ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charles King holds the Ion Ratiu Chair
of Romanian Studies at Georgetown University. He is co-editor, with Neil Melvin,
of Nations Abroad: Diaspora Politics and International Relations in the Former
Soviet Union (forthcoming), and is the author of numerous articles and book
chapters on nationalism, the Balkans, Romania, and other subjects.
But university students are smart, sometimes too smart by
half. They have learned several tricks of the essay-writing trade and are
all too willing to employ them, especially when it comes to answering essay
questions on exams. These tricks are thought to be sure-fire techniques for
writing essays and getting passing grades, for they have been tried and tested
by generations of first-year college students, including many of the students'
professors during their own college days. These tricks are all, however, inspired
by one of at least Six Evil Geniuses
of Essay Writing. By falling prey to one of the Evil Geniuses, students are
guaranteed of getting less than full points for their work; more importantly,
signs that the Evil Geniuses are at work normally convince professors that
students value getting a passing grade over learning.
Students, especially in introductory courses, should
be encouraged to avoid the company of the Six
Evil Geniuses and to beware their evil ways. This article
exposes the work of these devilishly clever fiends and offers hints for students
and professors on how to resist their wiles. Most teaching professionals are
already intimately familiar with the Evil Geniuses, either because they have
graded essays in which these characters have been at work or, more disturbingly,
because they themselves have succumbed to their charms during periods of intellectual
weakness. This article presents one framework for addressing some of the key
concerns undergraduates have about writing essays in political science courses,
a framework which I have used to good effect when teaching my own introductory
political science sections.Identifying the Six
The Six Evil Geniuses of Essay
Writing come in many different forms, but their main avatars are described
below. Examples of each of the Genius's "best" work are also provided.
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 will be likely to ignore the content of the essay itself.
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
Jones demonstrated in her excellent and stimulating lecture, the concept of
political culture is important. By using it, as Professor Jones cogently argued,
political scientists can explain a number of political phenomena. . . .
Sycophantism is, of course, a bad idea. Essays
like this read more like the minutes of a Soviet communist party congress
than a response to an exam question. The fact that a professor has assigned
a particular reading during a course is no guarantee that he or she thinks
that the author of the reading is "right." Indeed, testing the student's
ability to engage critically with assigned readings, instead of merely accepting
them as fact because they are written by professional academics, is one of
the chief reasons for asking essay questions in the first place.
2. The Rakish Raconteur
The Rakish Raconteur is the first cousin of the Sycophant.
The Raconteur feels that writing in a conversational style and using the essay
as a way of "conversing" with the professor will allow her innate
wit and charm to mask her lack of knowledge.
Question: Discuss the contrasting
views of "modernization theory" and "dependency theory."
Which one gives a better 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 student may have a great career selling used
cars, but her prospects in any job that requires serious analytical skills
are definitely limited. This style is guaranteed to turn off any professor.
Essay questions are a tool professors use to assess a student's knowledge
and ability to formulate a clear argument. They should not be viewed as a
chance to hang out with that lecture dude, know what I'm saying?
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
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, 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 one has full command of the facts, but throwing in a congeries
of irrelevant factoids 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 will not necessarily help him
answer the essay question.
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 does not 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 says nothing at all.
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 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 one peels away the terminology,
it is clear that the essay really has very little content. Political science,
like all academic disciplines, has its own particular language; complex concepts
and ideas are expressed through terms and phrases that sometimes appear impenetrable
to the uninitiated. Learning to wield these terms effectively is part of doing
political science well, but their use should not get in the way of making
a clear and accessible argument.
5. The Bait-and-Switch Artist
The Bait-and-Switch Artist is a master of prestidigitation.
She engages in a sleight-of-hand in which she substitutes a new essay question
for the one that appears on the page – and poof! the original essay
question magically disappears. Her 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 not one that answers the question that was originally
asked. Of course, highlighting one's knowledge in particular areas is a useful
strategy when writing exam essays, but if the response provided fails to address
the question asked, even the most insightful essay will not receive much attention
from the professor.
6. The Knee-Jerk Nihilist
The Knee-Jerk Nihilist is the most sophisticated,
most dangerous, and most evil of the Geniuses. He has probably taken an introductory
course in literary theory, quantum physics, or postmodernism, 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 it. He also believes that
because all our judgments are clouded by our own prejudices, anyone's opinion
is just 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
Essay: Democracy is a relative concept.
In fact, the concept of "concept" is also relative. Words mean whatever
we want them to "mean," and this 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. He has become so disillusioned
about the possibility of our arriving at any real understanding of the world,
however, that he has mortgaged his powers of analysis for a modish slavery
to intellectual skepticism.
Battling the Six Evil Geniuses
How can students exorcise the Six
Evil Geniuses? On their own, they probably can't. In the rush
to finish exam essays in the allotted time, the temptations of the Geniuses
can often lead even the most steadfast students astray. Fortunately, though,
there are several practical ways professors can assist students in their battles
with these diabolical forces.
