Thursday 15 December 2011

Blog XIII: Essays


Last Wednesday my second Scottish Literature essay was returned to me, being the third and final of my three essays that I wrote and turned in November 14. Since my Scottish literature class is a first year course we write more than one essay a term and they are only worth about 10% of our final grade, while in third year courses we write one mid-term type essay worth 30% of our final grade and the rest is determined by the final exam at the end of the year. But at least one essay in the first and second year courses is due on the exact same day as all the mid-term essays in the third and fourth year courses, so November 14 is literally a hell day because every single person in a literature class is turning in at least one essay. The weeks leading up to this final day, which happened to be a Monday this year, are filled with stress and anxiety due to the amount of work that needs to go into these essays. Unlike in the States (or at least at my school in Colorado) you can’t just look up things on the internet and write a B paper the day before its due; rather you have to spend a week if not more on each individual paper. Each paper demands 3 or more secondary sources and must be 1,500 words for first year courses or 2,500 words for third year courses, that’s about six to eight pages of intellectual writing. This is a lot of pressure so I have come up with a few bits of advice for how to approach and finish these papers.

1. Start Early

Since the University of Edinburgh has arguably the best library in Great Britain every professor expects you to use books as your sources and basically demand that you not use the internet at all. As a result the time needed for research increases not by hours but by days or even weeks because since everyone else is writing an essay as well the books in the library disappear really fast. So the best advice I can give is to start research early. I started research for my essays five weeks before they were due, this was a really good plan because not only did I get practically every book that I wanted but also I was done will my research and had begun the outlines of my papers by the time my classmates were starting their research. Though starting early didn’t decrease my stress nor did I get much sleep during these five weeks.

2. Get the Books that Professors Recommend

This is the main reason why research should be started early because the library only has at most ten copies of the really good secondary sources, the ones that the Professor suggests and there are usually about 15-18 students in each course. The books that the Professors recommend are often the clearest, the most helpful, and the most interesting.

3. Do a Wide Variety of Research

In the States I was used to looking through the multiple essays questions and choosing the one I liked the most, this is a bad idea in Edinburgh. The best way to go is to look over the questions a couple times and choose the one that you like the most the start to look for secondary sources that fit the question but don’t immediately rule out the other questions, just allow yourself to swim in the information for a while before choosing a specific stream to follow because often the information will lead you in an entirely different direction.

4. Take Detailed Notes and Mark Pages

One of the most important things with research is to take detailed notes while reading through the sources because if you don’t then you waste time and often won’t be able to re-find key quotes that you want for your essay. There was one quote about Chaucer that I discovered midway through my essay that was really important but since I hadn’t written the quote down I never found it again.

5. Make a Detailed Outline

In High School I was always forced to make outlines and I hated it because my outlines never did anything except confuse me. But I have found that at Edinburgh they are mandatory because with the large amount of information that is going into each essay and the progression of though development demanded the essay often loses focus is it is just written out without any backbone to go off of. My outlines often just consisted of the different quotes that I planned to use so that I wasn’t fumbling through pages of notes trying to find the quote I wanted when I finally sat down to write the essay.

6. Just Write It

The preparation to write an essay is often the most time consuming and the most difficult, writing the actual essay is usually viewed as the easiest part because you have all your information and now you just need to connect it all together into on coherent piece. But sometimes the research doesn’t go that well and you get more and more stressed because the essay is due soon and you don’t know what you are going to write. This is what happened with my second Scottish Literature paper. The question I had chosen what about literary value but I could not for the life of me figure out what literary value was (and to be honest I still don’t know what it is), I Google searched it, I asked my tutor multiple times (she was no bloody help), and I spent hours trying to find a book on it, but I ended up two nights before the essay was due with no more of an understanding of what it was than when I started. So finally I ignored the question (which you really should never do) and just focused on doing research on the two texts that I wanted to write about: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (one of my new favourite authors) and the play Endgame by Samuel Beckett. The research was fascinating and I discovered hoards of interesting information and possible things I’d love to write an essay on, but, unlike with third year courses in which you can make up a prompt of your on, in first year courses you must answer one of the given prompts. So sticking with the literary value prompt I picked out how Spark and Beckett reacted to World War II in their texts and wrote about that with regards to how it influences or affects the reader (which is sort of what literary value is) and finally I just wrote the essay two days before it was due. The important thing to remember is that an essay cannot go unwritten; it must be turned in no matter what grade is received. I was sure that I would barely pass with this essay (a 40 is passing) but knew that if I didn’t write it I would just all together fail, turned out I got a whopping 62 which is a B and the person who graded it said that I showed a good understanding of the literary value in the texts, which I found very comical since I have no idea what literary value is.

I ended up getting a 61 on my Shakespeare essay, a 62 on my Scottish Literature essay and a jaw dropping 68 on my Chaucer essay. The five pieces of advice I have given may not help anyone else obtain their desired grade but when it comes to writing an essay it’s all about preparation. My biggest piece of advice is to enjoy what you are writing your essay on because it makes the research more enjoyable and you end up doing more of it since you are interested and the result is you have a surplus quotes and fact to choose from, that’s how I got through my Scottish Literature essay. Most important to remember, even if they don’t seem like it, everyone is in the exact same boat as you are: they are stressed, scared and anxious. All of this is evident after the deadline to turn in essays because every single person is suffering from “Essay Hangover” which is like a literal hangover: no one is really functioning and everyone has a glazed look.