Thursday, 2 August 2007

Experience and goal – irreconcilably different?

I have reflected elsewhere on this blog that my experience of writing in formal education has been something of a curate’s egg. When I really get stuck into a topic and am motivated to a lot of research, I often find that the finished assignment doesn’t receive as high a grade as one where my interest hasn’t been as acutely piqued. Now I’m getting a bit of insight into the reasons for this. I feel it’s all about muddying the waters with too much breadth. For me, goal and process are a bit of a trade-off.

In the case of this essay, the assessor’s final comment that the assignment,“…could be improved by having a clearer focus and a stronger take-home message, which could perhaps be achieved by interpreting the title in a narrower way…”, lends weight to this. I feel that in this case (and in some others!) I slipped away from my main task which is usually identified by a thorough question analysis. Looking back, instead of presenting the strengths and weaknesses of Freud’s theory of personality as measured against the yardstick of evidential science I decided at too early a point to become an advocate for it. I tried also to question the appropriateness of the paradigm often used to assess Freud when it might have profited me (in terms of more marks) to stick with it. It may have helped me achieve the stronger take-home message counselled by the assessor. And interestingly, in this case I carried out my question analysis belatedly.

The vexing thing is that for me, writing from a very objective position, one which seems to bag me better marks, isn’t half as intense or rewarding. So I’m in search of a way to keep that close connection with my material whilst keeping my eyes fixed on my goal. I wonder if full expression and excellent marks can coexist in the same piece of writing? If my opinion muddies the waters and possibly takes me away from the zeitgeist of my discipline should I refrain from expressing it? Or maybe it's just about expressing it better.

As ever, your opinions and suggestions will be gratefully received.

61 comments:

Pete said...

- I wonder if full expression and excellent marks can coexist in the same piece of writing? If my opinion muddies the waters and possibly takes me away from the zeitgeist of my discipline should I refrain from expressing it? Or maybe it's just about expressing it better.


gosh, Lynn -- you seem to be moving towards a very depressing conclusion about university essay writing here: "lasciate ogni speranza voi ch' intrate".

I think you can do your own thing in student writing but you have to make sure that you take the reader along with you - that's where one needs one's rhetorical tools. And, of course, one might fail in this, either because of one's own inadequacies or because the lecturer may not be willing to take the leap with you. So there's a risk. But then there's also a risk in not writing YOUR essay and doing what you think the lecturer wants.

So what is the answer -- I have no idea. But where the answer is so uncertain and possibly irrational, we may as well do whatever we can to enjoy the ride.

Lynn said...

Oooooh dear - I certainly didn't want to convey or elicit any kind of hopelessness! Admittedly I am rather overstating the case here, as I do in fact feel that I've managed to reconcile process and result reasonably tidily in this essay. And I have seen people achieve this kind of perfect balance, so I don't believe that it's impossible to resolve the two.

I'd love to hear from any people out there who feel that they have reliably managed to combine maximum 'flow' with maximum 'goal' (Frederick Forsyth? JK Rowling? Stephen King?). My thoughts are that student writers are still moving towards mastery of their subject, so the times when one hits the goal jackpot are going to be the exception rather than the rule. For this reason alone it's worth paying lots of attention to one's writing process.

When I write, it is the nature of my connection with the assignment which tells me whether I have achieved excellence of process (I'll be saying more about this over the coming weeks). Excellence of goal is usually just a happy coincidence (although it embarrasses me somewhat to reflect on just how happy a good result can make me!). And for me the relationship between the two is really rather mysterious.

But I am fully convinced that excellent marks achieved without excellence of process represents a missed opportunity to develop one's writing. It's always worth getting into the flow - so really there's lots of hope to be had and none has been abandoned!

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