Thursday, January 8, 2009

Making a Stand with an Essay

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: "To be is to stand for." Well, to write is to stand for, too.

The other day, one of my tutorial students presented me with an essay full of what I call "DUH lines"--statements of obvious, unenlightening facts, without any new perspective. I asked, "But what do YOU think about the story? Where is YOUR interpretation? That's the only reason I want to read your essay. I already read the story myself; I don't need a simple summary. Teach me something new, or at least make me argue with you!"

"But this is a Response-to-Literature Essay, not a Personal Narrative Essay or an Editorial, so I don't think I'm supposed to write my opinion...."

"Think again!" I interjected. "Remember what I told you about how a thesis must be arguable--not a DUH line? Well, you have to prove your argument with the rest of the sentences. Each one builds upon the one before it, to convince the reader of your perspective. I can understand the story just by reading it. But I can't understand YOUR perspective on the story unless you share it with me. Again, the only reason I want to read your essay is to find out what YOU think about the story."

I could see a light bulb popping on over my student's head. And then opinions, in the form of commentary, flowed like electricity. Essays should turn on readers, not turn them off!