Best Practices for Students #1: Keep Everything

This is the first of a multi-post series I’ll be putting together over the summer. The goal is to accumulate a collection of tips that can be compiled into a guide for college and university students. If you have any good advice for students that you’d like to share, please contact me.

I’m always a little baffled vby students who tell me they throw out their old assignments at the end of the semester or, almost as often, as soon as they get them back. This shows a level of faith in the goodness of the universe that is far beyond my own capacities.

There are two reasons why you should hold onto your papers, your syllabus, and really just about everything a professor gives you. The first is practical: stuff happens. Professors forget to enter an assignment into their gradebook, they lose their bags, their cars are stolen, their computers meltdown. Your saved copies of your graded papers, syllabuses, and handouts are your proof that you did the work, that you did it according to the professor’s instructions, and that it was received by the professor. If you find at the end of the semester that your grade is lower than you’d expected, and the professor says it’s because s/he never got your term paper, and you can dig in your files and bring out the graded paper with the bright shiny “A” at the top, you can probably convince the professor to change the grade. If you feel that the professor graded you unfairly for some reason, you can go to the department with your work and request an outside review of your work. Essentially, your folder of saved material is your insurance policy, and it is always good to have insurance.

The second reason is intellectual: your papers are more than just an embarrassing record of naiveté and sophomoric thinking, they are a collection of quotes, bibliographic entries, a finely-tuned phrase here and there, and the occasional forceful argument. Most papers can be reworked into larger assignments when you find yourself in more advanced courses, whether in college or graduate school. In short, your papers are a treasure trove of mine-able material to draw on, likely under circumstances you haven’t anticipated. You’re trying to remember the name of the author of a book you read, or what the psychological principle is that applies to some situation, or whatever — dig out your old papers and have a look. Chances are, they’re both more embarrassing and less embarrassing than you remember.

I keep a small file box with all my student papers, from undergrad and grad school, as well as all my syllabuses and every handout. It doesn’t take much room, and it’s reassuring to know it’s there. I also have every paper I’ve written since I started using a computer in a “courses” folder on my PC. With hard drive space being cheap and plentiful — I have thumb drives with as much memory as my first desktop — there’s hardly ever any reason to delete files at all, so why not keep them?

I know it’s hard to imagine needing this stuff down the line, but the reality is, that’s why you should keep it. You may not need everything, but I can virtually guarantee you that you will, some day, want or need at least one paper you wrote in college — and that it will be the one you least expected to ever have to look at again.

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