— Zadie Smith (via mttbll)
DATE (FROM TWO DAYS BEFORE THIS ESSAY WAS DUE, DESPITE THE FACT I STARTED IT FOUR HOURS BEFORE DAWN)
AS MUCH INFORMATION AS I CAN THINK OF
TO SHOVE INTO THIS MARGIN
SO MY PAPER LOOKS LONGER LIKE
CLASS TITLE MAYBE?
ESSAY TITLE I SPENT LIKE TEN MINUTES TRYING TO SQUEEZE A PUN INTO BUT COULDN’T BECAUSE AFTER WRITING THIS I AM DEAD INSIDE
This is the introductory line - maybe there’s a cool fact here, a quote, the words “the dictionary defines this word as,” or a rambling, half-desperate struggle to appear relevant. Here is where I introduce my topic and the book I read, here is the author’s name I spelled wrong the first time around. Here is where I mention the characters that I remember in an attempt to seem like I actually read the book instead of skimming it. Here is where I halfheartedly try to make my thesis sound like it connects to the rest of this paragraph. Here is the thesis, which I will painstakingly rewrite in every paragraph or else the teacher will say something like “How does this paragraph relate?” even though it’s pretty obvious how that paragraph relates.
Here is me saying the first bit of the thesis statement again, maybe with a different word or two. I heard the teacher mention something about a metaphor or whatever, so I’ll just mention that. Here’s that one character I remember vaguely, and a purposefully verbose depiction of them so I can take up as much space as possible. I only opened the book like a week ago, so “here is a quote that [doesn’t] really make any sense in the context of this paragraph and is overly long so as to extend the length of this essay” (citation I probably did wrong - was that MLA or Chicago?). I will now analyze this quote incorrectly. “Here is another quote,” says that character, probably, I hope (MLA citation). As we saw in that quote, this character said that once, which proves my thesis because I said so. I couldn’t really find a third quote for this paragraph but I once got points off for missing one, so “[here]” is a “[quote]” I might have “[made] up” (APA citation). I might say something in here about that metaphor again, shit, I don’t know. Here’s the thesis, but maybe with three different words.
Transitional sentence I shambled together out of the remains of my hopes and dreams. A rambling, off-topic sentence which probably should have been deleted but it’s four in the morning and I honestly don’t care and I need those full five pages. A drastic shift in the paper where for five seconds I actually think I know what I’m talking about. Here’s a “quotation” that does actually “support” the second part of my thesis and I’m actually really surprised that it does (MLA?). Here’s my analysis of the quote in which I try to explain why that supports my thesis like explaining to a small child why the wind blows. It just does, okay, but I’m only going to be able to express this in really confused and circular speech that my teacher will probably underline and put a condescending little question mark next to. Here’s my second quote, “even though I’m not as sure about it” as the last one (MLA, definitely). Here’s my mentioning that character again, but this time I’m talking also about a second character. I secretly hope I never have to take a test on this stuff. Here’s the “third quote, which I will refuse to cut despite the fact it is again too long and probably needs to be edited for tense changes but if I do that then the teacher will think I give a shit” (APA). Here’s my thesis again but this time I’m connecting it back to the characters because I’m smart see also I have no idea what I’m doing and I want to burn my laptop and I just spent four hours on the internet putting this essay off so now my only option is to just write and pray to god that something makes sense. Concluding line.
Transitional sentence, but with a vague sense of foreboding and dread attached to it. My hands are starting to slow down. I have no idea if my thesis is even right, but here’s some kind of a “quote” that maybe happened I hope (APA, definitely). I have now grown to resent the two characters I have been talking about and I sincerely hope they both die in a fire because literally nothing interesting happens to them literally nothing interesting happened in this book whatsoever, but here’s a “quote that makes it seem like I payed attention in class when the teacher read their favorite bit aloud” (MLA). I am now pretty sure my thesis isn’t correct and that I have zero evidence to support it in any way, but it is far too late in the paper to change anything, so I’m just going to speed ahead and hope the teacher doesn’t notice. I don’t even care anymore if I fail, here’s a “quote because what the hell,” not gonna bother analyzing it because at this point seriously do I still have to explain this stuff how hard is my thesis to grasp (panicky Chicago). Here’s a conclusion, barely.
This is where I say the thesis again, because I hate the teacher at this point and I want them to suffer through reading the same stuff eighty times. Here’s where I try to make this book seem “modern” and “exciting,” when in reality if I had been allowed to read it in my own time and without having to see specific symbols that my teacher wanted, I probably would have liked it. Here’s where I talk about those symbols I just remembered at the last second. Here’s where I say something vague. Here’s how I link the conclusion to the introductory paper, if I’m brave. Here’s a rambling personal thought. Here’s where I panic about how to end this essay. With a question, maybe?
