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The Fictitious Term Paper

Written by eastern writer on Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Imagine that you are a student in a writing course where you receive the following instructions: Your task is to write a fictitious term paper. The catch is that the format of your paper must follow the style established by the MLA Handbook to a tee. The paper itself must be seven pages long with six pages of text followed by a page listing your works cited. On the seventh page of your paper you must, in fact, list seven works cited representing the following categories: two single-author books, two essays from collections of essays (that is, from books that have editors rather than authors), two articles from the same number of learned journals (I said learned journals, like PMLA or Diacritics, not Time or Psychology Today), and one work of literature of your choice (any work will do).

In the text of your paper you should quote from the work of literature of your choice from time to time, varying short with long quotations, in order to make your paper look real even as you are careful to maintain the illusion that the work of literature of your choice is the subject matter of your paper. Interspersed with the quotations from the work of literature of your choice you should cite at least once from each of your other sources. Otherwise, the text of your paper should have nothing to do with either the work of literature of your choice or any of your other sources. You may write whatever you wish. Your writing, in fact, may be humorous, parodic, irreverent, or irrational - in other words, completely "off the wall." Your grade will be based on the form of your paper and on the quality of your writing.

The initial reaction of my students to these instructions is usually mixed. On the one hand, they seem delighted with the prospect of writing a nonsensical paper, on the other, they seem anxious about the apparently complicated requirements for the scholarly, professional format. To reduce their anxiety, I provide them with a sample fictitious term paper (see Appendix) in which I myself painstakingly fulfill all of the requirements in question. In fact, in my sample fictitious term paper I even cover all those little tidbits that forever bedevil our students, like the use of ellipses for omissions from and the use of brackets for interpolations within quotations, or the commonsensical distinction (which never strikes my students as commonsensical) between the author of an essay and the editor of the volume in which the essay in question appears, and so on. In addition to the sample paper, I also provide my students with a set of recommendations for the whole procedure. The instructions typically say something like the following: Go to the library and select the works you will cite in your paper. Pick up a work of literature (The Scarlet Letter, for example), two single-author books (such as Derrida's Of Grammatology), two collections of essays (Reader-Response Criticism, edited by Jane Tompkins, for example), and two recent issues of any two learned journals (American Literature, Critical Inquiry, what have you). Having recorded the necessary information for your list of works cited (author, title of book, essay, or article, publisher, date, and so on), flip the pages of each of your sources until you find a few sentences or paragraphs that strike you as worthy of being included in your paper. Once you have copied down all the quotations you think you will need, you will have completed your "research," and you may start working on the paper itself. Just give it a title and begin writing. Remember you may write whatever you wish (you may even use obscene language, for all I care) - anything goes, nothing matters, as long as whatever you write is well written.

Experimenting with this fictitious term paper requirement for approximately a decade now, I have learned a number of things, some of them pleasantly surprising. My initial motive for establishing this assignment was to spare myself the painful experience of reading terribly botched papers where the form was as badly mangled as the content. I figured that if I could just trade the content in for the form I would be able to insist on the form without appearing to be in mindless conformity to the letter of its law. At the same time, I also wanted my students to realize that the conventions of scholarly writing are simply the rules of the game. Since students don't mind the rules of baseball or basketball, why should they mind the rules of scholarly writing? Doesn't playing by the rules simply show them that they belong, that they know what they are doing, and that the penalties for breaking the rules are as much part of the logic of the game as the rules themselves? Furthermore, don't the rules of the game facilitate rather than hinder the players, don't the rules, in fact, make the game? My students had no trouble with this analogy, nor did they begrudge the formalities of scholarly writing once it was clear to them that they didn't have to bother with its content.

I myself was very confident the first time I gave this assignment. I felt that my students could now concentrate on the "how" without worrying about the "what." I also hoped that not worrying about the "what" would free their writing of its customary constraints. I certainly expected it to flow with ease rather than meander aimlessly in the choppy current that usually passes for their expository or argumentative prose. I shall never forget the pleasure I felt when I collected the first batch of fictitious term papers. Every single one of them looked professional. So far, so good, I sighed. Scanning the titles also made me realize that I would be in for a lot of fun reading. One of the titles, for example, was obviously a take-off on that time-honored assignment I am sure we have all struggled with when we were students: "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" - it was called "I Was a Deconstruction Worker." Reading that first batch of papers made me discover a number of things.

