The Six Evil Geniuses of Essay Writing© Copyright 1997, Charles King
|University students are smart. Otherwise, you wouldn’t
be here. But some students can be too smart for their own good, trying
to trick professors by using what they consider to be sure-fire techniques
for writing essays. They are techniques that have been tried and tested
by generations of university students – including some of your professors
during their own college days. They are all, however, useless. They are
a guaranteed way of receiving less than full points on the essay, and of
convincing your professor that you value trying to get a good grade over
genuine learning. Beware of the “Six Evil Geniuses of Essay-Writing,” and
make sure that you avoid their company.
Evil Genius No. 1: The SycophantThe Sycophant thinks that if he butters up the reader – by commenting positively on the lectures or on the reading assignments – the professor is likely to ignore the content of the essay itself. For example:
Evil Genius No. 2: The Rakish RaconteurThe Rakish Raconteur is the first cousin of the Sycophant. He feels that by writing in a conversational style and using the essay as a way of “conversing” with the professor, his innate wit and charm will mask his lack of knowledge. He may have a great career as a used car salesman, but his prospects in academia are definitely limited:
ESSAY: Well, as I was thinking the other night, modernization and dependency are really two sides of the same coin. I mean, after all, who can say who is more modern than someone else? But seriously (is this a trick question?), there are a couple of ways that one differs from the other. Modernizationists think that the world is linear and ordered (they should see my dorm room!) . . .
Evil Genius No. 3: The Sanitary EngineerThe Sanitary Engineer (known long ago, in a less politically correct age, as a “garbage man”) is an expert at mind-dumping. He has crammed a huge amount of facts, terms, typologies, and other information into his short-term memory, and nothing – not even the essay question itself – will prevent him from getting it all down on paper:
ESSAY: Alexis de Tocqueville was a young (26 years old) French traveler and writer who visited America for 9 months in 1831-1832 and wrote a book on his travels, published in two volumes in French in 1835-1840, and in its English translation as Democracy in America. His purpose in coming to the young United States (in which he visited 17 of the 24 states at the time), which had engaged in a revolution with Great Britain over a half century before and had adopted an independent Constitution in 1789, was actually to write a report on the American prison system. He traveled with an associate, Gustave Beaumont (see map and sketch of Beaumont on next page), . . . . .
Evil Genius No. 4: The Jargon-MeisterThe Jargon-Meister attempts to blind the reader with science. Using an array of political science terms – most of which he probably doesn’t understand – he hopes to lull the reader into a state of social science ecstasy. In such a state, the Jargon-Meister thinks, the professor will ignore the fact that the essay really doesn’t say anything:
ESSAY: Rationality is an exogenous component of selective incentives. As such, and in direct contradiction to the concept of endogenizing preferences, actors cannot be truly rational unless they have engaged in side-payments to rotating credit organizations. This gives Mancur Olson (1965) a collective action problem from which he cannot reasonably recover. . . .
Evil Genius No. 5: The Bait-and-Switch ArtistThe Bait-and-Switch Artist is a master of prestidigitation: He engages in a sleight-of-hand in which he substitutes a new essay question for the one that appears on the page – and poof! the essay question magically disappears. His calling card is the word “while”:
Evil Genius No. 6: The Knee-Jerk NihilistThe Knee-Jerk Nihilist is the most sophisticated, most dangerous, and most evil of the Six Evil Geniuses. He has probably taken an introductory course in literary theory or postmodern philosophy, but has forgotten most of what he learned. The one thing he took away from these courses, though, was a fundamental conviction that the world around us is just too complicated and too contradictory for us to make any sense of. He also believes that because all our judgments are clouded by our own prejudices, anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. The Knee-Jerk Nihilist is often seen wearing black and reading Nietzsche. He is also fond of quotation marks:
Final ThoughtsIf you avoid the Six Evil Geniuses, your chances of writing first-rate exam essays will increase markedly. Of course, individual professors have their quirks, and part of being a successful college student is learning to work around these idiosyncrasies. There is no guarantee that every professor will see essay-writing the same way. But by keeping in mind the points above, you should be able to improve your ability to write clear and powerful essays that will help you organize your thoughts and deepen your understanding of key issues in political science. And that, after all, is why you signed up for the course in the first place.
© Copyright 1996, Georgetown University