Monday, October 1, 2012

Sample Narrative Essay

Students, please find below an example of a narrative essay of the sort discussed here.  The example is on the high end of the requested length, when formatted for submission (which blog entries tend to prohibit; venue matters).  It addresses the prompt of the Fall 2012 term at TCI, which is to relate an incident in the writer's life or experience in such a way that it puts across a moral message or prescribes a pattern of behavior.  That which my piece recommends is fairly obvious--and to be expected from someone who teaches English, I think.

The week before, the forty students enrolled in American Literature I, a class focused on the writings of the United States and its forebears from the American Civil War and earlier, had turned in their papers.  The assignment had been to select a work not covered in the class but which derived from the time and area under study and to craft a critical argument about it, one employing at least one reputable outside source and containing a counter-argument (a line of argument somehow contradictory of the writer’s own thesis) and a rebuttal (a line of argument that undermines or overthrows the counter-argument).  All of the students in the sophomore-level survey were supposed to have passed two semesters of first-year composition.  They were supposed to have been able to put together thesis statements, to find and employ evidence, to explain how that evidence serves to support the thesis—in short, to construct arguments.  They were supposed to have demonstrated that they could carry out basic revisions of their work, ensuring that sentence flowed into sentence and paragraph into paragraph, that the words being used were those which ought to have been used rather than the most ornate and Latinate words available, and that the phrasings used in their papers were original unless clearly signaled as quotations.  They were supposed to have demonstrated a basic command of the conventions of standard edited academic American English, proofreading their papers at least once to ensure that their own names were spelled correctly and the titles of the works they referenced were treated as they ought to be.

When the papers were graded, however, they revealed that either most of the students had not been taught what they ought to have been or that they had forgotten what they had once learned.  Some discussed texts far removed from the area being studied, trying to use romance novels published in the twenty-first century to fill in for what should have been works written in the seventeenth through the nineteenth.  Others failed to include even a primary source, let alone an outside piece of criticism, or to produce a thorough argument.  Still others, fortunately few, thought to look online for papers that had already been written and submit them as their own.  Yet others were jerky and disjointed, the sentences within paragraphs having no real relationship to one another and the paragraphs not even attempting to connect among themselves.  One prominent example piled trite statements atop bombast atop clich√©, vomiting multi-syllabic words onto the page in the hopes of hiding the fact that the paper said nothing about anything.  Nearly all, though, had shown that they had not taken the time to ensure that even their own names were spelled correctly, let alone that the titles of their works were handled well and that the other mechanics in their papers were even close to correct.

When the instructor read the first, the assumption was that one student had done poorly, and while it is hardly pleasant to begin a session of grading with an inferior piece of work, one student erring among forty is to be expected.  It is never the case that every student in the class does well on every assignment offered.  And when the second paper came up with as bad a grade as the first, and for many of the same reasons, it added to the frustration but did not elicit concern.  But when the third, the fourth, the fifth, the tenth, the twentieth, the thirty-seventh all made many of the same mistakes—mistakes that not even students in remedial English at the same university made—especially when the students who had written the papers had stressed again and again that they understood the assignment and had no questions, a deep and abiding anger grew up.  Having been misinformed, having had to read dozens of badly-written papers from students who ought to have known better—from students who had shown in discussion that they did know better—kindled a cold rage which chilled the room when, on the day appointed, the papers were returned.

Normally, the class would begin jovially, with those in the room chatting openly and laughing together, establishing the classroom as a site of enjoyment and the work done in it as a pleasurable thing.  But on that day, as the instructor entered, it was as if the light and warmth of the Southern spring had been drained out of the room.  For the instructor sat behind the desk for some minutes, not moving, not speaking.  The students, several of whom were attentive to such things, feared that something was wrong, for the instructor usually bounced into the room, a dynamo of energy for the material and those who had signed up to learn about it, rather than the icily silent glaring hulk that brooded behind the desk.

Their fears were realized when, as the official start time of the class came, the instructor looked up at the students.  In a low voice and from between clenched jaws came the words: “I’ve taught remedial English.  I’ve taught high school English.  I’ve even taught middle school English.  The papers you turned in to me are far and away the worst I have seen.  That you even thought these were close to acceptable is an insult, and you should be ashamed to have wasted my time and yours with…this.”  A scornful wave at the stack of papers on the desk, their pages almost dripping with red ink, was followed by more: “You have a week to fix these, and you had damned well better avail yourselves of it.  Get your crap off my desk and get out of my classroom.”

Without a word and without meeting the instructor’s eyes, the students grabbed their papers and made their way away from where the instructor sat seething.

The next week, the papers were better by far.

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