April 26, 2018, by Helen Lovatt
How to write a bad essay
Edmund Stewart considers some of the common pitfalls in essay writing in Classics and Archaeology
Here at Nottingham, as at most universities, it is essay season. We await with great hope and some trepidation the arrival of our students’ dissertations. In preparing for this moment, both students and staff may wonder what it is that makes a good, or even a bad essay. Of course, there are the mechanical aspects of academic writing, which are relatively easy to learn (how to best structure a paragraph, how to format references etc.) but more important is how to make a good, or bad, argument. Here I review some of the top mistakes that are certain to irritate even the most serene of supervisors. Feel free to add some more below.
- Absence of evidence is evidence of absence
A good student knows we always need evidence to support our arguments. So, if there is no evidence for something, then it never happened and the date of our earliest evidence for x or y is also the date at which it first appears. Never mind that we have very little evidence for anything in the ancient world and in general the later the period, the more evidence we are likely to have.
- Add an evolutionary theory or historical moment
Pick a period. This period is the end of a process of evolution. Everything before this period leads inevitably to this one great historical moment and is less advanced and more primitive. Everything after it is decline and decay (unless your period is the present day, in which case we are probably fine: brave new world, people!). Make sure you also pick a momentous period in which everything changes (probably democratic Athens or the reign of Augustus). A new mode of thinking arrives that was completely impossible before and all the hoary old ideas from earlier times are totally abandoned as obsolete. Religious belief, for example, is clearly impossible in a modern world post-Darwin: it is all evolution.
- Apply a theory
If you want an argument that is definitely original, but almost certainly questionable, follow this simple recipe. Take one canonical author (say Euripides or Virgil); add an obscure theory no one has heard of (you can source these in most good sociology departments); mix well and then half-bake; serve lukewarm. Remember, always twist facts to suit theories, not theories to suit facts. Any evidence that falls outside the theory can be ignored: it is obviously impossible for more than one thing to have happened in any given place and time. The best models can be applied to every Greek polis and the whole Roman Empire.
- Develop an unconscious confirmation bias
If, alternatively, you want an argument that is certain to be unoriginal, work on your confirmation biases. If people have been saying the same thing on a subject for a hundred years, why bother to ask questions? Alternatively, if an idea was questioned by a scholar of some authority a hundred years ago (e.g. Wilamowitz or Mommsen), keep well clear. Ideally your life’s work as a scholar should be to defend the views of your supervisor’s supervisor’s supervisor, to whom you owe so much.
- Keep your logic circular
A text can most easily be explained by the historical context when the evidence for that context is itself the text. For example, in the society known to Homer honour was really important, and this is why it is a key theme in the Iliad.
- It’s all Propaganda
Use this word regularly and try to put it into the title of your dissertation. It shows that ancient literary texts (especially Euripides’ Troades or the Aeneid) have only one message and one purpose and it was all about Augustus or Athenian democracy. Duh.
The easiest way to understand a text (especially if you do not have time to read it) is to understand the original audience. You can of course assume that all audience members always have identical opinions on a text or performance. If those audience members happen not to be available for comment because they are dead (i.e. if they are Greeks and Romans), you can find out what their views were by studying the social context. Look for any important contemporary political events: your text is probably a social commentary on them (clearly Pride and Prejudice is all about Napoleon and Sauron in the Lord of the Rings is basically Hitler).
- And most importantly . . . never define your terms
Everyone knows what discourse, ideology, aristocracy, class, patriarchy, gaze, objectification, propaganda (keep using it) etc. mean, why bother to define them? It simply wastes words.