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Crafting the Essay Sample

Sample Student Assignment, Essay, and Instructor Response


Dear Student,
Your last assignment is to write an evaluation. I want you to decide whether this course is worth taking and to explain why or why not.

Some things to know about evaluation. Evaluation presupposes some standard of judgment. Standards vary and may not be explicit; nevertheless, there has to be a standard. If I dislike Bon Jovi's music, it's probably because I prefer Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen is my standard of judgment. Obviously, the next question is "What about Springsteen's music do you like?" This implies that my standard is not really Springsteen but that Springsteen performs to my standards. I like a melody I can follow. I like lyrics that go beyond mindless repetition for 3 minutes of a 4-line chorus. Thus, I prefer "The End of the World As We Know It" to "This One Goes Out To The One I Love," both by REM.

Standards are usually relative and not absolute. While most people believe it is wrong to kill, most people also believe killing is a necessary part of war.

In any case, your standards for evaluating this course must be stated in the paper. You needn't be as blatant as "I prefer classes where the teacher grades on the curve but has no mathematical skill." But you may be neither as obscure as "leave us eschew obfuscation" nor as vague as "I love this course."

You should also know there are at least 3 (three) types of evaluation:

First, PRIMARY EVALUATION, evaluation of a state of affairs or of past action. E.g., is it okay to bomb tiny foreign nations into the stone age in order to accomplish our foreign policy? Or, should we have started Social Security merely because some poor and old people were starving in the 1930's?

Second is, unsurprisingly, SECONDARY EVALUATION, which is an evaluation of someone else's judgment (or of someone else's evaluation). For example, book reviews and judgments of paintings, poetry, movies. Or, my critiques of your essays. Here, the evaluation involves 2 (two) sets of standards:

  • those of the creator of the art work and
  • those of the critic.

To make a secondary evaluation, you would ask three questions:

  1. What did the author intend to do?
  2. How well did the author succeed?
  3. Was it worth doing?

Obviously, Student, the answers to the first 2 questions are in terms of the author's standards. The third question depends on the critic's standards.

Third is SELF-EVALUATION. This term is self-explanatory. Obviously, this kind of evaluation has 2 (two) major questions. 1) Am I doing what I intended, according to my standards? 2) Are my standards the right/best/most reasonable ones for me? The issue isn't really #1, which is easily answerable. The issue is always #2, because we don't always know where our standards come from.

For example, to take this course in order to score well on the Advanced Placement Test in English Language and Composition is perfectly reasonable. But, if your standards are to become Shakespeare in one year, you've got a problem. Your standards are unreasonable. First, this course doesn't teach how to write drama, especially not verse drama in iambic pentameter. Second, writing poetry isn't the purpose of the AP Test in Language and Composition. Third, by definition there can only be one Shakespeare.

Having explained the major points of evaluation and of standards of judgment, let's get specific. You'll need to discuss

  1. The purpose of this course
  2. How well the course measure up to its purpose.
  3. Whether the purpose and the course are worth it.

To further complicate the issue, you have to remember that three different answers are possible, depending on which/what standard you choose: CTY's, mine, and yours. If you include your parents, you have four possible standards. You have to consider as many of these standards as possible, especially in terms of (1) and (2) above.

DON'T worry about making me mad. The ulterior motive for this assignment is to inform me of your thoughts about the quality and value of this course.

BUT, I want to read your essay as if it is addressed to someone else. Don't address it to me. You might want to make it a letter to a friend or to parents, or a petition to the CTY office, or an editorial for the school newspaper. The form and the audience are up to you, but name the audience in parentheses beneath your title.

Please put this assignment in the mail by the due date on your schedule.

I will, of course, send a critique of your evaluation (which is to say "my evaluation of your evaluation") two weeks later.

All the Best,

The student sent the following note with her essay.

Note from Student Accompanying the Essay

Dear Instructor,

I hope this is what you mean by a piece of persuasion. If you think I got carried away with my strawberry/whipped cream simile (metaphor?), I can see that.

I couldn't look up anything in Strunk and White (that might show) because I'm on vacation across the country in Washington. I know my last essay could have used some work, but I'm not going to say anything about my reasons that could be held against me. Anyhow, hope this one's better.

See you soon,

Student Essay

Strawberries and Cream

(Addressed to other talented students)

Strawberries can be sour. "Oh, no," you say, "That's worse than claiming that lemons are sweet and honey is salty." It is true, though.

