Whatever happens to student essays?

Way back in the last century when I was a student, and the highest form of technology that existed in terms of me and my essays was an ancient typewriter, I discovered a couple of tricks to help me with my compositions.

The first involved getting all the books and articles that seemed relevant to the topic and photocopying the pages that contained the good bits. A touch expensive on a student budget (given the relative price of copying in those days), but worth it.

Then I would look at all the information that I had and try to organise it into sections.  So, if I had an essay to write on the causes of the First World War, I might start sketching a list such as:

  1. German foreign policy
  2. British Empire policy
  3. British newspaper attitudes prior to the war
  4. Public opinion
  5. Armaments
  6. Pressure of time – now, or later?
  7. Setting up of MI5 and MI6 in 1910.

And so on. 

Then I would cut up all the photocopies that I had made and put them in piles – each pile representing one of the sections.  Sometimes a section turned out to have nothing much in it, so could be cut. Sometimes a section could turn out to have too much in it, and would need to be cut into two sections.

So the process would go on, and then I would sit down and type up my essay on a machine that was some thirty or more years old.

Sometimes, however, I ended up with not enough information at all.  That left me with the choice of either having to go back to the library and do some more photocopying, or trying to say something original.

Since my tutors tended to look upon originality as one of the more heinous crimes within the lexicon, I was invariably forced back to finding more material.  Except that since I tended to leave essay writing until the last moment I often found myself in a room covered in cut-up bits of paper but with the library having very firmly shut its doors for the night.

Which meant I needed another solution.

The idea I hit upon was, I am sure, hardly original, but it was useful.  What I would do was write the title of the essay, my name, and the course details on a separate page.  That added one sheet of paper.

Then I would go over to 1.5 spacing instead of single spacing.  Also the margins were expanded on all four sides.  In the end the essay looked longer even though it wasn’t.

Last but by no means least I would type the headings of each section with a double space above and below, at the head of each section.  This would make the essay take up extra space and give it extra gravitas.   (At least that was my feeling).  The headings looked like I had done some real planning (which up to a point I had).

Now because this was before the days of digitalisation, the tutor would not be able to see at once how long the essay was.  It just looked longer.

Also no one ever accused me of plagiarism because I actually re-wrote as I went – I never copied line by line.  And, of course, no software existed in order to search for plagiarism.  (Today students tend just to do cut and paste and then slurp it all together in one muddle.)

And thus it was that I meandered through my educational career and gradually got whatever qualifications they were handing out at the time.

I often wonder what happened to those essays.  I have a feeling that the university actually photocopied them, themselves, so that if there was ever an argument about ability and course work marks they would have something to refer to.

Where are they now, I wonder?   Would it not be amusing if some of them are actually stored in the Admiral warehouses!

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