Bigger Pictures: Procrastivity’s Greatest Hits

Thursday, May 2, 2019

“Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he’s supposed to be doing at the moment.”

~ Robert Benchley

You know what’s annoying? Spell check. Let me tell you why. The neologism “procrastivity” shows up no later than 2008, and spell check wants me to change “procrastivity” to procreativity. Needless to say, procreativity requires not only a different blog post, but an entirely different blog.

Anyway, now that we’ve dispensed with that minor annoyance, let’s delve, shall we?

Procrastivity as a neologism comes from the merging of “procrastination” and “activity”. In other words, we engage in procrastivity when we are supposed to be doing one thing, a thing of great importance, and we instead do some other thing, also a thing of importance, but a thing of decidedly lesser importance. Groan if any of these sound familiar:

  • It’s time to study for your calculus final, but before you wrestle with limits and area under the curve, you first have to clean up your study space. You tell yourself that a tidy desk is a productive desk. But once your desk has reached the state of blissful efficiency, you realize you simply moved items to the bed and the surrounding environment which, of course, now demands organizing. Two and a half hours later you’ve cleaned your room for the first time in months, but you have yet to look at any calc.
  • Your final paper is due on the last day of exams. Nothing short of perfection will give you the final grade you so deeply covet. So you read. And you read some more. Over a period of days you even run back and forth to the library grabbing more books that turn out to be unneeded, which you knew before you checked them out but you just had to make sure. The day before it is due, you’ve written less than a page of the 20 or so you need to turn in.
  • You know you have to go through your Bio slides because the exam is a mere 37 hours away. But there’s so much to be done. You need to send a follow up email to the members of your performance group, thanking them again for all the extra work they did to make the semester ending show such a rousing success. You then double check the treasurer’s report and send her an email thanking her for getting you the numbers before summer break. You then check your airline reservation since you’re flying out of PHL in a mere 43 hours. Slides? What slides?

Slippery slope, thy name is procrastivity.

This type of procrastination hurts because the other things you do instead have legitimate importance. But you are still not doing what you need to be doing.

So: Beware. Be careful. Be vigilant.

And as finals draw ever closer, remember: You got this.

Pete Kimchuk

Senior Learning Instructor

Bigger Pictures: Perils of Perfection, Part 2

Friday, April 26, 2019

“If I waited for perfection… I wouldn’t write a word.”

           ~ Margaret Atwood

I’ve been a Margaret Atwood fan for decades. I came across her work in the late ‘80s when I took a Dystopian Literature course. Some of the books, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I devoured years before. But I didn’t know The Handmaid’s Tale, or its Canadian author.

Margaret Atwood blew me away.

Not only did Atwood’s novel excel at the dystopian level, it also sparkled at the sentence level, and every self-respecting writing student of that distant age (like yours truly) developed an almost perverse eye for what happened in a text at the sentence level. To my developing eye, Margaret Atwood’s sentences were perfect. They shimmer with clarity and convey complex human thought lucidly, even if the character isn’t particularly lucid. This kind of thing doesn’t come through on Hulu.

So, of course, like any novice besotted with the work of a master writer, I got intimidated by her prowess. I mean, if I couldn’t write like that…well, what was the point?

Which brings us back again to our opening quote: If I waited for perfection I wouldn’t write a word. Come, unpack with me.

If I waited. Our great woman of letters tells us that avoidance isn’t going to get it done. Atwood knows writing something even just “good enough” requires work. (She also quipped that the greatest writing invention is the trash can.) Moreover, she implies that perfection at that earliest stage is out of the question.

And then we get I wouldn’t write a word, the frightening inertia that too often tags along with being overly perfectionist.  

I once went through a bout of writer’s block that lasted nearly two years. While there were more than a few factors that dried me up, I later determined that the biggest factor was fear, and a very special type of fear at that. I called it fear of criticism not yet voiced. The damning criticism that blocked the flow of words I once took for granted didn’t come from anyone actually directing criticism from the outside, all the nagging criticism lived in my only in my own head, whispered in my own voice. Criticism not yet voiced.

What I had to learn (the hard way, of course) is that I had to get out of my own way. Nobody else said the things I heard in my head. Workshop taught me to filter outside criticism, to consider the source and what have you. But once I realized that I had gotten in my own way, I was able to write again. I just had to get by criticism not yet voiced.

This little epiphany got me writing again. It can work for you, too.

By Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

Bigger Pictures: The Perils of Perfection, Part 1

Monday, April 22, 2019

“The pursuit of perfection often impedes improvement.”

         ~ George Will

As we rapidly approach the end game of the semester, it seems appropriate that we take a moment or two to consider the Penn student’s perennial perplexing predicament: perfectionism. (Loyal readers of this space should be well aware by now of your humble blogger’s penchant for alliteration – and if you weren’t… well, you are now.)

