Alan Dignam gives lecturers and students a few tips on how to see both sides' point of view when it comes to assessing a good essay
As a university lecturer I am struck by the similar difficulties my students have each year writing essays. It reminds me of a story about archaeologists digging on Caribbean beaches when they found strange ship-like structures made of stone and wood.
The structures were a mystery until the archaeologists cross-referenced the anthropological records for the islands. They found that in the 15th century local tribes had seen tall ships sailing by on the horizon (Columbus or Da Gama, perhaps). They tried to build replicas of what they saw but, although they were the same shape, they sank. Hence the ship-like structures left buried in the sand.
My students have also observed tall ships on the horizon and have tried to imitate them in their essays. By their final year they should have read some of the best work in their field of study. Yet very few seem to be able to reproduce close to that quality of work or replicate the methodology involved in producing a persuasive argument. They hardly seem to see any connection between the work they have to produce in their essays and the articles and books they read.
The end result is an essay that seem to have a structure (usually, but not always, a beginning, middle and end) and that might float an argument. But the argument invariably sinks without trace.
Each year I recommend two main textbooks that roughly cover the same material. Both are excellent, but one is highly structured and rigidly formal in its writing style, the other is much more contextual and fluid in style.
In the spectrum of academic works one represents Fred Astaire, the other Gene Kelly: one brilliantly technical; the other more natural and graceful. Two-thirds favour Kelly, the rest Astaire.
The discovery of the Astaire-Kelly model led me to adopt two teaching tools. The first is to make the students analyse Astaire or Kelly and ask why one or the other helps their learning process and guides them through difficult concepts.
When students read for structure rather than for content they should start to realise there is more to the arrangement of words on the page than the random whim of the author. This helps them understand how they should go about structuring their own arguments.
The second teaching tool is to adopt concepts grounded in the student experience to help explain structures in argument.
One of the great difficulties in discussing writing skills with students is that they tend to glaze over once the words "structure", "argument" and "hypothesis" are mentioned. There seems to be an inherent resistance not just to the words but to the mechanical process of writing and arguing.
The problem is to bridge the gap between the skills they can employ in their personal lives and those they feel less able to exercise in an academic setting.
They are often identical, but the context makes them unrecognisable. Students can invariably bring incredible novelty and ingenuity to arguments as to why they should have an extension to an essay deadline (my computer, hamster, aliens, house, fish, dog, arm, x-wing fighter, died, flew away, burned down, invaded, flooded, exploded, crashed, disintegrated, and so the essay is unfinished). But that same novelty and ingenuity is missing from the final product when it is eventually handed in. Pointing this out to them can help.
The learning process for argument is similar to learning to drive a car. There is a nerve-racking period when the act of coordinating the physical actions of driving interferes with the driving itself. After a time the physical coordination passes from the conscious mind to the unconscious and driving becomes a fluid, even pleasurable, process.
Getting the student over this is helped immeasurably by the student recognising the true nature of the medium being employed. The essay format is neither a polemic nor a rhetorical medium but a dialogue between the student and the lecturer.
The student must present his or her argument to the lecturer recognising that at all times the argument is being analysed and potentially disagreed with by the lecturer. Thus, alternate arguments must be addressed, controversial issues recognised and weaknesses acknowledged. The student must not argue in isolation but in response to the hypothetical knowing reader.
Recognising the dialogic nature of all argument is the key and any tools that help the student to do this are useful. It is important that the students devise their own system of argument. They can do this only through practice and advice.
This brings me to the role of teachers. As thinkers, learners and arguers, they can also be divided into Astaire and Kelly models.
Thus not only must the teaching be tailored to these two groups of students, if they are to learn, but the argument in an essay must be tailored to the member of staff assessing it.
The real problems occur when a student of the Kelly school of thinking, learning and arguing presents an essay to a Astaire lecturer. The student has a clear choice: either discard his or her natural form of argument and take on the lecturer's preferred form or they can stick to their guns and perhaps suffer the consequences.
Most make some attempt at adopting the lecturer's preferred form because, not surprisingly, they wish to get a good grade. By doing so another barrier to the process of argument has been put in place.
This could be seen as part of the dialogic process, the student assessing the reader's response to their argument and acting accordingly. But it is an unfair and added burden on the student.
If students are able to recognise that these differences in style exist, why not staff? Arguing is a personal thing and thus style is important - it represents the individual, the passion in the argument. Kill the style and you kill the personal element, the pleasure attached to arguing and make it immeasurably more difficult.
Lecturers must recognise the merits of differing styles of argument and not try to turn Kelly into Astaire or vice versa. It may get the student through the course but it will damage their ability to argue in the long run.
Do you recognise any of the above in your students or yourself? Then try the following: * Realise that you have a role to play in helping students to produce reasoned argument * Do not presume that students have arrived in your class with the necessary skills to produce such a reasoned argument * Do not just recommend textbooks you like, canvass the students about alternative textbooks they find helpful and include them on your reading list * Get the students to read an article they found useful for structure rather than for content. How did the author explain the concept to them? How did the author tie differing strands of argument together?
* Encourage your students to use examples to illustrate an argument.
* Try to use metaphorical or analogical reasoning when explaining argument to your students. It locates the abstract in the common experience * Point out the contradictions between their argument skills when they want an essay deadline extended and the poor quality of argument in the final product * Encourage your students to read each other's work to see whether the essay makes sense and has a clear, logical approach.
* Explain to the students what is expected of them when presenting arguments and introduce yourself to the process as the hypothetical knowing reader. Let them know what they can expect from you in that role * Realise that you are not the ultimate arbiter of writing style. Reading other styles of writing may help you understand and ultimately value those styles.
Remember that no one disputes that Kelly and Astaire were brilliant dancers, they were just different in the way they expressed themselves.
Alan Dignam is a lecturer in law at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.