On Undergraduate Essays, in Imitation of Alexander Pope

ScanFor a few months now, I’ve been working as a seminar tutor for first year English Literature students. It’s really satisfying – they’re lively, engaged, and the teaching itself appeals to my theatrical side. I love getting to shout, wave my arms, say outrageous things to spark arguments, and demonstrate why poetry and literature matter. The only bad parts of the job are the long hours dedicated to marking and essay coaching – trying to get the students to understand the difference between active and passive voice, or master the particularly recondite subtleties of Cardiff’s referencing system.

I was preparing a seminar on Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock the other week, and browsing through his Essay on Criticism, which is still the best – and funniest – introduction to his writing. Then I started wondering – what if the famous eighteenth century satirist had to write undergraduate essay advice? What would that sound like?

It was a slow weekend. The couplets sprang to mind in great profusion, and before long I had threaded them together in a coherent order and printed them out for my seminar, who were delighted. I share them here, edited for general use. If any fellow teachers stumble across this, feel free to use them and – if you have any talent for metre – adapt them to your institution’s own essay writing foibles.  Altering the list of modern critics to flatter your academic supervisor/mentor is highly recommended.



On Undergraduate Essays.

In Imitation of Alexander Pope’s Essay On Criticism.
By Thomas Tyrrell

The Essay! The invention of MONTAIGNE,
With whose familiar style the form began,
Where BACON’s scientific method rose
Among the varied beauties of his prose,
Where JOHNSON’s pen, august and lucid still,
Surveyed mankind from China to Brazil,
And ORWELL, in a plain yet brilliant style
Exposed the flaws and glories of our Isle,
While GREENBLATT, WILSON, EAGLETON, and BATE,
Are modern critics of the highest rate.
To these heights, O my seminar, aspire!
Permit no mild critique to damp thy fire,
For academic essays stand alone,
Requiring a restrained and formal tone,
That demonstrates how well you understand
The complex meanings of the text in hand.
To science students it may seem absurd,
How hard we labour over every word,
But all will be rewarded! For, in sum,
Master the basics! And the rest will come.
Lest your assessors should be justly vexed
Be sure to match the author to the text;
Answer the question that you have been tasked
And not the one you think they should have asked;
And lest you should the Stagyrite offend
Have a beginning, middle and an end.
Show no false bias, but be circumspect,
Also incisive, learned and direct;
Spelling and grammar must be quite correct.
A semi-colon in its proper place
Will bring a smile to every marker’s face;
Misplaced apostrophes and comma splices
Will be regarded as the worst of vices;
In case, before the end, the reader drops
From want of breath, be generous with full stops,
Rather than hold them as your last resort.
No sentence is marked down for being short.
To use contractions is accounted bad;
Instead of ‘they’d’ make sure you put ‘they had’;
‘I used the active voice’ should be your plea,
And not ‘The passive voice was used by me.’
In introduction to your essay, lay
Out clearly all the things you wish to say,
And having set these limits, do not stray.
But now your argument begins at last!
Now analyse, unpick, compare, contrast,
Contend, defend, explain – but chiefly THINK,
Vague generalising is a waste of ink.
So never be afraid to quote at length,
Well-analysed quotations are a strength:
Essays are weary, parching, dry and bland;
Quotation are oases in the sand.
Yet every time you quote, within the course
Of writing out your essay, give your source:
Naught is more rare, nor pleasing to the sight
Than someone who has got their footnotes right.
Citation styles there are in wide array,
Harvard, Chicago, and the MLA;
To make your essay pleasing to the view,
Hold fast to these! And they shall see you through!
So ultimately, to conclude, therefore
In summary – conclusions are a bore;
A place to say again things better said before.
If these important precepts you obey,
And breathe life into them upon the way;
If all your arguments prove firm and just,
Your grammar faultless and your style robust;
High marks in modules you may hope for then,
Nor fear the wielder of the crimson pen!

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