In Which I Give Students Advice About Their Midterms but the Whole Document Gets Away From Me a Bit

Every once in a while, you set out to write an e-mail to your students, expecting it will be a pretty ordinary e-mail full of sober advice about midterm preparation and analysis. Then this happens.

Hello, everyone. This is really just a repeat of what we discussed on Tuesday, but I thought I’d put it in an e-mail for the visual learners. I’m not sure how it turned into a comedy routine, but perhaps it will be slightly more interesting to read that way.

How do I get an amazing mark on the short-answer questions?

Well, first, you need to define the terms. That shouldn’t take you too long. A solid definition will earn you 4/10.

That’s not very much. What if I make my definition really, really complicated?

Still 4/10, I’m afraid. The definition is just the first thing you need. Next, you must relate the definition to one of our course works.

So I say Term X means [whatever], and it appears in the Grimms’ “Cinderella” in [this way].

Yep. Thank you for mentioning which “Cinderella” you’re discussing, by the way. It’s essential that you differentiate between stories with similar or identical titles. Also, congratulations: you now have 6/10.

That’s still pretty low. What am I doing wrong?

Nothing. You’re missing an element.

What if I add another example of how Term X is used in “Cinderella”? Or in another story, even?

Still 6/10.


You’re piling on the evidence, but you’re not doing anything with it.

Oh, okay. So I need to say why it’s significant that Term X is being used in “Cinderella” in this particular way?

Exactly. You need your “so what?” element. Don’t just list evidence; tell me why it’s important.

So then I should explain why Term X’s use in “Cinderella” means that all fairy tales use Term X like this?

Nope. Just because Term X has this effect in one story doesn’t mean it will have exactly the same effect in all stories. You can draw on your knowledge of Term X’s general effect, but make sure you concentrate on the specific effect on the one story you’re actually discussing.

Will that get me 10/10?

It depends on the quality of your “so what?”. A weak (but present) “so what?” may earn you 6.5 or 7. A stronger one will raise your mark to 7.5, 8, or 8.5. A super-amazing, “Gosh-I-wish-I’d-thought-of-that-myself” “so what?” will earn you a 9, 9.5, or 10.

Does this mean it’s possible to get 100% on the essay portion?

No. English profs are notoriously cruel and don’t give 100% on essays because no essay can ever be perfect. Uuuuunnnnllllliiiiimmmmiiiiited poooooweeeeer.

That’s going to count as this e-mail’s Star Wars reference, right? I can relax now?

No. That reference was taken from a movie I refuse to admit exists.

What about the essay portion?

Actually, the same basic rules apply to the essay portion. The whole idea is to find one specific aspect of the works to discuss and approach it from a number of connected angles, not to list a bunch of evidence and go, “See?”.

It’s a comparison, though. Don’t I just concentrate on pointing out the similarities between the two works?

With a comparison, the most useful approach is generally to find the differences within the similarity. Listing similarities is going to lead you to leave out more specific details, as it will be in the specific details that the works differ. Instead, find one interesting specific similarity, then look at how the two authors treat this element in different ways, taking the stories in different directions, to different effect.

That’s really complicated. My brain hurts, and I’m worried you’re going to spring another Star Wars reference on me.

Hush. The first one didn’t count. It’s not as complicated as it seems. Think of it like this: A New Hope and The Force Awakens


Now who’s making Star Wars references? A New Hope and The Force Awakens follow very similar plot trajectories, to the extent that some people regard the latter as a rip off of the former. In addition, both Luke and Rey can be seen as “destined” heroes, shoved into their journeys by cosmic forces instead of choosing to take those journeys. However, the differences in the villains–with Darth Vader (in the first movie only; we’re not taking about Empire or Jedi Vader) as a distant, menacing figure who never has a physical confrontation with Luke and Kylo Ren as a more fallible, less controlled antagonist whose confrontation with Rey sees the two of them actually entering each other’s minds–sends the two heroes off on different trajectories. Luke’s path is a black-and-white one, an obvious struggle against obvious evil, whereas Rey is drawn into a more personal fight in which the fate of the galaxy is dwarfed by the pain of one particular family.

Well, that was unnecessarily long

I could have made it longer. At any rate, I started with a similarity, found one important difference, and examined the implications. The rest of my essay will drill down these implications.

This is an in-class paper, and I’m not Shakespeare.

I’ll be marking it as an in-class paper. I still need one excellent idea taken as far as possible.

I guess that makes sense.

Of course it does, non-existent student I have invented solely for the purpose of this e-mail. Do you have any other questions?

Probably, but I’ll only remember them once the midterm is over.

That’s the spirit.

I’d better go off and read those handouts you keep mentioning to us now. They’re in the “Useful Documents” folder on D2L, aren’t they?

It’s as if you can read my mind.

Thank you for answering my unexpectedly convenient questions.

You’re welcome. May the Force be with you.

Just stop.

I don’t think I can.


2 thoughts on “In Which I Give Students Advice About Their Midterms but the Whole Document Gets Away From Me a Bit

  1. “The Prequel Trilogy is the pathway to many similarities, some of them considered to be un-accidential.”

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