Monday, December 14, 2009

Finished my finals, wrote a paper about it.

5:00 today marked the deadline for my last three finals of fall semester. FREEDOM! How do I choose to spend this freedom? Drinking beer and rearranging files on my hard drives. It's actually really interesting to dig through the stacks of folders and unnamed .txt files that accumulate over the span of a semester (though I wouldn't want you to get the impression that I clean up my computer files after every semester- this is just a relatively new computer and I haven't had time to properly clutter it beyond all hope) It's almost nostalgic to open up half finished Word documents, scattered images I absolutely had to right-click-save-as and music I forgot to move into my directory. It transports you back in time to the many hours spent wasting away in front of this bright little machine: for all intensive purposes, useless but entertaining.

Anyhow, the reason I mention this is to draw attention to a particular file I came across. Stored in E:\Words\TODO\finals08fall\ I found a paper entitled "A Compilation of Neurophysiological Evidence for Functional Word Webs from Pulvermüller’s The Neuroscience of Language." Some fun facts about this document: it was completed on May 4, 2008 at 4:11 in the morning, it weighs in at 15 pages (14 excluding references), and in a twist I can only describe as painfully ironic, I have no recollection of writing it. At all.

This reminds me of a conversation I was having a few days ago (or earlier today... attempting to understand how time perception works during finals is futile). What purpose do final papers serve, exactly? They are supposed to be the culmination of an entire semester's worth of information, applied to a topic of our choosing. But for what? To prove to the professor that we learned something? To show we can integrate information and regurgitate it in an organized manner? To expand the knowledge base of an academic field? Yes and no (to which question?? Who knows!).
The idea that I could have no tangible memories of something I spent 15 pages discussing baffled me, and this has led me to devise a theory on paper writing- of course.
First of all, papers you are not personally interested in are just exercises in bullshitting. I'd say this comprises an unfortunate amount of my schoolwork, and each one has made me faster, more efficient, and more jaded.
But then, there is the second type of paper: one that you do attach some significance to, (whether or not this is reflected in the amount of time you spend on it. whoops.) My new theory about paper writing is that researching for this kind of paper really is as helpful to the process of learning as sitting in on a professor's lecture. You delve into the world of scholarly books (or more often, .pdfs) in search of information to absorb, analyze, piece together, and spit back out in narrative form. Assuming you don't go through a research project copy-pasting your way from source to source, you're forced to analyze and evaluate in your own words. Definitely an effective model for learning. I guess you technically do the same thing in the papers you bullshit, but for some reason, I feel like there is a different level of processing. Bullshit requires only training and peripheral brain power.

So as much as I want to complain about paper writing during finals, I think I'm finally starting to appreciate the concept. Maybe it's because I actually enjoyed the topics for my 12 and 15 pagers this semester (both completed above the minimal page count!). Or maybe it was finding a final from the spring of my sophomore year and having absolutely no mental reaction to the paper's title. Reading through the document, I know it's mine, but the information all sounds remarkably self-evident (well of course stimulus activation patterns have helped us develop neural models of functional word webs...). Instead of seeing this as evidence the paper was an employment of effective bullshitting, I'm choosing to interpret this as a sign that the amount of time and energy I spent on the subject matter deeply ingrained the information into my skull. I can no longer tell where my prior knowledge starts and stops- what I learned writing that final is now a fundamental part of how I understand and conceptualize the world. (Well, that, and I'm sure the paper-accompanying coffee binges weren't great for conscious retrieval.)

So for now, that's going to be my theory. Humans seem to be capable of convincing themselves of just about anything (like me convincing myself that writing a blog post about final papers was a good idea), it makes perfect sense that the very act of devoting so much time and energy to a 15+ page bundle of words could slightly alter our worldview (learning?).
Then again, maybe that's just me. a) Because I have a terrible memory and feel the need to grasp at the air for explanation. b) Because my brain still hasn't quite recovered from finishing finals up and I'm not physically capable of making sense. Maybe I should check back in two years and see if I remember writing my fall 09 finals*. Ha.

Okay, so where was I? OH RIGHT. This is why my computer files never get cleaned up.

* Just in case anyone cared AND because I'm proud of them AND because they make myself sound super cool:

Paper 1:
A Neurobiological Approach to the Treatment of Psychopathy: Theoretical Overview and Proposed Experiment (the experiment I propose is: Measuring Selective Attention to Angry and Fearful Faces after Repetitive Transcranial Magnitic Stimulation at the Prefrontal Cortex)

Paper 2:
Evaluating Wikipedia: Issues and Solutions in Technology, Policy, and Application