Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Exponentially Better than My Girst Drafe

I teach research writing, and I require most classes to submit "cover letters" with their essays--I ask them specific questions about how they think they did, what about the writing process troubled them, and these letters help me comment more effectively on their work. Cover letters tend to truly reflect the mood they're in before they turn in a paper. Some are exultant, some morose, some brown-nosing, and so on. They're one of my favorite parts about teaching.

Recently, a student turned in a final draft of a paper. The cover letter began with the sentence:

"Having finished my paper, I feel as if the final draft is exponentially better than my girst drafe."

This sentence struck me as an incredible microcosm of the arrogance and anxieties of my first-year writing students. So I'll deconstruct it here.

"Having finished my paper"
The student feels relief at meeting her deadline, however, she's still not convinced of a process-oriented approach to writing. She thinks this one is DONE, and the fluidity of writing suddenly gets codified, stabilized, by her notion that this paper is going to never change.

"I feel as if"
This student, like many I meet, uses "feeling words" and opinion words instead of arguing clearly for a position. Either this draft is more effective, according to certain criteria, or it isn't. She feels as if it is, which means if I argue with her, I have to carefully address her feelings. We might disagree on whether the paper is effective, but she's allowed to feel whatever she wants. Using "I feel" instead of "this is" makes people seem less certain, and less authoritative. It also protects her from having to change her position. I see this very often in classroom discussion too--students are careful not to openly dissent, for fear of getting in trouble with me or their classmates. They tie their identity into everything, so disagreements are always personal. It's difficult to help them untangle their notions of "who I am" from "what conclusions I've drawn from the evidence I perceive."

"the final draft is exponentially better"
She's hopeful! She worked hard! She wants to show me that she's engaged in the revision process! These are great things. It's possible, though, that she would balk at doing another rewrite, because she believes she's already fixed everything possible. It's rare for these papers to get that much better in one revision, and it's more likely that she's changed a number of sentences around, not truly rethought her ideas.

"than my girst drafe"
This student used the word "exponentially," and correctly used "than" instead of "then," but has two typos in a row? An idiosyncratic and hilarious mistake. But who really cares about her first draft, when now we can imagine what a girst drafe might be. The arrogance here is that many students do not read over their work at all before turning it in. They don't see the need for proofreading. They don't quite understand the importance of their presentation. It's not about being boringly professional, it's about being conscious. Aware. Making real decisions about what others see.

By the way, she wrote a nice paper--I think it was a B+.

So my most favorite gem to come from this experience:
What is a Girst Drafe? Let's invent some.


  1. oh my god, this made me laugh outloud SO hard. i'll give it a shot. here goes:

    girst drafe: N. The callouses on one's feet that develop only from ballet dancing. One may get callouses on their feet from any other any source or action, but the girst drafe is a specific kind of callous that is caused directly from ballet dancing.
    "Having finished my paper, I feel as if the final draft is exponentially better than my girst drafe, which is so unsightly that I want to throw up all over my mother's drapes."

    - Tom

  2. It sounds almost German to me. I think that a Girst Drafe might be a historical figure who has now become a kind of cultural icon that you use as in insult. Girst Drafe was an old landowner who used to eat rocks and constantly complain about the pain. So, you call someone "A Girst Drafe" when they're self-sabotaging and still asking for compassion.
    Person 1: Man, I wish I was famous.
    Person 2: Did go to that audition I told you about?
    Person 1: Nah, acting is for plebians.
    Person 2: You're such a Girst Drafe.

    Also, I think the pronunciation is: gurst drayf

    what else could it be?

  3. hi vanessa
    likljo here
    brilliant insight
    im just into wrting kids books at the mo
    i have an editor but no publisher YET
    so interesting insight
    as for girst drafe
    grat name for a writer!

  4. An excellent post, Vanessa. The "I feel" verse "this is" examination seems to go far beyond the freshman classroom and into patterns found in most people's language when they are discussing issues that make them feel uncomfortable or insecure. Or if they're trying to prevent people from viewing them as arrogant. "I think" and "I feel" are cushions used to soften your stance and make it more acceptable to the social world.

    "I think Bob Dylan is one of the greatest artists ever," seems much less pretentious than "Bob Dylan is one of the fucking greatest artists ever." But the second statement is much more interesting.

    As for girst drafe...

    I love the answers already given, but how can it be used as a verb? I girst drafed all night long. Sounds like a form of dry humping to me, like when two thirteen year-olds wearing corduroy become infatuated and produce a sound like rusted machinery trying to start in a musty basement.

    Something like that... I'll give it more thought.