Essay Writing Can Feel Like Playing Pretend

Imagine being asked to coach an Olympic swimming team. Even though you’ve taken swimming classes at the local Y and have splashed around a pool with your friends, you don’t know the first thing about Olympic-level swimming. That’s how many students feel when they’re asked to write an essay.

I already know from my experience reading student papers that students have trouble writing introductions for academic essays because they rarely have to worry about catching a reader’s attention. These students know that the teacher has to read their papers, so why bother trying to interest the teacher in the subject? After all, I’m getting paid to read their work.

To reawaken the students, I ask them to imagine leaving their essays on an empty seat of a train or a bus. Would someone who picks up the essay want to keep reading past the first sentence? Or would the stranger toss it aside?

The fact that an instructor is usually the only person reading a student’s essay can cause other problems for the student.┬áConsider this idea: some students have difficulty writing academic papers because they have trouble assuming an expert tone when they know the person or people reading the papers is more expert than they are. In the writing center where I work, I overheard two colleagues discussing this theory, and it kind of blew my mind.

Imagine being asked to coach an Olympic swimming team. Even though you’ve taken swimming classes at the local Y and have splashed around a pool with your friends, you don’t know the first thing about Olympic-level swimming. That’s how many students feel when they’re asked to write an essay, especially in an introductory-level course where the instructor (the expert) is the audience.

I think this problem is especially magnified in courses that aren’t necessarily writing-focused – like History, English, or Psychology –┬ábut that require essay writing. In my writing classes, I allow students to assume the role of experts by giving them the chance to choose their essay topics. This way, they can enlighten me about something I don’t necessarily know. They can assume an expert tone because they are imparting knowledge from their life experience.

However, in a History course, students most likely must write about something they don’t know very well, something the instructor is teaching. The goal of a History essay, especially one in an introductory-level course, is for the students to prove their ability to make connections and draw conclusions based on the knowledge they have been given. In this case, the instructor always has the advantage.

So how can an instructor who requires essay writing help his or her students feel less disadvantaged and discouraged before they even start writing? One idea is for the instructor to assign an essay topic that allows the students to make connections between the subject matter and their lives. Every student comes with his or her own body of knowledge and life experience, and allowing the student to share this singular wisdom encourages ownership and authoritativeness.

An instructor should also encourage creativity. If he or she can work outside the box of a five-paragraph or even a five-page essay, the instructor should invite the students to write in different forms, like stories or poems. How can the students show that they grasp concepts and ideas by expressing them through narrative? These types of assignments also require the instructor’s creativity and open-mindedness but even if they are used sparingly I believe they can help students build confidence while developing voice and style.

(Photo by Mai Le)

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