The first discovery was a pleasant surprise. As I read paper after paper, I soon saw that the vast majority of the fictitious term papers were highly self-reflexive. Since self-reflection is not as a rule the forte of most of our students, this was a welcome discovery indeed. And along with the self-reflexivity came a sense of fun, playfulness, even mischievousness. Many a fictitious term paper seemed enamored of mocking and teasing the assignment itself or the "crazy professor" who thought it up in the first place. Here is a typical quote from a recent paper: "You say this paper should be fun to write. Well, I am not quite sure I agree. In fact, I am positive I don't agree. Writing (any kind) is work for me and work isn't fun. In other words, you lied to me, in a sense." A few sentences later the student quotes a passage from a scholarly work, which admonishes us against the disguising of the truth, then she comes back to the issue of the professor having lied to her. She writes: "Really, I am just kidding . . . I've always wanted to accuse a teacher of something. Now I have, so don't take it personally (doesn't the song "Personally" come to mind when you hear that word?)."

Note that in addition to the mocking/teasing "intimacy" between the teacher and herself which this students feels free to project in her paper, she is also manifestly writing by a kind of free association of ideas. Not only is the quotation which warns the reader against disguising the truth sandwiched between the playful accusations hurled at the teacher who said that writing a fictitious term paper might be fun, but the word "personally," used in one context, suddenly becomes the title of a song, and so on. Obviously, the student's attempt to write nonsense merely to fill the gaps between the various quotations which constitute her "research" has backfired. It is clear that by merely playing with words, the student has begun to think on paper, so to speak. It is also clear that the quotations, which according to the requirements for the assignment do not have to be linked up in any way with the student's own text, have nevertheless become subtly intertextual with it. This same phenomenon appears in fictitious paper after fictitious paper. The quotations selected prior to the act of writing (or, perhaps, alongside with the act of writing, as the case may be) begin to influence the student's own "nonsensical" composition in such a way that a kind of context emerges in spite of the fact that this is precisely what the student seems to want to avoid or, at least, remain nonchalantly indifferent to, with the teacher's prior blessing to boot. In other words, not having to worry about what he/she is writing, each student seems to naturally and spontaneously worry about precisely what he/she is writing. Since there are no pressures on this process, though, since the process is "merely" a kind of play or game, since it is "fiction," in other words, the process itself unexpectedly takes on all the desirable qualities we ourselves try to project into or extrapolate from our own "real" writing.

Speaking of our own "real" writing, it is clear that the customary distinction between the real and fictive is vastly overstated. I take it that Robert Scholes is right when he claims that "[a]ll writing, all composition, is construction. We do not imitate the world, we construct versions of it. There is no mimesis, only poiesis. No recording. Only constructing" (7). I also take it that this same statement applies to reading as well. The only difference between writing/reading the real and the fictitious term paper, therefore, is that while the real is serious the fictitious is not. But no sooner have I made this distinction than I am troubled by it, partly because I cannot forget one of Derrida's curious and apparently odd remarks concerning this issue. "There is always a surprise in store for . . . any criticism that might think it had mastered the game." Speaking of a "hidden thread" in the text, Derrida goes on to say that

[i]f reading and writing are one, . . . if reading is writing, this oneness designates neither undifferentiated (con)fusion nor identity at perfect rest; the is that couples reading with writing must rip apart. One must then, in a single gesture, but doubled, read and write. And that person would have understood nothing of the game who, at this [du coup], would feel himself authorized merely to add on; that is, to add any old thing. He would add nothing, the seam wouldn't hold. Reciprocally, he who through "methodological prudence," "norms of objectivity," or "safeguards of knowledge" would refrain from committing anything of himself, would not read[/write] at all. The same foolishness, the same sterility, obtains in the "not serious" as in the "serious." The reading or writing supplement must be rigorously prescribed, but by the necessities of a game, by the logic of play. (63-64)

If the difference between the real and the fictive cannot be maintained in terms of the presence/absence of "mere" seriousness, then I think it would be helpful for us to distinguish the two in terms of intent. The intent of the fictitious term paper is to exemplify the student's mastery of the game or play of scholarly, professional writing. The fact that this kind of writing is "game" or "play" does not one whit detract from its customary/ordinary "seriousness." On the contrary, the fact that the assignment requires the student to play the game self-consciously "merely" guarantees that he/she is going to discover the real in the fictive. And this leads me to a consideration of the second discovery I have made repeatedly during the history of my fictitious term paper requirement in the last decade or so.

