On Intentionality or How I Aced My First Academic Paper for the Semester

I’ve tried so hard to overcome my fear of reporting in class. Perhaps this stems from my being too hard on myself, miscalculating the amount of effort and time needed to carry out the plan, and having a couple of traumatic memories wherein I did not live up to my expectations of a good report.

I knew I had to begin somewhere. Being in grad school, there’s just no way around this requirement, hence it’s consoling that I have come across the work of Lee Shulman and his study on the nomenclature employed in Jewish synagogue schools. He looked for clues as to why we call the stages of higher education formal schooling as bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate. To put simply, it means that, at one point, you’re perennially on the “receiving” end, then later, you resourcefully navigate your way towards being on the giving side. You reach a time when you will have to generate new knowledge. In the academe, we encapsulate this process in a manuscript we often call ‘thesis’. One gets it right away: justice (which means right relations). We benefit from those who have come before us, who did their own share of spadework and sleepless nights, hence, we do the same for the next generation. We are the sum of many parts, we stand on the shoulder of giants, and it is only proper that we give back.

I make it a point to carry this mindset with me whenever I go to class. Whenever there are times when I miss high-intensity, theory-laden, intellectual discussions with my Martian friends, and hope that my classmates and I could reach that level of discourse, I no longer give myself the chance to complain or look for what seems to be unattainable at the moment. Instead, I confront this difficulty and raise the hard questions myself, and offer my half-baked postulates on the hard questions others dare to ask inside the classroom. The fulfillment of the learning outcome must be a shared responsibility. It’s not solely on the teacher.

This is also what I kept in mind while I was preparing for the Report. My teacher gave me Analytic Philosophy for a topic, and I immediately started working. My first tip (from a book on How to Write Philosophical Papers): “Start right away.”

I read through every material available to me, created a Google doc and a bit link so that I can go back to it any time of the day or as soon as an idea visits me, and carved out space for thinking and writing time. This is a combination of tips I had gained from materials of Cal Newport, Steven Pressfield, Anne Lamott and Adam Grant.

I also went to my teacher for guidance. This provided me the confidence that I need to show up the day of my report. I knew my anxiety was just lurking around, so I was so vigilant that I made sure I was not going to give it any inkling it could walk over me and make me lose my game. My teacher affirmed me, gave me the creative license to design the paper as I visualized it in my head, and pointed out inconsistencies in my arguments in order for me to achieve coherence and clarity.

I was dead serious when I said I wanted to get a flat one/high grade for that paper. Let’s just say I tinkered with APA while inside the airport, editing in-line citations using my smart phone, and had to cut short a business trip to make it at 1:00 AM in NAIA for a report at 11:30 AM the same day. It was crazy, and I thank God for sustaining me.

And after three weeks of reading and writing, and making sure that I achieve mastery despite perceived constraints, I did it. I got the grade. The thing is, the grade mattered less than the person I have become, and the self-efficacy I had gained through deliberately subjecting myself to the process.

After the report, my classmates walked up to me to thank me. They felt that the discussion was a breeze. They understood Wittgenstein, Russell, G.E. Moore and the Vienna Circle; they were able to reflect on their teaching and learning processes. This is invaluable. This is what matters more than the grade — learning, connecting with others, sharing oneself, and having the courage to offer ways of seeing and doing things.

Here are the things I could have done but did not:

  1. ANTS — automatic negative thoughts or harking back to the times I failed, and giving myself an excuse to fail again. This is reasoning by analogy gone completely awry.
  2. Underestimating the amount of hours needed to carry out the job a.k.a. procrastinating— recalling the times I managed to whip up a paper overnight and nailed it. (That was 10 years ago when I could still pull of an all-nighter without getting sick the next day). Besides, I own it: I should not be proud in saying that taking shortcuts has earned me something other people would normally spend days on. This is not honorable. Hard work trumps talent. Talent without hard work reeks of entitlement, hard work without talent will not give up too easily. We have a better shot with the latter than with relying on our loot from genetic lottery.
  3. Comparing myself with others — I did work hard at it. Not focusing on negative thoughts helped me focus more on what needs to be done. I shushed my meta and showed up. To keep my anxiety at bay, I stopped comparing myself to people. I focused on what I have: I used my own words and did not succumb to the pressure of wanting to sound like Dostoyevsky, did all my drafts badly, then rewrote myself out of the initial discomfort of composing a decent academic paper.
  4. Thinking it’s all about me— the best way to learn is to give. Give oneself, give what one has. Offer answers no matter how crude they are. Teachers appreciate this. I recite not for the grade, but out of respect for the process. I don’t need people to validate my contributions. I will not keep from them what I think might be beneficial for them, and what I feel is just an expression of honesty towards myself. 
    The classroom and the learning process in it is just a sterilized version of a drinking session. You learn as much from both, but pubs and bars don’t churn out certifications or degrees. So it’s best if you have access to both and glean from both paradigms insights that could enhance your view of life and life itself.
    I knew that I wanted to offer something good to my classmates. Good writing is helpful. If I do well, then, the process will be easier for them. Clarity is achieved and a more meaningful discussion may take place; instead of using up the first thirty minutes what should have been clear in the paper, we were able to move on to nuancing ideas and reflecting on what we think is more morally attuned to us as persons.
  5. Resisting — there is no better option than to face your fears and go beyond perceived limitations. I take my cue from Martha C. Nussbaum who when faced with difficulties is all the more drawn towards its direction. She confronts challenges, dissonances, and confusion with an elaborate sensitivity towards inquiry. It’s like hearing someone tell you, “You’re a liberal arts graduate, you’ll never be good at Math.” Then taking on this attitude, you begin to expand your horizon of thinking and ask, “Says who?” or “Why do you think so? Where are you coming from?”

Truth-conduciveness is what I love most about philosophers. Never mind that the truth might hurt, but please hand it to me anyway. Carl Sagan (1987) puts it more eloquently:

“If some good evidence for life after death were announced, I’d be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote. As with the face on Mars and alien abductions, better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy. And in the final tolling it often turns out that the facts are more comforting than the fantasy.”

(Carl Sagan 1996 The Fine Art of Baloney Detection. Chapter 12 in Sagan (1996) The Demon-Haunted World)

This, then, gives a glimpse into the Stoic mindset, which I think might come in handy for us, Students of Life. If failure is that which I am most fearful of, then let me welcome this possibility. I understand it will be painful and that there’s a chance that I might lose the admiration of my peers. But let me not lose sight of what matters: that I first begin to try overcome negative perceptions — especially those I have towards my own self — and to give myself the chance to work really hard to achieve great work. These are far more important than getting other people’s validation. In this way, you can muster enough courage to forego the possibility of being ‘the best’, and instead, find joy in knowing deep within yourself that you are ‘the most improved’ or even better, ‘the most vulnerable and generous’.

You can win on your own terms, and invite others to rethink the game. Rules are logical. Logic is common-sense that does not shy away from difficulty.

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