‘Tis the season when college students across the country are handing in research essays and term papers. Having graded many hundreds of essays over the years, I think I can speak with assurance that the hardest essays to grade are the bad essays. There are a lot of bad essays, and one of the reasons might be because a lot of popular reading consists of bad news articles, which are legion. I’d like to take a look at one and compare it to bad research essays, mainly as a way of celebrating the fact that I don’t have any research essays to grade this semester.
I chose an article about consumer technology, but I could easily have chosen one about politics. Consumer tech and politics both have a huge amount of insubstantial nonsense written about them, and that’s even when you exclude the ludicrous subgenre of iPhone rumors. Whether it’s the pseudoevent (“It has been announced that the President will be making an announcement later in the day”) or the article empty of real content (“Polls tell us that if people were voting today instead of six months from now when the actual election is held, they would probably vote this way, but there’s no way to know if that’s how they’ll vote in November”), political news is generally stuff and nonsense. What passes for tech news might be even worse.
So, what would research essays look like if they were written like bad news articles? We can see an example with this article: Is There a Future for Laptops?
1) They would have provocative titles that don’t represent the content well.
You have to admit, “Is There a Future for Laptops?” is a provocative title. It’s also a stupid title, because the answer is obviously “yes.” Even the writer thinks so, despite all the dithering. In fact, that’s what makes it provocative. While the title is provocative, the article itself is almost devoid of content, opinion, or argument. The concluding paragraph begins, “Although I don’t see this scenario playing out quickly, there is a real possibility that it could become a trend.” Think about that as a conclusion. The writer has pretty much strung some words together that should make a sentence, but not actually said anything or taken any stance. Plus he probably got paid for it. Now there’s a talented hack. There is a real possibility that just about anything could become a trend, and we all know it, so there’s no use writing it.
2) They would have verbose introductions having nothing to do with the topic.
This article seems to be a bad example of the five-paragraph essay. If you’re unfamiliar with the form, Google it. Plenty of examples will show up. In a diagram, the first paragraph is represented as an inverted triangle, and the advice is to start broad and then narrow to your main thesis. Thus, a bad essay about the future of laptops might begin, “Since the dawn of time, man has wondered about the future of the laptop.” This awful article doesn’t even get points for staying on topic. The first six sentences and two paragraphs are about the writer’s obsession with food and himself. A lot of so-called news articles these days begin like personal essays. As a reader, I appreciate it, because it lets me tell immediately who’s not worth reading. If your article is about some hot button political issue and you begin by talking about what you were having for lunch when you heard about it, I can tell at a glance that you don’t have a thing to say worth saying and move on. Ditto with laptops and what you like to eat.
3) They wouldn’t have thesis statements.
What is a thesis statement? There are various definitions, but a thesis statement is basically an arguable and falsifiable claim. “There are various kinds of computers that suit different purposes” is a falsifiable claim, for example, but not an arguable one, since nobody who knew anything about computers could possible argue against it, but if there were no computers in existence it would certainly be false. If there is a main claim at all to this article, it’s that laptops might possibly sell less well in the future than they do today. Is that really arguable? Can’t we all agree that’s true? Yes, they might. Is it falsifiable? I don’t think so, because it doesn’t really make a claim about anything. They might, they might not. We get pap like, “If this speculative trend becomes a reality, the ramifications for the laptop vendors could be significant because they sell the majority of their laptops to consumers.” The writer can write that sentence and “I have a thousand-word column due and nothing to say” at the same time.
4) They wouldn’t have arguments.
If there’s some kind of claim, there might be some kind of argument, only there’s not. Instead of any sort of argument or analysis, we get stuff like this:
Many conversations also addressed the future of tablets in general and how they could impact the laptop landscape. Quite a few of the folks I spoke with have started to use Bluetooth keyboards with their tablets and they say that using a tablet/keyboard combo really changes their thinking about laptops. A lot of them only take their tablet/keyboard with them on short trips, leaving the laptop home.
I have heard this case repeated a lot lately by tablet users. Many find themselves spending more time with the tablet since they can do as much as 80 percent of their work on it and thus they are relying less and less on the laptop.
So “quite a few” folks this one person happens to have spoken to at a tech conference say something, and that’s somehow evidence about the “future of the laptop”? Even the writer knows it’s not, since he won’t just come out and say the laptop is doomed. “Many say”? “I have heard”? Sounds pretty dubious to me. I’ve heard many people say they will always need their laptops, because there are some things that just can’t be done on a tablet. If nothing else, I’ll say that many, many times, which should count as evidence for something.
The article is so vague and speculative that there’s really nothing to argue for. That should be a sign that it’s not worth writing in the first place. It fails as opinion, because there’s no argument, and it fails as news because of the pointless opening and the vague reporting. “Many conversations.” “I asked some execs.” If you’re reporting on a conference, this is about as insubstantial as it gets.
5) The sources would be vague and disconnected.
This article could be considered a research essay that “writes from sources.” It’s half report, half argument, and all bad, but there are some sources involved. Only none of those sources are named, none of their statements sufficiently analyzed, and they’re all left hanging loosely together. “One guy said this about tablets. Another guy said this about laptops. Someone else said a third thing about some other stuff. And I really like food.” The only way this filler could get any worse would be for the writer to write “very” 10-15 times before every adverb to boost the word count. It’s what writing teachers sometimes call a quotation quilt, except without the quotations or the quilt.
Fortunately, because of the heroic efforts of teachers and librarians to instill a capacity for critical writing into students, there won’t be many college research essays like that. Or at least none that I have to read.