Student Essay Topics: If They Choose It, They Will Come (usually) To Write a Delightful Essay

As has become an annual ritual for me, I’m spending the long Thanksgiving weekend reading and commenting on research paper drafts.  Because of the abbreviated length of the quarter system (vs. the semester system) research paper drafts are always due right before Thanksgiving, allowing me the long weekend to read them and return them to students a week before the final revision is due. 

Reading these first year students’ attempts at writing what for most is their first true synthesis essay, with the additional burdens of following a documentation system that is usually not MLA, and getting them to engage in a conversation with their research rather than dumping it in the essay “hit and run” style (see Graff and Birkenstein’s wonderful gem of an anti-textbook, They Say, I Say) , is alternatively rewarding and, frankly, horrifying.  But since I’m still under the glow of being thankful for my life, I’ll focus on the former.

The topics students have chosen this term range from the usual (the causes and effects of autism; the debate about stem cell research) to the creative (the myth of the creative genius;  the demise of the Massai culture).  Usually, I can almost predict that drafts on the recurring topics (such as the value of universal health care and going organic) will be the least “effective” essays, while those who choose more original topics (a multidisciplinary approach to the concept of honor; or, the history and evolution of the CEO) tend to have stronger draft essays.  However, this term is a little different:  many (but not all) who chose the creative topics are floundering trying to develop and organize ideas, while many (but not all) of those who chose the old standby topics are approaching them in wonderfully original ways.   

It’s a small epiphany, but one that forces me to remember not to be so doubtful about those old standby topics. 

Meanwhile, my Comp 1 students are struggling with a smaller, but still challenging researched essay examining, analyzing and interpreting a social trend (see Rosenwasser and Stephen’s Writing Analytically-another gem of a textbook).   The topics for these essays are even more delightful this term:  the popularity of the coffee shop; the popularity of social networking sites like Facebook; and the trend of Hollywood films about Marvel comics superheroes.  The drafts I’ve seen so far are a treat to read: students have done original research (such as surveys) and are truly engaged in their chosen subjects.  

Just a brief bloggy pause, as I spend the next few days of my long weekend reading and commenting on draft essays (with half finished novels such as Sherman  Alexie’s  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian  waiting for me, patiently, by my bed).

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