I would, of course, be overstating the case if I didn't admit that the self-conscious or self-reflexive papers my students keep writing for me are miraculously self-inventive or self-generative. My students usually "imitate" me. Not in the sense denied by Robert Scholes ("There is no mimesis, only poiesis"), but in the sense of playful burlesque or mischievous travesty. I must further confess that the sample fictitious term paper I provide for my students is not only itself self-conscious or self-reflexive, but that it, too, fails to keep its own text from being contaminated by the quotations intertextualized with it. In other words, while my own fictitious term paper is itself humorous, parodic, irreverent, and irrational (that is, completely "off the wall"), it nevertheless makes a kind of sense concerning the "theme" of (excuse this barbaric coinage) "fictitious term-paperality." Not only do I extol the virtues of the "theme" in question in a variety of playfully mocking/teasing ways, but I keep quoting texts like "[b]oth the author and the narrator . . . maintain their sanity and discover truth by the creation of a rational lie, a fiction" (Dryden 37) or "[b]y the end of the story what appeared to be real but turned out to be fake appears to be more real than if it had been real in the first place" (Scheer 46-47).

My second discovery, then, has to do with an answer to the question: why is it that our students write terribly bad real papers when they are demonstrably capable of writing pretty good fictitious ones. As I have already indicated, the answer cannot be that the fictitious paper is not real. If anything, it appears more real than if it had been real in the first place. Perhaps the answer is hidden in the intent I have mentioned above. But why should the "intent" in question make such a difference? To answer this question I shall have to invoke my third discovery (and collapse it with my second still under consideration here). Judged by its etymological meaning, the word "school" once meant "play." Perhaps the trouble is that we have managed to turn it into something altogether too "serious." And that's the problem, as I see it, with asking our students to write "real" papers. The "real" papers aren't real in the first place. They are certainly not destined for publication, which renders their very ethos unreal. In other words, the "real" papers in question are written for the sake of learning how to write a real paper. They are real only in the sense that the students are required to go through the customary procedures ordinarily necessary for their production. Which is the same as saying that the "real" papers are not real since they ipso facto represent (albeit in a pretentiously disguised form) exercises in futility. This is precisely why they deprive the students of a voice just at the time when they have the greatest need for a voice of their own.

And this takes me back to the notion of "school" as "play." The fictitious term paper requirement instantly restores the institution in which we, as teachers, ply our trade to its own forgotten intent. No wonder our students get confused when society distinguishes the schools they attend from the "real" world for the sake of which they attend schools in the first place. No wonder that they, along with society, tend to despise schools, the customary rhetoric of "lip service" to the contrary notwithstanding. To restore its rightful importance we must recognize the school not as a place in which to work but as a place in which to play - that is, pretend to work. The fictitious term paper succeeds precisely where the real paper is doomed to fail. What is paradoxical is that in spite of the requirement for the professional format it does not impose on the student the stultifying burden of conformity. But perhaps this is not paradoxical at all. By making going through the motions the obvious game or play going through the motions has always already been meant to be, the fictitious term paper liberates the student from "work" so that in "play" he/she may master it. Furthermore, by playing the game seriously, we will also give our students an opportunity to experience for themselves that leisure is indeed the basis of culture (as explained in Joseph Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture) and that the human race is a naturally playful species (as exemplified by Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture). Perhaps the time is ripe for recognizing that the school is not a place of stultifying "reality" but the arena of liberating "fiction."

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Dryden, Edgar A. Melville's Thematics of Form: The Great Art of Telling the Truth. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1968.

Scheer, Steven C. Kálmán Mikszáth. Twayne World Authors Series 462. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1977.

Scholes. Robert. Structural Fabulation: An Essay on the Fiction of the Future. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975.


The following is a "typical" fictitious term paper (one of many I have written during a twenty-year period while using this assignment), actually used in the spring semester of 1986. The sample fictitious term paper should perform a double function. On the one hand, it should exemplify the format established by the MLA Handbook, on the other, it should serve as a model for the students to imitate. What my own experience clearly tells me is that such a "model" works best when it is not only playful but also a bit irreverent, even perhaps a bit risqué.

