Thursday, February 6, 2014

On First Impressions


Lacking the momentum to form an exit wound, it caromed intracranially, then skittered to an uneasy stop. I've read that a .22LR bullet can be quite damaging in this way, and I mused on its analogy to the first sentence of the applicant's personal statement now before me: I felt stupider for having encountered it.

Would-be matriculants might not know that during my stint on this planet, I've read many, many first lines. Lines like "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day” and "Her gynecologist recommended him to me". They also might not know that by attempting such lines in the vignettes that open their personal statements, they could elicit in me something quite unlike what they surely intend. Down the rabbit hole I go again.



First I recollect how when my father alerted me to the trend, he was referring to the news. In the decade or so since, I've forgotten his exact words, but they were something like, "Did you ever notice how they can't just get to the point anymore? The headline might say something like 'Foreclosures at all-time high' -- that's what the item's really about -- but the opening is more like, 'Ever since Kheighleigh Pritchard-Smythe was a little girl, she dreamed of living in her own six-bedroom, five-bath rancher in a gated development with a pink playhouse in the back yard to complement the in-ground pool.' They think they're hooking you with the human angle, but they're just not getting to the point!"

Back in the present, I regret having deviated from my usual practice, honed by reading the types of items that had so frustrated my father: begin a few paragraphs in, and if that proved too in medias res, skim backwards till I find the beginning of the major story. I hypothesize that I'd been caught off guard by the page-and-a-half essay's having comprised a single paragraph. Now my optimism wanes that I'll ever attend to the mostly unread text at hand.

Next, I wonder if trying to make a personal statement begin like a novel is a shibboleth of sorts, like wearing a suit to defend your thesis. While it doesn't bear much on the matter at hand, to not do it is in itself a statement. I was once a reader at a defense to which the candidate wore jeans and a faded polo shirt. When another reader took him to task for this, he was perplexed, so I continued: "We don't really care about what you look like, but we do care that you care. If you didn't know what was appropriate dress, then it's because you didn't care to find out. If you did know, then you didn't care that the rule applied even to you. None of these says anything good about you as a scholar, and you really don't want us pondering such things while we're supposed to be deliberating on the fate of your thesis."

Now as I should be deliberating on an applicant's fitness-for-duty within our program, I am instead asking myself, who is telling these kids that they will suffer if they don't do this “hook” thing that instead of being edgy or unique just makes them look like they got the same memo as so many others before them? A voice.

A voice, not mine, in the room with me. "Hnhnzz?" I manage to emit, looking up just in time to lock eyes with Adeline from Admissions. My cue to stand.

"Proctor Hep," chimes Adeline, "this is Harold Hopeful. Harold, Proctor Hep. Proctor Hep is on the faculty here, and he and I will be interviewing you today."

Handshakes and goodtameetyas, and we sit. I steeple my fingers against my chin as Adeline smiles at Harold. She glances sideways at me knowingly, then faces me, eyebrows raised.

"Proctor Hep? Your first question?"

"So.” I pause, only partly for dramatic effect. “If you were to summarize the most important aspects of your personal statement in just a few sentences, what would they be?"

We're off.


Brought to you by Ogre Proctor Hep

 

31 comments:

  1. The anecdotal hook is definitely something students are taught, well before I encounter them (sometimes in freshman comp., more often in junior-level writing-in-the-disciplines). It's always amusing when, while reading scholarly articles, they either try to shoehorn them into the same format, or complain that the scholarly article doesn't have a "hook" (when in fact it often does, but of the sort that interests the author's fellow-scholars and researchers: "the common scholarly wisdom about x is wrong," "this angle on this subject has been widely studied, but there's been very little attention to this other angle," etc.). Even worse is when they try to graft anecdotal (especially personal-anecdote) openings onto inappropriate genres in their own writing. I suppose that approach is marginally better than "Websters defines x as y" (often without quotation marks around the quoted definition) or "throughout history, mankind has," but not by much.

    On the other hand, maybe it's partially our fault. We are still calling them "personal statements," even though we know *our* much of our audience for the prompt is a generation whose members seem even more inclined than young adults of earlier generations to see themselves as the center of the universe/measure of all things. Maybe we need to shift the title to encourage more of what we want: "statement of scholarly interest"? "statement of educational goals"?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you're onto something. The title is a significant part of the prompt.

      I don't remember writing anything titled "personal statement" for undergrad; it was an essay on a topic chosen by the school. For grad school, I'm less sure. (I could make myself more sure, but I'd need to find a computer capable of reading an 8" floppy.) I seem to recall focusing on why my development up to then had prepared me for the rigors and particulars of the program. I didn't think the readers would give a fig for some personal ditty except insofar as it supported my 'fit' and preparedness, and so any ditties were buried somewhere in the midst. I was persuading them to take me, not assuming that merely showing 'the real me' would be persuasive by itself.

