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How to Manage End-of-Term Paper Pile-Up

It is a conspiracy. Your professors are trying to kill you. They have all made their term papers due within days of each other, and then come the final exams you have to study for.

Don’t die. You can’t give them the satisfaction. You must survive. Here’s how.

First, for some of you, things aren’t looking too bad until next week. DON’T BE FOOLED. This is part of their plan: lull you into a false sense of security, and then—WHAM, five different versions of 20 pages plus works cited and annotated bibliography and some new cover page format with something called an “abstract.” Not to mention overdue lab reports and “response” papers.

You need to start now.

Step One: Assess the Damage.

How much work do you have to do between now and the end of term? Make a four-column list of every single assignment:

Assignment | Due Date | Hours of Work | Instructor

“Hours of Work” is the number of hours it will take you to complete the assignment, including all reading, prewriting, writing, revising, proofreading, and packaging with ribbons and bows. If possible, estimate based on past experience with similar assignments: how long has it taken you? In any case estimate liberally; it’s usually a safe bet to multiply your initial guess by 1.5 or 2.

All right, now sit somewhere comfortable, grab a best friend or two and perhaps your favorite stuffed animal for moral support, and count up the total number of hours of work you have in front of you. Breathe. Drink some water. It’s going to be okay.

Step Two: See the Big Picture.

Make a large calendar that includes all the days between now and the end of the final exam period.—8½x11 is way too small; best to tape many 8½x11 sheets together, and put only 2–4 days on each sheet; the more space the better; make this calendar as big as your kitchen table. Write each assignment on a Post-It or small card or something, and place the assignments on their respective due dates; don’t stack: make sure you can see every single assignment.

Step Two-and-a-Half: Reserve Time Between Rounds

If you’re going into battle, be smart about it. Be rigorous about your conditioning. Especially during this period when you have to fire on all cylinders and go into double and triple overtime (to mix as many metaphors as possible), you must get plenty of sleep, eat actual food—you know, from nature—and take non-work breaks to refresh your energy.

For every day on your calendar, generously block out hours to sleep, eat, and chill. You can probably predict from past experience that you’ll end up crashing during those hours anyway if you become over-exhausted, so better to plan for them.

Step Three: Redistribute the Weight.

Now, if your teachers have colluded effectively, you will probably have two or more assignments due on top of each other, or so close together that it looks like you’ll have to work on two or more simultaneously. Proceed with caution.

You will now begin to see before you an illusion. It will appear that all you have to do is work on both assignments X and Y  for a couple of days and you’ll get them both done. Don’t believe it! It’s a mirage, a trick! Don’t try to multitask. Don’t try to be an academic superhero. It’s a fine tactic to move all your due dates back a day or two to give yourself some cushions, but you have to make it so that you can work on one assignment at a time.

Now, solve the calendrical puzzle. Here are the rules:

  • You may move assignments forward or backward on the calendar.
  • You may not let the work periods for multiple assignments overlap.
  • You must sleep and eat during your regular sleeping and eating times. (During this step, sleeping and eating take priority over finishing assignments by their due dates.)
  • You must chill for at least three hours (one or two in emergencies) between assignments.

Move assignments away from each other. When necessary, allow yourself to push some assignments past their due dates. When you do push an assignment past its due date, note that somehow (a red dot, a skull and crossbones…).

If you’ve rearranged your assignments so you can complete them one at a time and hand them all in on or before their due dates, you can skip to Step Five.

If, however, you now have some assignments that are scheduled to be done after their due dates, you must proceed to Step Four.

Step Four: Negotiate.

Ask for extensions on those assignments you needed to push forward on the calendar. It is perfectly respectable to ask for an extension if you ask for it in advance. It might help to fold up your calendar and bring it with you to show your teachers the work schedule you’ve made for yourself. It will show that you have taken control of this difficult but very common situation, and that you are managing it responsibly. This will warm your professors’ hearts, and they will gladly do what they can to help you succeed. Sometimes a professor will respond that a particular assignment can’t be handed in late for one reason or another. If that happens, enlist that professor’s aid in rearranging your calendar so that you can get everything done without fasting or losing sleep.

Step Five: Do Good Enough Work.

