Essays 101: 7 Steps to Getting that A

ESSAY WRITING POST

So I’m going to have to be pretty honest, seeing all of my friends who are younger than me move back into school is hardcore bumming me out. It’s not because I’m longing for the party-filled social life of college (because my social life at home is pretty dang good), but because I so badly want to be taking classes with them all. And the thing I’m really really going to miss the most? The essay writing, because essays are kinda my shit.

I haven’t taken a legitimate exam since freshman year of college because, as a history major and English minor, I was just tested via lots and lots of essays, and I couldn’t have loved that more. Throughout all of those essays, I’ve really gotten my process down to a science—the thought of a 10-page essay isn’t so daunting anymore, and I get so excited at questions I don’t really know the answer to just yet.

I’ve boiled that science down to my seven must-dos in order to seriously nail an essay so you all can, too!

  1. Actually read the books.

I mean I guess it’s kind of obvious, but there are definitely people out there who don’t read the books you have to write your essay on. I guess that reading a straight textbook might be a little bit dry, but they make up for it by being super easy reads. When you move onto upper-level classes where you’re reading more books books instead of a textbook, though, you’ve got to read them. On the bright side, these books are usually super interesting and well-written, so it’s totally worth the time it takes to read.

When you’re reading, do yourself a favor and underline/highlight, and maybe add a few sticky-notes in there, too. You’re going to need to use quotes in your essay, obviously, so marking where there are insightful comments is kind of a must-do. Another great way to collect quotes if maybe you didn’t completely read every word of the book is to use the index and refine your speed reading skills.

  1. Make a legit outline.

These bad boys are so, so important—if you make a proper outline, you’re already like 70 percent done with your essay. I like to come up with each paragraph I’m going to write, come up with the topic of each, and at least type in every quote I’m going to support each point. I don’t let this 100 percent dictate my essay-writing, though. If I’m writing and I feel like I need to split into a new paragraph, or should swap around ideas, I allow myself room to do so.

Toward the end of college I started adding in bullet points in each outline, and would allow myself to ramble on about that subtopic as much as I wanted. Then I’d go back and edit that all out to have more scholarly language and transitional phrases, eventually turning itself into an essay.

  1. Use EasyBib.

The absolutely, positively most important part of writing an essay is making sure the whole thing is sourced properly. That means making sure you have the right in-text citations, the right footnotes, and the right bibliography at the end. I love using EasyBib.com because it organizes my bibliographies perfectly. I still need to think about the rest of my sourcing, but at least I know one part of it will be flawless.

Pay attention to the citation format you use. If you’re writing something in sociology or psychology, you’re probably going to use APA format. If you’re writing English, it’ll be MLA. History is Chicago Manual of Style (AKA lots and lots of footnotes). Those tend to be how it works out, but make sure you double check with your professor to find out what he/she would like!

  1. Think about the connected ideas between all of your sources, and what those ideas are saying about the world at large.

When you start moving into upper-level classes (your 200 or 300 levels), it’s not enough to just give a report or summary of what you read. In most cases, you’re going to be balancing multiple books, or multiple thinkers, or multiple theories, and you need to make sure that you’re showing you understand all of them. The best way to do that is to show that you understand how they all connect to each other, and how they connect to the world at large.

Obviously, this advice is going to vary on a case-by-case basis. I honestly have no knowledge about psychology, so who the heck knows, maybe this is a terrible piece of advice for that subject! I do know, however, that in history, you need to demonstrate that you know how different ideas connect and that they don’t exist in a vacuum—that’s pretty much the whole point to the study of history, and English is pretty similar, too.

  1. Say something unique, or that you don’t think your peers are saying.

THIS IS HUGE. I had a professor who used to say that it would be impossible to get more than a B on an essay with him if you only went for the low-hanging fruit. That’s to say, there are a lot of obvious arguments out there—usually the ones you went over in class a lot, or the ones you would know whether you took the course or not—and those are not enough to show that you understand a concept. While you should definitely touch on those, don’t let them be your whole essay.

When I would write essays, I would try to say something that I didn’t think my peers would say. That could mean taking a qualified stance on an argument, or saying that an event occurred for reasons we hadn’t yet discussed. It didn’t matter to me if I had the best writing skills or the best research skills in the class—I wanted to say the most creative thing.

  1. Use your introduction not just to set the topic, but to capture your professor and show off your writing skills.

Sarah Vowell, one of my favorite authors, once said “the more history I learn, the more the world fills up with stories.” That’s why introductions are my favorite, favorite, favorite things to write. That’s my space to tell a story.

