How the hell do I structure my essay properly? (A holiday story)

It’s the first day of the week after Christmas, which here in the UK, for Queen Mary Drama students anyway, means it’s the day to turn one’s attention full-time back to writing the essays due in January. I’ve had a steady stream of queries today, ranging from slightly worried to totally panicked. The most interesting one, however, came from a second-year student who wrote to ask me for some practical, general advice; she noted that she’d been getting feedback consistently faulting her essay structure, and that her confidence was dropping. Did I have some recommendations for her that could help?

Some of you might be rolling your eyes: we’re not writing instructors, right? University teachers, unless we teach writing, don’t technically teach writing. We teach subject areas; students are expected to develop their writing skills on their own (or to have them already). But they don’t, mostly because writing well is HARD, people, and learning to write well is frankly baffling (I remember how baffling – any good researcher/writer who tells you the skills came easy is lying). We all need to share tips with one another, throughout our careers, and I think we should share them more often with our students, because they needs those tips, and also because the epidemic of people in positions of power in the culture at large who have very poor written communication skills is growing at an alarming pace.

I am reminded constantly of how important good writing skills are to acts of activism, and to our current dearth of effective activism. (Yes, even accounting for Occupy, we’re not protesting nearly as much as we used to, and we’re not being heard nearly as often. Ask a union organiser if you don’t believe me. Care.org only kind of counts.) How many times have we complained that the media dumb down complex ideas in the neoliberal public sphere, leaving thoughtful politicians scrambling to make their cases for action heard above the din of “lower taxes! Too many immigrants!”? Every Rob Ford shouting “stop the gravy train!” not only clouds the airwaves with ridiculously oversimplified non-arguments (“stop the gravy train” is not an argument; it’s a sloppy but annoyingly catchy catch phrase designed to stifle argument). S/he also lowers the bar, making it that much harder for people who’d like to help the public understand, say, where our municipal tax dollars actually go, why public transit is really expensive but remarkably necessary, and why municipal issues in a large city like Toronto are rarely simple in any way. In order for the latter voices to get better hearing in what currently passes for our public sphere a number of things need to happen, but I’d argue that one of those things must be a broader appreciation for how to build, and read, and make sense of complex arguments in all sorts of venues.

So, festive season and all, here’s a version for all of you of the email I wrote to my student in reply to her useful query about how she might learn to structure her academic essays more effectively. I drew these “top tips” from my own experience learning (over and over again, at different stages in my career) how to write better, more clearly, with more nuance and with more precision. But they’re just mine. I’d love to hear yours – please do hit reply – and feel free to quibble with anything below that you think doesn’t ring true.

Happy new year!

Kim

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1. Figure out what you actually want to argue. It may be a version of what you first thought you were going to argue, but very likely it’s not the same as that first thought. It’s probably a bit more complicated now, and this is where students often get tripped up. As you mull over your essay plans your ideas evolve, but with that evolution can come fear that your ideas are somehow “getting away” from you. Don’t let this cause you panic! Instead, embrace the evolution. Take the time to wander around your room/flat/kitchen, talking your ideas out to yourself or with friends or flatmates or parents. When you “hit” what “it” is you’re trying to say, write it down. Don’t skip this step. In fact, probably you’ll want to do this series of things (think/talk/wander/write) a bunch of times, and that’s fine – remember that your ideas are getting more complicated, which means multi-dimensional. There are more than one or even two ways to say what you’re saying, and you’ll need those multiple phrasings as you work through your paper later.

2. When you think you’ve got “it”, work out a draft introduction to give it some body. Make sure you are as clear as possible in your introduction about the “it” you’ve worked out as your argument: in other words, don’t be afraid to say exactly what you mean to argue BEFORE you start arguing it. Don’t worry that you’re spoiling some kind of surprise – just spit it out! This is the best thing you can do in the introduction, and in fact everywhere in your essay – be very, very clear about the argument to come and your essay’s larger goals. My friend Joanne Tompkins calls this “signposting”; she taught me to signpost when she helped me create what later became my first published journal article, and I’ll always be grateful.

