Sunday, August 5, 2007

Tremble in Fear, O Ye Students

Hello. I'm Kem. I'm your worst nightmare. Get used to it.

You know those essay-writing guides you are forced to borrow or buy in upper-year high school and first-year university? The ones with the interesting covers and the user-friendly layouts? The ones with handy tabs and little coloured text-boxes everywhere, plus cartoon characters who pop up here and there to say, "This is how you write a thesis!" or, "Remember: proofread!"? The ones with sample essays composed by the guides' authors, who haven't written essays for at least fifteen years and think they are being all trendy by choosing topics such as "9/11" or "My Personal Journey"? The ones that cost fifty-five bucks and are revised every two years so that buying them used is hardly ever an option? The ones that go out of their way to try to make you feel good about yourself and your writing skills?

This is not one of those guides.

It does not attempt to instill any warm, fuzzy feelings in its readers. Why should it? I'm sure you're an awfully nice person, but it isn't my job to nurture your self-esteem. I don't actually see why I would want to nurture your self-esteem regarding something you are incapable of doing. If you learn to do it properly, you will earn some self-esteem. You may even start earning--and even deserving--"A"s on your essays. More importantly, you may learn how to think.

That's right: I am starting with the assumption that you don't know how to think. If this sort of thing upsets you, you may want to go out and buy one of the aforementioned ego-stroking guides. However, I should qualify the assertion: I am starting with the assumption that you don't know how to think analytically. The odds are that you don't. You may think you do, but what you actually know is how to observe. Observation is fantastic. It just isn't analysis.

Yet...if you can observe, you can, with practice, analyse as well. I'm not going to baby you, but neither am I going to follow the kind guides in assuming that you are a bloody idiot. You know how to read. You know how to observe. You probably occasionally think about your observations. Want to figure out how to go deeper? Want to learn to write not simply about what is important or interesting or intriguing but about how and why it is so?

Welcome to my guide. Again, I would like to stress that it is not a nice guide. It is built on my many years of experience as a marker of undergraduate papers. These papers sometimes make me really, really angry. I am not angry because they are bad; I am angry because though the students who write them have the capacity to produce brilliant essays, they have become so complacent--probably mainly because of high-school teachers who taught them stupid, useless methods and led them to believe that if they Followed the Magical Formula Every Time, everything would be all right--that their essays are scattered, repetitive pieces of festering garbage. There is no excuse for these essays. They are appalling. The students who write them need to have scary profs with laser eyes standing in front of them screaming at them twenty-four hours a day until they wake up to the hideousness of their own writing.

You can write good essays. I am not being chummy or falsely optimistic by saying so. You can...but you generally don't. Your markers (who are actually weeping with frustration as they mark, and who must strive mightily to resist setting your papers on fire with their brains and running off into the forest, happy and free) write the same comments on your essays over and over and over again, and sometimes you apply these comments and improve, and sometimes you ignore them and don't improve, and sometimes you don't understand them and complain to your friends that your markers are "too tough." Believe me, they're not. Teaching Assistants in my department are expected to manipulate their grading so that their averages fall between 68 and 72%. They are discouraged from failing students or even awarding grades below 60. They read anger-making chunks of trash that they are forced to give 72s, simply because these papers are slightly better than the rest of the anger-making chunks of trash the TAs are marking.

They hate your essays. They hate them. They are advised to begin their final comments with words of encouragement, but those words are simply flimsy shells hastily constructed around the raging infernos of their hatred.

Now that I have reduced you to tears, let's get to the happy bit.

As I said above, you can write good essays. I can teach you how. You will need to read and internalise my words and not expect me to do your thinking for you, but if you are willing to work hard and for quite a long time, you will eventually stop writing crap. Yes, I did say "work hard." Essay-writing is a skill, not a process of magical simplicity; it requires practice and dedication to master. It is also more rewarding than you might think. High-school-type essays may be formulaic busy-work, but a real and actual essay can be a real and actual work of art. A good essay has the power to move, convince, trouble, amuse, uplift; it is the process of turning words into arguments and arguments into literature. I would rather write stories than essays, but both stories and essays are powerful in different ways.

I'm not sure exactly what form this guide will take, as it will unfold over time as a blog. Eventually, there will be an index; for now, I'll probably start with a diatribe on the thesis and take it from there. You should feel free to disagree with what I say and write to tell me that I am talking out of my ass, but if you do so, please try to frame your comment as a piece of critical analysis (you can never practise this stuff too much. No, really). "STFU u n00b i get As in my 3nglish clases!!1!1" is not, no matter how much truth it contains, a piece of critical analysis. If you must abuse me, do so by answering a "How?" question (eg.: How is Kem completely bloody wrong on this particular point?), then provide a well-reasoned alternative view. If I've screwed up, I'll admit it in a post; if you have come up with a valid alternative to my equally valid point of view, I'm perfectly willing to discuss that alternative.

I'll see you tomorrow or the next day. For now, I have more marking to do.


viju said...

You think you are merciless? Try reading this...
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Kem said...


This is an essay-writing guide. That is a netiquette manual for newbie hackers. I'm not entirely sure I understand your point.

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A tough world needs tough love :D

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