Of course, in my introduction I take the time to make my thesis statement and give the reader a teeny glimpse into what I’ll be talking about, but my first handful of sentences are always dedicated to storytelling, letting my reader know the context of my argument, of letting them know that I’m not just writing an essay, but actually demonstrating writing skills.

  1. Make your title last.

God, I hate titles. To be completely honest, I don’t have the best advice for them except to write them after you’ve written the whole essay. Sometimes when I’m writing, the essay I planned on doesn’t necessarily come to fruition, and it changed into something new. Maybe there’s a really interesting point I come up with, or maybe there’s one part that’s better written than another and I want to direct attention to it. Either way, I always make sure to reflect that in my title. Another way to go is super, duper general, like “Heart of Darkness as 19th Century Imperialist Commentary.” That shit’s real general to the point that it almost sounds dumb, but it’s not going to make you drop from an A to A-. I’m also a fan of the colon, like “Heart of Darkness: An Imperialist Commentary.” That makes you seem really smart, but doesn’t take a huge amount of brain power to come up with.

Why we NEED A.P. U.S. History; why this is the scariest crap I’ve seen lately.

There is some terribly frightening news circulating the country lately about a staple course in high school education– news about Oklahoma making major changes to their Advanced Placement U.S. History course to make it more “patriotic” and less “oppressive.”

As you may know if you’ve read my bio, I’m a history major in college. I actually began my undergraduate career aspiring to be a high school history teacher, which would ideally have lead to me teaching courses such as A.P. U.S. Around sophomore year, I learned that I have a way with placing words on a page and realized the catharsis that goes with that, and thus I stopped studying to become a high school history teacher.

But still, for some reason, my major remained history.

And I think that’s because I have such an unbelievable respect and admiration and love for history. I think it’s because when I was little I had this amazing obsession with American Girl Dolls. I think it’s because the most influential professor I’ve had in college is a history professor. I think it’s because I recognize the intense need we have, as a nation, for understanding America’s history and how it has incredible consequences for our current foreign relations.

There are many journalists out there who have a far better understanding of what’s going on with A.P. U.S. in Oklahoma than myself, and far better talents with words for communicating such than myself; if you want to hear a really great summary of it all, check out this article from politico.com. Basically, State Rep. Dan Fisher (I do think it’s relevant to indicate that he’s a Republican) has made moves to revise the curriculum for APUSH (Advanced Placement United States History) in the state of Oklahoma. He believes that the current curriculum tells the story of the United States as chronic “oppressors and exploiters,” according to Politico. So, he seeks to redesign the curriculum to emphasize what many call “American Exceptionalism,” or, in other words, to only teach students of the good things America has done, to omit the bad, and to alter the bad to sound good.

And all of that makes me feel a little bit queasy.

The worst part is that this is sparking debate all over the nation. According to the Politico article, this debate has been going on for a little while, and Oklahoma’s move to start making changes is what has made this issue spread like wildfire. My fear, as well as the fear of many others, is that APUSH will be changed at a nationwide level to mirror Oklahoma’s potential curriculum.

I am only one small voice. I’m a history major (and a damn good one, if I’m to toot my own horn), but clearly I’m looking for work in some sort of editorial, journalistic capacity. I’ve never set foot inside an APUSH classroom as anything but a student. I know I don’t have a lot of ground to stand on, but I think I, along with everyone else who feels passionately about this, need to stand on it anyways.

I don’t know what other APUSH classes are like (but I do know that in mine, the standard textbook we used was deemed so exceptionalist that we needed to supplement it with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States). I don’t know each and every inner working of what Oklahoma’s new curriculum will look like. I don’t know the likelihood of the rest of the United States following suite. I don’t even know where I stand on the whole nationalizing education thing.

What I do know is that if things like this do end up happening, it will be an absolute travesty to the entire discipline of history. Because we aren’t just talking about taking critical thinking and interpretation out of APUSH; we’re talking about rewriting the ugly bits, the bits where the U.S. enslaved African Americans; where they dropped bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki (perhaps they’ll simply reinterpret, and not rewrite, but still); where they were involved/responsible for some dicey dealings in Latin America during the Cold War (which isn’t even included in most high school curricula at this time).

It is so unbelievably frightening that there are motions and changes and alterations being made so that schools aren’t being transparent with students about their nation’s history. Quite frankly I find it offensive that lawmakers don’t believe teachers capable of teaching even-handedly and students of interpreting intellectually these complicated and ambiguous issues from the past that the nation is still dealing with. It’s upsetting that they don’t believe that patriotism can still be felt even when looking with a critical eye at past misgivings and subsequently learning from them.