      You know what I think would be really edgy? 'Lampshade' the opening by starting with "Ever since the dawn of time . . ." but then follow up with something that shows true audience awareness. To borrow from Potter Stewart, I may not be able to define a good application statement, but I know one when I see one, and I know when what I'm looking at isn't one.

      Speaking of grafting personal-anecdote openings onto inappropriate genres, my new project this year is to count how many commencements speakers begin with an anecdote about their act of coming up with a commencement speech.

      Delete
    2. Yep, I remember being taught the hook-bridge-thesis intro paragraph in 9th grade English Composition. For the hook we were told to start with an anecdote, a quote, or a question. I always started with the question so that I could make it what I wanted instead of trying to twist some story or one-liner into something somewhat relevant.

      Oh, and we also read sample personal statements in 12th grade in preparation for our own college apps. I distinctly remember hating nearly all of them, particularly one in which the applicant likened herself to an onion. Everyone in the class thought it was so clever and creative. I argued that it told us nothing of substance about the applicant or why she wanted to go to college.
      So I totally agree with CC that a "statement of educational goals" would have been better than a "personal statement." Looking back I realize that I wanted to approach my college essay like a statement of purpose for graduate school (even though I knew nothing of graduation school or its application process at the time). But I was instead taught that college essays needed to "stand out," and in order to stand out you basically needed either 1) a sob story, or lacking that, 2) some quirky B.S.

      Delete
    3. I should add that I am quite young, which is probably why anecdotes and personal statements were all the rage in my high school classes.

      (Also oops on the inclusion of "graduation school.")

      Delete
    4. For me, 9th grade was lots of poetry. I recall starting a 10th-grade essay about Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust with "Go look at him." At least I think that's right. A couple of classes later, the teacher told us that beginning with a quote was actually a pretty good thing. I then knew that all the other students would be doing it, which ruined it for me. Still, that class taught me to write, such as I can.

      An analogy to an onion, eh? It's the layers, right? You know what also has layers? A parfait.

      Delete
  2. Wow, creepy graphic. Are we sure the CM Old Guard isn't already here helping out? (Which would not be a bad thing.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Looks like Edgar from Men in Black. Love that movie (and Vincent D'Onofrio).

      Delete
    2. It is indeed Vincent D'Onofrio's Edgar. You can find the basis in a Google image search. I played with the mouth a bit; my other alterations did not survive the additional cropping seen here. I got it on the field, but Beaker Ben took it (or caused it to be taken) all the way to the endzone. The result has exceeded both my capabilities and my imagination. Thank you, BB. I am honored and flattered.

      I think it captures the bewildered exasperation, resigned disappointment, and eye-rolling WTF! that any of us might experience on a regular basis. I especially like how the eyes are more in focus than everything else: it recalls the visage I've seen peering back from below the surface in the toilet bowl, when the real me was not very much in focus.

      Delete
    3. ...it recalls the visage I've seen peering back from below the surface in the toilet bowl, when the real me was not very much in focus.

      Now there's an opening to a personal statement!

      Agree with the statement of personal goals idea.

      Delete
  3. I prefer an anecdote over "Since the dawn of time, man has..." and "In today's society..."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh God yes yes yes. I demonstrated to my 'flakes the other day how easy it is to inflate the word count on a substandard piece -- to bring it up to the number of words required -- without adding a damn bit of actual content. Then I spelled out for them that I won't be fooled by it.

      Delete
  4. I am extremely lucky that in my discipline, a typical opening is something along the lines of "X is often argued on the basis of Y. Y actually supports Z, as I will show in my essay." We're boring, and we like it that way.

    But if it helps, I tell my classes to never, ever, ever use a rhetorical question, a dictionary definition, or a "since the dawn of time..." type phrase. It's a testament to the fact that most students only half-listen that I once got a paper that hit all three in the first three sentences - bam, bam, bam. Fucking hat trick.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We should make BINGO cards for this stuff. Perhaps someone would call me unprofessional for joking like this, to which I say, you have your rubric, I have mine.

      Delete
    2. Somebody might call you unprofessional for joking about students but nobody here. At least, nobody I want around.

      Delete
  5. Could someone explain, if this hook-bridge-thesis doohickey was something most students learned in HS why is that what gets remembered and not subject-verb agreement, that 's does not make a word plural, "loose" and "lose" are not interchangeable, weblinks alone are not proper citations, the list goes on ... (and on ... )

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was just wondering the same thing.

