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I have a really stupid, poorly designed paper assigned to me that I have to write, please help me with it.
November 20, 2010 4:39 PM   Subscribe

I have a really stupid, poorly designed paper assigned to me that I have to write. Please help me with it.

Okay, so I'm a college freshman, and one of the classes I'm taking right now is a writing class. The current paper we have to write is worth 25% of our grade, and the original assignment was to think of something we might want to contribute to our field of study, research it, and write a paper about it. The idea was that it would be kind of like a mini PhD thesis paper or something. However, since everybody in my class is a STEM major (I'm a CS major), and thus it would be kinda impossible for us to actually understand anything at the PhD level at this point, the professor modified the assignment to just a paper describing a career path we might see ourselves doing in the future, and why doing this would be important to society. It has to be between 1250-1500 words, use three scholarly sources and two popular sources, and three of the sources have to be quoted in the paper. I am intrigued by the field of computer security, specifically with regards to hacktivism, "cyberterrorism", cyberweapons and national security. Things that have caught my attention have been the Chinese hack into top American defense contractors a while back, the Stuxnet virus, Wikileaks, the Anonymous protests against Scientology, net neutrality, and the concept of digital rights. I realize that computer security is only very tangentially related to some of those things if at all, but I'm a believer in the idea that true political change in this country through ordinary means is impossible and thus more direct methods are necessary, and I honestly believe hacking and illegally obtaining sensitive information of for example dual-loyal backstabbing lobbies such as AIPAC and disseminating it over the Internet for everybody to see is the best chance our country has. Anyway, I'm hoping to get a BS in computer science and then a master's in the field with a focus on computer security, maybe doing a little gray hacking along with way to gain experience and a professional reputation. I checked out a few books from the campus library dealing with computer security and national security, and the easiest thing to do may well be just to write a paper detailing how making the nets more secure and under control is important to national security, but I really don't wanna spend 1250 words writing a bunch of bullshit that I don't believe in. Anyway, i have no earthly idea how to turn all this into a paper, and I'm really friggin' lost. The guy who's assigning this is teaching at my university for the first time and said that "okay, I was thinking more in terms of the humanities when I wrote this assignment." Given that I kinda disagree with the whole notion that STEM majors should have to take writing classes on the grounds that they need to become more "well-rounded" anyway, this really kinda pissed me off. Liberal arts people are more supportive of that whole idea than anybody, given how much of a difference the humanities makes in changing people's prejudices and preconceived notions and attitudes and all, and here's some idiot who forgot that some fields are too difficult to understand at age 19. Anyway, does anybody out there have any advice?
posted by bookman117 to Education (40 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Anyway, does anybody out there have any advice?

Paragraphs.
posted by PenDevil at 4:43 PM on November 20, 2010 [152 favorites]


You don't need to take writing courses to be more well-rounded. You need to take writing courses because EVERYONE needs to learn how to communicate in written form.

The way that you present things in this question alone shows that you need some help with this.
posted by k8t at 4:46 PM on November 20, 2010 [35 favorites]


PS, pro tip -- go to office hours and discuss this with the professor. S/he will likely give you a very good sense of what s/he is looking for. Write what s/he says to write. You'll get a better grade.
posted by k8t at 4:47 PM on November 20, 2010 [13 favorites]


You just wrote 548 words. Just put in another rant of about equal length, and you'll be set!
posted by jasper411 at 4:48 PM on November 20, 2010 [19 favorites]


bookman117: "Anyway, does anybody out there have any advice?"

First of all, this is a homework assignment, and asking for this kind of help on AskMe is generally a no-no.

Second, it sounds to me like you've got a chip on your shoulder about this. Regardless of what you think about the course, assignment, and professor, you're obligated to do it. There are a million shades of grey between "securing the internet is essential for national security" and "hacking the private data of people I disagree with is OK". A ton has been written on the connection-or-not between information security and safety. Try harder.
posted by mkultra at 4:51 PM on November 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Are you drunk?

This is a very easy paper, even for a CS major. You are being asked to write 1,350 words about what, in the future, you might potentially contribute to your field of study. You seem to already know what you want to write about. Lay it out like this:

- The current situation in the field (let's say hacktivism)
- A page of background (history) of the area
- A page of developments recommended by the books or articles you found.
- Some recommendations by you about what you would do.