The Evil Geniuses are most likely to appear the moment
students gaze upon a sheet of essay questions and begin to think about the
enormity of the task before them. In tackling essay questions on timed exams,
students often face three problems:
• First, some students may feel that they just
do not know where to begin: "How can I answer a question that's so broad?
I just don't have enough information."
• Second, even if they feel they know something
about the subject, students may wonder how to organize the information in
order to present a coherent and convincing argument: "How do I begin
to put together all the various pieces to the puzzle so that what I say makes
• Finally, students may be unsure about the
relationship between the presentation of factual information and the expression
of their own views on the issue at hand: "The professor never told me
whether he wanted me to repeat what he had said in class, or if he was just
looking for my opinion."
Clearly, professors have their own individual (and
sometimes idiosyncratic) views on the place of essays and other writing assignments
in university education. But the ideas presented below can help students improve
their essay-writing skills, particularly their ability to write clear and
convincing essays on timed exams. In my undergraduate classes, the use of
the Evil Geniuses framework has helped students become more aware of the rhetorical
techniques that they use in their own writing; by self-consciously addressing
questions of form and style of argumentation early on in the course, using
the ideas outlined below, many students have been able to fend off the Geniuses
when they inevitably come calling.
Start at the Beginning.
When students first read an essay question on an exam
(or begin to think about an assigned topic for a term paper or take-home final),
they should ask themselves two sets of questions:
1. What does the essay question really say? What kinds of issues is
it asking me to address? What assumptions lie behind the question itself?
Professors ask essay questions for a reason. They use essays
as a way of getting students to go beyond the material presented in class
and in the required readings for the course. They normally intend for students
to reflect critically on the information they have received, assess its validity,
think about its implications, and use it creatively in order to answer the
question that has been posed. Spending a few minutes thinking about what the
question really asks is therefore crucial to exam success. In fact, it is
the student who fails to analyze the question who will be most susceptible
to the charms of Evil Genius No. 3, the Sanitary Engineer, whose motto is
always "Thinking wastes time; just start writing." At the same time,
though, most professors are not looking simply for an extended analysis of
the question itself, a strategy often followed by Evil Genius No. 6, the Knee-Jerk
Nihilist, who spends so much time picking apart the question that he never
gets around to answering it. It is often said that writing a good essay question
is as difficult as writing a good essay; while most professors would probably
find an essay that addresses the shortcomings of the question itself a useful
and welcome form of feedback, those essays that never move beyond a critique
of the question are unlikely to receive full marks.
2. What are the most useful sources of information on which I can
draw in order to answer the question? What kinds of data will best support
During any semester-long course, students encounter a huge
amount of information, both factual and conceptual. Influenced by Evil Geniuses
Nos. 3 and 4, the Sanitary Engineer and the Jargon-Meister, many students
treat essay questions as dumping grounds for the information that they acquired
in the days and weeks preceding the exam. They pile on fact after fact, concept
after concept, date after date, name after name, with little thought about
whether all this information helps them answer the question. "If I throw
in enough stuff," a student may say, "at least the professor will
know that I've been paying attention." Wrong. The professor will know
that the student managed to cram a great deal of irrelevant information into
her short-term memory. But whether she has really thought about the issues
at hand, i.e., used her knowledge to reflect critically on an important question
in political science, will remain a mystery.
After the student has determined the general kind of response that the essay
question is trying to elicit, she should ask herself which bits of information
will be the most relevant and most helpful in supporting the essay's overall
argument. After doing the reading and attending the lectures, students certainly
have enough information to answer the question effectively. The crucial task,
though, is to organize the information and to present it in a way that buttresses
the essay's main theme.
Organization Is Everything, Almost.
Because they have not stopped to ask themselves the questions
above, many students plunge right into an essay without thinking about how
to organize their thoughts. "If I just get enough stuff down on paper,"
a student might argue, "then the professor will at least know that I've
tried to answer the question." Wrong again. The professor will know that
Evil Geniuses Nos. 2 and 3, the Rakish Raconteur and the Sanitary Engineer,
are at work, not that the student has thought seriously about the question.
Once the student has determined what the question is asking and
has spent a few minutes reflecting on the kinds of information that would
be useful in attempting to answer it, he should then spend some time sketching
out the form that the essay will take. A few ideas on how to begin follow.
Make an Outline.
The student might be encouraged to sketch out the
structure of the essay, perhaps in the exam booklet itself, in the form of
a brief outline, flow chart, diagram, or whatever form she finds most helpful
in organizing her thoughts. The important thing is to have a clear idea of
what she wants to say and how she is going to say it before she begins writing.