Please, by all means, if you’re reading this, let me know what you think. There are so many things I don’t know, and I’m the first to admit it. If you think there is some piece of this puzzle I’m missing greatly, please let me know; I want so badly to know more about this situation.

Talk Nerdy to Me: How to Stay Organized and Nail your Senior Thesis

THESIS_Pinterest

As we all prep to head back to school for spring semester, some folks might be gearing up to write (or continue to write) their senior thesis. Lucky for you all, I just finished mine (and did pretty well on it, if I do say so myself).

Writing my senior thesis was really stressful for a lot of reasons, but mostly because this is such a freakin’ beefy project. I’d done lengthy research papers before (thesis proposal, senior seminar [which I took as a junior…?]). Because of all of that, I was able to really kind of figure out what I wanted to do in terms of organization for the project.

Since my senior thesis was so important to me (it was the #1 thing I was thankful for this year), I really wanted to knock it out of the park and do something great with it. I knew that since it was so much research, I was going to need to be so so organized.

So what was my thesis even about?

My senior thesis was entitled, “The Implicit Imperialists: The Disnification of American Hegemony 1990-1991.” I took a look at the relationship Disney has with the U.S. government and how, for better or for worse, everything we see (Disney cartoons included) serves as some sort of propaganda. I also looked at the history of American primacy, otherwise known as “orientalism.” This refers to the way the West perceives the East as kind of subhuman, like the way colonial powers in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century justified going into Middle Eastern countries and sort of imposed Western conceptions of freedom and civilization on them (but we have to ask– who made up these ideas of freedom/civilization?). In the end, I kind of weave this all together to make sense of the First Persian Gulf War and the depiction of Arabs in Aladdin.

It probably sounds boring to you, but I promise, it was awesome.

I tell you all this just so I can show you how many different components projects like this have. For me, I had: the study of Orientalism (I read a lot by/about Edward W. Said), history of U.S. foreign relations, Cold War and Gulf War readers (big books filled with primary documents), the study of Disney, the study of media analysis, and the study of Disney with regards to history. I organized all of my research accordingly.

The Organization:

So I decided to take all of those research topics and split them into different file folders, and decided I’d store all of those folders into one box.

THESIS_Box

You can, of course, make these folders on your computer and store everything digitally, but personally, I’d prefer to highlight and take notes on the hard copy of a journal article (if you do store things digitally, every single time you do something, back it up on a flash drive in case, heaven forbid, something get lost). When I read books, I would read the book and type out notes on my computer (I used an interlibrary loan program, so I wasn’t allowed to highlight the actual books.) I took note of different direct quotes I wanted to use, or I paraphrased ideas– mostly I transcribed actual quotes, though, because I figured I could always go back and paraphrase, but if I’d returned the book, I couldn’t get the quote again. I printed those out and put them in folders, too.

The folders were labeled: media analysis, foreign policy, orientalism, and Disney history. I also had a folder for all of my drafts.

THESIS_Folders

A note about drafts: I was super lucky because my thesis advisor was some kind of superwoman and was extremely brilliant at so many different subjects and disciplines. As a result, I got my drafts torn to gosh darn shreds. First, don’t take this personally. I took every note she gave me because I knew she knew better than me; second, if you don’t get this from your advisor, demand it. If you’re like me, your thesis is counting as a class; that means you’re paying to write this son of a gun. You should be getting so much attention. You need to be firm with your advisor about what you need. I suggest you make them return drafts to you that look like this:

THESIS_Edits

…and that was just my introduction.

As the project continued, the pages got less and less messy, but even now, after I’ve submitted my final copy for publishing, I’m sure there are so many things she could find to improve. I wanted this because frankly I spent hours on the project and I’m submitting it for awards and I want to win those freakin’ awards (woohoo for extrinsic motivation!).

A note about defending: What is a thesis without a defense? I’m a petrified public speaker, even though people always say they’re surprised by that (I think it’s because my voice projects). My goal for my defense was to make it basically like a TED Talk, and while I totally did not achieve that (although, TED, if you want me to talk, I am SO DOWN. #pipedream) I think I did a nice job. Something that made a huge different was using Prezi.

Prezi was so simple, free, stored everything in a dropbox type thing on its website, and had clean yet interesting animations. I got so many compliments on my Prezi, so I definitely suggest you give it a try.

