I had a fantastically eccentric English teacher in secondary school. She dressed like she’d just stepped off the catwalk at the Wearable Art Awards, all swirling colours and structural hats. She brought her poodle to class every day; then looked the other way as we threw tennis balls to it from our desks. The whole class loved her.
Aside from the hats and poodle, she brought to her classroom two memorable things: an obvious love of reading, and a complete disregard for exams.
The latter was perhaps unsurprising; anyone who has taught creative subjects for a long time must surely grow wary of the grinding assessment machine that takes young people and turns their thoughts, dreams, and poetry into numerical scores.
But this teacher was especially cynical, and one piece of her advice stuck in my craw. Paraphrasing from my shoddy memory of what she said 20 years ago, it was roughly this:
‘Don’t bother crafting answers specifically to the essay questions. Just prepare general all-purpose essays in advance, and shoehorn* them into whatever question appears in the exam.’
This seemed sacrilegious. How could I possibly give thoughtful and reasoned answers to exam questions if I prepared my answers without knowing what the questions would be? Shoehorning my answers to fit a question? I mean: a shoehorn has it’s place, but it can’t get the shoe on if it’s not the right size for the foot.
I ignored my teacher’s advice completely. I studied hard, performed well (enough) in the exam with essay answers that directly addressed the questions, and moved on.
Throughout an undergraduate degree in English, and then a Masters and a PhD, I continued ignoring my former teacher’s advice. I worked myself ragged making sure that everything I ever wrote was carefully crafted and meticulously tailored to its purpose. For my undergrad exams, I even memorized exact wording and page numbers for dozens of key quotes so I could cite my sources correctly under exam conditions. And, because I continued getting good grades and good feedback, I felt this approach was working.
But might I have misjudged this seemingly-bad advice? The one undeniable fact about my teacher’s recommended approach is that it’s incredibly time efficient. Preparing flexible set essays is much more manageable than preparing for every possible essay question (a strategy that has frankly worn me out at times). And there is definitely a skill in finding the angle that makes your prepared material relevant to a previously unknown question.
What I realize now is that many productive academics actually employ a version of my former teacher’s advice. When publishing, presenting at conferences, or giving lectures, they don’t build from scratch every time. They don’t toil in complete deference to a journal’s or conference’s prompts, and they don’t wait around for that elusive call for papers that perfectly matches their niche. Rather, they polish a core body of original, high-quality work, and they find the points of relevance when adapting it to various dissemination channels.
In the world of academic research, we don’t labour for good grades. We are judged on both the quality and quantity of our output. And while academics will (and do) debate whether a quantity focus is appropriate, the bottom line is that efficiency matters. I think, in retrospect, I’ve thrown away far too many opportunities for dissemination because I pre-judged my work to not perfectly fit a particular journal or conference. I could have shoehorned.
And so, with the benefit of experience, I have to mentally apologize to my delightful former teacher. She had a point. Sure, it’s important to find shoes that fit our feet; but sometimes, a pair slightly too big or too small can be good enough to keep us walking forward.
*For those young enough to have never encountered a shoehorn, it’s a curved tool used for easing one’s foot into a tight shoe.