Perfection seems to be an intrinsic part of the Penn student body DNA. It starts before the acceptance letter from Penn arrives, when future Quakers set sights not only on achievement but on flawless achievement. In short, perfection.

In fact, the flawless achievement mind set often takes root at an early age, and left unexamined, can lead to all kinds of academics-related problems. Just a few, in no particular order:

  • Writers block – it is hard to jump into the writing process if you’re already worried about how the paper won’t pass muster, even if you haven’t written word one.
  • Non selective exam prep – this happens when you’re so worried about knowing absolutely everything for the test that you fail to prioritize and master the material most likely to be on the test.
  • Procrastination – why not avoid a task that you’re convinced will not meet your self-imposed standard of perfection?

You don’t need to be a Weingarten learning instructor to recognize how detrimental to academic achievement any of the above can be.

Some things, of course, need to be perfect or as close to perfect as humanly possible. But honestly, those things are few and far between. Stressing out and losing sleep over how everything has to be absolutely perfect is no way to live.

So, might I suggest going for simple excellence?

Striving for excellence is a different matter entirely than constantly grinding away at perfection. Excellence does not carry with it the notion of flawlessness that perfection brings along. Excellence accepts that working towards excellence can, in fact, lead to something that approaches perfection, even attain perfection.

In other words, don’t let perfectionism get in the way of excellence.

By Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

Bigger Pictures: When Finals Attack

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

     ~ Benjamin Franklin

We have rapidly approached that most wonderful time of the year, when the season tickles the gizzard of every good girl and boy: Finals. It seems like only yesterday that we were feeling the pain of trying to sleep in dorms lacking air conditioning. Ah, yes. Treasured memories.

Anyway, with the season of Finals nigh upon us, let’s take a few moments and go back over a few of the basics as we all get pumped up for the last round up.

  1. It’s always better to sleep than stay up and cram. Decades of research says so. You want to be sharp and rested rather than dopey with sleep deprivation.
  2. Don’t study one subject to the exclusion of everything else. Sure, you’re worried most about Math 114, but that doesn’t mean you blow off Bio and Econ study. You’re just setting yourself up for disappointments in classes you thought were “safe” if you go down that particular road.
  3. Don’t attempt to read everything you didn’t read during the previous 15 weeks. Seriously. We get two “Reading Days”. You cannot read all that in 48 hours. Rely on your lecture notes. If you don’t have lecture notes, rely on the kindness of classmates and get yourself some.
  4. Spread out your Finals study time. You don’t have to wait until the last day of class before you begin to study.
  5. Don’t freak out over cumulative finals, especially if you’re taking a third or fourth “midterm” during the last few days of class. Studying for that last “midterm” means, by definition, studying for the cumulative final in advance. Look at you go.
  6. It’s not too late to make the acquaintance of a friendly and knowledgeable Learning Instructor at the Weingarten Learning Resources Center. We can help.

Don’t panic.

By Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Specialist

Bigger Pictures: Self-Plagiarism? Oh Yeah, It’s a Thing

Thursday, November 29, 2018

“I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; 

l looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”

     ~  Woody Allen

In the Mansion of Plagiarism, there are many rooms. Most are familiar. There’s the Great Hall of Blatant Theft, where aggressive plagiarists expropriate the work of others and attempt to pass it off as their own, to say nothing of the Parlor of Poor Paraphrasing and the Gallery of Insufficient Citation.

While the Coat Closet of Self-Plagiarism has always been on the Mansion of Plagiarism Tour, it’s just easy to breeze by. So let’s take this opportunity to linger a moment and rummage around and see just what’s hanging out.

As far as students go, the most common self-plagiarism involves “recycling” a paper, either in part or in its entirety. In other words, say you write a paper for one class. Then, in another class covering similar or related topics, you elect to use the paper from the previous class. What’s the problem?

The problem begins (as so many problems do) with a rationalization. The rationalization for committing self-plagiarism boils down to ownership – I’m not stealing somebody else’s work, its mine to begin with. Thus ends the rationalization.

The Code of Academic Integrity has some news for this particular rationalization. You simply are not permitted to pass off previously submitted work as new work.  And if you didn’t know deep down in the utter depths of your very soul that recycling your entire paper wasn’t wrong… well, you do now.

But what if you decide to use just part of the paper, not the whole thing, just some of it, that couldn’t possibly be wrong, could it? Well, you’re right, there’s nothing wrong with using some of your original paper, so long as you clearly cite it and, of course, follow the formatting requirements of the required style manual, most commonly Modern Language Association (MLA), American Psychological Association (APA), or the Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago). But, remember, all the usual rules of quoting and paraphrasing apply.  For instance, you wouldn’t turn in a 10-page paper with a direct quote stretching a page and a half in bloc form from any source, would you? Well, don’t.

