratch, this time using the Lethem essay and Jamaica Kincaid’s “In History.” I quoted too heavily from Kincaid the first time and struggled to incorporate Lethem’s ideas, because, yet again, I did not plan well.
I must say I have learned my lesson, because the punishment of extra writing is really quite harsh for a SEAS kid. Overall, I realized how important this planning process is, not only for the sake of time but also for the quality of the paper. I did not fall into the same trap the third time around in my final research paper, thankfully. This often-overlooked initial step of science is instead crucial to writing.
2. Form a hypothesis. In writing, this includes the entire process of thinking through all the ways of proving the topic that was decided on in step one and putting it down on paper in a first draft. In this step, I noticed a trend in my writing: since engineers tend to be more mechanical, even my attempts to be creative ended up in a structured, process-oriented way. I realized I started each essay the same way with a personal anecdote, always starting with “I”: in my lens essay, “I made my way along the street” (“Mask of Performance” 1), and in the research essay, “I [remembered] riding in a horse carriage” (“Passion for Experimentation” 1). Although I always try to muster up creativity to place into these anecdotes, it is amusing to see how even my creativity is restricted to a formula in my papers.
Within this second step also lie mechanics and grammar, which are certainly needed as the draft is being created after the brainstorming. Syntax, mechanics, and grammar are all vital aspects of writing but usually are not an engineer’s forte. Like laws and theories in science, I know language and all of its aspects are extremely important in writing; yet in the first couple essays, I consistently brushed over these aspects, and my essay was much lower in quality than it could have been. I actually handed in a final draft of my lens essay that contained mistakes such as writing “an” instead of “and,” due to a lack of proofreading. Since then, I have resolved to spend more time on the technical aspects of writing, and hopefully these careless errors will not appear again.
3. Test your hypothesis with experiments. The writing analogs to these experiments are the many drafts of revision. Within the drafts and revisions, aspects of writing such as structure and organization are important before the final draft. In this step, I noticed another engineer-like aspect of my writing: I like to prove things. I like to follow up statements with supporting material, and I like everything to be backed by evidence. For example, in the research essay, I wrote, “Some proponents of animal rights argue that those supporting animal experimentation have put human rights too high and have complete disregard for the well-being of animals,” but I feel comfortable and justified in dismissing this statement in my essay because there is not “much substantial evidence” to support it (“Passion for Experimentation” 8). I then went on to show how evidence pointed in the opposite way.
Whereas a need to support each statement in an essay is a positive factor that arises from engineer tendencies, a less positive aspect that falls under this third step in writing is a lack of aesthetic tendencies. When drafting, I think of improving the structure of my essays and the format of the argument. I like my essays to be straightforward and to the point, but the aesthetics of writing do not tend to weigh heavily in my mind. I am inclined to make blunt statements such as “Concern and responsibility for human beings has helped push medical innovations to the cutting edge with the help of animal testing” (“Passion for Experimentation” 4). While I used to think this direct approach was not “good,” I realized that there are many approaches to writing, and it is not bad to prefer a straightforward approach to a florid one.
4. Form a conclusion. This is perhaps the sweetest writing step. It marks the completion of the final draft in writing. All the many hours of frustration, stress, and mental anguish have finally converted themselves into words on paper. In science, it denotes a grand conclusion to the guesswork. In both subjects, the last step warrants a ten-decibel yelp of satisfaction and, certainly, relief.
Many humanities courses make engineers shudder, and at the beginning of the semester, for me, writing was one of them. However, looking back, it was not so scary. Sure, the assignments were plentiful, the essays were long, and I lost a lot of sleep in between, but in the end, I really feel transformed into a better writer, even though I am sure that when I finish this last University Writing paper and go dancing around in the hallways announcing the end of my colossal feat, some humanities student will say, “She’s such a SEAS kid. It was only a paper.”