Sunday, December 15, 2013

Pollyana from Penticton Wants To Talk Essays.

I’m a lurker: the times when I really need college misery because I’m grading, I’m always too busy to write. But in payment for that support, here’s a little contribution, following up on that discussion of essays.

I teach history and we are, with comp/literature, holding up standards of essay writing. With variations, I aim at two substantial essays, so that I can see if they take my advice. Mostly they don’t of course but there’s always a few that do. The difficulty is finding something that they are willing enough to learn that they’ll actually spend more than half an hour on it. I do it by pandering to their worst elements, the narcissism.

Students seem to me always to want to look at a mirror in some way, whereas scholarship invites them to look away from themselves and try to understand difference. How to bridge the gap? By assigning essays on topics that are, ultimately, narcissist ones, deeply invested in their sense of themselves. Premarital sex in ancient wherever: risks and benefits? Were teenagers alienated in Salem and why?

The victories are tiny ones, but I find that in most essays there’s at least one original or thoughtful claim somewhere that I can draw their attention to, say, hey, look, you too actually can do analysis, now, start to build on this strength by learning to write in whole sentences or including the occasional paragraph break, the occasional bit of empirical evidence to support the claims. When you are looking for just one good sentence rather than a good essay, you don’t get quite so discouraged.

But it’s absolutely crucial that you find something in their essay to praise, some way to say that their thoughts are interesting and can be worked up into something rigorous, or there’s no benefit from this exercise; you have lost them (as per the narcissism principle again). Indeed, there’s a certain satisfaction in demonstrating by your remarks what you want them to do: find something to say about the way that people think and argue and relate to one another, and use it to persuade them, ever so slightly, to see things as you do.

So, I pander terribly to students, though they mostly don’t notice it and hate me just the same, for making them read real books and write real essays. I think we tenured profs owe it to the contract profs to elicit crappy student evaluations, and I’m doing my best!


  1. I think that's a really interesting way to get them to think about outside topics and force them to analyze! I like it. =)

  2. If the problem is the inability to perform actual analysis as much as it is just poor writing, starting with small chunks of both analysis and writing would make a lot of sense to allow students to focus intently on the task of analysis and the skill of writing.

    Does anyone start with short assignments, like a single well-constructed paragraph, to practice the kind of analysis you expect? Those would be easy to grade, and because they're short, they control the amount of misspent effort that can be dumped into them (by the students and the instructor).

    1. Basically a good idea, but you'd be astonished how many mistakes some students can cram into a single paragraph. I tend to mark and fix an error the first time a student makes it in a paper, then ask him/her to fix the rest. The margins near the first one or two paragraphs can get very full.

      In short, though this could be a valuable exercise, and might focus student effort well, I'm not at all sure it would save grading time over a 3-5-page essay.

    2. I doubt I'd be too surprised, but the total error count for any one assignment would still be kept at a manageable level for the student and the grader. It would also allow a very specific focus on a few issues with the prose (e.g., absolutely no comma splices this time, no passive voice, whatever the most important issues are).

      The other point is that if a student truly doesn't understand the type of analysis that is expected, then writing 5 pages of the wrong thing is largely just wasted effort. It's a big investment in the wrong thing. The short assignments (whether they build to longer ones or not) control the batch size, to use a manufacturing term, and allow multiple adjustments over time. If the students can't write one cogent paragraph, they're not likely to write pages of them anyway even if they ought to be able to.

      I never needed to go this far when I was teaching, but I did bring the class to a halt a few times for what I would have considered basics (like incorporating quoted material into an essay). I didn't expect to do it, but moving forward without spending that day in class to teach that stuff would have been pointless, and finding out that they struggled with something was very helpful for them and for me.

  3. Nice technique! I may have to steal it! Thanks!

  4. I like it. Also, the questions are quirky enough to reduce the chances that there's an already-written essay on the topic out there. That's always a plus.

    I suspect some of the answers might betray a lack of understanding that the past really was different (one of those things my historian friends often complain their students just don't get), but I gather that's a perennial problem anyway.

    1. "a lack of understanding that the past really was different (one of those things my historian friends often complain their students just don't get)"


      I've received plenty of history essays where the students' definition of analysis was to express astonishment that the historical characters under consideration did not do what the students would have done under similar circumstances.

  5. Pollyana is clearly onto a good technique here, and bravo for deploying it successfully. At the same time, am I the only one who wanted to weep at vomit that this is what we've come to: exchanging ideas on how best to appeal to students' rampant narcissism in order to get them to produce anything of even minimal quality? This should be a fucking middle school lesson plan, for christ's sake. The fucking hopelessness of it's just too much.
    (Again, I'm not criticizing Pollyana, who brilliantly manipulates the little fuckers.)