Steven C. Scheer
Professor Scheer
En 101
February 11, 1986

The Fictitious Paper as the Real Thing:
Or, How Your Inimitable Professor Attempts to Show You Why

The fictitious paper is not only real, it is also a lot of fun. The fun comes from fiction. Reality, as we all know, is a bore. It is, to be precise, a series of relentlessly boring little hassles punctuated by uncertain anxieties, not the least of which may come in the wake of assignments given by lethally boring professors who stay up nights to think up new methods with which to torture their students. I don't know, I just don't know. But at least I am honest. Which is why (I suppose) I seem to be haunted by one of Hawthorne's clever remarks in The Scarlet Letter (1850) according to which "[t]o the untrue man, the whole universe is false" (142). And that's as it should be, except of course it shouldn't be that way, even if it should (not) be.

Let me try again. The purpose of this course (one of its purposes, if you like) is to teach you (and allow you to practice, of course) certain things about writing scholarly/critical papers. Such papers have two basic ingredients: form and content. Both, in a sense, are institutionalized. The reason is that both, in a sense, require certification. To get the point I am trying to make here, just think of all those people you know who may be certifiable and should, thus, be institutionalized. There you go. Perhaps this (in any case) is why Derrida is interested in the following perplexing questions:

Where does writing begin? When does writing begin? Where and when does the trace, writing in general, common root of speech and writing, narrow itself down into 'writing' in the colloquial sense? Where and when does one pass [gas? Just kidding] from one writing to another, from writing in general to writing in the narrow sense, from the trace to the graphie, from one graphic system to another, and, in the field of a graphic code, from one graphic discourse to another, etc.? (74)

I myself am, of course, deeply interested in (and perplexed by) all these questions but in a slightly different way. Raising them in a different context, on the other hand, is not going to get us anywhere. Nevertheless, "[t]his attempt to deconstruct Peirce could go on citing other instances of self-referential inconsistencies or self-contradictions in 'The Fixation of Belief,' though it could never point to 'mistakes' in Peirce's logic which Peirce himself could have avoided" (Scheer 336). You may question my own logic here, of course, but remember that you run the risk of flunking this course. Which may well bug you no end (am I mixing metaphors here? Never mind). I mean, why should the teacher be always right. Right? Just to show you that I am a really, really nice guy, I shall hereby declare that at this particular point in the history of my mental decline I AM WRONG! I would appreciate it, of course (I keep using this splendid little expression because, you know, this is a course), if you didn't quote me on this. Thank you so much.

At this point (in time) I seem to be fascinated by the narrator's question attributed to Hester in The Scarlet Letter which raises itself (and I quote) in the following manner: "Hester could not but ask herself whether there had not originally been a defect of truth" here somewhere (161). One may go along with another critic in this case (even though the quotation coming up deals with quite another con/text) and reluctantly agree that "[t]his sentence deliberately frustrates the reader's natural desire to organize the particulars it offers" (Fish 81).

Tickle, tickle, funny bone;
How I wonder why you laugh.
If writing, it is such a bore
What makes you write this . . . graph?

I just made up this little ditty for no reason whatsoever. One needs an interruption every now and then. (If you can't beat them join them, right?) In any case, we were talking about some defect (original, to boot) in some truth. A truly fascinating subject. I was reading this article in a recent issue of PMLA the other day, and I encountered the following intriguing statement: "The plot is distributed through five principal images: apple, wilderness, temple, body, and seeds" (Teskey 14).

This issue is so significant (it is so fraught with a kind of highly problematic [non]sense) that it deserves a new par/a/graph. We were (I hope you still remember this) speaking of some original defect of truth. This is important. The reason is not difficult to find. You see, the images in the quotation from Teskey remind me of some very genetic things. The apple. Could this be the pro/verbial fruit (forbidden, to boot) that Adam and Eve (ladies first?) consumed in the Garden of Eden? Wow! "Wilderness, temple, body, and seeds" suddenly form a con/text fraught with sign/if/icance (please notice the "if" in the middle of that marvelous word). What is (was) outside the Garden is (was), of course, wilderness. Temple. How should I take this? Of course, one's body is, in a sense, the temple of one's soul (which may well raise another question: which is the "meta" in the metaphor, the temple as body, or the temple as church? Never mind), in which case "seeds" are not necessarily apple seeds but spermatozoa. The "seminal" in seminal fluid (which carries the semen [seeds, lit.]) is, of course, related to such words as "seminar" and "seminary" (this last place is where young men study for the priesthood, for example - which would make the young men in question "seeds" or "seedlings" of sorts - never mind).