Take the sweetest strawberry you have ever tasted, including the one you snitched from your grandpa's patch last summer, and douse it in whipped cream. The whipped cream is so loaded with artificial sugar that the natural sugar of the strawberry pales to tartness. However, they still manage to taste delicious together. When you first start a writing course, the juicy strawberry of your writing looks perfect and beautiful, and tastes sweet because you have no higher standards to compare yourself to than your classmates' average writings. But just let it meet the whipped cream of truly fine writers--Twain and Shakespeare and all the others--and your strawberry is no longer the sweetest thing you have tasted. It is surpassed, for the first time you can remember, and becomes so tart it hurts. This hurt is not assuaged by your teacher's ever-so-tactful but firm critiques of your sour strawberries.

After a while, you become inured to the fact that all you will ever write are sour strawberry essays. Then, once you have retraced your pride and reconciled yourself, your writing gets better. You even produce a few (so many few!) blobs of thin whipped cream. Then you must change all over again while you become accustomed to your new writing image.

All the while you are adjusting yourself, you keep trying to write, to meet your deadlines with essays about subjects that stir up thoughts which are sometimes very difficult to admit to yourself, much less to another person, though they remain unseen.

The emotional turbulence and mental storms that are part of the process of growing up, being a writer, and facing yourself, show up in your writing. Your teacher will write back saying, "You seem to be strongly against this" or "Looks like you think it's Hell either way," and you'll remember, "Yeah, I was pretty mad that day, but I thought I'd controlled it better in my writing." Feelings always show through, but that is good. They teach you about yourself and tell you your style of writing in different moods.

If by now you've gotten the feeling that this course isn't worth it, you're probably right. It probably wouldn't do you any good, because you're either too high in whipped cream or too low in unchallenged, falsely sweet strawberries to profit from it. But if you're not quite turned off yet, let me list the benefits.

Your essays greatly improve, though you may not notice. Although there is always a slight danger of relapse into Strawberry-Land, you can always rebuild your bridges and return to the cream of good writing. You can experiment with different styles and obtain an outside opinion of whether they suit you or not. In trying to write a decent essay on a tough subject, you begin to delve into yourself and start to find recesses you may have never suspected were there. Teachers at school love this course, because along with learning to write better essays, you learn the good old mechanics and the correct forms of writing. And, for those who are interested in language or writing careers, it looks great on your resume if you receive favorable comments.

However, this last reason usually fades into the background.

By the middle of the course, you become totally engrossed in why you write the way you do and what can cause your style to change.

You finally emerge from the course feeling humbled and enriched, but learning what to expect from yourself. Make your own decision and keep your own counsel, but if you decide to take this course, and actually get through it, you will at the very least be glad you tried, and may even get a glimpse of your ship coming in, sailing high on many billows of whipped cream.

Instructor Critique

Dear Student,

Here's your last essay. Yes, I think you worked the strawberries and whipped cream metaphor a bit hard. At first, I thought you were going to argue/persuade by use of analogy, which logicians will tell you is a no-no, but you didn't. You really use the metaphor for comparison and for explanation, a good move.

I think it works generally well, though it's flawed by a diction slip. When you say "artificial sugars," you seem to mean Cool Whip and other non-dairy toppings that look like whipped cream, but aren't. I think you intend "artificial" to mean something like "added" or "stronger."

Your points are well made. The comparison within your metaphor (artificial vs. natural sugars) is familiar, so we understand the whole metaphor's application right from the start.

(Note my check marks in the margin: especially good stuff there.)

You are going on a bit in paragraph 2, working your way into verbosity. I have suggested deletions. Student, I admire your work and your sensitivity to words more than you seem to admit. I think you're a strong writer. I also KNOW that none of us is perfect, or we wouldn't need courses.

Paragraphs 3, 4 and 5 show us the sweet and sour aspects of the course. "Retracted..." and "reconciled..." is good parallelism. I assume "so many few" is a typo.

Don't forget that to persuade, you need examples to support your generalizations. See the readings I sent on generalizations and specific evidence. Thus, the 4th paragraph wants an example of the "stirred up thoughts." Consonant with your persuasive intentions, the example has to be unpleasant but intriguing. Farther on, you're smart to discuss the course by showing some typical remarks. (Note also some ambiguous "they's" floating around that paragraph.)

As you know, conscious artistry is how one becomes good. Athletes worry about where they place their feet, how they bend their elbows, which muscles flex when. Plumbers worry about how to get the solder smoothly all the way around a pipe joint. They THINK about what they're doing, just as writers do. Actually, we think about what we're doing until, like typing, it becomes so second nature that we don't think about it. Your point about why you write the way you write is well made, important, worth remembering.

The conclusion is nice. The clash of metaphors (ship & cream) is strained but not unsightly. It edges toward cute without crossing the border. It has the virtue of reprising the original comparison (and just a bit earlier, "enriched" harkens back to the richness of strawberries and whipped cream).

This is good work, especially considering that you were on vacation at the time. I think you write very well; you show great promise.

Your Instructor

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