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3.1 Writing the Short Essay

Your instructor will often assign a short essay as a means of assessing your understanding of particular historical topics and/or themes. The short essay--usually between five and ten pages, typed and double-spaced, is an excellent way for you to demonstrate your ability to condense a great deal of material into what is essentially a compact essay. A short essay is not a research essay and should not be treated as such. Hints on how to write the research paper are given below.

The short essay may be composed of one question your instructor has asked you to grapple with. The question may contain a quotation which you are to use as a guideline. Here's an example from my class, Modern European Intellectual History:

Conflict and the Quest for Identity in the Middle Ages

Although the major premise of our course thus far has been the elaboration of the world view between 1050 and 1550, it can be said that an adjunct theme has been the question of identity. It can be argued that human beings determine their identity through conflict, a conflict which is at times hidden, and thus manifests itself in subtle ways. At other times, this conflict is out in the open and it is there that individuals find themselves. Consider the following excerpt from Malcolm Barbers’s excellent study, The Two Cities (1992):

Explicitly or implicitly, the activities and thoughts of human beings in the centuries between c.1050 and c.1350 were moulded by two powerful forces: on the one hand, the pressures and the temptations of the material world, made all the more manifest by economic development, and on the other, the deeply held belief in the need to aspire towards a higher, spiritual life, itself displayed with increasing clarity by contemporary social changes.

I think Barber is on to something. I also think his model of conflict (implied in his use of the expression, two powerful forces) can shed some light on future developments in the intellectual history of Europe, specifically the Renaissance and Reformation. History abounds in conflict and each age has had to reconcile its conflicts in its own way: that is, we can only discern the significance of conflict if it is understood in its historical context. The ultimate reconciliation of conflict within the individual and society, produces identity and without identity, one can not seriously fashion a world view.

This much said, I would like you to write an essay which discusses conflict and the creation of identity as it was worked out in the period c.1050-1550. Your answer, of course, depends on your view or image of the period. You may see the period as a whole (eg. the Medieval world) or perhaps as distinct episodes (eg. 12th Century Renaissance, Renaissance, Reformation). With this in mind, what forces were present which produced conflict and how was that conflict reconciled (if it indeed ever was) to fashion a new identity (or world view)? You may wish to consider individual thinkers as representative of their age (the Abelard, Petrarch, Erasmus gambit) or, you may wish to view the period in its totality and so talk in more general terms.

Now, as you can see from this example, I have not only supplied an introduction to the topic, but also a quotation taken from a modern historian. I then elaborate on the passage and finally, in the last paragraph, I raise a series of questions which the student ought to consider but not necessarily answer. The student should have few problems obtaining the required five to ten pages on such a topic.

The short essay assignment above was given in the fourth week of a fifteen week semester. My students had heard four three hour lectures and had already done some substantial reading from a text of primary sources. They had several in-class discussions as well. Although I never discussed Barber's quotation in class, I knew that the quotation highlighted some of the central themes we had developed up to that point in time. The students had one full week to complete the assignment.

The problem with such a topic, as I soon discovered, is that some students were not prepared to handle such a question. Many submitted "essays" that were less than five pages on a topic which could have easily demanded more. I was a bit surprised by this because I did expect more. After all, this was a small class and no one would take the class simply because it "fit their schedule." In other words, the students in the class wanted to take the class. Well, what happened?

They were intimidated. I gave them a topic which demanded work and some of them did not take the assignment seriously. They thought they could write a few paragraphs and call it a day. Bad move! Speaking for myself, I give the short essay because I want my students to focus on an issue or theme. I always ask my students: "What do you want to write an essay about? The three field system of crop rotation?" They laugh at that one but I'm dead serious. "What do you want, something easy? Or something that gives you a challenge?" I prefer the challenge myself. That's what education is all about.

Okay, fine you say. But what about the instructor who, without warning, announces that he is assigning a short essay. Without handing you anything, he says the topic is Fascism. A student raises their hand, "What are we supposed to write about?" And the instructor simply says, "Write an essay about Fascism. Explain its appearance and importance in the 20th century." That's it? Well, where do you begin?

Obviously, your professor would not have assigned such a topic unless you or he had already discussed it in class. Therefore, you need to go back to your lecture notes and consider those comments he may have made in reference to Fascism. Begin to take notes on your notes. What seems important? Are there any names that keep springing up? Did he ever list the causes of Fascism? Next, go to your texts and reread and review the appropriate sections. Again, take notes. You may be tempted to drag out an encyclopedia. Go ahead, that's a good move. It may help fill in gaps. Above all, begin to think!

