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!