And if you would be happier talking about your batshitinsane idea that AIPAC is a spy front for the Israeli government, you are welcome to do so. You're a freshman. Welcome to college. Next time, you should complain over dinner.
posted by parmanparman at 4:52 PM on November 20, 2010 [14 favorites]


You're going waaaay to broad here. Pick one aspect of one thing.

"I honestly believe hacking and illegally obtaining sensitive information of for example dual-loyal backstabbing lobbies such as AIPAC and disseminating it over the Internet for everybody to see is the best chance our country has."

This sounds really interesting, and it seems to relate to what you said your topic is.
posted by shinyshiny at 4:52 PM on November 20, 2010


I'm a believer in the idea that true political change in this country through ordinary means is impossible and thus more direct methods are necessary, and I honestly believe hacking and illegally obtaining sensitive information of for example dual-loyal backstabbing lobbies such as AIPAC and disseminating it over the Internet for everybody to see is the best chance our country has.

Alright, that's your thesis. Why do you think that? Do you have any evidence? Who else talks about this? Are there examples of anyone else who is currently doing this? Are there any security experts who write on this as well?

Etc.
posted by suedehead at 4:53 PM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Given that I kinda disagree with the whole notion that STEM majors should have to take writing classes on the grounds that they need to become more "well-rounded" anyway, this really kinda pissed me off.

I'm sorry you're frustrated with the assignment, but I hope that you'll come to reconsider this point of view. I took a bunch of writing-intensive classes in undergrad, and now that I'm working on my (hard sciences) PhD, writing and speaking have become the single most valuable skill I have.

Now, I truly believe that taking a wide range of classes (being "well-rounded") is immensely valuable in itself, and is part of becoming an interesting adult. The most impressive people I've ever met have been lights in their own field, but are also able to talk about history and science and art. But even if you're really determined to become a highly specialized, closed-minded technician, writing will still have value, more than you can even image now. It will make the rest of your classes immensely easier, it will improve your job prospects, and it will save you frustration.

So start by changing your attitude towards the class, have a bit more respect for the hard work your professor is doing (really, the first year teaching is brutal), and then find a way to make it work. Assignments you don't like will keep coming up in college; the key is finding a way to work your own interests into them in a way that still meets the goal of the assignment. I would go talk to the professor on Monday, and tell him about the ideas that you said you were passionate about, and see what he says. There may be space for you to focus on what interests you, or he may even be willing to bend the assignment in your case if you're really excited about something else and think you can write a great paper on it.

Good luck.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:59 PM on November 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


Given that I kinda disagree with the whole notion that STEM majors should have to take writing classes on the grounds that they need to become more "well-rounded" anyway, this really kinda pissed me off.

Writing classes are important for STEM majors not because they make students "well-rounded," but because they teach you how to convey concepts clearly and effectively. I can't overstate how useful this will be once you've graduated. There are many, many people out there who can't write, and developing this skill now will give you a major advantage. You might think that it will only matter if you become a researcher publishing papers, but the ability to write well will prove useful in almost any career path you end up following.

In fact, writing will be especially important if you do end up pursuing your interests in hacktivism - you're going to need to be able to put forth compelling arguments for both your views and your activities. So why not start now? Instead of writing your paper on something you say you don't really believe in, write about what you do believe in. The point of a paper like this is to take a position on a topic and argue for it using evidence to support your claims. The subject matter is secondary.
posted by Aster at 5:08 PM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Are you drunk?

I don't see how insulting the OP addresses the question.

OP, everyone needs to learn writing skills, not just humanities majors, because everyone communicates constantly in the real world. Scientists need to be able to communicate their ideas just as well as literature professors.

I agree with suedehead and shinyshiny that you already have an interesting thesis here and need to build a systematic argument from there. Lay out specific reasons why you believe what you do and use research to support your arguments (or, alternatively, find sources who disagree with you and explain why they're wrong). Make an outline first if you find that helpful, listing your arguments one by one in whatever order makes the most sense.
posted by Lobster Garden at 5:09 PM on November 20, 2010


Try and relax a bit. Hate to break it to you, but part of college is putting up with bullshit that might or might not be relevant to your degree. Try and write about something you find interesting, and it'll come easier.