To give force to the above statement about the importance of the first sentence of your essay, consider the following: "When this century was still young, a brand new ideological force which came to be known as "fascism" burst upon a Europe just recovering from the body-blows of the First World War and the Russian Revolution." Now that is an excellent opening line. Of course, it was written by a historian (Roger Griffin, ed., Fascism, Oxford, 1995, p. v). But you can do the same thing! Trust yourself. Confidence. If you know what you are talking about, then say what you really want to say. JUST DO IT!

Following your killer opening salvo, you should write a paragraph or two which further explains the importance of Fascism. Mention names -- Mussolini for one. Mention events--the First World War and the Russian Revolution? Mention dates. The twentieth century didn't occur last night. There's a lot of years to consider. Use dates! You should also outline, in barest form, the remainder of your essay. Got a good quotation? Use it here. A quotation as the first sentence of your essay is also an excellent way to grab the attention of your reader.

On to the hardest part--the body of the essay. It is in the body of your essay that an outline will become necessary. Without an outline you will have the tendency to roam over a lot of material without any coherent plan of attack. Your professor will tire easily. "Get to the point!" he may write in the margin. Outline every single paragraph. Your outline can consist of numbered points, each one of which is a paragraph or, you can develop a complex outline in which each point of each section is a sentence unto itself. Whatever works best for you.

I can't stress enough the need for outlining your essays. I know this for a fact because I almost never used an outline as an undergraduate student. Even in graduate school I had to learn this technique. After two years of reading my essays, my advisor finally "advised" that I take an essay that I already had written and outline it. In other words, I was outlining in reverse. Know what I soon discovered? Simple. My writing had very little logical order or consistency. And if your essays are illogical or inconsistent, well, then, you're going to have problems. So, my advice is to outline, outline, outline. If you're daring, try outlining your lecture notes without looking at the outline your instructor may have given you or written on the board. Can you do it?

Okay, you've written the body of the essay. You're feeling good. You believe you have demonstrated the essential focus of your opening sentence. Now it's time to conclude. This is not the place for the "I believe...," "I think that...," "in my opinion..." and so on. Your professor knows that it's you who are writing so there's no need to remind him. Again, just say what's on your mind. A conclusion ought not simply repeat arguments, although there are ways to do this without simply resorting to the list format. Instead, use the information you have established in the rest of your essay to fashion a general statement about the topic. Was Fascism important, for example, only within the context of European history, 1914-1945? Or, does Fascism perhaps have a history that lay outside the war and interwar years? Is there a relationship between Fascism and the Roman Empire? What is the difference between fascism and totalitarianism? Be daring. Be bold. If you have some point to make, perhaps a different way of thinking about the topic, then by all means say it. Your professor will commend you for it.

A short essay can include references to other works and if you frequently use quotations from these works, then they ought to be included in your essay as footnotes or as endnotes. Your professor should tell you what he is after. If you are discussing one book and all your quotations are to that book, then simple page numbers cited within the body of the text are all that is required. But, if for some reason, your essay is based on the reading of several books, then you will have to come up with some kind of system of notation that is in agreement with your instructor. The rule with footnotes and bibliographies in general is: be consistent. There are a great many style manuals to choose from so make sure that if your professor wants perfection that you use the style manual that is recommended.

You need to keep in mind that a short essay is just that---short. You may think ten pages or 2500-3000 words is a great deal to write, and for some students it is, but if you know your topic well and enjoy your topic, then you ought to be able to complete the assignment handily. Like anything else, good writing takes patience and practice. Some people are born writers---the majority are not. It is difficult to express verbally what we can at times only intuit silently.

If you find yourself stuck on that first sentence, move on. Write what comes to mind. You can always edit away later. And stick to that outline---you'll be glad you did. Ask your professor if he will read rough drafts of your essays. I have always done so and you may surprised to learn that your instructor does as well. It can't hurt to ask. If you are taking a class which utilizes a teaching assistant, you may even be required to submit a rough draft. The bottom line is this: ask questions and obtain answers. If you simply write your papers with some vague awareness of what is required the result will be mediocre at best. Why be mediocre? Strive for excellence!

Your instructor may demand that your essays be typed. Other professors would prefer a typed paper but do not require it. In general, you should make every effort to submit your essays typed rather than handwritten. For example, I receive two essays on the same topic. Both are probably very good. But, do you know which one is easier to read? Do you know which one I will read first? Psychologically, your professor is prepared for typed text and so the handwritten essay usually falls to the bottom of the pile. So, for your own sake, submit all written work typed rather than handwritten.

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