Sunday, March 9, 2008

Clear Thinking From the Start

One of the best ways to write a good essay is to get a good start. One student's topic proposal shows some sloppiness that is going to make things tough for her from the beginning. In Great Books Writing Workshop: Christendom students are writing basic thesis papers and using illustrations from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress to support the thesis. I invited students to submit several topic ideas with brief notes on a character or scene from the book that would work with that topic. She submitted this:

  • Here's my topic options and characters. I'm thinking about going Persevering or judging a person's character for my topic.

Yes, it should read, "Here are my topic options and characters. I'm thinking about 'persevering' or 'judging a person's character.'" There are at least four errors in just these nineteen words, but the basic meaning is pretty clear. If this student had written these two sentences more correctly, she would have established a more academic "stance" from the beginning, taking herself more seriously and helping me to take her intentions more seriously, even though this is an informal submission, just to get my feedback on her ideas. She goes on to the first topic idea:

  • Topic: Being a Christian in only word, but the roots of your beliefs are only skin deep.

Again, the meaning is fairly clear, but it is just plain sloppy to say "in only word" rather than "only in word," and a simple "but not in deed" would help a lot. And why the "but" here? The second part of the "sentence" is an expansion on the first idea, not a contrast to it. Notice the mixed metaphor of roots and "skin deep." Either of these would work, but we have a collection of half-metaphors. As this student tries to move on to DO something with this topic, she's going to have "words," "roots," and "skin deep" kind of floating around in her mind, failing to coalesce into a clear concept. Now if she is thinking of all the possibilities of metaphor, she could expand a bit on each one to have it before her for future consideration.

A Christian in word but not in deed is a hypocrite, right? But someone who has shallow beliefs may be sincere in those and thus just ignorant or weak, but with potential for growth. The hypocrite needs repentance. So which is this student thinking of? She goes on with the brief note I'd asked for:

  • Illustrative Character: Talkative, a character, who is all talk and no action, a Christian in words, not deeds. He knows how to weave a religious tale but cannot follow his own advice, a lot like the Pardoner from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales except for Talkative's intentions are good.

NOW we have the "deeds" to contrast with the words, and that's good. And the parallel phrase that says the same thing is helpful, so the student is getting somewhere now. Note that she explains HOW he has words but no deeds, talk but no action--he can tell a tale but not follow his own advice. There is a little disjoint here--should we assume the tale includes advice, or are they separate?

I am pleased to see the note about the Pardoner--this shows that the student is expanding her thinking to an earlier reading in the course, and that's what we teachers all long for, isn't it? :-) The brief note here is okay, a jog to her memory for the future.

And then there is an assertion for possible challenge--ARE Talkative's intentions good? Were the Pardoner's intentions completely bad? This topic has great potential for comparison of these two, whether they wind up being much alike or very different.

Even a small blurb in a topic exploration needs precision and clarity.


Cindy Marsch said...

Grumble...can't get the font uniform in that post...grumble...

christine said...


I hope you keep on raising the bar for everyone. It has been lowered for far too long...

christine said...

i forgot i had a blog until i commented on yours and my name came up, so i just spent the last 2 hours updating it. i don't remember doing that in 2005--no recollection at all!