A couple times yesterday, I thought about college research papers, specifically papers for two general education English courses where the point was to learn to put together a paper, not necessarily research anything of value.
The first instance came when I saw a graphic on Facebook detailing citation styles for information gleaned from new media. In other words, if you quote from a blog post in a paper, how do you cite it? And how do you list it in your sources? The graphic covered blog posts, Facebook posts, tweets and a few other new media sources, and it listed citation styles for both Modern Library Association and American Psychological Association formats.
And then yesterday, as my physical therapist gave my strained right elbow an ultrasound treatment, she and I were discussing Attention Deficit Disorder, which I have and which she thought her daughter might have. She mentioned, among a number of examples, that her daughter has difficulty planning ahead and making sure school work – both routine assignments and major projects like research papers – is started and completed on time.
(If that seems like a little bit of an odd conversation for a physical therapist and her patient, well, I thought so, too, but it was also an opportunity for me to reinforce a parent’s decision to consider and to deal with a child’s ADD. Having dealt with the condition all my life – and it made my elementary and junior high school years more difficult than they needed to be, undiagnosed as it was – I’m perfectly willing to listen and provide that reinforcement if I can help even one young person have an easier time dealing with ADD than I did.)
Anyway, those two reminders of research papers took me back to the spring of 1972 and English 162 at St. Cloud State, when I was given the task of writing a research paper on any serious topic; the goal was not, of course, mastery of the topic but rather to learn how to structure such a paper and how to handle notes and citations. Wanting to write about something that was interesting as well as serious enough to gain my instructor’s approval, I chose to write about references to drugs in the lyrics of popular music.
When it came to writing about individual songs, I covered all the usual suspects, some cryptic and some not: the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the Association’s “Along Comes Mary,” Arlo Guthrie’s “Coming Into Los Angeles,” Steppenwolf’s cautionary “Snowblind Friend” and “The Pusher,” and more. I also included Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” As I’ve noted before, this was about the time when I was first digging into Dylan’s music as well as a time when I was writing a lot of lyrics, and the words to “Mr. Tambourine Man” were a revelation. I’d heard the song before, of course, by both Dylan and the Byrds, but seeing the words as a written artifact was somehow different. I particularly recall reading:
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow
I wish I could say that reading Dylan instead of listening to him made me a better writer. Well, it might have, but if so, that happened only over a long period of time. There was no magic transformation as I sat in St. Cloud State’s Centennial Hall looking at those words. I do recall thinking, perhaps for the first time, “Geez, I wish I could write like that.”
And millions of words later, there are still times when I hear something – maybe something familiar, maybe something I’ve never heard before – and think the same thing.
In the next few days, I’ll be digging into covers of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and there are many of them, which is no surprise. We’ll start this journey with one of the better covers I’ve found, Melanie’s thoughtful and somewhat sorrowful cover from her 1968 album, Born to Be.