I also super suggest taking a video of yourself doing your presentation. I did mine in the Provoc office where I could set up one of our computers with my Prezi and use the other to take a webcam video of myself (note to self: delete those before the staff comes back to school). This helped me notice stupid crap I do when presenting, let me hear where I stumbled over words, found certain phrases that worked and used them in the actual presentation, and let me time myself.

Do you have a senior thesis coming up? Do you have suggestions on how to make it work? Let me know in the comments below! I’d love to hear from you!

The day I realized my dolls were my first history teachers.

When people ask me why I’m a history major, one with no plans to become a teacher or a lawyer, I usually respond with this:

In high school took AP United States History because that’s just what you took if you were smart but not mathy smart or sciencey smart or I’m a jack of all trades smart. It wasn’t a class that was sparking some kind of fire in me and I just barely got college credit out of it and most days I sat there wondering is the work this class requires really worth the GPA boost? For anyone who was wondering, it wasn’t worth it. That is, it wasn’t worth it until the class we were talking about D-Day.

“You all have seen Saving Private Ryan, right?” I lifted my head from its resting place against the wall. Some students hummed a ‘yes’ and others reshuffled their notes and placed them flat on their desks in overzealous preparation for what they thought would be an in-class movie.

My teacher, good old Ms. Robb, smiled. “That opening scene is about D-Day.” For some, including me, the Allied invasion was becoming real; a movie reel was flickering across my mind and suddenly D-Day was becoming something that maybe I could hold in my hands.Image

Ms. Robb stood up from her seat on her desk and walked toward the center of the classroom. “When I saw that in theatres,” she began, “a bunch of Vets were sitting a few rows ahead of us. Give ‘em five minutes watching that D-Day scene and half of them left the theatre and waited for the rest in the lobby.”

“Spielberg did that shitty a job?”

“Well we asked them about that on our way out,” my teacher said, turning to face the voice that sounded from the other side of the classroom. “But no, they said he got it right; said it was a little too real, was a little too much for them.”

It was that day, during Ms. Robb’s APUS class, that I realized that history does something other than just sit in a book.

What people don’t really know is that story is utter bullshit; yeah, it happened, and yeah it was powerful, but I was a history major long before APUS killed my GPA:

My sister is four years older than me, so as a kid I was perusing American Girl Doll catalogues long before I had any business owning a $150 toy. But for my fourth or fifth birthday, thanks to eight or nine-year-old Colleen and her AG subscription, I tore open a box to Molly, the girl whose father worked as a doctor in Europe during WWII.

Throughout the course of my life, I collected six American Girl Dolls and three of the baby dolls, countless outfits, a bunk bed, a traditional Revolutionary War era canopy bed, a set of crutches, multiple pairs of doll-sized pointe shoes, a full set of trading cards, Samantha’s complete literary collection, and a Kirsten snow globe, among countless (and I mean countless) other things. I’ve had my mother read all of the books to me, and when I was capable on my own, scoured the pages myself. The best part of those books? The end, once the story is over, and the author explains through photographs the historical context of the story.

ImageThrough those books, Molly taught me about rationing on the homefront during WWII and the selling of war bonds; Felicity showed me (way before Dr. Keyes did in my Revolutionary America class) that the sentiments of the Boston Tea Party created waves throughout all of the colonies and that other Patriot demonstrations did, too; Kirsten taught about me the plight of the nineteenth century immigrant and all about my own family’s Swedish heritage (and also lots about cholera; anyone remember her friend’s graphic death from it in Meet Kirsten?).

American Girl is genius. They successfully did what an absurd amount of computer and board games tried and failed at: they tricked little girls into thinking they were having fun when learning about history. They bridged school history curricula with the activities they do at home, they put books in girls’ hands, and they convinced the children playing with their products that history is so much fun.

You see, it wasn’t the well-researched realism of Saving Private Ryan that put history tangibly in my hands; it was Molly and Kirsten and Kit. It was theirstories.

 

I study history in college and am passionate about it to a fault (“Did you know Hitler was initially deemed too feeble to carry a riffle?” I ask my friends). I love research, I love stories, I love the anecdotal trivia, but far and away the coolest thing about history is that it hides in the craziest of places and it’s in those places, in art and in culture and in stories, that it touches us the most.

My most recent project was about Erich Maria Remarque, the author of All Quiet on the Western Front. It analyzed the novels he wrote while in exile fleeing the Third Reich and set them amongst the backdrop of Remarque’s real-life issues and political sentiments. Among my research, I found a book review with a quotation that served as the epigraph for my paper and continues to serve as the epigraph for the entirety of my academic pursuits. I leave you all with this: “…he leaves to us the testimony that art is always the final witness to history.”