You may wonder (wonder, wonder, wonder) how all this relates to the question we are considering here, the question concerning some original defect in some truth. I shall tell you in due course. Right now I want you to consider another "questioning" sort of quotation. Here it comes: "Here the 'godless' becomes the 'blameless'; the man whose 'conduct' is an 'eloquent sermon' makes the 'professional preachers' seem odds-on favorites to be 'narrow-minded and bigoted'" (Regan 223). In another context (once again, I shall invoke The Scarlet Letter) we encounter passages such as this one: "thus, the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun's bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril" (157). What begins to loom large here (and is, consequently, writ large here, too) is something in the nature of a paradox (para + doxa = aside/beside itself + opinion). To spell this out more clearly, I might say as follows: from two radically unrelated con/texts we seem to be getting the message that the good are really bad whereas the bad are really good. No comment.

That's a lie (I mean the "no comment" above, of course). The truth is that perhaps the truth itself is always already a lie. This does not work vice versa. In other words, lies are not therefore truths, except of course the ones that let you know that that's what they are from the beginning (works of fiction, for example - which would make "works of fact" [factually "true" works] really lies, which is [and I kid you not, in a sense] what they really are. So there). Here's cryptic proof for this (nothing is too good for Uncle Steve's students): Culler exclaims, explaining a point in Derrida, that "[m]eaning is context-bound, but context is boundless" (123). This leads Culler to consider that "structural openness of context" which is "essential to all disciplines; the scientist discovers that factors previously disregarded are relevant to the behavior of certain objects; the historian brings new or reinterpreted data to bear on a particular event; the critic relates a passage or a text to a context that makes it appear in a new light" (124).

I hope you are beginning to see the way in which my "funny" argument is beginning to make alarming sense: since the human condition originates in a fall from divine grace, all human truths are subsequently tainted by lies reminiscent of the first one (in my hopefully soon forthcoming book [an referene to my Pious Impostures and Unproven Words which has been published more than 10 years ago by now] I call this the "lie about a lie that was not a lie"). Which should bring me (around) to my conclusion. This paper is intended to exemplify the fictitious term paper. As usual, it fails. That is, though is was meant to be entirely spurious, irrational, and parodic, it has (I don't exactly know where I took the wrong turn) almost become "serious." I know from past experience that you will experience something not unlike the experience I have just experienced. Let me nevertheless lay this down as a "law": your paper must not make sense. This isn't, of course, an absolute law. Nor could I enforce it, even if it were. So do the best you can. But have fun, in any case. I think I shall have written this in a later handout for this course (which you may or may not receive in this one), so let me "prepeat" (the opposite of "repeat") it here: what is no fun to write, is no fun to read. In other words, no fun for the writer, no fun for the reader. In other other words, without fun there is no fun. Or words to that effect. Are you still with me? Good, because if what I have been saying here is a true lie, then the fictitious term paper you are about to write will have been the truest thing you shall ever have written in your life to date. Makes you think, does it not? And wonder, too.

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Fish, Stanley E. "Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics." Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Ed. Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980. 70-100.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Ed. Leo Marx. New York: Signet-NAL, 1959.

Regan, Robert. "The Reprobate Elect in The Innocents Abroad." American Literature54 (1982): 240-57.

Scheer, Steven C. "Unfixing 'The Fixation of Belief': Can Peirce Be Deconstructed?" Semiotics 1984. Ed. John Deely. Lanham: UP of America, 1985. 333-340.

Teskey, Gordon. "From Allegory to Dialectic: Imagining Error in Spenser and Milton." PMLA 101 (1986): 9-23.

*This article is written by Steven c Scheer.
*The writer notes: Originally delivered at several conferences, this paper was subsequently published in the Journal of Teaching Writing (see the whole story of this paper in the previous Web page). This version has a "typical" fictitious term paper appended to it, one of many I had written years ago, as a model for my students, so they could see what the fictitious term paper should look and sound like. They actually wrote many that were funnier and, in some cases, better than mine, which is the best testimonial of the success of this assignment.

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