Anyway, it’s getting stuffy in here, and closets are for mothballs, not students.

By Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Specialist, Weingarten Center

Bigger Pictures: Mind Your Metaphors

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

     ~  Kurt Vonnegut

Many years ago I stumbled onto Douwe Draaisma’s Metaphors of Memory.  My copy of his slim volume has been lost to lending, or sits in one of many water-tight boxes in a super-secret book storage facility at an undisclosed location known only by the code name “Cherry Hill, New Jersey”.  If I told you any more of the super-secret book storage facility just off Route 38, well…I digress.

What I’m saying is that I’m going by memory here, my memory of a book I read and then reread in sections over a decade ago.  But, in broad strokes, as I think I remember it, Draaisma says that as scientists and philosophers through human history have grappled with this thing called “the mind,” especially this key function called “memory,” they have, in their struggle, resorted to metaphors of external storage to explain something – memory – that is internal and intangible.

As our technology changed over the centuries so did our metaphors:  Tabla rasa (the blank slate).  Building a memory palace.  “Photographic” memory.  To say nothing of our current techno blurring of mind and machine – my current favorite being when people tell me that “I just don’t have the bandwidth,” like all they need to do to pass Physics is upgrade to the Xfinity X1 platform.   What all these technology metaphors have in common is that they reduce memory to a question of data storage.

Memory is so tied up with learning that it’s too easy to forget that one is not the other.  Anyone who has ever tried to memorize – data point storage style – 329 PowerPoint slides can attest to the fact that there’s something missing.  Students here at Dear Old Penn are rarely asked to regurgitate simple data points on exams like they’re pulling up contact information on an alleged smartphone.  Simple storage techniques arising from simple storage metaphors do not equal learning and won’t get the job done in these parts, mainly because you’re a human being and not an overpriced device that goes obsolete in 18 months.

Which is all well and good, but isn’t helping me remember what I did with my copy of Metaphors of Memory….

By Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Specialist, Weingarten Center

Bigger Pictures: Make a Note

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

“I don’t know what I think until I’ve written about it.” ~  Various Attributions

Of all the things I talk about here at your learning center, the one I always feel a little bit guilty about is notetaking. I always feel like the subject is like a benignly neglected child in a big family, the kid who basically raises herself in a household that is far too stretched and busy to worry about someone who is more or less okay. That’s notetaking.

Academic notetaking has been largely conscribed by one thing:  the lecture. And historically, this makes sense. Back in the mists of time, professors would intone and, well, profess, and students would scratch away, trying to get down every word. It wasn’t uncommon for “serious” students to learn how to take shorthand in order to get down every word.  This technique can be described as truly Mediaeval, with its roots planted firmly in the monastic scriptorium, where sacred text was read aloud while Brother Scribes took down copy. What a gig.

Academia has embraced a few technological advances since the Monastic era, most notably the slide deck. Ah, yes. PowerPoint. Our frenemy. No matter where you come down on the ubiquitous deployment of PowerPoint in the higher ed classroom, there is one undeniable plus: the mad rush to get down every word has been alleviated, at least somewhat. So long as the slides are made available, you don’t have to worry about copying out the entire slide during class. All you really have to worry about is what is said off slide.

But there is another part of notes that gets routinely neglected, and that is the notes you make to yourself, and if you don’t do that now, I’d encourage you to give it a go, especially if you are currently in the type of humanities or social science courses that require you to come up with your own paper topics. These notes capture what you think about the lecture topics or reading material. Think of these kinds of notes as the record of what you think.

And one more thing: these types of notes don’t have to be declarative. Solid questions arising from the reading material count as notes too.

Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

Bigger Pictures: Keep It Classy, Quakers

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

“Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers”   ~  Sana, Weston & Cepeda

Is it even possible to run a spoiler alert before the title of an academic paper?  Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers.  Talk about ruining the ending.

In any case, I’m not planning to rehash the paper – I trust you can read that for yourself, and I hope you do.  What I am going to talk about is something far more basic.

So, first, a question:  how many times have you yourself watched another student “multitasking” during class?  I’m not talking about watching someone type lecture notes, I mean watching somebody respond to their email, update their Facebook status, check out 21 Adorable Child Stars Who Grew Up Sooo Ugly?

Okay, now how many times has that been you?

Yeah, I know.  But don’t worry.  It’ll be our secret.  Not that you and I keeping our mouths shut about these multitasking indiscretions matters, because someone else knows, too.  Do you know who that is?

digit 2

That’s right, your professor.  More than likely, your TA as well.  Don’t think for one minute that the person tasked with operating the front of the house is somehow clueless about what’s going on out there in the rest of the room.  They see.  They know.  Some of them even keep tabs.

