Georgetown UniversityContentsDirectoriesSearch

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 Sycophant

The 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:
    QUESTION: Why are political scientists concerned with the concept of “political culture”?
    ESSAY: In their brilliant, path-breaking work, Almond and Verba address the concept of political culture. As Professor King demonstrated in his excellent and stimulating lecture, the concept of political culture is important. By using it, as Professor King cogently argued, political scientists can explain a number of political phenomena. . . . 
Bad idea. Essays like this read more like the minutes of a Soviet communist party congress than a response to an exam question. Zero points.

Evil Genius No. 2: The Rakish Raconteur

The 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: 
    QUESTION: Discuss the contrasting views of “modernization theory” and “dependency theory.” Which one gives the best account of economic development? 

    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!) . . . 

This style is guaranteed to turn off any professor. Essay questions are a way of assessing your knowledge and your ability to formulate a clear argument. They are not intended as a chance for you and that lecture guy to hang out, know what I’m saying? Zero points.

Evil Genius No. 3: The Sanitary Engineer

The 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:
    QUESTION: What did Tocqueville mean when he wrote about the importance of “associations” in American civic life? 

    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), . . . . .

Of course, it is always a good idea to let the reader know that you have full command of the facts. But throwing in lots of irrelevant information without addressing the question at hand is never helpful. The Sanitary Engineer has accumulated a great deal of information, and his ability to recall it all is certainly impressive. But while his skills might be useful in a game of Trivial Pursuit, they won’t necessarily help him answer the essay question. Zero points. 

Evil Genius No. 4: The Jargon-Meister

The 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:
    QUESTION: What do some theorists mean when they say that humans are “rational actors”? 

    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. . . . 

The Jargon-Meister appears to make an argument – and a forceful one at that. But once you peel away the terminology, you realize that there is not much content to the essay at all. Zero points.

Evil Genius No. 5: The Bait-and-Switch Artist

The 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”:
    QUESTION: Evaluate Theda Skocpol’s argument on the origins of social revolutions.
    ESSAY: While Theda Skocpol makes many interesting and important arguments about the origins of social revolutions, the concept of political culture is also extremely relevant. Political culture can be defined as the array of beliefs and norms in a given society about the legitimacy of political actors and political institutions. . . . 
The Bait-and-Switch Artist may go on to write a brilliant essay, but it will not answer the question that was originally asked. Zero points.

Evil Genius No. 6: The Knee-Jerk Nihilist 

The 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:
    QUESTION: What makes a political system democratic?
    ESSAY: Democracy is a relative concept. In fact, the concept of “concept” is also relative. Words mean whatever we want them to “mean,” and that is especially true for “democracy.” For some, it means “free” elections. For others, it means keeping your own thugs “in power” and keeping the enemy thugs “out of power.” No one can ever give a coherent definition, because it always depends on the “context.” And since the “context” is always shifting, the “concept” of “democracy” also shifts. . . . 
The Knee-Jerk Nihilist is smart. He has read a great deal and thought seriously about issues. But he has become so disillusioned about the possibility of our arriving at any real understanding about the world that he has mortgaged his powers of analysis for a modish slavery to intellectual skepticism. Zero points.

Final Thoughts

If 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

Georgetown UniversityContentsDirectoriesSearch