      On another note....as one who teaches freshman comp, I don't have anything particular against hooks, even anecdotal ones.....as long as they are brief and relevant. I think a question works better than an anecdote, and a relevant, surprising or interesting fact works even better. What I am struggling against is the horrible platitude or the all encompassing bland generalization. Yuck.

      Delete
    2. Ever since the dawn of time, all generalizations have been bland. But as a former editor, dangling modifiers are even more annoying than mispellings.

      A current peeve is the excessive utilization of polysyllabic verbiage and similar non-essentialities when shorter words tighter phrasing would suffice. The problem is, this crap is creeping into the professional journals. The other day in a figure legend, I saw something like "There were two timepoints at which the parameter was greater as compared to the baseline measurements, specifically when 1 and 2 hours had elapsed after the treatment had been administered." I threw up in my mouth a little and wanted to cross that out to write in its stead "The parameter exceeded baseline at 1 and 2 hours post-treatment."

      Delete
    3. I don't know, but after thirteen years in the freshman comp trenches, I have come to the conclusion that the only rules students EVER retain from their high school writing classes are the fake ones. Thus, they persist in believing that they must never ever use the word "I," or begin a sentence with the word "because," and that all quotations must be preceded by a comma, and that all essays must have five paragraphs and all thesis statements must include a list of three items, regardless of how many times I tell them that none of these things are true. But if you ask them to format a bibliography properly, or use commas where they are SUPPOSED to be used, all of that attachment to rules suddenly goes out the window.

      Delete
    4. @OPH: I was lucky enough to have a handful of grad school professors who mercilessly critiqued my papers on that sort of thing. Also, though, I think presenting for conferences is a good tonic for verbal incontinence - those word-count limits are brutal. I once chopped a paper by 45% length, without dropping any sections or altering the argument, through ruthless editing. That experience changed EVERYTHING about how I write.

      Delete
    5. As far as I'm concerned, this is one of the great mysteries of the universe, right up there with where all the mates to the single socks get to.

      I believe there's actual, experimental evidence (which I'm too lazy to find and link to) that telling people "you may have heard x; well, that isn't true" or "don't do y" is a bad idea, pedagogically, since it somehow transmutes in many hearers' minds to "she said x" or "do y." That might suggest that we should be saying "use 'I' in the following circumstances" or "start an academic paper with a quick example that allows you to move to your research question or a statement about the current wisdom, or perhaps move straight to a question, or a widely-held assumption you're going to question," rather than saying "don't do . . . ." But it doesn't explain why certain "rules" stick in the first place, while others don't. I do think simplicity has something to do with it; both developmentally and logistically, students of high school/early college age often like simplicity and certainty, and such rules offer both, while we're often trying to push them to deal with more relativistic, contingent scenarios: consider audience when deciding on form, follow the conventions of this style in this discipline, and those of this other style in this other discipline, etc. It's also possible that the simple rules are the easier ones to enforce with grade deductions ("if you use 'I,' you'll lose 10 points"), which makes them stick. That's bad pedagogy, but high school teachers are even more overwhelmed than we are (and have to deal more directly with parents who start with the assumption that their kid deserves an A), so I have some sympathy.

      Delete
    6. THIS! THIS! THIS! Does this prove that college writing courses are basically a bust and that we should instead focus on high school writing pedagogy?

      Delete
  6. The one I hate is used mostly in magazines. The one where they start with the numerical part of a statistic then say what it means in sentence fragment form.


    2% The portion of our 40 hour work week we actually spent on this piece.
    13 The number of times most rich septuagenarian men bother with viagra before they just tell their trophy wives they're too tired.
    48 The number of tons of canary poop this magazine deserves to face before hitting the landfill.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. At least they haven't started wording it in the form of a question, Jeopardy-style.

      I'll take "Irritating and Pointless Formatting Tics" for $1000 Alex!

      Delete
    2. 1 The number of times this gimmick can be used before it becomes cliche.

      Do I tire of people asking and answering their own questions? Yes.

      Delete
  7. This reminds me how regular news websites like CNN have started using headlines like, "President Obama said WHAT?!" or "7 ways the new farm bill matters to you." It's like they were bought by Buzzfeed.

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Contingent Cassandra: I think there is something to the proposition that students preferentially retain rules that can be expressed, and whose adherance can be measured, as simply as possible. I hypothesize that it shares underpinnings with what Feynman called "cargo cult science", i.e., imitating the overt form but lacking true understanding.

    I wonder if high-schoolers believe that writing should be effortless, because it's just speaking on paper, and it doesn't have to be perfect because "well, you get what I mean." I don't know how to make them to want to be disabused of that belief.

    @The Contemplative Cynic: In a perfect world, college writing courses would still be necessary, because writing well on advanced subjects requires background and experience in those subjects. Put another way, topics accessible to high-schoolers might not lend themselves to advanced writing. Just my (decidedly inexpert) opinion.