Anyway, best advice I can give you is to get started. One paragraph or topic at a time - you can worry about a beginning and end later, or you can draw up an outline before you start.
Scholarly source can also mean articles from respected journals in a field. The kind of articles that are based on actual research, and cite their sources. These are typically not editorials. My school's library had access to tons of databases - do some searching, find 5 or 6 ones you like, and save or print them. Read through them and highlight stuff you think might be relevant.
You'll probably wind up using two or three sources heavily, and not using the others much. You can typically count something as a source even if you use just one thing from it - and usually even if the thing you use can also be found in another source. It's pretty trivial to add an extra source.
Paraphrase if you must, and cite your sources appropriately. Don't ever copy anything word for word. Try and draw your own conclusions.

If word count is an issue, try and think of as many ways as you can to draw things out. Rephrase things, use more words to say simple things. Use two sentences instead of one. That sort of thing.
posted by itheearl at 5:09 PM on November 20, 2010


gray hacking

I guarantee you this professor does not know the difference between white, gray and black hat hacking. Just do a paper that describes all three and why you think gray hacking is a good thing for your career, and you're done.

Focus is your friend in communication. Hey, look at that, you're a little more well-rounded. College is fucking amazing, isn't it?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:10 PM on November 20, 2010 [12 favorites]


You're overthinking it. This is a gravy assignment. You're being defensive. Relax.

Here's a new, much more interesting assignment for you. This schmuck teacher knows one - just one - thing about thinking and writing clearly that's going to really help you out in life. Your assignment is to go see him for office hours every week until you figure out what that one thing is.
posted by facetious at 5:13 PM on November 20, 2010


...but I really don't wanna spend 1250 words writing a bunch of bullshit that I don't believe in.

A big part of becoming an Adult is the fact that no one in a position of authority over you really cares that you don't want to spend your time doing bullshit you don't want to do. They want to see it done and they want to see it done well.

My advice? Start sucking up that ego immediately, or you'll never make it out of college alive. No matter what an assignment makes you feel, at the end of the day, those words on a page still need to be handed in and still determine whether you get your degree.

Meanwhile, I'm entirely sure your school has a writing center -- my engineering university did. Try your best and take it to them and they'll give you a hand.
posted by griphus at 5:13 PM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I kinda disagree with the whole notion that STEM majors should have to take writing classes

Writing isn't really about learning to write essays, the same way that weightlifting isn't really about moving heavy objects from here to there. One use for writing classes is training yourself to be able to form a coherent argument and use it to convince others to agree with your position. From all evidence, you have no idea how to do this yet. And you will need those skills in your future career -- not in the form of essays, sure, but they're the same skills. So take the chip off your shoulder and maybe you'll learn something useful here.

This is neither a stupid nor a poorly designed paper. It sounds like it's open-ended and you have a lot of freedom as to its subject; this is to your benefit, because it means you're free to write about something you're interested in.

Choose a narrow subject. 1500 words is teeny tiny, it's not nearly enough to write about Stuxnet and chinese hackers and hacktivism and wikileaks and scientology and all the other subjects you mentioned. Pick one and focus on it. You're feeling lost right now because you're throwing fifty different ideas around and haven't settled on one yet. If your writing here is any indication, your biggest challenge is going to be staying focused and not wandering off into random unsupported irrelevancies. So I'd suggest starting with an outline and sticking closely to it.

I honestly believe hacking and illegally obtaining sensitive information of for example dual-loyal backstabbing lobbies such as AIPAC and disseminating it over the Internet for everybody to see is the best chance our country has

That's a fine start. Now write three sentences explaining what makes you believe that. Now write three sentences explaining why all right-thinking people should agree with you. Now expand all of those sentences into full paragraphs, with citations and references. Congratulations, you just wrote an essay.
posted by ook at 5:16 PM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


Okay, having been in your professor's place, I'm going to try to address the last part of your rant.

I checked out a few books from the campus library dealing with computer security and national security, and the easiest thing to do may well be just to write a paper detailing how making the nets more secure and under control is important to national security, but I really don't wanna spend 1250 words writing a bunch of bullshit that I don't believe in.

Just to give you a heads up if you're a college freshmen, this is going to be the first of many times that you might have to entertain swallowing your lumps and writing on a topic you don't believe in. 1250 words is nothing, particularly for people intended to go on to graduate-level. I mean, dude it's five pages. Seriously, nothing. And it doesn't even have to be a genuine research paper. At this point, you're just explaining why you want to do what you want to do with your life. This is more personal essay territory.