3. Next, go back to some planning. How are you going to support your argument? What things do you want to highlight as evidence? Plot the argument for yourself, in the way that works best for you to be sure, but DO plot it out. What will go in each paragraph – stick to the key points here, no more at this stage – and (this is important) how will the paragraphs feed into each other? Plot these transitions out in the way you like best – using text, visuals, string, anything. But do plot them. Plotting really, really works, especially when you’re learning.

4. Draft the rest of the paper. After you’ve finished each paragraph, go back to your list of “it” phrases. See if there is a connection between what you’ve been arguing in the paragraph and “it”. If there is, make sure it’s clearly marked. If there’s not a connection, figure out why not (and if there should be one – sometimes the answer to this is no, but usually it’s yes). Edit as appropriate.

5. Finally, after you’ve drafted the paper, put it away for a day and then read it again (or, ask a friend to read it). After you’ve read it, answer this question: what is the paper now, in this state, ACTUALLY arguing? Is it the thing you believe you were trying to say? Or is the paper veering off track in places and trying to say something more, or something new? If it is, ask yourself one more question: is that because you haven’t argued your case fully enough, with enough evidence, or is it because you’re in fact trying to make the point that’s coming out in the tangents rather than in your introduction? Either way, chances are you’ll need a solid edit at this stage. That means another full day of work, most likely, so make sure you’ve saved time for it! As you revise, have your “it” phrases to hand, and be careful you’re not letting your edits take the paper off track. By the same token, if you think the tangents you’ve found in your paper are serious enough to warrant a re-write, with a new argument and a new, improved introduction, well, get busy. We’ve all been there, and rarely do we regret the re-writing.

AND: before you do anything, take a look at this: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/1/2/

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A shout-out to this term’s activist learners

We’ve just completed our autumn semester at Queen Mary; this year, term ended for me with the final seminar in my first-year module, “Performance Texts”. This is a compulsory course for any single-honours Drama student at QM; this year, I had nearly 50 students, taught separately and together by me and three very able teaching associates across four seminar groups.

I hadn’t taught first year students in more than a decade before coming to Queen Mary, and I have been totally surprised by what a pleasure it can be to work with engaged and enthusiastic beginners. Performance Texts is, in every way, a building-block course: we teach the basics of what it means to understand plays, scripts, live performance, film – you name it, as long as “it” bears a relation to the act of public performance – as “texts” to be read, analysed, and explored critically. Thus, the course functions as an intellectual starting point for all future QM Drama seminars. And because I, like so many of my peers at Queen Mary, am a firm believer in the socially and politically activist dimensions of performance, the course is designed to help students understand performance texts as social and political documents geared toward our collective betterment. Can performance have public impact? we ask. What kind? Can it change minds? Change government policy? Change anything for longer than two hours at a time? For me, live performance is charged with activist potential but its realisation is never a given; in a class like Performance Texts we talk about that potential, what its realisation might or might not look like, and what performance’s limitations as an activist practice might be.

So what did the students and I do this year? We defined our terms – mapping the many things that “activism” can mean, arguing over the difference between “subtle” and “overt” acts of intervention, delineating the many different kinds of “texts” we encountered together and what kinds of skills “reading” each such text might require.

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We explored the collaboratively devised, apartheid-era South African play The Island first as a published script, then as a source for some exciting, provocative student scene-studies, and finally as a professional production, which we attended all together at the Young Vic on London’s South Bank. We struggled with Shakespeare’s language. We engaged in heated debate over the relative merits of Julie Taymor’s wacky, carnivalesque, pastiche film version of Titus AndronicusWe talked about ethics. We confronted ideas most people don’t want to talk about. We made countless scratch performances, did a lot of group work and plenty of independent free writing. We shared some impressive thought work, in seminar and on stage. And we stayed late – a lot.

