Month: December 2010

5 things I’ve learnt about writing essays from marking them

I would like to add an extra learning style to the well known list of learning by seeing, by hearing, by doing etc. I want to add learning by judging. Here’s what I learnt about essay writing from my recent experience marking them:

  1. Formatting matters. Your essay does not need to look beautiful. But when I pick up a double-spaced essay in a serif font there is a feeling of peace that descends upon me that I am sure puts me in a more generous frame of mind.
  2. Your reference list does matter. I want to see that you’ve been in the class, that you’ve done some of the prescribed reading and are responding to the arguments made by them in your essay. It is in your best interest to use as many of the readings you’ve had to do as possible! But then I also need to see that you’ve done some of your own research. There needs to be some stuff there that’s not on the reading list too.
  3. Don’t just summarise. Argue. You won’t get a bad mark if your essay summarises content from the course on the topic you’ve chosen. But you will get an average one. Show me you have a brain that thinks independently. I don’t mean ‘be argumentative’. Find the links between the five different points you want to make to tell a story and persuade me of point ; e.g. “instead of thinking about memory as history, I will argue that it’s more appropriately thought of as fiction”. I don’t mind a little bit of argumentative, too. I quite like it when, at some point in your essay, you take issue with what you’ve been taught — when you find a critic or a case study that problematises the subject. The best essays I marked made good arguments, but I suspect a bad argument could be worse than a good summary…any thoughts from more experienced markers?
  4. Your first paragraph is really really really important. I’d always known it was good to have a good introduction, but I never really felt the weight of it. It sets the tone in terms of of writing ability, but I care less about style than I do about content. Your introduction should help me read the rest of your essay: it makes it so much easier for me to mark your essay if you tell me what you’re going to argue and how you’re going to argue it. Don’t just restate the question. If the question is “Discuss Anderson’s theory of the nation as imagined community”, it is not enough to say in your introduction that “In this essay I will discuss Anderson’s theory of the nation as imagined community”. Of course you will! If you don’t, I will struggle not to fail you. Rather, tell me something like: “In this essay I will show how Anderson’s theory helpfully contributes to previous formulations of nationalism, but is insufficient to explain nationalism in its entirety. First, I will…”.
  5. Signposts will make your essay stand out from the crowd. Signposts are those sentences that tell me where we’ve been and where we’re going: “The four aspects of ethnic nationalism discussed above are criticised by John Doe. It is to this criticism we will now turn.” Signposts should reflect the argument and structure you described to me in your introduction. They mean I don’t have to keep flipping back to your introduction to remind my self of the structure of your paper. Flipping is frustrating.

mission: hospitable

…to be hospitable is to let oneself be overtaken [surprendre], to be ready to not be ready, if such is possible, to let oneself be overtaken, to not even let oneself to be overtaken, to be surprised, in a fashion almost violent … precisely where one is not ready to receive — and not only not yet ready but not ready, unprepared in a mode that is not even that of the “not yet”.

— Jacques Derrida, ‘Hostipitality’ [sic] (in Acts of Religion, p 361)

A full exegesis of Derrida’s take on hospitality will have to wait for another day. (Dan recently did a cracker of a job on the allied theme of friendship.)

For the moment, I want to isolate the profound insight concealed here. Derrida seems to be pursuing a definition of hospitality that won’t get turned inside-out and become its opposite (becoming degraded into that corrosive power play in which I position myself as the host — the one who is ‘at home’ and holds all the cards — and, in doing so, subtly downgrade you as my guest).

It’s worth dwelling on the difference between true and false hospitality. Here are some of my preliminary thoughts about what would ‘count’ as the genuine article for Christians:

  1. The whole experience draws people deeper into relationship rather than being simply a self-indulgent end in itself.
  2. The food (and the service, etc) doesn’t draw attention to itself — either by being too flashy or too cringy — because we know that Jesus has freed us from needing to impress or ‘prove ourselves’ by how well we perform.
  3. It manifests care for our guests — e.g., in safe and hygienic food handling as well as in showing loving attention to our guests’ potential sensitivities (dietary, cultural, etc).
  4. From go to woe, it breaks down boundaries (whether ethnic or socio-economic) — and, in doing so, speaks of how God’s grace in Jesus differs from both religion and irreligion.

How would you extend the list?