There’s nothing that strikes fear into the hearts of my students more than “the essay.” Whether the student is a high schooler or a college student, the anxiety and aversion are the same. Even if our classroom has been filled with friendly and thought-provoking discussions about literature or politics or personal experiences, etc, the introduction of the essay assignment will suddenly make relations cold and distant. I’ve gotten glares and groans, even outbursts of objections and accusations of indulging in cruel torture. I become the enemy, imposing an oppressive and time-consuming assignment that requires more effort than it’s worth — or so many students think.
I try to change my students’ perspective on the word and on the assignment. From listening to my students and considering my own experiences as a writer, I have come to realize that there are several assumptions and bad habits associated with analytical essay-writing that lead writers to struggle. I emphasize the following:
1. An essay is not simply several pages of perfect writing. “Essay” shares roots with the French “essayer” (“to try”). The Oxford English Dictionary links an essay with a “trial,” an “attempt,” an “endeavor,” even a “first taste” and a “draft.” I like that, by definition, the essay is imperfect and incomplete. The word acknowledges that language is inadequate for completely expressing our ideas, analysis, and realizations. So we must simply do the best we can with the tools we have, and that struggle forces us to think and rethink the concepts we are writing about. The roots of “essay” also suggest that the paper itself is just one step in a larger process.
2. The process to develop an analytical essay is important. I consider the essay a product of an important process of learning, an attempt to deepen understanding and express complex ideas. The way to truly understand a topic is to read/research and think about it through writing, reflection, and analysis. I want students to see the essay assignment as an opportunity to investigate something that they find intriguing and to attempt to express a growing understanding of it in writing. And too many of them are worried about writing a specified number of grammatically correct paragraphs.
3. A “correct” essay is not necessarily a good one. Many students are immediately preoccupied by the number of paragraphs and grammatical structures of their essays before they even know what the essay will be about. Though organization and editing are important parts of the writing process, both teachers and students often focus on them too early. This premature focus on form rather than content usually leads to obvious claims, and the essay lacks sufficient depth and insight. Students end up favoring a simplistic thesis because it is easier to articulate and support it in “correct” sentences. Often the grammar concerns and lack of clarity in some early drafts are a result of complex ideas and questions the writer has not been able to fully articulate, and these are often the most compelling. It is worth the effort to help students draw these out.
I will admit that assessing the organization, form, and mechanics of an essay is much easier than assessing the critical thinking and analysis it contains. The reasons for this are pretty simple:
- Assessing grammar and spelling is fairly objective. The mechanics of the essay are either right or wrong, and there is little room for argument. This is not how assessing the quality of ideas works. When I am assessing a student’s paper, I am considering not only whether the student has a good handle on the topic, but also where s/he has shown her/his own insights. I consider the quality of the claims made. Students may easily understand why they have points taken off for grammar or spelling, but it is harder to comprehend what more needs to done to develop their thesis and support for more engaging and effective writing. For students the difference between an A paper and a B paper can be difficult to understand. An understanding of what makes an essay truly successful requires extensive feedback and comes with practice as a reader and as a writer.
- Getting students to think critically on their essay topics requires far more investment from the teacher. If you are to challenge a student, to encourage her/him to ask questions and deepen analysis, then you need to spend time giving detailed feedback that is specifically designed to help develop that essay. This kind of investment requires small class size and mentoring for less experienced teachers; otherwise the task can be overwhelming.
So though it would be easier if I demanded formulaic five-paragraph essays from students, and just graded them based on mechanics, I don’t. I’ve seen that my students are capable of incredibly strong writing and critical thinking. I’ve also seen that when I work harder for them, and they are challenged to develop essays with deeper analysis, they end up actually taking ownership over their own writing, and producing work that they are proud of, regardless of the grade it earns. They learn when challenged to think and write critically.
As I said before, it is imperative to focus the first part of the writing process on the gathering of information and the development of ideas. Determining the form the essay will take is important, but it should come much later.
4. To write successfully it is necessary to write honestly and with genuine interest. Part of the trouble with the essay assignment is that at some point we’ve all written something we don’t mean, just to fill the page limit and complete a requirement. Some of us have done this so often that we’ve become disconnected with our own analytical writing. It is painfully awkward and annoying to write something you don’t care about and — worse — don’t mean. And I know that some of those objecting groans from my students are a result of this disconnect. They are in anticipation of blank screens we have to fill up once we figure out what our teachers want us to write because we haven’t ourselves invested in the topic. So many of us don’t feel ownership over our analytical writing. It’s not something we want to do; it is something we have to do. Too often students end up writing about some obscure topic they don’t care about and making a claim they don’t really mean simply because they are nearing a deadline.
Perhaps too optimistically I spend a lot of my time trying to remove this sense of obligation and burden associated with the essay. I want the essay to be something students are inspired and engaged by, and I think the way to do that is to encourage students to write what is true. It’s not worth making a claim unless they really believe it. In their Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings, John D. Ramage, John C. Bean, and June Johnson discuss extensively how developing an analytical argument should be based on “truth-seeking inquiry” (3). We begin with a question that intrigues us and focuses our investigation of a topic, and we come to a “thesis” or claim only after research and sincere reflection on the topic.
5. Every essay needs a thesis that is based on some original insight. At times I have explained this requirement by asking for an original observation and an explanation about why it matters — its significance. I find myself constantly asking “so what?” in response to student drafts. I pose questions to help them consider why their observations matter, how do they change the way we consider a particular topic? It is not enough to simply reiterate what others have said — the essay serves little purpose then. As one of my students expressed last year, the real challenge of an analytical essay is that it requires creativity. The writer must synthesize material to articulate her/his own ideas, to move beyond what has already been said, and to express why her/his new perspective is significant.
Given the above, I understand why the essay can seem like a daunting task. But the steps of the writing process are designed to help writers develop engaging, smart, and fluid prose. I don’t think writing a good essay will ever be easy, but taking on the challenge it presents can be enjoyable. I will dedicate future posts to the different strategies I have used in the classroom to break down the writing process in ways that only minimally torture my students.
“essay, n.” OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 30 September 2013 <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/64470>.
Ramage, John D., John C. Bean, June Johnson. Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings. 9th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.