This is the sentence where I say something generically positive about your paper. The next sentence begins with “Overall” but quickly segues into a “however.” The most egregious flaw is the one that I highlight next, but I’m probably skipping over several because your paper isn’t actually good. Now I make some kind of vague statement that glosses over the fact that I can tell you haven’t read the book. At this point in my comments I try to gently remind you that you are a college student, something along the lines of “in academic papers, it is customary to…”
There’s a paragraph break because I’m afraid to overwhelm you with a long paragraph—your essay seems to indicate you are not capable of sustaining that kind of attention to prose. I now make a statement that tries to convey to you the fact that I know you wrote this paper in four hours (“you seem to write your way into your thesis”) without actually saying it, and then I point out that the thesis you have repeated in every single paragraph of your paper has no actual relationship to anything you’ve argued.
In the final paragraph, I try to say something generically positive again. If the only good thing about your paper is that it wasn’t written in the garbled, grammatically-twisted faux academic-ese of most student papers, I’ll say something like “you write clear and direct prose,” but since it’s probably written that way I probably write “you have a strong point of view.”
—every set of student comments I’ve ever made.
This was called satire, I’m sorry that was not more clear. I’m also sorry that you were evidently never a student pressed for time and totally did all of your essays four days beforehand (liar).
I have been working in education for most of my life and I still have not found the value of essay papers. I have taught grades preschool through college. I am not unfamiliar with grading papers and I am not unfamiliar with writing them.
Dear teacher: where were you the first time someone told you that you couldn’t write? (I was in fourth grade, and my English consisted of “yes,” “no,” and “where is bathroom?”) Where were you the first time you realized that no matter how much you wanted to, there was no legitimate way you could get a paper done before 5 in the morning? (Seventh grade, after four other assignments and my extracurricular activities). Dear teacher, where did you stop being the student and start being positive that essays show how much a student knows, and that the way students react to essays is out of laziness instead of legitimate hatred?
Dear teacher: as a teacher, we should stop doing this to our students. Essays and reading don’t have to go together. Writing professional essays is important, but generating a love of reading and learning in our children is even more important. If you want to teach them how to write essays, have them write it about the things they love to talk about. These are the students you complain about because they’ll spend eighty pages talking about their OTP instead of “just five writing about this book.” Maybe the problem isn’t that they’re incapable, it’s that their creative spark has been completely extinguished through writing the same 5 pages every two weeks. If you gave them assignments that impassioned them, made them fall in love with writing, made them excited to do the research - maybe you’d find suddenly these kids you think of as C students are actually exceptionally brilliant and just completely incapable of caring about Madame Bovary.
No student is stupid, no student is “just lazy”. It’s easy to be a teacher if you think that kind of thing. Essays show one very distinct type of writing ability as well as one type of intelligence. Can I tell you a secret? I am awful at writing essays. They make my brain hurt. Can I tell you another secret? I’m still a poet, and every teacher who used the format of “read book, write essay, read new book” has no idea. They think maybe I’m doing my best but I’m “just not capable of grasping the question,” whatever question they were aiming for.
Read the books you have to read for the curriculum. I understand the standardized structure makes it hard not to teach essays through book reports. But stop that. Engage the rest of their brains. Give art projects, watch as kids who “didn’t get the symbolism” suddenly grasp everything you’ve been trying to say for the past week. Get up and move around the classroom, have them act out important scenes. Make groups, have them make a short movie trailer for the book, watch as students are suddenly able to express just how much they understand.
Kids don’t think “wow this book has a great thesis statement I can’t wait to write that essay.” Kids think “oh god I have to finish this and study for that math test and also get my history paper done and make sure I’m up on time so I can check my email for my science project because my lab partner still has not given me their half of the work and oh god coach is supposed to keep us late tomorrow but I’m already half asleep how much coffee is too much coffee is there any way I can just get this done so I can go to sleep?"
Dear teacher: from one teacher to another, if you get essays like this, it isn’t the fault of the students. It’s the fault of our system which is forcing them to under-preform just to get by. Kids are not stupid, kids are not trying to fool you into thinking they did the work. Kids are not the problem here. They’re just kids, and you’re the one telling them “grades are more important than anything else.”
They’re just kids. If you want to have them “get” the book, teach them. Teach them. Get up, stop settling with the same four activities. Get impassioned. We’ve read this book eighty times, so we see the things they don’t. It’s their first time. Love them. Love teaching. You have so much power. You can teach them to be thinkers, creators, learners. Or you can teach them how to write a 5-page essay. Again.
A Student (Because I don’t know about you, but I still have so much to learn.)