Ever wonder why you didn't get an A on your English 111 final paper? You dutifully attended 90% of your lectures, spoke up in discussion, and didn't make fun of your professor when he told you about how a cow named Betsy dry humped him one morning (yes, a cow). You've played all your cards right, but you still got a shitty B on your final paper.

Want to know why?

First, always remember the TAs do the grading. That old, bovine-molested prune with the phd? He doesn't do shit. He shows up twice a week with a cup of coffee and rants about whatever boring novel you've read, usually off the top of his head. That's all he does. The TAs do all the work. They know your face, grade your papers, and listen to the pathetic losers who whine about their midterm grades.

So if you want an A, this is what you do:

Get To Know Your TA.

Not in the biblical sense, though I suppose it couldn't hurt. If the TA likes you, it'll mean the difference between an A minus and an A. Hell, it could mean the difference between a B plus and an A. But be warned: the inverse also applies, so don't piss them off. Just get to know them. It isn't hard. Talking in discussion helps, but also staying after class and shooting the shit will do the trick. Just be cool. Say hi when you see them walking around campus. Buy them a beer if you see them at the pub. Be cool.

Understand How They Grade Your Papers

This means knowing the difference between what everyone thinks and reality.

  • WHAT EVERYONE THINKS:

    Your TA sits in their office and reads each paper with equal interest and time, then grades them with an impartial, almost robotic consideration.

  • REALITY:

    1. TAs are almost always grad students. They usually have two or three 20-page papers to write at the end of the semester, and hence consider reading your drivel a time-consuming pain in the ass.

    2. 80% of the time they know your grade after the first 2-3 pages. If page 4 is more of the same plot-summarizing crap, they'll stop reading and write a big fat B on the front and be done with it. Why a B? Because if it's a shitty paper, they know the student probably wrote it during an all nighter, and will happily settle for a B without complaining, which would question whether or not the TA actually read the paper. See #1 for why.

    3. TAs read your papers while half-asleep in bed. They read them while watching TV. They read them between quarters of John Madden Football. They read them while sitting on the porcelain throne, and yes, personal plumbing may effect your grade. That's just the breaks.

The Quality of Your Paper Matters

Without a decent amount of intelligence and effort, your chances of getting an A are about as good as a mass-murdering fuckhead like Henry Kissinger winning a Nobel Peace Prize. Err, scratch that. Bad allusion. Seriously, a quality-written paper means everything. Despite the cyncial tone of this write-up, you'll never get an A without quality writing.

However, "quality" doesn't mean using tons of secondary literature and snappy illustrations. It means knowing how to write. See Sockpuppet and jmc's write-ups at How to write an "A" paper with minimal effort. Also try to adhere to the following words of wisdom:

It's All About the Writing, Man.

Seriously, as noted above, it's really all about your writing. If your writing is flimsy and ill-crafted, you won't stand a chance at an A. But if you are a decent writer, and can't figure out why you've been scoring nothing but B pluses and A minuses, then the above suggestions could help you tip the scales.


Just one note for those who misread this as a nasty attack on the English profession: I am an English TA. Trust me, I've heard about or witnessed everything in this node, including the story about the cow dry humping the professor (I HEARD that one).

A number of my classmates often wondered why they got a C on their English final research paper. Most attended nearly 100% of the lectures and scored a good solid C or B on each test. They shot the shit with the TA and laughed at the professor’s jokes about international culture and European travel, but at the end of the quarter they failed to earn the easy A on the 10-page research assignment.

What the hell happened?

Above all, they seemed to forget that the TA didn't touch their work. She was too busy doing assignments that were relevant to her career and they wasted some of their beer on her, the poor sods.

The middle-aged professional Renaissance lutenist and music historian with the doctorate--my professor, of course--did all of the work.

Here is the best way to learn how to earn the easy A: find out from the professor. No bribery is necessary, and they turn out to be a better person to shoot the shit with anyway. If there’s nothing to talk about, it might be helpful to bring your paper topic and outline to him well before the due date so he can tell you what works and what could be different. It is possible that he might even recommend a source or two. Do your own research and share your sources, as he is probably familiar with them.

Now, all that must be done is to write a well-written and properly-formatted paper while following the outline. Writing well is covered elsewhere, but doesn't the professor have guidelines?