Thinking back over the semester with my small seminar cohort of 13 students, I can’t get over how fully and completely engaged we were, every Friday morning at 10am! Far from being archetypal representatives of the “me” generation, this clutch of learners came prepared to think, to feel, to test new ideas, to write, to read, to expose their vulnerabilities, to make stuff, and to get messy when necessary. We didn’t all agree on what “activism” at the theatre might mean, just as our politics didn’t always agree – but we were all prepared, sooner or later, to take a risk and go out on a limb with an idea. That’s not something I see all that often in the classroom, and it’s not something I ever expected to get from first-year students, whom I imagined, before coming to teach them, as closed-off and fearful rather than bold, open and forceful. Terrified they probably were – but they were bold and forceful too, and found the courage, again and again, to open themselves to the course and its challenges.

As a thanks to my students – Jodie, Wizzy, Anu, Ema, Alex, Josh, Olivia, Martha, Will, Connal, Aqua, Rhys, and Shafiq – I’ve made two lists: of what they taught me this semester, and of what I hope for them in the semesters to come.

What Kim Learned… from the gang in Performance Texts (Autumn 2013)

  1. Making is a kind of reading. As Olivia put it so well during our last class, we learn so much from exploring a text physically, devising a performance of it, and then looking back at it through the eyes of an audience of peers. Could it be that the most important work we do in an “activist” classroom (whether that classroom is focused on “performance” or not) amounts to a series of shared makings, through which we watch one another unpack an idea and then reflect back what we see? This is a kind of risky, responsive, dynamic reading: it requires each of us to be vulnerable and receptive to the gazes of others as they look critically at what we have made, and how and why we have made it. But how much might we each take from that experience of reading our own intentions, prejudices, and insights through others’ eyes!
  2. Small, “simple” books can have a big, valuable impact. This year my colleagues and I encountered difficulties in making our course reading packages at the end of the summer; as a result, I dispensed with the idea of a reading pack for Performance Texts and simply asked the students to buy three books from the student-friendly Theatre& series, published by Palgrave. The books are roughly the length of a long essay (60-70 smallish, large-typeface pages), and although they are designed as beginners’ texts, for some reason I’ve always thought they could not, should not be an end in themselves even in a first-year classroom. Last year I assigned two of them, but I also assigned some heavy-duty scholarly essays besides; surely to demonstrate my strengths as a teacher (not to mention my Big Brain as a researcher) I should also include some Derrida and Deleuze for good measure, right? This year I defied that gnawing fear that sticking to the “beginner” texts would mark some kind of pedagogical (or intellectual!) failure on my part, and I’m glad I did. Thanks to Connal and Ema in particular for reminding me, in the last couple of weeks of the term, how useful these small books, with their clear histories and helpful bibliographies, can be.
  3. Sometimes there’s a good reason to eat a dead baby. We studied Sarah Kane’s controversial first play, Blasted, in the penultimate weeks of the semester, and as part of that work we had to confront the freight of putting extreme acts of violence against others on stage. During our wide-ranging discussions, Martha made the very good point that there is often a logical, understandable reason for an extreme act – we just need to imagine that reason in order to gain access to some empathy for the perpetrator. Further, she reminded us that finding the will to imagine in that way – taking the risk to think against the popular grain, to feel for the person against whom others have lined up in hate and disgust – can be one of the hardest things anyone may do in a life. Indeed, such imagining may be the very definition of an “act” of activism.

What Kim hopes for the gang in return…

  1. That you will keep taking exactly such risks: in performance, sure, but also in your thinking and reading and writing and being. Try out new ideas, especially now; the stakes, until you reach final year, are comparatively low.
  2. That you will fail at something, and get up again. Think of those low stakes as a kind of freedom to fail brilliantly; that is, to fail because it went wrong and you learned something from it, not because you didn’t try. Active failing (activist failing?) is how we learn best. (Really: read this.)
  3. That you will not fear your grades. I’d be lying if I told you that you can ignore them; you can’t. (I certainly couldn’t – oh boy, how I couldn’t.) But when you look back on your university years, you’ll likely not be able to remember what mark you scored in each class. You will remember exhilaration, moments of revelation, moments when you made a hard choice and something unexpected and amazing happened. When you learned, hit the nail on the head, grew two inches taller. Try, just once, to forget about the tick-boxes. Work for those other moments instead.

With thanks to each one of you,

Kim

PS: watch this space in the weeks to come for guest posts from the rest of the Performance Texts teaching team.