THE MISERY OF THE MASTER’S DEGREE

In the early seventies, I began a Master’s degree at UT-Austin. Back then, teachers did not have computers or even correcting typewriters at home or school, so we typed all of our papers on regular typewriters.

I finished all the classes I needed to earn the degree, and all that was left was my thesis. We were told that we had to leave a margin of exactly one and one-half inch at the bottom of the page. That meant that if a footnote was just a little too long or too short we had to type that page over and over until we got it right. We would sometimes type the same page three or four times.

Erasable paper did exist, but we were not allowed to use it for the thesis.

“The professors used to just tell the students they couldn’t use erasable paper for the final thesis or dissertation,” the adviser at UT-Austin told us. “Now we tell them why. We had a student last year who ignored that requirement. He was a doctoral student, and he turned in a dissertation over 500 pages long. He had used paper that was so high quality we did not realize it was erasable paper, and we sent it off to the binder.”

The professor took a deep breath. “The binding process uses heat, and erasable paper has a plastic coating. His dissertation came back as a fused brick.”

It takes approximately a year to write a dissertation, and we did not have electronic backups back then.

I still wonder what happened to that doctoral student. Had he thrown away all his note cards when his document received its final approval? Did he still have a backup, handwritten copy, perhaps, that he could retype and resubmit? I certainly hope he did, but I was afraid to ask. They used to lock the tower at UT-Austin when grades came out. I hoped it was locked when he found out what had happened to his dissertation.

The reason these details are so important is that I, too, could not use erasable paper when I typed my husband’s 100-page Master’s thesis. If I did not have exactly one and one-half inches left at the bottom of the page, including footnotes, I had to type the page over and over until I got it right.

If you wonder why Wayne did not type his own final copy, I will tell you I found it easier to do it myself than to watch him type with two fingers while smoking nonstop and cussing vehemently. He wrote. I typed. We survived.

When Wayne started working on his Master’s thesis, the University of Missouri-Kansas City was using the current version of a footnote and citation guidebook colloquially called just “Turabian”.

We followed the rules precisely, and he turned in his thesis in August. His professor accepted the document and said he would read it during the school year and have suggestions and edits ready when Wayne returned for his final summer of classes.

That was when Wayne would enroll in the second half of Thesis 606, make the changes as requested, and turn in the final document as his last act for the Master’s degree. He did not mind that it would take that long for them to look at his thesis because he was teaching on the college level in Winfield, Kansas, and would not have time to work on it during the school year anyway.

The next summer, Wayne headed off to UM-KC, several hours away from our home. He enrolled in his final two classes and planned to finalize his thesis. He went to the professor and told him he was now ready to make any necessary edits so he could turn in the final document.

Wayne called me and said, “The prof can’t find my document. Do we still have my handwritten draft?”

My heart sank. “Yes,” I said. I knew better than to throw it away. I may still have it here somewhere, in spite of moving several times since then. I’m superstitious.

The next morning, before I began typing, he called again. “The professor found the document,” he said. “Not only that, but he had no edits or suggestions.”

“Wonderful!” I was ecstatic.

“There’s only one problem,” he said.

I held my breath. “What?”

“During the school year, the university adopted the newest version of Turabian, and the rules for footnotes and citations have changed. You’re going to have to type it over.”

I managed to keep control even though I wanted to scream. I was pregnant at the time, and the typewriter was getting farther and farther away from me as time passed. Either that or my arms were getting shorter.

That weekend, he brought the thesis back to me, and I spent days typing it over, following the new rules in “Turabian”. The changes were quite minor, such as no longer putting a period after “p” for page and “pp” for pages, but still I had to retype the whole thing. I don’t remember the other changes, but I remember that one. You will know why in a moment.

He took the typed thesis back with him to Kansas City. A few days later, he called again.
“Are you sitting down?” he asked.

“No.” I sat down. “Yes.”

“They decided to follow the new Turabian except for one change. They want to keep the period after “p” for page and “pp” for pages.

I said, “I’ll call you later,” then hung up the phone and cried. Over the next few days, I retyped the darn thing, and he took it back to the university the next Monday.

When Wayne came back the following weekend, he told me what happened next. “I turned it in on Tuesday and went back to the professor on Friday. He told me the document received final approval and I was to take it over to the Dean’s office and turn it in.”

The Dean’s secretary, in what Wayne called her habitual You-stupid-person, you-may-be-a-university-student-but-you-are-dumber-than-rocks, and-I-have-all-the-power-here voice, said “Where are the reader reports?”

“What reader reports?” Wayne asked.

She sighed dramatically. “You’re supposed to have a cover sheet with the signatures of the four professors who were on your committee and approved the document.

Wayne asked, “What committee?”

She rolled her eyes and shoved the thesis at him. “Go back to your professor and tell him you need reader reports.”

Wayne left the office and cursed the whole way back to his professor’s office.

“The dean’s secretary said I had to have readers’ reports,” Wayne told him.

The professor picked up the phone, clicked the speaker button, called the secretary, and said in his most haughty tone, “This is not a dissertation. It is a master’s thesis. No committee is needed.”

“I tried not to smirk,” Wayne said, “when I went back to her and turned it in, but it was hard. She pretended to be very busy trying to figure out what was wrong with her stapler. I think she was just avoiding having to look me in the eyes.”

That was in the seventies. He earned his Master’s degree, and in the eighties we moved to Texas, where we both began teaching at New Braunfels High School. When the library installed 30 computers, I took my students there and taught them to prepare their essays on the new Macs. I wrote an instruction sheet with ten steps for the students to follow. Step one was “Reach around behind the computer and turn it on.”

Step two was “Insert the floppy disk.” It was the eighties, remember. I had the students use colored folders with three brads to house their disks and documents. We also used the folders as their mouse pads since the library had not ordered any yet. I spent one week teaching the seniors how to use the Macs.

At that time, I often muttered under my breath about how much easier life was for them. No typewriters. No faulty margins requiring the entire page to be retyped. Not only that, but the abbreviations “op cit.” and “loc cit.” were no longer used. All they needed was “ibid.”

Grrrr.

“Them young ’uns have things too easy,” I thought. “They’ll never get to experience the bad ol’ days of typing pages over because they did not leave the exact one and a half-inch at the bottom. They don’t know how lucky they are. These newfangled inventions make ’em lazy.”

When my son started his doctoral work, he showed me the program that would allow him to enter the author, title, publisher, etc., on one screen. The program would then create the footnote, properly punctuated and with the proper margin at the bottom of the page. Not only that, but the program created the entire bibliography (even automatically alphabetized), with absolutely no effort from the student.

I seethed with anger and envy. When he submitted his doctoral dissertation in 2010, he didn’t even have to worry about getting the periods and commas correct in the footnotes and bibliography. The computer did it for him.

Had I been born too soon? Or too late? Is it better if students can focus on what they have to say rather than whether there will be a period (or not) after the abbreviation for “page”?

I think students definitely are better off today. They can now concentrate on what they want to say rather than the mechanics of typing the footnotes and bibliography exactly right. It is a brave new world, and I am glad I am in it. I was just born too soon.

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