Finally, do your assignments, one at a time, and work on them in a goal-oriented way. No masterpieces when you’re under time pressure. Write good, solid, coherent, workmanlike papers. Here is a tried and true essay writing method and template you can use to make the process more efficient. I used to call it the “essay mill.”

Make sure you proofread! It would suck to put in hours of work on many papers and lose points all over the place for not following through.

Reminder: Make Clean Transitions.

Every time you complete an assignment you need to do three things:

  1. Mark it as done on your calendar.
  2. Celebrate its completion.
  3. Take a substantial break before starting the next one.

Marking the assignment done will clear it from your plate, and you’ll feel lighter and more hopeful of success. Celebrating will reinforce your accomplishment, your feeling that you’re getting somewhere, and that will have the effect of refreshing your determination to see this through to the end. Taking a break will act as a palate cleanser: you’ll be able to turn your thoughts away from the last assignment and focus on the next one.

Won’t it be satisfying, at semester’s end, to know that when your professors dished out their worst, you were strong and judicious and skillful, and successfully completed all that work? What a confidence-builder! And think how light and spacious it will feel to be finished and truly free from school, with the warmth and green of summer stretching out before you.

How to Talk With Your Instructors

A while back I asked some TCL Facebook friends for their advice about how to communicate effectively with professors. Here’s what they (students and instructors) had to say:

I believe the best way to communicate effectively with professors is to think of each teacher/professor as your “partner” in education.

—Connie S.

In the beginning of the semester, don’t assume they know who you are (unless you’ve worked with them before). Profs meet many new students each semester, so when you first contact them be sure to identify yourself and tell them which class you’re in. If you meet with them during office hours and ask questions that show you’re interested in the class, they’ll figure out who you are pretty quickly. In a good way. Also, don’t email a prof and expect an immediate answer. Most profs don’t check their email as often as students do. If you don’t get a response and you need to hear back from her, be respectful in your follow-up email. Remember that your first email may not have reached her, or it may have been deleted in error, or she may have been too busy to check her email at midnight or whenever. Always be respectful; profs are people, too.

—Bette E.

Don’t be intimidated by them; assume they want to see you succeed… which means you have the same goal. That’s the biggest difference between me as a returning adult student and the “kids” in my classes.

—Monica G.

Make contact. Make an effort to show the professor that you have a functioning brain and personality and give him/her a reason to care about you.

—Meaghan O.

I always spoke with them in person, then followed up with an email if needed. It was a good way to remind them and myself of the important points of our conversation (or what still needed to be addressed).

—Alexander P.

Before and after class is a stressful time for many teachers. They often have many students coming at them with questions and they have their own pressures to get to another class or meeting, etc. I always appreciate it when a student takes the time to seek out the teacher in an office hour. I am relaxed and ready to handle what they need.

—Jacqueline D.

Helps to have actually read the material, too.…

—Norman D.W.

Amen. Good teachers are interested in the subject and in students learning the subject. Professors profess. We want to talk to people about our disciplines. In that respect teachers are still students who love to discuss their favorite ideas. Really, I should have put Norman’s quote first. Do the reading, engage your teachers in conversations that have to do with their profession, and not only will you become someone they love talking to, they will do backflips to help you in any way they can, even if—often especially if—you’re having difficulty with the material. We don’t only want to talk to people who are, “Oh, yeah, I get this; it’s easy”; we think the whole world needs to know what we’re professing, and nothing makes us happier than the opportunity to introduce, orient, guide, and support others who want to get in the know.

Nevertheless, approaching a professor can be intimidating. While many professors do possess these qualities in abundance, neither gentle bedside manner nor social grace is a requirement for becoming a teacher. And sometimes a professor and student are just not on the same wavelength. Yet being able to talk to your teachers is a necessary skill. So treat it as a skill.

In her book, Say This, NOT That to Your Professor, Ellen Bremen offers short scripts to help you navigate every kind of nerve-wracking conversation with your teachers, from asking about a bad grade or requesting an Incomplete, to using e-mail wisely and getting extra help. Her book teaches the skill of communicating effectively with teachers.

The bottom line? It’s not generally known, and be careful whom you tell this to, as you might unduly shock someone who isn’t prepared to hear it, but… teachers really are people, too. People who love to talk, who talk for a living.

Talk to them. That’s the way we did it in the olden days.

—Christine M.

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