Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

What Happened Next

My high school “world history” teacher began her class with a line I’ve (unfortunately) never been able to forget:

The earth formed in a ball of gas and dust. It cooled. It rained. Humans evolved. This year, we’re going to study what happened next.

Without going into specifics, can I just say that somehow her spirit has found its way to Australia, and is now haunting the essays of many of my otherwise talented undergraduates…

Just a small plea, if anyone is reading: yes, I have suggested that you use your first couple of sentences to link your essay to a broader context, so I realise I’m the proximate cause of this particular problem. So let me explain what I mean. The strategic point of contextualising your paper is not to demonstrate that your argument is of world historical import. References to world history, human evolution, global thermonuclear holocaust, or other Powers and Principalities are unecessary and – trust me on this one – usually counter-productive.

The goal, instead, is much more modest: write for the sorts of people who will eventually read your professional or academic writing – busy people, who might have a general background in what you’re discussing, but who aren’t intimately familiar with what you are about to say. Use your first couple of sentences to ease your reader into your thought-space, and to prime them for what you are about to argue. And, most importantly, take pity on your instructor, and don’t give me traumatic flashbacks to my world history class…

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2 responses to “What Happened Next

  1. A White Bear September 24, 2006 at 7:39 pm

    I love these kinds of contextualizations, if only because they are hilarious. I do a lecture in all my freshman-level classes about midterm-time called “Freshmanese.” Part of Freshmanese is the desire to situate every argument within the totality of human history. “Throughout history, man has sought to create a happier, more peaceful society.” “Since the dawn of man, the eternal question has arisen:” “In today’s society, we, as humans,” etc. Hilarity ensues.

  2. N Pepperell September 24, 2006 at 7:40 pm

    Yeah, these and dangling modifiers – plus the occasional eggcorn – are the unintentional highlights of marking.

    You also get occasionally very cute errors: I handed out some mock samples of academic writing earlier in the term, to demonstrate strategies for specific issues that had been cropping up in student writing.

    In the current round of marking, I noticed that a couple of students had cited the substance of some of the sample passages – so they were quoting my writing samples as evidence for specific substantive points in their assignments, and putting (Pepperell 2006) after them… This was particularly funny, given that I had deliberately given them examples of contradictory substantive claims in different passages, to try to force them to focus on the writing, rather than the content…

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