    @Wylodmayer: My mentor was old-school, having learned at the hands of the old guys who built the school (not literally, but you probably guessed that). The attitude was gladly adopted by all who worked in his lab, and it pervaded every part of the operation. Since sloppy writing could be construed as sloppy thinking, it was not tolerated in our publications. Co-authors saw nothing wrong with going back and forth for several minutes on one sentence to get it just so. For the type of writing we did, others saw me as capable of turning a phrase, so I was often their go-to guy for feedback; however, there was no shortage of improvements to my own writings arising from their peer review. As with other things, with writing it can be easier to see the flaws in someone else's work.

    You've reminded me of a scene in A River Runs Through It. (I saw this one scene on TV a few years back and haven't read the book.) A boy is home-schooled, and his father tells him he must cut his essay in half. The boy rewrites and is told again to cut it in half, which he does. The father reads the final paper, praises it, then crumples it into a ball and tosses it in the wastebin. I took this to mean that winnowing one's work to its essence is a worthy practice in itself, a lesson I'd already internalized and could wholeheartedly agree with.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  10. The two most important rules I learned in high school are to absolutely never split an infinitive, and that a preposition is a word to never end a sentence with.

    ReplyDelete
  11. "The Hep-Hep riots from August to October 1819 were pogroms against German Jews, beginning in the Kingdom of Bavaria, during the period of Jewish emancipation in the German Confederation.(...)"Hep-Hep" was the perpetrators' derogatory rallying cry. Sources vary on its etymology. One theory is that it is an acronym from the Latin "Hierosolyma est perdita" ("Jerusalem is lost"), said (without verifiable evidence) to have been a rallying cry of the Crusaders. A more likely source for the rallying cry is the traditional herding cry of German shepherds."
    (Source: Wikipedia entry "Hep-hep riots", 2/8/2014)

    As a student, Peter never had to go through any of this: the hook introductory paragraph, the five-paragraph structure, the human suffering personal anecdote designed to induce abject sympathy in all but the most jaded of admissions officers. Indeed he never had to write an application essay at all! He got accepted, more than once, by every school he ever applied to. But it was all based on his academic record, and his stellar performance on any entrance exams that ever came his way. So all his writing is done in a completely dry, analytical, just-the-facts ma'am style, just as he learned in high school. And he too cringes when reading yet another NYT article purporting to explain what a collateralized debt obligation is, unfailingly opening with yet another foreclosure story, the emotional hook. Yes, they all went to the same high schools, where they had the same councilors, then took English 101/102 together, reading the same style manuals and graded by the same proffies and TAs. And his heart goes out to said proffies and TAs, and he is so glad he is not one of them.

    And when my student had his defense two years ago, I frankly can't remember what anyone was wearing. I think the student himself wore a blazer (no tie), and if I'm not mistaken one of my colleagues in the committee showed up in running garb, the others in `come as you are' academic. It was a good thesis, though.

    ReplyDelete
  12. The subject of clothing has come up several times on College Misery, such as in this post [link]. That the clothes of the candidate were mostly forgettable is often exactly what one would want in the context. Each situation has its norms, and stepping outside of them may bring consequences.

    In the incident I spoke of, the candidate was the least dressed of the people with a stake in the situation, and he'd seen what his classmates wore to their defenses; nobody else had treated it as if it were just another day in the lab or library. Because the committee had agreed to his defense, we knew he was ready, and he in fact did a fine job. But towards his professional development, I didn't think it out of line for my colleague to call him out for playing the role of 'rock star' well before he had amassed the CV for it.

    Peter K of the Third Person always brings many good things to the table. Thanks for the stuff about the Hep-Hep riots. I am undereducated on history and appreciate any attempt to remedy that. For the record, I disavow that my moniker is connected to ethnic cleansing or to liver disease.

    As first-quarter high school freshmen, I and the entire class were assigned to supervised study hall during which the proctor, who was regular faculty, read or graded papers while the students attended to subjects completely unrelated to the proctor's. I get to experience this from the proctor's view now, but we call it 'lecture'. I thought that Proctor Hop had a certain je ne sais quois and it evoked wearing a bunny suit to do something, anything, to hold the class' attention. Proctor Hep seemed less cutesy, and I delighted that 'hep' is adaptable: one who sincerely calls himself hep is not likely hep, but one who ironically does so quite possibly is so. You get to decide which I am. Finally, in part because I've raised my voice above the chatter to call class to order, I'm reputed to be somewhat of a meanie when the situation demands; I do not play that down. Therefore because of all this I chose my moniker, Ogre Proctor Hep.

    ReplyDelete