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Class 121: Notes on Composing an In-Class Essay
John Porter, instructor


The following advice deals with in-class essays for which you have been given the topics in advance. Many (but not all) of the points raised here will apply to "pop" essays as well.

1. Be creative. Most of the assigned topics will have been addressed in class, but you need not simply reproduce the lectures. Feel free to compose your essay in your own way, provided that you stay on topic. (For example, if the topic you have selected lists a series of questions, you need not address every one of them. Instead, regard the questions as presenting possible avenues that you might want to consider.)

2. Be specific. Remember that, in the case of a midterm examination, you have only 50 minutes; in the case of a final examination, you will have perhaps an hour. Do not squander too much time on flowery introductions, broad generalizations, or generic background information. Your mark will reflect your success in demonstrating a first-hand familiarity with the works you discuss as well as the sophistication of your analysis.

3. Open with a clear but precise statement of the argument you hope to make. Be succinct, but make certain that you establish right from the start: a) that you have a specific case to make; b) just what that case is. Here, too, you will need to be as specific as possible: make certain that the thesis you propose to argue is one that is manageable within the time permitted.

4. Avoid description. Your essay should present an analytic evaluation of some issue (interpretative or other). One way to test your thesis is to ask whether anyone would be likely to disagree with it: a paper designed to 'prove' that, "Catullus wrote many very moving poems," is probably not on the right track. Above all, avoid employing a list as the fundamental organizing principle of your essay: a thesis which contends that, "Plautus employs seven different types of gags in the Pseudolus," is likely to cite a good number of passages, but unlikely to ask any very interesting questions of the material so compiled.

5. If you have used secondary sources in preparing your essay, cite them.

6. A prepared in-class essay is an essay, not an in-class exam. I will be happy to discuss your essay with you in advance or to read any first drafts.


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Last Modified: Monday, 08-May-2006 16:10:35 CST
Please send queries and comments to john.porter@usask.ca.