Essay criteria

October 5, 2006 at 1:27 pm (General)

To sum up today’s class: the midterm essay on October 10 will be strictly an in-class essay; you will write it by hand and turn it in at the end of class, but you may bring and consult as many books and documents as you like. Below are my criteria for both the midterm and the final essay; it is of course true, however, that I will make copious allowances for the midterm essays, and I’ll write more about that below.

What I want to see from your essays:

All scholarly writing tries (essays) to produce new knowledge. In whom? Well, for these assignments, in me. I don’t like the construct of the “implied reader” or the “imagined reader,” at least not for course assignments, where we know exactly who will in fact be reading what we write. Please try to teach me something I didn’t know before you wrote your essay, or please try to convince me of something I might not now believe. I know it’s difficult to judge what I know and believe and what I don’t, but it’s at any rate easier than trying to judge what an invisible, imagined, or implied reader might already know or believe. You can at least make an argument that I did not make in class, or better still an argument that teaches you something new, or best of all one that produces important, relevant knowledge for the previously ignorant world and his wife. Your classmates will also be reading a draft version of your final essay, so please write with the idea of teaching them something that they will find both new and interesting.

I’d like you to make a firm, clear argument, though not one that is simplistic or extreme. Scholars can often do us the favor of giving us clear terms in which to discuss ideas: this relates both to your own scholarly writing and to your use of scholarly sources. In other words, to heighten clarity you can invent your own useful vocabulary and/or you can make use of existing critical vocabulary (e.g, “anxiety of influence,” “dactylic tetrameter,” “mirror stage,” etc.). Definition of abstract terms is key. I like to think that the “answer to a question” model for an argument helps to encourage this clarity. Similarly, making comparisons and distinctions between poets and/or poems helps to clarify the argument you’re making about one poet or poem.

Your argument should rely on good, carefully marshaled evidence: internal textual evidence from the poems themselves (i.e., close reading and formal analysis); historical evidence (either from primary sources or as reported in secondary sources such as editions of letters, biographies, or histories); and/or authoritative judgment (theorists such as Lacan, Foucault, Said, Freud, Butler; period scholars such as Jerome Buckley, Steven Marcus, and so on). All sources should be carefully acknowledged in MLA citation style.

Under this heading I include both a clear, lively, individual writing voice and mechanical considerations such as clean spelling, punctuation, and grammar. I’m all in favor of essays that entertain as well as instruct (as long as they do instruct), and this means that I don’t mind at all if you want to write in the first person, employ metaphor, neologize, alliterate, show a familiarity with pop culture, or engage in any number of other techniques for producing pleasurable prose. At a minimum, essays should be free of mechanical errors and inflated language.

I understand that you haven’t yet had time to glean the knowledge contained in your bibliographies, and that therefore you feel worried about having to make a good argument in the midterm essay (now confined to a single class period on Tuesday, October 10). Still, I think that it’s best to try out an answer to the question you’ve posed in this midterm essay, partly to see if you can make yourself believe it, based on what you’ve read so far. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if your argument changes dramatically from the midterm to the final essay after you’ve had more time to think and read.

Even at this early point, with only a few texts under your belt, you can still try to make an original argument and state it clearly, attempting to support it with (probably chiefly internal) evidence from the texts we’ve read so far in the best style you can muster. I will make allowances on all heads when I grade the midterm. You are writing for me, remember, not an implied reader who might expect you to have read more than we have yet read this semester.

I think it’s also probably wise to more or less abandon the “breadth” criterion, the request that you make an argument about Victorian poetry in general, certainly for the midterm at least. I do still want to encourage you to institute comparisons and distinctions, for the purposes of clarity if for no other reason. I don’t think we can really understand a single work unless we have some sense of its larger context, so I want to see some evidence that you have at least a vague impression of that larger context, even if only as represented by one or two other Victorian works, before I’ll believe you about any single work you discuss.

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