Sunday, October 19, 2008

Weekends are overrated

For a variety of reasons, I spent Friday night at home drinking too much wine, which resulted in a Saturday that was characterized on my part by a hangover and hatred of the universe.

That was unfortunate, because what I'd planned to do was work on/finish a paper that's due tomorrow in my world politics class -- our assignment was to pick a data set and write a paper about it. No guidelines were provided as to length, and there were no specific instructions on what to include in the paper -- "Everything" was about as good as it was going to get.

I'd never written a data paper before. Using a method not much better than throwing a dart at a spinning globe (I've heard people sometimes plan their vacations this way -- but maybe that's just in cartoons), I wound up picking a data set called "Extra-State Wars," part of the Correlates of War Data Project, based at the University of Michigan.

I won't bore you with the details of the paper -- which involved looking at an Excel spreadsheet of 108 cases with 35 variables each -- but if you want to read it, you can email me and I'll send it to you. Maybe you're an insomniac and need a little help falling asleep, I don't know.

Precious little of it got done Saturday, so I spent most of today (Sunday) pecking away at it. I have no idea of how to use most of what Microsoft Excel does, and the analysis software normally used to examine stuff like this was far away -- in Binghamton, which I didn't feel much like driving to. So instead, I printed off the 12 sheets needed to contain the whole set, taped them together, and stuck the whole thing to a wall in my room. I then used several high-lighters to mark parts of the data I felt were important, then counted them up and plugged them into a calculator (for special effect).

The result is a 16-page pile of paper and ink that represents what I think may be the most boring thing I've ever written (unless you count this post, which at least at this point is way shorter). An informal poll I did after I finished the rough draft (Dad read it) produced positive results -- the paper was described as "scholarly, I think" by 100 percent of the respondents who said they'd read it.

I have no idea how well it's going to go over with my professor. Like I said, he wasn't very specific about what he was looking for, so my aim was to show that I'd looked hard at the information and maybe drawn an inference or two from it. I'm unsure of what else to do with it, short of folding up the high-lighted, taped sheets currently hanging on my wall and handing that in.

The underlying point here is that I'm still working on re-adapting to "school mode." Writing isn't hard for me, but writing papers isn't really like writing, at least, not in the way I've been used to doing it for the past six years. It's hard not to feel useless, too, when what you really need to spend your days doing is reading books with complicated titles and articles pulled off JSTOR and Lexis-Nexus.

Don't get me wrong, I like my current field of study -- although it's maybe a bit different than I'd been expecting. I had this idea about political science in my head -- something of a cross between a civics class and sitting around in togas listening to Plato talk about "the Republic" -- and it turns out that there's a lot more numbers and talk of "scientific method" involved than I'd initially expected.

Which is fine -- it's making me think in ways I hadn't before, which, I'm led to believe, is the whole point of "school."