The Power of the Two Page Paper

Hans Morsink was my favorite professor at Drew University. For most of my classes in my major, philosophy, he was the teacher. In almost every one of those classes, I was one of ten learners. And, of those ten learners, I was often the only woman. (At first my Dad thought that last fact might be how I chose my major). But, I loved being in such a small learning group. It meant I had to talk hard and listen harder. Professor Morsink assigned reading and then facilitated discussions that helped us think our way through the thinking of the great thinkers.

I thought it was awesome.

At the end of the very first survey class that we took as Freshmen, I literally skipped down the path back to the dorm, sure that I had found my major. I loved that first class. I sort of felt lost most of the time but it was like being lost in the Alhambra. I was stimulated. I felt like I was learning to see differently. I could literally feel my brain shifting. I was turned on.

When I got syllabus at the start of one of the courses I took with Hans, I learned that there would be no final exam and no final paper. There would be no mid-term exam or paper either. Instead, we would be asked to do our reading each week and then hand in a two page paper. The paper was to be exactly two pages. Not more and not less. The paper needed to use the weekly reading as both impetus and proof of the theory we put forth. At first, all of us in the class thought that we had gotten a humongous break.

It was the hardest, and the most rewarding class I took as an undergraduate student. Every week I would struggle to fit my thinking into the two page limit. I took too long to get to it. That was mostly what I learned in those 13 weeks. These papers required hours and hours of work. Sometimes I would draft a first try quickly, only to find that I had three or four pages. Then, I would have to start again. I mean completely all over again.

Other times, I would try to cut my thinking short and then I would only have a page. Making it longer would mean that I would have to enter into a place where starting would mean stopping and stopping was tricky. Say too little and you risked murky, flimsy argument. Say too much and you risked diluting the power of your argument with less stellar logic.

I loved those two page papers. Each word mattered. Each sentence too. And each paragraph needed to fit tightly to the one that came before. Often, It was down to the last sentence. How to end? (Not like that)

Even now I think, “Want to evaluate how much I understand?” Ask me to tell you in two pages or two minutes. My boiled down version should definitely tell you what was in the pot in the first place.

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