“To Essay”

As I discussed my notes about their first big essay of the year with my college students this week, it became clear to me that nobody had ever explained to them why we write essays. They saw the exercise as a pointless waste of time.

So I got some more mileage out of my trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. I read them parts of the entry for the word “essay.” Specifically, I pointed out the it entered the language as a verb, not a noun.

As seen below, “to essay” really just means “to try, to attempt, to practice, to accomplish.” Example sentence: “The noble knight essayed the glorious task of eating a thousand fish tacos.”

Moral of the story: today, when we write an essay, we are trying, attempting, practicing, accomplishing…what? To prove an assertion, to describe a new idea to others so they can share in our experience, to communicate clearly about something important between writer and reader.

These are–and I say this with no sarcasm–truly crucial skills, demanding the very greatest of all our energies in both teaching and learning. The world needs these skills, and needs them to be developed and implemented widely.

So maybe the “noble knight” example isn’t such a joke after all.

oed

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Forcing Students To Revise Their Writing

My college classes this last semester had some of the best writers I’ve ever had in English 101. I felt very lucky to get to work with them. But there was one thing about those two classes that irked me to no end throughout our first two big essay units: no matter what I did, they wouldn’t revise their work.

I marked specific things on their papers and told them what to do to improve them, but much of that advice was ignored on subsequent drafts. And when I gave general feedback about writing style and missing elements, nothing in the next draft reflected that at all.

Few things are as frustrating for an English teacher as seeing their careful commentary on student work completely ignored by those students.

I even integrated some basic revision exercises into our classwork to remind them of (introduce them to?) the mechanics and mindset of revision. I labored the point that first drafts are never good enough–that strenuous attention to perfecting work is a must in any endeavor.

Finally, after the midterm, I decided to launch a nuclear attack on the subject, and after returning the first draft of their third essay project, I gave them these directions:

For the revised draft due next week, you must take the first draft and revise it as follows:

Choose any two or three of the five articles given below. Incorporate an analysis and discussion of each of them (as per the original directions) into your existing essay draft. HOWEVER, you may not add any new paragraphs–that total must not change–nor can you just add new sentences to the ends of existing paragraphs. The new material must be smoothly integrated into the existing essay–the commentary from the first draft must be revised to also address the new material.

There must be new material in *every* paragraph of this revised draft.

BUT, this new draft must also be no longer than the original first draft–this means that some material from the first draft must be condensed and/or eliminated, and what you add will have to be succinct.

Yes, that’s a cheap, sneaky way to micromanage their progress, and I hated doing it, but it did get results. The next drafts were substantially different, and they were even better. Now I just have to hope that as they go through future classes, and the rest of their lives, they keep the lesson in mind and continue living it.

“More Analysis, Less Commentary”

This was the advice I wrote in the margin of a couple of dozen college papers I returned to students last night.  I put the directions for their recent assignments back on the projector and showed them again that they both called for evaluating an author’s evident strategies, based on things like structure and style, for effectiveness.  Nothing in their assignments asked for personal reflection about the topics of their texts, and yet, that’s the majority of what I got.

Coincidentally, I just read this excellent essay by Mark Bauerlein, which perfectly echoes my experience.  In short, students need to be guided to write analytical work, not fluffy reactions.  Amen.

 

At one point in the discussion, Coleman paused to note a problem in the teaching of writing in English classrooms: the dominance of “personal writing … the exposition of a personal opinion … the presentation of a personal matter.”  Continue reading

Cheating Stories

When people find out that I’m a teacher, the first thing they always want to talk about is just how bad the students and parents are these days.  Of course, I have plenty of stories tokeep them happy, but before long I try to steer the conversation to a much funnier topic: cheating stories.  These also demonstrate, in their own way, civilizational decline, but with much more pleasant humor. 

Hollywood has trained us to see cheaters as bored rebels who have ingenious ways of fooling teachers.  I wish that were true: it would be an improvement on the truth, which is that most cheaters are dumb as bricks, which is why they cheat in the first place.  Sadly, they don’t even do it remotely well.  Here are some of my favorites:

  • One student essay was surprisingly good, so much so that I knew it was copied.  The only question was where the student got it from.  The mystery was solved when I got to the last paragraph of the “essay,” which said that if this introduction had whetted the readers’ appetites, they would want to jump right into chapter 1 and continue the book. 
  • I’ve read about the many, expensive essay-for-hire companies on the Internet, and have always wanted to get a sample of their work.  Unfortunately, I never have.  Whenever I suspect a student of submitting an essay not of their own composition, I just type the first line into Google, and almost always get the source right away.  The most common source for these “essays” turns out to be the plot summaries of novels on SparkNotes.
  • I’ve had several “essays” turned in with a date and web address automatically printed at the bottom of each page; they didn’t even bother to paste it into Word, they just printed their stolen work straight off the Internet and put their name on it.
  • Continue reading