I do some tutoring as a bit of a sideline, and yesterday someone sent me the very piece of paper I wrote about in my second year in college. I was in English 435, and my reaction to it is the same today as it was four years ago.
My biggest pet peeve when it comes to education is being treated like I’m stupid. My second biggest one is having my ability to work within the structure of an assignment, to create a paper that is creative enough for me to enjoy writing, limited. Today in class a professor handed out a page titled “How to Write an ‘A’ Paper.” Leaving out most of the unnecessary examples, here were the highlights:
“1) Paper should have a clear, complex, and surprising argument, neatly summarized in one or two sentences (aka ‘the thesis statement’) somewhere near the end of the first paragraph.”
First of all, it’s difficult to have a surprising argument when the topics given are so detailed and directive as to be limiting. Asking someone to highlight the similarities of the image of the child in Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” and Mayhew’s “London Labour and the London Poor” hardly leaves room for revelation. Secondly, are there really people in 400-level English courses who aren’t aware of the concept of a thesis?
“2) Each paragraph should be organized around a single main idea stated clearly in the first sentence of the paragraph. The paragraph’s first sentence should also include a logical hinge or transition clause indicating its connection to the previous idea. Look out for the most common warning sign that a paper lacks a strong overarching argument: paragraphs that open with plot summary rather than an analytical statement.”
This is the single most limiting thing a writer can be told. It creates horrific copies of “The Five Paragraph Essay”. This may be my own rebellion as a writer and a tutor, but I’m tired of the cookie-cutter format that’s inculcated into children from the moment they write more than one sentence at a time. I’ll tell you now that I write phenomenal papers and essays, and I haven’t deliberately included an introductory sentence for my paragraphs since fifth grade. Somehow I manage to make enough sense to get A’s.
“3) Paper should provide evidence for its argument by quoting directly from the text. Once you quote something, don’t just leave it hanging there: analyze it closely, describing all of the associations that seem relevant to your argument. Observe the steps here: first describe the detail, then give us its associations; then show us how the detail changes our initial interpretation of the larger whole or message. See if you can move back and forth between specific and general in your paragraphs.”
Regarding the “don’t just leave it hanging there” comment: no shit. As for the process…given this, there’s not going to be any work involved in writing the paper. It’s a matter of reading the text, finding a mildly appropriate quote, plugging in all of the right adjectives and connecting sentences, and printing the damn thing.
“4) Don’t assume that your reader is familiar with the texts you’re analyzing. Don’t write for your professor; write for a more general intelligent audience. If you start talking about a text, make sure to introduce its major concerns, plot points, and/or reasons for existing.”
I thought that, according to #2, plot summary was bad? Oh wait, only at the BEGINNING of a paragraph.
“5) Think about how your paper is structured. Is there a logic behind what comes at the beginning, middle, and end?”
If there isn’t, you shouldn’t be in a 400-level class. Period.
“6) Prose style. Make your writing as clear, lucid, and logical as possible. Avoid fancy clauses or abstruse world choice in favor of clarity and simplicity. The best writing style conveys complex ideas with crystalline diction.”
I for one, plan to use every fancy clause I can dream up. Why? Because I fucking want to, and because as long as I communicate the material accurately and as per her strictly outlined format, I should be able to be as creative as I please with my sentence formulation and my thesaurus use.
The bottom line is that this professor wants twenty identical papers that she can grade by reading the first sentence of each paragraph.