What’s the worst you’ve done? An essay written in the six hours before class? Submitted on Moodle in the final 28 seconds? I’ve found myself in those situations more often than I’d like to admit, including when I wrote this reflection when I should have been frantically writing an English essay. But procrastinating comes as naturally to some students as flying does to birds. It’s the aftermath of the shoddy essay that gets to me — the warm afterglow of fellow classmates blushing and not-so-bashfully admitting (or bragging) that they wrote their essay at the 11th-and-a-half hour.
I’m not sure if this group confession is more an exercise in camaraderie or in commiseration. On one hand, I feel relieved: you, too, know the struggle of hacking up an essay the night before it’s due! On the other hand, my peers’ poor planning makes me feel better about my own mediocre time management: I’m glad I’m not as bad as this kid. Some students do, however, suffer from anxiety or other conditions that might keep them from working in a timely manner. This bonding moment sometimes verges on schadenfreude, my own guilt lessened by the knowledge that others gut themselves academically as well.
What this habit has become, more than anything else, is a way to veil my disappointment. Distress turns into a badge of honor. When classmates ask the innocuous question, “How did your essay go?” it’s easier to smirk than say what’s really on my mind: “I handed in shit on a silver platter.” Even I believed my own tricks for a while. Laziness transformed to cunning, and I am able to sleep easier.
Probably the worst part is that the grade I receive is often better than the grade I think I deserve. In the week leading up to professors returning papers, letters circle in my mind: B-. C. The grades I make are almost always better than that, justifying my horrible habits. Apparently my madness makes for an effective method. My decent grades reinforce the fact that I can get by.
That’s where the real guilt comes from. While I fret I’m submitting middle-school-grade writing, remorse oozes from the knowledge of lost opportunities. If I’d taken every single writing assignment seriously — spent days planning and talking with professors — my prose could be sparkling by now. My arguments could be watertight. I could be a master of language, not a master of bullshit. Even worse, if my crap merits a decent grade, my best work could have earned me an A+. I’ve found my pain swinging the other way recently. It stings to hear someone else say, “I worked on this essay every day for four weeks.”
Some students can maintain a 4.0 GPA with shoddy essays, and it’s impossible for students to remain sane while putting 100 percent into each class at the expense of health, friends and extracurriculars. Something’s got to give, and for some students it’s the time they put into their work. So when faced with mediocre work, many of us choose to disguise our disappointment with nonchalance. More often, it’s for ourselves rather than for others.
So what to do? It’s less than two weeks until the semester ends. Finals are nigh. The solution is different for everybody. Maybe it’s ramping up work time. Maybe it’s relaxing. For me, the answer will probably come from finding something that compels me to want to do good work: from sniffing out an essay thesis I believe in rather than one that reeks of last-minute nonsense. During the commiseration ritual, I won’t humblebrag about this one essay I slaved over for days; but if someone asks, “How was your essay?” I can reply honestly, “I’m happy with it.” Not everything will be gold; there will be some silver and bronze and tin foil in there, too. But if I can produce one piece that I sweated over and won’t have to lie about through my teeth, I will leave the Hill happy.
Elana Spivack is an English and Spanish literature double major from Closter, N.J. Contact her at email@example.com.