Most of the following observations are intended to help you with your writing on future work in my class and perhaps in other classes, too. Writing is hard work, but we can all improve. It is important work, in that it encourages us to organize our thoughts and to aspire to continuous improvement.
Unfortunately, I need to begin with one observation about a cheating issue before I can move on to the more positive stuff. Occasionally a group of students hands in concert report papers that are essentially re-worded versions of a single paper. That is most certainly not OK. I’ve added a note at the end of this post about the significance and consequences for this.
Now on to the more useful stuff…
There were lots of fine papers and some that could have been better — but this is always the case. I think it is a good idea to take a look at what worked and what didn’t and to then apply these observations to improve future work where possible.
Students who collected a basic narrative of musical features in the pieces performed at the concert had a much better chance of producing a fine paper. Those who had questions and sought help while writing their papers often saw the quality of their work improve. Students who were attentive to the elements of the report format also tended to produce work that stood up well. Careful and thorough editing and proofreading are very important.
What didn’t work?
You might be surprised to find that when papers were less than wonderful, the problem was not usually specific to writing about music per se. In most cases (though there are a few exceptions) everyone was able to offer apt and useful information about the music itself. What were some issues that might have lowered report grades?
- Not writing about every piece on the concert
- Not taking enough time to carefully edit and proofread.
- Not following the report format.
- Not asking questions when aspects of the paper or the music were confusing.
- (In one small set of cases, students worked too closely together and submitted work that was not entirely comprised of their own, individual observations.)
The good news about that is that a) writing about music isn’t the major problem, and b) most of the issues on this list are easily addressed by starting earlier, allowing more time, reviewing the project guidelines, asking for help, and being careful to report on the entire event. Some of you who will do the optional second report will want to keep these things in mind.
The words for today are edit and proofread.
Edit: Ideas that come straight out of our minds with little careful consideration may be interesting and relevant, but they are rarely well organized or free of distracting sub-ideas or diversions. Editing the content of our writing is utterly necessary. Most editing (though not all) aims at two important goals: Concise writing (the opposite of wordiness) and clarity of thought and expression.
Proofread: When we read our own writing it is easy to overlook errors that distract other readers, obscure our points, and even say things we did not mean to say. Read your paper slowly out loud, and do this more than once. If something doesn’t sound right, carefully consider how to fix it. Check for spelling — no one is perfect, but beyond a certain point spelling certainly does matter. We all know that writing is work, but writing that gives the appearance that you did not read it carefully can create an impression that you don’t care… and that your reader shouldn’t care either.
Writing is not always simple or fun, and it isn’t always easy to know if you are on the right track. If you want or need help, just ask me.
- If you are confused about something, don’t know how to describe it, have a problem at your concert, etc… ask me for help before you finish the paper. I can usually help, but if you don’t ask before turing the paper in, I have little choice but to grade you on the work you submit.
- Correct: “It would have been…”
(Incorrect: “it would of been…”)
- Correct: “Based on…”
(Incorrect: “based off of…”)
- Correct: “the trumpets play loudly” or “The trumpets played loudly.
(Incorrect: with very rare exceptions: “the trumpets would play loudly.”)
- Correct: “I could hear the trumpet.”
(Incorrect: “You could heard the trumpet.”)
- Correct: Something went “back and forth.”
(Incorrect: “back in forth.”)
General paper writing observations
- Clear and concise writing is your goal.
- Proofread more than once. Try reading slowly out loud. Have a friend read your paper to you.
- Use the spellchecker in your word processing program before printing.
- Don’t leave section titles hanging at the bottom of a page — include some body text with them or else move the title to the next page.
Musical terminology and writing about music
- Musical instrument names are not capitalized. (Rare exceptions include French horn and English horn.)
- Music crescendos or decrescendos. (It does not “lead to a crescendo” or “lead to a decrescendo.”)
- Keep things that cannot logically be combined separate from one another. OK: “The tempo was slow and the dynamics were soft.” (Not OK: The tempo and dynamics were slow and soft.”)
An uncomfortable and unfortunate note regarding the cheating incident mentioned above…
You may not be surprised to hear that I sort papers by concert before reading them. I have many reasons for doing so, but one is that if there are inappropriate parallels among papers on the same concert this usually becomes apparent. This time four papers on an event were essentially one paper. Although the words have been (likely carefully) altered to obscure this, the observations in the papers (what is included and what is not included in them) clearly reveal the common source, and there is no plausible explanation for this other than a violation of the basic principles of academic integrity and the explicit standards for this assignment — in other words, cheating.
I hate to discover these things. It gives me no pleasure at all, and I find the whole necessary process of dealing with it loathsome and uncomfortable. However, I have a professional responsibility to not look the other way, and I must address these things directly and immediately.
It used to be the case (and still is the case in most of higher education) that such a violation of academic trust would lead to an automatic failing grade in the course, and often to disciplinary action by the college that could even result in expulsion. The California community college system is the only one I know of that limits faculty rights to assign a failing course grade to students who cheat. However, disciplinary action is not only allowed but it is encouraged and even, some say, a responsibility of faculty who discover cheating. Given that I may no longer have the option to fail students who cheat in this way, I always bring a disciplinary charge against students who cheat, after I give them an opportunity to meet with me and discuss the situation. (I also put a “lock” on their registration with the admissions office — this prevents a cheating student from dropping the class without repercussions.)
Any student who is tempted to do such a thing should be aware of the serious nature of this sort of violation and the very significant consequences. Beyond the formal violation, students who cheat in this way are cheating themselves, both academically and in terms of their own personal integrity.