I Find Comfort in Anonymity, but I’m Working on it: Reflections on the Academic Essay

I entered high school with no formal education in writing an essay. I always assumed that as long as my grammar was somewhat acceptable and spelling errors were at a minimum that I would receive a desirable grade from the one viewer, the teacher. I went through the first two years of my small town high school English classes writing so-called essays with no regard to structure or descriptive and analytical topic. The word essay had little intimidation on me because I did not know what exactly constructed a good essay, or even why anyone needed the knowledge to write an essay.

 It was not until my junior year of high school that I started to understand that a well-written essay was a way to use the texts I was reading, and make any connection I could support. The teacher that taught the seniors in Advanced Placement English (APE) additionally taught one Grade 11 English course, and I was fortunate enough to be enrolled in that class. Throughout the year she began to incorporate the basic skills and methods used in the writing of an academic essay. Her motive was to have her students use our new skills to become critical thinkers and find connections to topics outside of the immediate material. In reading “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, I was not particularly interested in the descriptive detail about a man changing into an insect. Instead I wrote an essay focusing on how his metamorphosis impacted his family’s dynamic.

The more I practiced using a variety of texts from poems, plays and other academic essays the more diverse my knowledge became. I discovered that I struggled with staying in any particular tense. I would constantly be writing in the present tense, and two sentences later be stuck in the past tense. My teacher had a process that she was very willing and eager to share with her students that was composed of key elements to aide us in organizing our thoughts, and overcoming our challenges. These elements were, active reading, discussion (brainstorming), outline, draft and finally, the essay.

To familiarize her students with this process, one of the first projects to test run our new knowledge was to write a research paper. However, we were not expected to read about material, and immediately get to writing about it. Instead the process commenced with gathering source material, and writing out bibliography notecards. The notecards were then numbered. My research topic was to determine whether or not the 1920’s were a decade tainted by violence using the examples of the Leopold and Loeb murder trial and the actions of Al Capone. My sources were composed of an A&E Biography, the online crime library, and academic articles. I was instructed to put any evidence found on to an index card. I would then label the evidence index card with the same number as the source index card that it came from. This ensured that when writing my essay, I would easily be able to insert supporting evidence.

Once all of the research was completed, the organizing of thoughts and brainstorming process began. I examined my prompt and chose my stance in agreement that the 1920’s were a decade tainted by violence. I then organized my notecards to support my opinion. For example, on one of my notecards I used a quote from Leopold and Loeb’s lawyer from the trial to support the idea that the boys were “thrill killers” as theorists had derived.

Was this killing done, as we have been led to believe, by defense, merely for the thrill, your honor, or the excitement.” – Darrow (Linder, 2002)

Part of analyzing Darrow’s quote was not that he was calling the boys “thrill killers,” but instead it was supporting evidence that it was implied by the defense. Our teacher was always urging us to be critical thinkers, and to not just read the logic of the text, but whether or not there was any type of sub-text.

What I believed to be the most crucial part of the process was to create a detailed outline using the evidential notecards. I would place them into the order in which my examples and evidence were to appear in the essay. Using the order of those note cards, I would draft my outline. This particular process was always the most beneficial to my essay skills. It was almost as if looking at a map for me, all laid out in plain sight with the most basic of the content at the forefront. From the outline, it was much more efficient to see the flow of an essay, and make assumptions about how my paragraphs would transition from topic to topic. It was my opportunity to determine if any particular piece would fit better in a different location or if a certain topic needed more supporting content. Additionally, it allowed me one last chance to analyze and see if any more thoughts about the material surfaced. Once the outline was completed, and all of the hard work was finished, it was time to take that outline and turn those bulleted topics into sentences. Effectively drafting an essay.

While in high school, studying a draft was always part of the process, and frequently the drafts would be exchanged between classmates for opinions and corrections. This was sometimes difficult for me, as many of their comments stemmed from my frequency of shifting in and out tenses, most likely making me feel insecure about my work. At that stage in the process I was able to address my challenge of shifting between the past and present tenses. Once I could read the text and focus on which tense to use, I could train myself to find those hiccups, and adjust my wording to stay consistent.

Looking back on my high school English work, I can now see the importance of the research paper assignment, and my teacher’s motive behind it. I had been familiar with research papers in my earlier years in which I had read a bunch of stuff about a topic, collected the most important facts and rewrote it in my own words. However, the research paper with a prompt was setting up my classmates and me for a senior year of researching literature, and analyzing the content for deeper meaning and subtext.

One of my senior year essays was another research paper. I had read The Awakening by Kate Chopin, about a wealthy wife and mother vacationing on an island off the coast of New Orleans in the late 1800’s. The research required was to analyze the novel and compare the protagonist, Edna, to Chopin herself. I had to use the fictional text of The Awakening as a source of material to write a comparative essay about the type of woman Chopin was in her society.

Having these writing skills helped me in many other classes in high school as well as some of the courses that I took while attending the University of New Hampshire. Being well trained in actively reading different types of texts made the transition from literature essay to research essay in another field of study very smooth. While Erickson’s theories did not necessarily keep my interest as well as Arthur Miller, I was still able to read with an inquisitive mind for a psychology essay in which I gave my opinions about his subject matter.

One particular essay that I wrote surprised me one day while I was siting in a very large lecture hall at UNH.  My Abnormal Psychology professor was chatting away about his handout that he wanted everyone to read, and give his or her thought on. I began reading the handout, and quickly realized that I could stop after the first couple of lines. I was reading back to myself a text that I had read numerous times the previous week to prepare my final draft on an essay about a documentary on schizophrenia we had viewed in class. After the initial shock passed over me, and the reassurance set in that it was anonymous to the thirty other students in the hall scrutinizing my work, I listened in on what they had to say. In that moment, I was so grateful for my ability to research a topic, and lay it out in a cohesive format. Most of the comments were about my use of evidence to support original ideas. Some comments were less kind, but I do not need to go into detail about that. The professor never shared with the class that it was my essay they were looking at. It is likely that the reason for that was the obvious discomfort written all over my face, but his purpose in sharing my work with the class was to give an example of what he wanted to see in the next essay assignment. This example culminates for me that all of my practice in writing essays did in fact make me a more effective writer. I was by no means published for my work, but it was photocopied many times, and viewed by more than just one person, and that’s got to count for something, right?

 Source:

Linder, Douglas. “Illinois V. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.” Famous American Trials. http://www.law.unkc.edu/faculty/projects/trials/LEOPLOEB/leopold.htm (May 24, 2002).

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