Think of Archimedes, who, as the story goes, was so delighted by something he had figured out while bathing that he leaped from his bathtub and ran naked through the streets of Athens, yelling, “Eureka! Eureka!” (“I’ve found it! I’ve found it!”)
Now think of those times you have seen or learned something that you could hardly wait to tell someone about.
That’s the proper motivation for writing an essay: the desire to share what you have discovered.
In other words, if you feel like running naked through the streets shouting about what you know or what you’ve found out, keep your clothes on and write an essay instead.
Unfortunately, that’s not why most people write essays. In fact, most essays are written for no better reason than that they are required. I can’t imagine a more uninspiring reason for writing than that you have to produce an essay of such and such a length, on such and such a topic, on such and such a date.
No wonder students hate to write, and no wonder we teachers hate to read most student writing. It reads like homework. It is homework.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. If a student is excited about his topic, if he genuinely feels that he has something to say that he wants other people to hear, then at least his essay will have the energy of discovery, no matter what flaws or errors might otherwise mar it.
Of course, most students have to write most of their essays in response to assigned topics that they are indifferent to or, even worse, that they don’t really understand. So how can they get to the “Eureka!” experience by way of such assigned topics?
Well, for starters they can change their attitude.
Too many students have no interest in learning much of anything. All they want to know about is what concerns them, their narrow circle of friends, or the celebrities that are thrown up by our mindless pop culture. These kids are bored with everything outside that limited, self-absorbed range, and they are, frankly, also incredibly boring. They even bore themselves, which is why they can’t bear to be alone, and why they can’t even keep company with their (equally boring) friends without drugs, alcohol, or mind-blasting music to distract them from the suffocating dullness and aimlessness of their existence.
No subject, however fascinating, no manner of instruction, however engaging, will provoke in such students the excitement of discovery, the sheer joy of learning. They are well-armored against any experience that might force them to direct their gaze away from themselves.
A bored and boring student will not feel enthusiastic about any topic, not even one he is permitted to choose himself. He would even be too bored with the idea of choosing a topic.
On the other hand, one reason students end up so bored with the idea of learning, so self-absorbed that they cannot be intrigued by anything that isn’t about them, is that too many teachers have worked diligently to turn even the most interesting subjects into deadly bores. Think of history. Is anything more interesting? And yet did you ever read a history textbook or take a history class in middle school or high school that wasn’t downright soporific?
If a teacher is passionate about her subject, and if she has any talent for teaching, then she is likely to transmit at least some of her enthusiasm to at least some of her students. And if she can get them excited about a subject, she can probably get them excited to write about that subject.
Can the “Eureka!” experience be artificially induced?
Actually, yeah. It’s all a matter of attitude–but in this case it’s the student’s attitude rather than the teacher’s that really counts.
The awkward truth is that most teachers, both in high school and in college, are going to be dull, confusing, or both. Students simply cannot count on the teacher to make a subject interesting. But most subjects really are intrinsically interesting, and if the student can get past the spoiled-brat expectation that his teacher will entertain him, then he can find the interest in the subject. The teacher really doesn’t matter all that much. What does matter is how intensely the student engages the subject, with or without the teacher’s help–though obviously it’s great when the teacher is helpful.
If you are given a “boring” topic to write about in a “boring” course, then find some angle or aspect that is not boring, or at least one that is less boring. Often what seems boring only seems so because you don’t know much about it. The more you learn, the more interesting you will find most subjects to be–until at some point you will become so interested that you will want to tell someone about what you have learned.
Voila! The “Eureka!” experience.
Essays produced for no other reason than that they must be written and turned in on a certain day are always as deadly dull to read as they are to write. Since you must write your required essays, the best way to approach such assignments is to try to actually learn something from them, something interesting enough to make you want to tell someone about it–if only to prevent yourself from running naked through the streets, shouting, “Eureka! Eureka!” 😀