The Essay

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.

Works Cited

“essay, n.” OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 30 September 2013 <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/64470&gt;.

Ramage, John D., John C. Bean, June Johnson. Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings. 9th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.

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My favorite place — An introduction

For years, the arrival of a new school year brought on a mix of emotions — anticipation, excitement, anxiety, curiosity. Walking into a clean, empty classroom, awaiting a new batch of students and peers, these moments filled me with exhilaration. I have felt that thrill as both a student and a teacher. It is during this time of year that I miss teaching most.

The classroom is my favorite place to be. It is a setting alive with possibility and potential. It is based entirely on the optimistic belief that we and others can improve. That we can learn and grow, that progress is possible.

When we leave school, somehow the world changes us. We begin to feel cynical, pessimistic. We lose faith in ourselves and in others. We think that to be smart we must expect and express the worst possible outcome, that expecting more of ourselves or those around us will yield only disappointment. I believe that this approach sets us up for failure. I believe that we limit ourselves and others when we refuse to see the potential for change and growth. Perhaps it is easier to close ourselves off to what challenges us or makes us uncomfortable. It is safer to avoid the risk involved in having hope. But it is not better to do so.  It is better to remain open.

My time teaching at community college has emphasized these lessons. My students come from all walks of life. Some are fresh high school graduates, but most are returning to the classroom after years away from school. In the same classroom I have taught a 16 year old and a 65 year old. They began their schooling in various parts of the world. I’ve taught students who hail from Ethiopia, Syria, Jamaica, Mexico, and Costa Rica, as well as those from across the United States. Some are working on their second or third degrees or are switching professions. Others have come to realize that a lack of a college degree is keeping them from achieving their current goals. For many, the classroom represents a second chance. They’ve told me about youthful mistakes that distracted them from who they wanted to be. But they haven’t given up and given in, despite the hardships they have faced. They have come back to school because they know there is opportunity for change there.

Most of my community college students are inventing or reinventing themselves, trying to determine who they will be in the next phase of their lives. One of my students went to school before learning disabilities and differences were properly understood. Even if students were diagnosed with dislexia or ADD, there was a taboo so associated with these issues that he did not feel comfortable speaking up or advocating for himself. He felt school wasn’t for him, that he wasn’t book smart, and nothing was going to change that. But new research and resources have helped him to realize his true academic potential. He has come back to the classroom with a new attitude toward academics and a different understanding of himself and of his potential.

The classroom is a world of possibility. It is based entirely in a belief that things can get better if we are willing to learn, grow, reflect, and share. Believing in the effectiveness of the classroom means believing that our efforts are not in vain, that hard work, dedication, and an open mind can bring positive change.

The classroom is a place of faith, in ourselves, in others, in the world around us.