Thursday, February 19, 2009

The paper chase

Please sign here!

“Ellen wants to talk to you,” said Dr. Stone. “Hold on a sec.”

“Okay,” I said, but my former professor was already off the line. I heard some muttering in the background and some momentary fumbling.

“Zee? Hi! I've got news!”

It was Ellen's chirpy voice. My former classmate was still in grad school, but I had been out for a few years. She, of course, still had a shot at a degree, while I had decamped without one.

“Hi, Ellie. Good to hear from you. What's going on? Why are you hanging out with Josh?”

Dr. Joshua Stone had surprised me with his phone call from his beach cottage. He would escape to it between school terms to get out of the Central Valley heat. I hadn't spoken with him recently and his phone call was from out of the blue. Now I was talking with Ellen, one of his grad students.

“I got a job offer! The state university offered me a tenure-track position!”

“That's great, Ellie! Excellent! Congratulations!” My enthusiasm was entirely unforced. Ellen was a wonderful teacher and her arrival at a state university would automatically raise the level of its classroom instruction. As to whether she would raise the level of its research program—that was less clear. The moment I thought of that, I had to ask:

“Does that mean you graduated? You finished your research? You completed the requirements for your doctoral degree?”

I was on the verge of offering some additional effusive congratulations, but there was just a bit of hesitancy on the other end of the line that gave me pause.

“Um, yes. I'm just about all done. Um. Zee, I kind of wanted to talk to you about that.”

I waited for her to continue. I had no idea where this conversation was going.

“That's why I'm here with the Stones,” she said. “Josh and Judith have been putting me up in their guest room the last couple of days while Josh and I have been checking over the pages of my dissertation. He just signed off on it this morning and said it's ready to go.”

“Great, Ellie. That's good news. But why do you need to talk to me about it?”

“Well, you see, Zee, it's in manuscript. Really. Literally, manuscript—as in handwritten. It's almost two hundred pages of work that needs to be on high-quality bond paper with one-inch margins and ready to file at the graduate division office on Monday.“

“Ellie. It's Wednesday night. You have less than five days.”

“I know! And my faculty appointment is contingent on my having completed all my degree requirements before the start of fall semester. If I miss this filing deadline, my next opportunity will be too late to allow me to qualify for my university job. That's why I need you to help me.”

Now I had figured out what was coming next.

“So you see, Zee, I need someone who can read math and can turn a manuscript into a clean typescript. That's you!”

It was true. I had learned to use a scientific word processing program that ran on an IBM PC. It was a significant step up from the classic IBM Selectric typewriter with its interchangeable golf-ball typing elements. I had logged thousands of hours on the Selectric. I had several hundred hours on the word processor. I knew I was good. But ... two hundred pages in a single weekend?

Ellie would be back in town Friday morning. On Thursday I arranged with my supervisor at work to take Friday off. Ellie arrived at my house with her stack of dissertation manuscript. It was readable, although Dr. Stone's annotations were more difficult to decipher than Ellie's own handwriting. We sat down at my computer and the marathon began.

We worked late into Friday night and then broke for a few hours of recovery. Ellie returned the next morning with a friend in tow. He would provide an independent set of eyeballs to proofread the pages as they came out of my laser printer in batches. We'd squeeze out a bunch of pages, nosh on endless slices of pizza, and raid my refrigerator for caffeinated soft drinks. The stack of handwritten pages got thinner while the stack of laser-printed pages got taller.

Sunday was the big final push. I had put in a bunch of corrections on Saturday night after Ellie and her friend had left. When Ellie returned Sunday morning, she proofed the new pages and I slogged through the last dozen sheets of her manuscript. We were both goofy and disoriented, but by mid-afternoon on Sunday it appeared that the deed was done. We loaded up the laser printer with high-quality bond paper and generated the final copy.

Handwritten prose tends to become condensed into fewer pages when word-processed. Not so with math text. Ellie's symbols and equations caused her lines of exposition to take more room than plain words would. Her two hundred pages of manuscript had turned into almost the same number of finished pages. A pristine stack of gleaming white print-out sat on the desk before us.

It was time for the finishing touch. Ellie dug a manila folder out of her backpack. She extracted six sheets of high-quality bond paper from the folder. Each sheet was blank except for Joshua Stone's carefully written signature. Josh and Judith were planning to stay at the beach cottage for another few days and so he would not be available to sign Ellie's signature page in person. Instead he had laid each blank sheet of paper on top of a sample dissertation title page and signed it right where he saw the dissertation committee's chairman's name should go.

I carefully mocked up the obligatory signature page and printed it out. We put it behind one of Josh's signed pages and held it up to the light. Not quite in the right place. I tweaked the signature page and tried again. When we held it up to the light this time, Josh's signature appeared right on the line designated for the committee chair. With just a bit of trepidation, we printed it out again, carefully positioning the signed sheet of paper in the feeder tray, hoping we had it turned the right way.

“It worked!” squealed Ellie. It had worked indeed. The sheet in the laser printer's output tray looked as if Dr. Joshua Stone had signed it right on the line (instead of the line having been printed right on his signature). Ellie added the cover page to the pile of papers that was her dissertation and carefully bundled it up. Now she had to seek out the other two members of her dissertation committee. They fortunately were in town and had been notified to expect her.

“I can't thank you enough, Zee. What a great job! I owe you like crazy!”

“You're welcome, Ellie. The whole thing was crazy, of course, but it was fun to have pulled it off.”

Ellie grinned at me.

“That's what Josh said.”

“Beg pardon?”

Ellie's smile widened further.

“It's exactly what Josh said. When we were talking about how we could possibly make the filing deadline for my dissertation, Josh said I had to ask you. ‘Ask Zeno,’ he said. ‘He will want to do it just to prove that he can!’”

I stared blankly back at her and Ellie began to worry that she had said too much. I sighed.

“I have to give the devil his due, Ellie. Josh was right. I really did want to show that I could do it. And he knew that I would.”

We were silent for a few seconds. Then I picked up the sheaf of unused pages that Josh had signed with his name.

“Look at this, Ellie. Josh gave us a bunch of extras in case we goofed up. He should have had more faith in us.” I fanned them out. We had five sheets of otherwise blank paper that bore only his signature. “Want to have some fun, Ellie? We could dummy up a nice bill of sale for his beach cottage and put it in our names. We can have him sell it to us for one dollar. And I'm sure we can think of four other things we'd like to do with his signature.”

We smiled and imagined the possibilities.


Anonymous said...

Thankfully, writing for me starts and ends with LaTeX. It makes life so much easier than having to type everything out by hand.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...


So that's the explanation for your having an extra property for rent!

I'm glad to learn that you're not *that* straitlaced.

Anonymous said...

We need to hear Zeno's take on this:,0,2571899.story

And here's the actual complaint:

Interrobang said...

I sense an equation here. It goes something like Five signatures plus mad wack word processing chops divided by ethical constraints equals not as much mischief as is possible... :)