There is an additional advantage to writing an outline
or essay plan. It may turn out that the student simply budgeted her time poorly
and did not have time to complete the entire essay as planned. If the professor
sees that the student had a clear vision of what she wanted to argue, she
may receive at least some credit for the incomplete essay. On the other hand,
if she managed to fill up a dozen pages without making a coherent argument
– a strategy encouraged by several of the Evil Geniuses – chances
are that the professor will remain relatively unimpressed.
Keep It Simple.
No one really learns everything he needs to know in
kindergarten, but students do often forget important writing techniques that
they learned in grade school. One of those is what, in bygone days, used to
be called a "three-point enumeration." This form of essay-writing
consisted of an opening paragraph, three further substantive paragraphs and
a conclusion. The opening paragraph set out the general ideas that would be
explored, the three following paragraphs expanded on each of those ideas,
and the final paragraph wrapped up what the essay said.
The same format – with perhaps some modifications
– can be used to write responses to essay questions. The opening paragraph
should state clearly the main point the student wishes to make in the essay.
Someone should be able to read the first sentence and know exactly how the
student plans to answer the question. Being too cute is never a good idea
– the advice of Evil Genius No. 1, the Sycophant, notwithstanding –
but a catchy opening sentence which states simply and clearly the line of
argument the student intends to take is always desirable. Other sentences
in the first paragraph should then support the first sentence and sketch out
the ways in which subsequent paragraphs will expand on the theme of the essay
itself. Next, in the body of the essay, each paragraph should make a clear
and discrete point, and that point should support the overall argument. The
concluding paragraph should summarize what the student has said in the preceding
paragraphs and remind the reader of the main argument. All Americans want
closure, even on exam essays.
Political Science Is Not Just "A Matter of Opinion".
Essay questions are not extended short-answer questions.
A professor puts essay questions on exams to solicit a student's informed
views on a particular subject that should have been mastered in the course,
not to see if the student can repeat verbatim what the professor said in class.
In this sense, essay questions do ask for students' "opinions,"
but they are opinions that, after being shaped by information presented in
the course, should be intelligent, informed, and well-structured. No conceptual
questions in political science have once-and-for-all answers. Essay
questions ask students to address important issues by using their brains –
constructing a coherent, logical, and informed view on a given topic. After
sitting in a course of lectures and doing the required reading, any university
student should be more than capable of completing such a task. A student's
"opinion" should have evolved and become more sophisticated, and
she should have developed a reasonable level of expertise in the main issues
addressed during the course itself. Her "opinions" matter, for they
were what the professor was trying to get her to develop all along.
Again, contrary to the mantras of several of the Evil
Geniuses, essays are not simply receptacles for regurgitated factual information.
A student's knowledge of facts can be assessed using multiple-choice, true/false,
identification, definition, short-answer, and a range of other examination
question formats, most of which they encountered in grade school. At the college
level, however, students are expected to think, and thinking requires creatively
using the knowledge they have acquired to take a clear position on a contentious
How do they do all that? First, they should be encouraged
to make an argument, take a stance, stake out a position. Simply reeling off
dates and names, using political science jargon, or writing as much as possible
in the hope that something intelligent will bubble through will not do the
trick. Second, they should support their argument with relevant facts, concepts
and other information that relate directly to the essay question. Irrelevance,
even if it comes in volume, is still irrelevance. It clouds the argument and
ultimately convinces the professor that the student really has no idea what
he is talking about. Third, how creatively a student makes an argument is
always important. Style matters. Some professors may
even prefer essays that are well-structured and well-written but not particularly
brilliant, to those that contain a truly original insight cloaked in language
that would make Webster and Fowler turn in their graves. Writing a sonnet
or a short one-act play is not usually a good idea, but a student should be
encouraged to bring all his skills as a writer to bear on the essay topic.
After all, that is why the question is an essay question, rather than a true/false
or short-answer. Finally, an essay must answer the question, a point which
is often forgotten as students fall victim to Evil Geniuses Nos. 3 and 5,
the Sanitary Engineer and the Bait-and-Switch Artist. If a student writes
page after page of text, but never really addresses the issue at hand, few
professors will be likely to award much credit.
Vigilance and Intellectual Honesty
The Six Evil Geniuses
come in myriad guises, but avoiding them and their ilk is essential to writing
quality essays. Although the Evil Geniuses are most likely to strike during
timed exam essays, they can also sometimes be found hovering around take-home
exams and term papers. In any of these instances, the chief antidote to an
Evil Genius is intellectual honesty. Reading the essay question critically
or spending time thinking hard about a paper topic, and then mustering one's
intellectual resources to approach honestly and openly the task of writing
a response are the most important ways of combating the lure of the Evil Geniuses.
They can sometimes be hard to resist but, like for Ulysses lashing himself
to the mast, the reward of steadfastness is survival. By understanding the
wiles of the Evil Geniuses of Essay Writing and taking steps to resist their
temptations, students can improve their ability to write clear and powerful
essays that will help them organize their thoughts and deepen their understanding
of key issues in political science. And that, after all, is why they signed
up for the course in the first place.
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