Anyway, i have no earthly idea how to turn all this into a paper, and I'm really friggin' lost.

I'm sorry. That sounds frustrating. Has the professor explained to you how to do an outline, or how to structure a "longer" paper like this? If not, a good place to start is Purdue University's online writing lab.

The guy who's assigning this is teaching at my university for the first time and said that "okay, I was thinking more in terms of the humanities when I wrote this assignment." Given that I kinda disagree with the whole notion that STEM majors should have to take writing classes on the grounds that they need to become more "well-rounded" anyway, this really kinda pissed me off.

You're wasting your emotions and energies on this. Seriously. For a bunch of reasons, namely that it's not your professors fault that you're required by the university to take a writing class, but that also, you should be glad that you are, because you need to learn these skills so you don't shit a brick every time you're assigned a five-page paper. You need to know how to do this stuff. Your professor already pretty generously modified his assignment to accommodate some of your concerns. Now's the time to take some deep breaths and actually start focusing on doing the assignment.

Liberal arts people are more supportive of that whole idea than anybody, given how much of a difference the humanities makes in changing people's prejudices and preconceived notions and attitudes and all, and here's some idiot who forgot that some fields are too difficult to understand at age 19.

Calling your professor an idiot or lumping all liberal arts people together under one umbrella isn't going to help. But anyway, your chosen field isn't too difficult for you to understand, and you're doing a lot of hemming and hawing and digging in your heels, probably because you're overwhelmed. Again, this is a waste of your energy. You will learn more from this assignment if you stop trying to resist it and instead focus on doing it well.

Anyway, does anybody out there have any advice?

Yes. The topic that you're interested broadly would work, but is probably both too broad and requires too much jargon/expertise for you to adequately cover it at this length. Here, I'll help. Your new thesis is, "I believe that my greatest contribution to my field will be through hactivism." Your basic paper format could be to, first, define hactivism. Second, give a brief history of the field of hacktivism, including at least two major events within it. Third, discuss the types of things you, specifically, would like to explore or do through hactivism.

I don't even know what hactivism is, but solid writing and organization skills means that I can know pretty instinctively that this is how a paper like this should be approached and that it will reasonably and pretty easily fill 5 pages.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:16 PM on November 20, 2010 [29 favorites]


I have nothing to add to the suggestions about what to write about, because I am very much not a computer science major, but I would suggest that maybe you're looking at this from the wrong angle. Saying that you have "a really stupid, poorly designed paper assigned" comes across as whining about the assignment, not asking for advice. If you start looking at assignments that you see as "stupid" as just something that you need to get through, you'll save yourself a lot of stress and unnecessary effort.
posted by kro at 5:19 PM on November 20, 2010


Just so you know, I wrote longer papers as a 19-year-old CS major. You can do it, and it's relevant to you if you really want to do that Masters, because the thesis you're going to have to write for that will be much longer. Best you start learning that now rather than later.

If it helps, I like to think of writing papers as being just like coding, except the language is different. Whether you're writing in C or English, for a compiler or your professor, it's all about communicating your concept/task/idea in a way your audience will understand to get the result you want.
posted by Xany at 5:29 PM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Seconding pretty much the content here-above, but not wanting to share in the somewhat negative vibe.

On the positive side, let me tell you that you're more well-written than many students I've read, so you're not in the least doomed.
However, I second the "paragraphs" remark; organization is vital. Why? Because it makes you read your own stuff easier, and ultimately helps you to write better faster. I'd add that some editing-away of stream-of-consciousness-type of sentences very soon would make you your paper. It isn't really hard at all.
Yeah, and the word count. 1500 isn't much. It may be a draggy assignment, but it could fly if you make it fly. Just as this fantastically grumpy question.

If you're in a bad mood, write at least seven subject suggestions on a piece of paper, mark them in five grades from "abysmal" via "puke" to "still pretty shitty,"
pick the one that's least shitty.

As to the content: there seems to be no call for your putting out a political program about what you're a believer in. You could collect a bunch of other people's arguments instead, about whatever you're writing about, make a neat little analysis/comparison, wedge in your personally-colored intelligent synthesis at the end, and you wouldn't have written any "bullshit" at all. You won't have place for more anyway.
posted by Namlit at 5:30 PM on November 20, 2010


How about start reading the history related to the subject and what other critic or academic say about this field? You could open with a quote and go from there by adding your own opinions and arguments.

