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: Try a Little Reading

Friday, January 25, 2019

“Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.”
~  P.J. O’Rourke

Reading lists give students heartburn. Not all reading lists, and certainly not all students, but enough. For students who look at reading on a continuum ranging from mild dislike to complete detestation, any required reading gets the old stomach acids churning. For today’s purposes, we don’t need to get into the “why”.

I wish I could say that when I started out as an educator, oh so many years ago, this reading avoidance came as a shock. But that would be a lie, and according to the Blogger’s Code, one should never lie when committing bloggery.

I discovered a harsh truth about reading when I was a kid. I had a few friends who read as much as I did – a lot, and constantly – and many other friends who never cracked a book outside of school, if ever.

Not liking to read doesn’t mean that a given student won’t read. But it does make the whole endeavor…well, problematic.

The reading-avoidant do have a tendency to avoid any and all reading, often. If you happen to number yourself among this group, don’t despair.

What I like to tell people when dealing with the dreaded reading list is that something is always better than nothing. Be selective. You can pick one article out of the pack, or just read one section from each of the assigned. No, you will not have encyclopedic knowledge of the paper, but you’ll have something to think about, or maybe even something to add to a discussion just because you did something.

Getting through assigned books can be trickier, but you can always read them selectively as well. How? What you can do is use the Table of Contents to find a chapter or two that looks interesting. Can’t make yourself read a whole chapter? Use the Appendix to find topics that seem to be important to the class. Consult the syllabus or rely on class notes to give you a clue as to what seems to be most important. Still can’t get started? Make an appointment at your friendly learning center and one of us will help you.

Alas, you may never grow to love reading, but that doesn’t mean you have to make yourself sick over it.

By Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

Bigger Pictures: Let’s Try Again, Shall We?

Monday, January 14, 2019

Oh, dear. Winter break ended. Now what?

If you’re among those lucky souls who looked up their Fall grades with a sense of pride in accomplishment, an almost giddy feeling of work well done, then congratulations. That’s no easy feat here at Fun Times on the Schuylkill.

But what if your semester went awry?

What if your best laid academic plans of late August transmogrified into the second act of a low-budget horror movie?

What if looking at that grade report made you relive the whole ordeal in all its gory detail?

What if you’re sitting there now, watching the horror unfold yet again, screaming at your past self, “Don’t skip the practice exam! Don’t skip the practice exam!” but there you go again, skipping the practice exam like that kid who just has to play with the Ouija board just one last time, thus opening the Hell Mouth and setting loose the demons who run amok in the second act of a low budget horror movie? Then what?

Even worse: what if it’s all happened before?

Let’s face it, you don’t want to be the recurring protagonist in a lousy horror franchise. You’ll wind up getting type cast and then you’ll find yourself telling people things like, “What I really want to do is direct,” while you read through the script for Schuylkill Terror 3: It Came From Under The Button. The academic equivalent of that goes something like, “I’m going to work really, really hard, and this semester is going to be totally different.” And then you promptly double down on doing things roughly the same way you tried to do them last semester, but with a “serious” and unyielding approach doomed for failure after about three and a half weeks. Lots of times it’s not about working harder.

It is amazing how often people take the same approach over and over, expecting different results, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. And if your Fall ’18 grade report felt like the trailer for Insidious 4, then you DO NOT want to do things the same way in Spring ’19.

So yes, this is a shameless plug for ambling over to your learning center and meeting with one of the friendly Weingarten Learning Instructors. We can help you figure out where things broke bad. Yes, it will be time well spent.

In the meantime, put away the Ouija board.

By Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

Sadly, this quote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”, is at best apocryphal. But it so sounds like something Mark Twain would say that no one really wants to change the attribution.

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: Senior Unease

Thursday, November 23, 2017

“The pessimist complains about the wind;

the optimist expects it to change;

the realist adjusts the sails.”

     ~  William Arthur Ward

Hello, Seniors. Welcome to the beginning of the end. First, there’s no need to freak out. Not that you would. I mean, whoever heard of a Penn student freaking out over school. I know, I know, that was a bit of a cheap shot. So, please, allow me to beg forgiveness. Thank you.

Now that we’re friends again, let me just say that Senior-Year Unease is typical. It happens to lots of people. It happened to me.

The first way Senior Unease manifested itself in me was with classic Senioritis: ditching classes. I messed up more classes in my last semester of Senior year than all my other semesters combined. I suddenly lost the will to stay up all night to finish a paper (okay, fine, stay up all night to start and finish a paper) and make it to 8:00 class. And besides, the weather was really nice that spring, and I caught more than a few naps under a sugar maple on the quiet side of campus.  hose naps represent my fondest memories of my Alma Mater.

And then there was my recurring nightmare, the one where I find out at the last minute that I’m one course shy of graduation. I got two words for you, friends: cold sweat.

What I’m trying to get at here is that your Senior Unease is not atypical, and is not unique to your generation of soon-to-be graduates. Change comes whether we want it to or not, whether we are ready for it or not, and change is at the heart of Senior Unease. What is unique – what will be unique – is how you will experience it. In other words, you probably won’t take to sleeping on campus lawns like a vagrant, or develop night terrors. So, bonus for you.

On the other hand, there is no sense in deliberately courting Senior Unease. So try to be mindful of a couple things.

  1. First, treat your job search like a class. And get started early in the first semester. The longer you put it off, the larger it will loom in your head. If you need help working your job search into your schedule, we’re here to help in that regard.
  2. The other thing: Plan to have fun. Don’t forget to enjoy your final lap. Formals, semi-formals, Feb Club – you don’t have to do everything, but you need to allow yourself to do some things that are fun, to be with your Penn people one more time.

So take it easy. Change is the constant.

Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Specialist

Bigger Pictures: Pondering Priorities

Friday, October 20, 2017

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”
    ~  Andy Warhol

I spend a lot of my time here at your learning center working with students who are in a steel cage death match with time management.  And you don’t need to be a learning specialist to see the reason is clear.  

Graduate, professional, and undergraduates here at Dear Penn, from our 12 graduate and professional schools to our four undergraduate colleges, across divisions and departments and other seemingly arbitrary lines of demarcation, will all, at some point, come face to face with the grim, irreducible non-expanding 168 hour week.  

Granted, your humble blogger returns to the 168-hour week like any monomaniac returns to his obsession.  (That’s my problem, not yours.)  But the 168-hour mark does give us a necessary point of perspective when it comes to deciding what gets done, in what order, and when.

Even if you’re already good at “getting it all done” there is something to be said for taking a closer look at your priorities, not just for the sake of some calendar-based time allotment but to answer a bigger picture question:  What am I doing, anyway?

It happens to all of us, sooner or later.  We get grooved into academic and/or career tracks.  We find ourselves devoting time to pursuits from which we derive less and less pleasure.

We get bored.

We also get confused.  We confuse priorities and responsibilities.  We confound our own priorities with the expectations of others.  We fill our time with busyness for no other reason than busy is the coin of our 21st-century realm.

We get to this spot of confusion legitimately.  Our responsibilities shape our priorities, just as the expectations of others prioritize for us, even if only in the short term.  And in today’s labor market, if you’re not really busy you better at least look busy or you may suddenly have many, many free hours to ponder all sorts of things.

All I’m suggesting is to take a couple of those hours and spend them thinking through your priorities.  Ask where they came from.  And decide if something needs to change.  You owe it to yourself.  

Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Specialist