Understand how the professor grades your paper

At the time, it seemed to be a difference between what some of my classmates thought and reality. I admit, though, my professor did not help much. All he did was put every word of it in the syllabus, right under our noses, and laugh at us when we didn’t notice. It almost seems like some kind of sick joke that he rehashes on the new class each year.

Following the guidelines is imperative

My professor had a five page paper evaluation that included everything he might nickel and dime in our truly sorry-ass assignments. They were even put into categories: content (e.g. "lack of musical examples"), organization (e.g. "does not follow outline"), sources (e.g. "excessive reliance on the textbook"), bibliography (e.g. "punctuation"), footnotes (e.g. "formatting of footnote reference in text"), quotations (e.g. "no introduction to quote"), paper format (e.g "foreign terms not italicized"), mechanics & grammar (e.g. "number agreement"), and style (e.g. "too many repeated words or phrases"). I got hooked up with this document after much intense website navigation, but allegedly it could sometimes be found on the piano after class.

Here are some common mistakes to avoid:

  • Use MLA even though the professor asked for Bellman and will probably barf when he sees your citations.

  • Use Arial and 2.2 spacing to get those extra few inches on the paper.

  • Completely ignore the margins the professor asked for.

But, it's still all about the writing

Excellent. Now you have a clean slate--a mental template for the perfectly-formatted paper that excruciatingly follows the professor's personal rubrick--and all you have to deliver is a well-written piece. You know how to do that, though.

Undergrads can be cynical, too.

    With spots of sunny openings, and with nooks
    To lie and read in, sloping into brooks.
    -Leigh Hunt (1784–1859)

James Leigh Hunt’s literary fame rests chiefly on his miscellaneous light essays including The Story of Rimini (1816), based on the love of Paolo and Francesca, is his only long poem of consequence from whence this opening quote came. A noted dramatic and literary critic, he was a friend of and one of the first to praise the genius of Shelley and Keats. They could dress pages with lexicon that makes the heart dance.

I love to read. Cereal boxes, shampoo ingredients and To Kill A Mockingbird. Does not matter. My father lost track of me in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum in San Francisco. I insisted on reading every single blurb written for each item on display. Hours went by, they went for ice cream, when they came back they found me enraptured over a cow lick that had been licked into the shape of an swastika.

Then along came my teacher for my reading course in the College of Education at the University of Arizona. She was weird and rude. She wouldn’t let the blind student audiotape her class. Kicked him out. Told him her lectures were copyrighted.

“Geez, this will be rough,” I thought.

Three fourths of the time I had no idea why she was lecturing about the subject she was on. It was never about reading at all. She would talk about aborigines, do some example of how they hunted on the board and then assign homework.

The worst homework assignment ever

The most horrible one was to write down everything we read for one day. I did this for about two hours. “On” and “Off” for the light switches, bill boards while I drove down the street, license tags, the bottom of the tissue box. This was agonizingly hard work. I put it away and continued reading surrounded by the guilt of not writing it all down. I picked up the four pages, front and back, I had already written-- and reread it. Then realized this would have to all have to be written down again. It was ridiculous. There was no getting away from it. For the rest of the day brittle shame hung on every word I read and did not write down.

I turned the four pages in and got a C.

I had hated my beloved reading abilities for a day only to gain a small inkling of how frustrating life is for anyone who struggles with it.

For our final she handed out examples of other student’s works that had gotten an A. We were befuddled. One was a biology test; another some nonsensical puzzle.

It was at the library when the idea stuck that I could make a book. This was a reading course after all. I would mirror back her teaching method. Lecture, show a sample, and give an assignment. I didn't know what else to do.

One chapter was about crossword puzzles. I wrote a small summary defining what one was, cut and pasted a puzzle I had solved from the newspaper and the next page was a blank crossword puzzle for the reader to solve.

Another chapter was about how to draw a horse. I drew the horse numbering the pencil strokes in order and on the next page was a beginning sample with several missing strokes for the reader to fill in the rest and so on.

It even had a cover, a chapter list, and an index.

The teacher wrote, “You forgot to include a bibliography. A+ See me after class.”

I don’t have that paper anymore. She asked if she could keep it as an example to mystify her future classes with.

It was at that point that I knew exactly what it takes to be a teacher.

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