Don't forget to accredit the sources!!!!!
posted by easilyconfused at 5:31 PM on November 20, 2010


here's some idiot who forgot that some fields are too difficult to understand at age 19

It sounds like you're intimidated by the idea of writing now about things you hope to master one day. You need to get over that. You're never going to perfectly understand any of the topics you raise here, and the best thing for you to do is to get a head start reading about them, synthesizing what you've read, forming opinions and arguments, articulating your position(s) clearly, and being open to changing your opinions and arguments as your understanding grows.

I think that it's easy, in math or CS, to view your learning as "First you learn A, and then B, and then C. You can't move on to B until you master A." If you're thinking, "I can't write about Topic ABC yet! I've barely begun to learn A!" you should look at this a different way. You haven't mastered ABC yet, but you can certainly research and write a paper on the work others have done on ABC. You can read what has been published, form an opinion, write an argument, and, in a few years when you have mastered ABC, you can look back and think, "Hey, I was kinda right," or "Wow, I was totally wrong," but what will really matter is that you started thinking about how to communicate your ideas. Effective writing is its own skill, and simply knowing a lot about a given topic (like, say, knowing a lot about computer security once you get to your PhD program) doesn't give you the tools you need to write clearly and persuasively.
posted by Meg_Murry at 5:34 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


You can start by outlining your thoughts. Just jot them down in outline form, then scratch out the parts that no longer make sense or fit in your paper, expand the parts that you think you can really support, go research each part, and then start writing. Move paragraph IV (below) to the top. When you are finished, write the first paragraph to introduce your paper's main points, and the last paragraph to summarize your main points.

Maybe right now, your outline looks like this:

What I hope to do, and why it is important
  • Background: After completing my Masters degree in computer security, I hope to do some grey hacking to gain experience and a professional reputation.
  • Main Point: The direct method of hacking and disseminating information over the Internet is the best chance for true political change in our country. Three events show that this is true, and provide information about the best methods for hacking to bring political change. My contribution will be (insert your contribution here).
I. Chinese hacking into American defense contractors
    A. First point about how this led to true political change
      1. Citation
    B. Second point about how this led to true political change
      1. Citation
    C. Specific information that supports your planned contribution
      1. Citation
II. Stuxnet virus
    A. First point about how this led to true political change
      1. Citation
    B. Second point about how this led to true political change
      1. Citation
    C. Specific information that supports your planned contribution
      1. Citation
III. Wikileaks
    ...
IV. My contribution
    A. What it will be
    B. Specific desired effect
    C. Argument that the three examples demonstrate that it will have the desired effect

posted by Houstonian at 5:34 PM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


To tack on, I should point out that when you're looking for a job, for 98% of positions:

Gifted programmer + lousy communication skills << passable programmer + passable communication skills
posted by supercres at 5:51 PM on November 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Humanities fields are also too hard to master at 19 -- any field worth studying for years is going to have a LOT to learn before you have really mastered it. That's ok. Your prof doesn't expect that you have mastery right now.

He probably intended to give you an assignment that is basically:
1. pick an academic/political/etc topic that is really interesting to you
2. learn more about it (learning a little about how to handle research articles along the way)
3. present it in a clear way to an interested audience (him).

Presenting complex ideas in a clear way is an important skill, especially if you want to do activist or political work. Have you been convinced by some of ideas of the current big names in hacktivism or net neutrality? Have you been convinced by some of the things Julian Assange has said? Presenting these ideas in a convincing and clear way is a rare skill.

It's a skill you can develop with practice. This assignment, this course, is just practice. Your prof has done you the favor of letting you pick a topic you're interested in to practice on. Great!
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:53 PM on November 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


No one is asking you to write "bullsh*t that you don't believe in." You are being asked to write a paper demonstrating that you can communicate and defend your thinking in a written format.

I am assuming you will be graded on your ability to cogently communicate your thoughts and not particularly on what those thought are as long as you can defend them.

This is why you are in college. To learn how to THINK. So, go see your instructor during office hours and pick his or her brain, and then go forth and think!
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:53 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd like to connect two of your statements:
I honestly believe hacking and illegally obtaining sensitive information ... and disseminating it over the Internet for everybody to see is the best chance our country has.
and
...the easiest thing to do may well be just to write a paper detailing how making the nets more secure and under control is important to national security...
Given that the latter statement is easier to support (and more people believe it), convincing all the non-technical people, and many technical people, of the validity of your point of view as expressed in the first statement will likely be one of the most important things you will try to do in your whole life, as well as one of the most difficult.

There is a chain of logic that starts with beliefs you hold in common with most of the world, then diverges because of information or experiences you have that most people don't have.

Statement 1 is a bit of a leap for most people. If you can find an intermediate step on the logic path that leads to it, for example "openness in general leads to better decisions" or "disseminating sensitive information isn't that bad" or "trying to control things like the Internet only leads to corruption and stagnation", ideas that underlie and lead to your statement 1, you could make a worthwhile, focused paper of reasonable scope and start building a coherent case for your larger point -- which you can work up to in later classes or on your own.

It's worth doing! And definitely worth doing in some kind of very simple, clear, vivid communicative style that actually stands a chance of being understood by all those kids you knew in high school who might or might not make it through community college. They all can vote, and when someone makes them mad, they will.
posted by amtho at 6:05 PM on November 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


1. This is not just an easy assignment, it's an awesome assignment. Seriously, of all the topics your professor could have assigned, he's picked that that directly benefits you. How cool is that? You have a structured opportunity to spend some time thinking about what you want to do with your life - the kind of thinking you should be doing anyway - and present that as a paper that someone else will actually read and presumably give feedback on. This is a gift.

2. Five pages is nothing. Twenty-five percent of your grade for an afternoon's work? This may be the easiest class you ever take as a CS major.

3. Have you ever tried to read a CS PhD thesis? You'd be surprised how accessible they are, even to undergraduates. MIT Press publishes notable dissertations. I'm sure your library has access to these.

4. What a great opportunity to talk to someone in your department about what you'd like to do, where the edges are in current security research and what you could coceivably be doing in the future and even get some suggested references. You could map out your entire paper in a quick chat with one of your CS professors.
posted by zanni at 6:14 PM on November 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


"Given that I kinda disagree with the whole notion that STEM majors should have to take writing classes on the grounds that they need to become more "well-rounded" anyway, this really kinda pissed me off."

You're not required to take writing courses to make you more well-rounded; you're required to do so because good written communication skills make it more likely that people will take you seriously. It's not a liberal-arts conspiracy. My SO, who is a doctoral candidate in mathematics, points out that good writing skills are important when it comes to writing grant proposals.

"some fields are too difficult to understand at age 19"
...and those fields aren't limited to STEM.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 6:16 PM on November 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


You have two objectives:

1. Describe a career (I'm thinking Hacktivist is your answer here.) You should tell the teacher why this job exists, what it entails on a day to day basis, and what other jobs it interacts with. Spend most of your time on what the job entails on a day to day basis. Write about 500 words on this, make sure you have a source for the term "hacktivist."

2. Explain why it's so great for humanity. What big problems does it solve, why we'd be lost without it. Reference a couple of big projects, using academic publications for your citations. Write about 750 words on this.

Don't complain about the assignment's organization or having to take a writing class. These are words fit for watching movies with your buddies, not any kind of an academic setting.

As a bonus: take a draft with you to a meeting with your professor, with three questions you need his answer on. Not "is this wording okay in my draft" but "I was thinking in terms of needing to answer X question, is that something I should be addressing?"
posted by SMPA at 7:05 PM on November 20, 2010


The idea was that it would be kind of like a mini PhD thesis paper or something. However … it would be kinda impossible for us to actually understand anything at the PhD level at this point…
Possibly due to the effort of carrying around that chip on your shoulder, you seem to have misunderstood something - it's not about writing a PhD-level paper (in 1500 words? Ha!), it's about writing a PhD-style paper. Actually, not even that - it's about writing a structured paper at the most basic of levels.

That is, a paper with a) an introduction to the subject, b) a summary of historical and current knowledge, c) the how and what of your contribution (or, in this case, what you want to contribute), and d) a discussion of how c reinforces/challenges b, and what this means to a.

As others have said, this ain't just for that humanities shit* - it's a vital and core part of communications in every field, even STEM. Nerd-yelling on science/tech blogs is a fine and amusingly useful skill, but it's nothing more than arguing from a position of authority (or, much more commonly, arrogance) - it does nothing to demonstrate or communicate an understanding of the subject. Writing an essay of the correct style for the purpose does.

And 1250~1500 words? Hell, pick even one narrow aspect and explanatory example of your subject, structure it properly, and you'll have trouble keeping it under that limit. If you don't, then I can guarantee you're missing something important.

Oh - be sure to come back here and read this AskMe when you're in the 3rd or 4th year of your undergrad, and faced with a 10~15 page (plus bibliography and attachments) paper worth 75% (and, if you're unlucky, a hard 'no exceptions / extensions possible' due date in 2 weeks time). By then, you'll understand that a 1500-word paper worth 25% is pretty much the equivalent of free marks

Sorry if some of that sounds harsh but, as a mature age student, I saw too many of my first-year cohort - especially the ones who were smart in their chosen subjects - with very similar attitudes crash, burn, and ultimately drop out. If they were lucky, they learned the lesson that "knowing all about X" != "knowing all that's necessary to become an X'ist" quickly, came back, and have now graduated. The rest? Well, afaik, they still haven't learnt that lesson - but that's only hearsay, because I generally don't eat at McDonalds…

(* Apologies to humanities majors; I'm a science type who appreciates the humanities more than many - but the "it's bullshit!" attitude is strong, particularly amongst sci/tech first years…)
posted by Pinback at 7:30 PM on November 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


1. Go to your university writing center. It is their job to help you form coherent essays from your ideas. They can take something like you wrote above, help you narrow down your topic, and can help you come up with a structure to the essay.

2. As someone with a PhD in a "hard science" I can tell you, writing effectively is a necessary skill if you want to succeed in your career. Ultimately, learning simple, clear communication skills, both in writing and speaking, will benefit you far more than most of the material you learn in your classes.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 7:51 PM on November 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I haven't read all the other comments yet, so forgive me if this is a repeat, but I actually think the assignment is more practical (less "bullshit") than you seem to think, because this right here:

a paper describing a career path we might see ourselves doing in the future, and why doing this would be important to society

is very similar to what you'll have to write for a personal statement or "statement of purpose" if you ever want to apply for grad school or a scholarship / fellowship / grant in your field.

Identifying the problems that are important to a larger community of people (in this case to "society") is one of the fundamental skills of argument. The people who get ahead in their careers, both academic and non-academic, tend to have strength in this skill. I think this assignment could turn out to be useful to you in the long run if you take the opportunity to practice making a case for why your interests and future work will matter to anyone else.
posted by Orinda at 8:21 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Given that I kinda disagree with the whole notion that STEM majors should have to take writing classes on the grounds that they need to become more "well-rounded" anyway, this really kinda pissed me off.

You'll never be able to get a Master's in CS if you don't practice writing, and writing well. In fact, some CS people are the best writers I know, not in terms of drawing readers in, but rather in clear, concise communication. They have to be: their time is maybe 40% coding, whereas the rest of the time they're writing papers, giving talks, applying for grants, reading other people's code -- or writing documentation for their own code -- all of which require good communication skills.

The reason I mention this is because I think it would be an interesting spin on your paper (and probably earn you some good graces with a humanities-oriented professor) to mention the communications breakdowns (especially between computer people and "the rest of us") that are often behind software security breaches.

You sound like you come down on the side of open source is the way to go because by exposing your work to white hat hacking, you ensure the black hats are always one step behind (check out Linus' Law, if you haven't already). I mention this to get you to think about the message boards, papers, documentation, etc., that are all essential to keeping projects like those on track -- one sloppily written sentence in an academic paper could easily turn into code that no one notices is wrong at first, but down the line leads to a security breach.
posted by lesli212 at 8:55 PM on November 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


How fast do you type? 40, 50 wpm? Half an hours work. Rattle it out, man.
posted by Sebmojo at 1:43 AM on November 21, 2010


Jesus just write a paper about the history and impact of Wikileaks and how that is enabled by hacking. Call it The Positive Impact of Illegal Hacking on Societies and there's your humanities paper.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:31 AM on November 21, 2010


Yeah, your question really comes across as suggesting that the humanities are trivial to understand without extensive postgraduate education, but STEM is not. This is not at all the case.

If anything can be said about your professor, it is that as a new teacher he may not have known how to correctly write an assignment description so that it could be understood by his students. However, from your tone it sounds equally likely that you misread it from the beginning. Few undergraduate students can write about any topic at the Ph.D. level. As LobsterMitten wrote, this is really just about researching a topic that interests you and then trying to write something coherent on it.

When you resisted this frankly trivial assignment, he lobbed a softball assignment: just write about where you see yourself in the future. You should be grateful, but more than that you should "man up" and write the original essay, and not the laughably easy "Where do you see yourself in 5 years" one. Get your hands on academic material about your subject of interest, which appears to be generally referred to as "ethical hacking" in academic circles. Here are three sources to start with:
  1. Palmer, C. C. (2010). Ethical hacking. IBM Systems Journal, 40(3), 769-780.
  2. Smith, B., Yurcik, W., & Doss, D. (2002). Ethical hacking: the security justification redux. International Symposium on Technology and Society, (ISTAS'02). (pp. 374-379).
  3. Logan, P. Y., & Clarkson, A. (2005). Teaching students to hack: curriculum issues in information security Proceedings of the 36th SIGCSE technical symposium on Computer science education (pp. 157-161). St. Louis, Missouri, USA: ACM.
I have no postgraduate experience in CS, but as someone who has read plenty of academic articles in the field, I can tell you you will absolutely need to know how to write a thesis, use references, and correctly cite them.

Incidentally, you should ask your professor which citation format he wants you to use. If he doesn't care, you should use the APA citation format as that is the one most commonly used in your field.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:42 AM on November 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


If word count is an issue, try and think of as many ways as you can to draw things out. Rephrase things, use more words to say simple things. Use two sentences instead of one. That sort of thing.

Don't do this. You should learn how to gather a lot of information, distill it, and present it concisely. If you have too few words, you have gathered too little information and have not presented enough arguments. At some point you will encounter (or should encounter!) a situation where you find you are actually being limited by the expected word count (i.e. "no more than 2250 words" or something). At that point, you will need to know how to choose the most pertinent information and how to present it breviloquently.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:16 AM on November 21, 2010 [5 favorites]


Three things:

1) "thus it would be kinda impossible for us to actually understand anything at the PhD level at this point"

The basic problem statements and much of the associated proofs of complexity theory at a PhD level are understandable by most anyone with a bit of research.

2) My personal experience as a professional in CS has been that I write a lot of text. Emails supporting your positions to colleagues, documentation, line-by-line analysis of code, more emails to peers, enormous comments in API files, white papers, design documents. It just keeps coming. Being able to present and back up your arguments, convince others, and be convinced yourself is a day-to-day endeavor in professional life.

3) The experience of ex-professors and PhD students and almost-PhDs that I work with is they write (or wrote) reams of text in the academic world. Emails to and from advisors, grant proposals, and (this outweighs almost everything else) papers you publish. Which are, frankly, enormous. Being able to present and back up your arguments, convince others, and be convinced yourself is a day-to-day endeavor in academic life.

4) This one is a bit strange, and mildly tangential. You will, at some point, find your past self trying to convince your current self of something by your previous writing. You will have forgotten why you did or believed some thing, and the only way you'll be able to re-convince yourself that you weren't being a total idiot by doing something stupid is by the written word. Short of making a lot of audio diaries, there is no other way to do it. So, don't embarras your future self: learn to write well.

5) You are a freshman in college. I went into college with a certain view of what I'd end up doing. It didn't work out that way. I am, quite honestly, glad it didn't. I didn't, however, ever really actively research the opportunity cost of my current career path vs. the one I gave up. I should have. Having your professor more or less make you isn't a terribly bad thing. You might figure out that the actual day-to-day work of the career you are proposing (which isn't particularly clear from your question) would drive you to insanity. College is the time to figure out what you want to do, and train to do it. It is useful to choose something that is very remunerative, but not essential.

6) You checked out books from a library? That's sort of awesomely quaint.

7) Ok. Seven things. Mea culpa.
posted by enkiwa at 8:28 AM on November 21, 2010


In your field, books may already be outdated by the time they're published. If you haven't taken a look at your library's journal databases, call or email the librarian who specializes in that at your library and ask them to show you some of the best databases and journals in your field. You'll get fresher material that way.
posted by telophase at 1:45 PM on November 22, 2010


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