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Why Cant I Write Essays Anymore Vs Any More

Dear student,

I have just read your essay, and I must apologise – I have absolutely no idea what it said.

When you hold this essay in your hands in a few weeks’ time, I know that you will look immediately at the mark I’ve written at the top of the first page. You will make assumptions about yourself, your work – perhaps even your worth – based on this number. I want to tell you not to worry about it.

How to survive marking dissertations

When I was a student, I assumed – as you probably do now – that my work was meticulously checked and appraised, with the due consideration it deserved, by erudite scholars who perhaps wore tweed.

I wonder now if it was actually marked by someone like me: a semi-employed thirtysomething on a zero-hours contract, sitting at home in pyjamas, staring at a hopeless pile of marking, as hopes of making it to the shops for a pint of milk today fade.

Your essay is one of 20 or so I’ve tackled in one sitting this afternoon. They are beginning to blur into one; a profusion of themes and things “to be noted” and endless variations on the phrase “It is interesting that...”.

I’m reading something you wrote on page two and I’m wondering if I just read an explanation of this concept on page one, or if that was in someone else’s essay. I have to go back a page, eyes swimming, and check.

Your essay does not stand alone, but becomes amalgamated with the others I’ve read so far today, all talking about the same things, with varying degrees of clarity. Your words are diluted by the ones that came before, they are lost on me even before I begin.

It should not be like this. In an ideal world, I would spend my morning carefully marking three essays at most, giving them the thought they deserve. I would spend the early afternoon wandering around a meadow picking flowers – something, anything, to clear my head so I can approach the next batch with a fresh outlook and enthusiasm.

Academic workload: a model approach

But I do not have that kind of time. I have academic work of my own; I have a job interview to prepare for; at various points of the year, I have additional employment to help tide me over. (And I’m only a part-time lecturer, I’m aware that my colleagues in full-time jobs have a lot more of this to do.)

I have cleared this bit of space in my schedule to read your essays, and I have come at them genuinely excited to see what you have found out this term, and to tell you how you can improve. I try to be thorough and write actual comments on your essay, even though I’m aware that I could probably get away with a few ticks, question marks and a cryptic “needs improvement”.

I’ve been at it all day and it is 6.20 pm. There are 11 unmarked essays. I could carry on, but I can’t make sense of anything you say any more. I have to force myself to understand anything other than the clearest, nicest writing; the kind of writing that takes me by the hand and shows me round all your ideas. (Dear student, please note: I am not so exhausted that I can’t spot nice writing. Do us both a favour and spend time on your essay. Make it good. Edit, polish, relieve my boredom and let me award you a first.)

I know that I should go back and reread a few essays to compare the marks I’ve given, but there isn’t time. I would like to look up the references you cite, to tell you if there are other gems in those books you may have missed, or suggest other interpretations, but there’s no chance. I also have a life – washing to do, family to spend time with, that sort of thing.

In this letter (which I’ve written with an aching hand) I ask three things of you:

  • Work hard on your essays. Help people like me. It’ll open your mind, and it’ll make me happy. And I really, really want to give you a first.
  • Don’t think that if you just waffle on for three pages to bring your essay up to the required word count, I won’t notice. I will.
  • Do not get too upset – or complacent – because of whatever mark you’ve got. Don’t take it too personally. I’ve tried my best to be consistent and fair, and other lecturers will moderate my marking, but really, by a certain stage, I’m just pulling numbers out of the air. (55? 58? I don’t know)

Teaching at a university means constant pressure - for about £5 an hour

Your essay does not stand alone; it’s either going to impress me or sap my energy, and if it does the latter, it affects how I read the ones which come afterwards. Too many awful essays and I can’t concentrate anymore.

The books on your reading list will tell you everything about the subject that you need to know; read them. There are also books in the library with titles like How to Write an Essay; make use of them. If you don’t understand something, come along to my office hour. I’ve gone on about it all term, and you know where that is.

All the best,

Your lecturer

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A few years ago another academic and I were walking with a student (“Kiki”) who said that she always handed in essay assignments two weeks after they are due — the last day before she would receive a 0. Each time she lost 20% of the total possible points due to an automatic penalty of 2% per work day late. Over the long run she was ruining her chances of going on to postgraduate study. The other academic walking with us started to tell Kiki that the university had now extended the penalty period to three weeks with a maximum penalty of 30%, but I elbowed him right away and shook my head. I knew that if Kiki heard this news she would change to submitting three weeks late and suffer an extra 10% penalty. I knew that because I understand phobias, and Kiki had one — essay-writing phobia.

This phobia involves fear and avoidance of writing an assigned essay and/or submitting the essay. In addition to lateness penalties, the avoidance can lead to last-minute writing with its attendant stress, poor quality, and low marks. This phobia is more common than you might think.

What causes essay-writing phobia? The causes are similar for all types of phobias. The main factors likely to contribute here are genetic, biological predispositions to feel anxious, perfectionism in general, setting an unrealistically high goal for the essay, low self-efficacy for writing in general or for the specific essay, and low levels of self-control. Two other possible factors: Avoidance helps the person feel much better in the short run by reducing anxiety, and avoidance with frantic last-minute writing gives the person an ego-protecting excuse for earning a low mark.

So what is the way out of essay-writing phobia? I’ll suggest 10 strategies in order of value for most individuals:

1. Change your goal to something realistic and valuable, like doing your best under the circumstances or submitting on time or ending your avoidance. Put aside goals of being perfect and impressing the heck out of someone.

2. Gradually expose yourself to what you fear. Write the easiest part of the essay first — start with your name or the title. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Then write the next easiest part and so on, all the way to submitting. Praise yourself for courage at each step. Use my favorite definition of courage: Doing the right thing even tho scared. There is a great deal of research evidence that gradual exposure helps eliminate phobias.

3. Discuss your fears with someone who cares about your welfare or write in a journal about your fears. Bringing them out in the open will help you deal with them.

4. Calm yourself thru deep breathing, meditation, or some other means.

5. Focus on the task at hand — tell yourself what to do next on the assignment. Think that you are writing a draft that you will improve later, if necessary. Positive thoughts often lead to positive behavior.

6. Challenge self-defeating thoughts such as “Ï can’t do this” by thinking clearly about what “this” is and by looking for evidence from the past about whether you can do it.

7. Think of times you have written good essays and submitted on time.

8. Think of how you overcame some fear before in your life.

9. Think of individuals you admire who acted bravely.

10. Write while naked. This change of procedure might give you a new perspective, along with a anxiety-reducing chuckle.

Those are my thoughts. For a case study describing treatment of essay-writing phobia, see http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0005796786900422.

What helps you reduce essay writing fear and avoidance?

John Malouff, PhD,
Associate Professor of Psychology

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