It's not your limits that define you

“Peter Rabbit is this stupid book about this stupid rabbit who steals vegetables from other peoples’ gardens. 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82…” — Lucy, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown

It’s not your limits that define you but your attitudes towards them. While I could be writing about physical or mental limitations, my blog post this week is about one that almost everyone growing up in North America has faced: word limits.

I recently gave an assignment to students asking them to write an essay in which they were to compare the design of two pieces of software. When they asked how much I expected them to write, I suggested that they write approximately one to two pages single spaced or, equivalently, 500-1000 words. When pressed further, I said that there was no set length; they should write as much as necessary to make it clear why they thought one was superior (or equal) to the other, and that I would prefer, but not require, their responses to be under two pages to expedite marking. This was not the answer they were seeking. “No; what’s the minimum I have to write to get full marks?” one student asked. “What I mean is, what’s the page minimum? And the assignment asks for a plain text file. Can I submit a Word document instead?” asked another. Oh, I’m well aware of formatting tricks to make a document look longer.

As an elementary school student, I was usually given word/page minimums for homework pieces. By the end of high school, we usually received recommended word lengths with a 20% leeway on either side. As a graduate student, I regularly face hard upper bounds on pages when submitting to conferences. Oh, I’m well aware of formatting tricks to make a document look shorter, too.

Maybe it is because I was and am verbose, but I rarely worried for want of words as a wee one (I’ve also an ardent alliteration addiction). Even still, minimum word limits were in the back of my mind. In high school and undergrad, when given a specific number as a suggestion, I always aimed to have exactly the recommended word length, but I blame this on my being a nerd. ((This once saved my bacon; who would have thought that having TAs count words up to a hard limit of 500 words — by hand, no less — would be a good use of BIO250 TA hours?)) But somewhere between grades 5 and 10, I stopped worrying about lower word limits. I have no idea when I started worrying about upper limits, although I rarely had problems with them until starting my undergraduate degree.

It seems as though a significant number of my undergraduate students worry about the lower limit. Maybe they have problems expressing themselves in English and want to write as little as possible. I don’t know (although a fair number of those seeking clarifications about lower limits seem fluent in the language; maybe they’re uncomfortable with writing). Are worrying about lower then upper word limits different stages that must be traversed in order? What does it mean for someone to have a particular attitude towards word/page limits? Does it mean anything? I think it does.

“The name of the book about which this book report is about is Peter Rabbit which is about this
Rabbit.” — Schroeder, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown

Just because you face upper word limits doesn’t make you an undergraduate or a graduate student. However, if you graduated from a university and most of your ten or twenty page papers avoid making a single point because you spent all your time worrying about how to fill that space, that says more about you than that fancy piece of expensive parchment. If you’re in that boat, you might want to consider a different vocation. Seinfeld no longer needs writers, but the world can always use more politicians.

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