But even that’s not the bigger issue here.  Sure, it is bad if you don’t get the full 10% for class participation.  That piece of the final grade might make the difference between a B+ or an A-, and I always advise students to never leave points on the table.  The bigger issue here is that “multitasking” during class is, quite simply, rude.  Your actions tell your teacher that what’s going on in the front of the room is far less interesting and of far less import than what’s going on in social media.  So don’t do it.  It’s not nice to passively insult these people.

Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor


Bigger Pictures: Cramming Confession

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

“Cramming is not a practice.  It’s an exercise in panic.”

     ~  Debra Gwartney

I hate to speak ill of a practice exercise with such a long and noble history, but a blogger’s got to do what a blogger’s got to do, even if the aforementioned blogger, when reflecting upon his own undergraduate practice experience re: cramming, now stands before you as nothing more (or less) than a big old hypocrite.

So let’s get that bit of academic confession out of the way, shall we?

Long ago, in a galaxy far away (a few decades, about 13 miles to the north) yours truly found himself in the kind of introductory Psych course that (so help me) could bore the paint right off the walls. Our prof was an amiable old guy who, for some inexplicable reason, genuinely liked us.  Who knows why?  We were far too many, and most were aggressively disinterested in a course that simply filled a requirement.  He seemed about as happy with the department’s mandatory attendance policy as we were, and he made it quite clear to anyone who cared to listen that he would much rather not take roll and just talk about interesting Psych stuff with the few people who were actually interested enough to show up and talk about the interesting Psych stuff.

The course materials, in those Dark Days before PowerPoint, consisted of an overpriced edition of a textbook (required) and a separate study guide (recommended).  Let me say for the record that I misread the syllabus and bought the study guide by accident.

It turned out the prof took his exam questions verbatim from the study guide.  He changed the order of the A, B, C, D answers, as well as the order of the questions, but that was it.  People still failed the course.  Seriously.  Even after I shared what was going on.

My strategy for this course was to get up early the day of the exam, figure out the study guide answers, cram my short term memory, take the test in the afternoon, and then promptly forget the morning’s work about 12 minutes after handing in the exam.

Anyway, I aced the exams, aced the course, and got over any lingering guilt rather quickly.  Happy ending, right?


The next semester I tried the same thing with Chemistry:  got up early, cracked open the study guide – and promptly realized I made a HUGE miscalculation.  I couldn’t get through all the material, let alone know it.  My grade proved that.  (Total transparency:  that grade was a 23).  The Chem cram approach died instantaneously.

Anyway, did I learn anything?  Certainly not about Chemistry, even though I passed the course, in large part because I could drop that 23.  And anything I eventually learned about Psychology came from courses I took later.  But I can pass on this observation:

Cramming only works until it doesn’t work anymore.

Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Specialist

Bigger Pictures: So Much to Read, So Little Time

Monday, November 7, 2016

“The flood of print has turned reading into a process of gulping rather than savoring.”

                                                                                                                           ~  Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler, the author who gave us The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and Farewell, My Lovely, as well as generously providing the epigram for today’s blog post, died way back in 1959.  He had good reason to bemoan the “flood of print”.  During his career paperbacks became cheaper and easier to produce, to say nothing of large circulation magazines and daily newspapers, many of which published multiple daily editions. So while Old Ray didn’t live long enough to witness the mad proliferation of text brought to us courtesy of the world wide web, there was certainly a greater availability of potential reading material.

In the land of academic reading the idea that a student will savor what’s been assigned seems beside the point. When confronted with hundreds of pages of required reading, the first urge is just to power through, roll the eyeballs over line after line of words, words, words until this nightmare is over. Because that’s what we’re supposed to do, right?  Complete the assignment, finish the book, read the PDFs.  Move on.

Savoring, in Chandler’s parlance, here is akin to processing, to thinking deeply, which is after all what we’re supposed to be doing anyway.  I’m not saying that we can do that with every assigned page of text, but I am saying that we should at least pick out chunks that resonate with us as readers and we should reread these bits, and think about what these passages mean not just in the context of the class material, but beyond.

On the other side we should acknowledge the dilemma of those tasked with building the reading list and the syllabus. This requires more than anything else to strike a balance between breadth and depth. Deciding what should be skimmed and what to read deeply is as much art as science, even for those who assign the work.

This is an old tension, maybe even an ancient one. Did the sages of Sumer worry that the unprecedented availability of cuneiform tablets made it more difficult to appreciate what had been pressed into the soft clay with a stylus?  Sure.  Let’s go with that.

Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk