Home / General / “I believe the essay you asked me to write is beneath what I have been trained to expect to believe you would have expected from me, and I feel ashamed for you.”

“I believe the essay you asked me to write is beneath what I have been trained to expect to believe you would have expected from me, and I feel ashamed for you.”


(This doesn’t quite rise to the level of the most epic student email ever, and in truth more likely belongs to my series on how to write an academic essay, but as it hovers somewhere between one awful mode and another, I thought I’d leave it up to you to decide. Have—shall we call it fun?)

If I begin my essay with a rhetorical question, I contradict the Great French Thinker Montaigne, who believed I should not, because as he wrote, a “mind could not find a firm footing, [therefore he] should not be making essays, but coming to conclusions.” Those conclusions, which were important, are sadly lost to history, but the fact that Montaigne’s name remains reminds those who remember it that his failure was reason enough to memorialize it. My professor said that we should not write in the style of Montaigne, presumably because the stench of his insufficient success might sour my prose, but I believe the best essays are the ones that I write, and if my Professor thinks differently, he can take it up with Montaigne.

First, my professor told me to write a paragraph like a hamburger. Can you believe that? That is not a rhetorical question: my college professor told me that the best paragraphs are structured like a hamburger. But I must follow my muse, Montaigne, and insist that I am not interested in stabilizing my subject, however slight, in a structure of such déclassé fare, or that if I were, mine would tower above that base alternative in direct proportion to the extent of my genius. My paragraphs will, instead, inform my audience about the manner of their composition, paying special attention not to structure or transitions but to the brilliance that I mustered to tame into interest material others might find trite.

By “others,” I refer explicitly to my Professor, whose ability to mix a metaphor is nearly as impressive as his encyclopedic knowledge of all things which will never make him money. He claims that an essay is like the relationship he’s clearly never had: it begin with a witty conversation, an introduction, if you will, in which impress upon your reader the timeliness and worthiness of your subject. For those who fail to recognize the universal validity of Foucault, this could be an issue, but Montaigne and I know that so long as we only speak engagingly about ourselves and Foucault, the right kind of people will recognize our brilliance and gravitate to the empty table we have saved for them.

My professor then proceeds to argue that the remaining paragraphs in an essay constitute an evolving relationship between the writer and reader not unlike the one initiated in the introduction. “Just as a relationship explodes with initial insight in those first heady weeks,” he says, “so too should a first paragraph make good on the promise of its introduction.” Which is simply wrong — the purpose of an introduction is convince your future reader or paramour that you are to their moon like the heavens above. Moons are wonderful, albeit limited, objects who cannot escape the gravitational conventions of the Earth without an intervention by the likes of myself or Montaigne. Any conversation in which I deign to speak of moon matters is one which is inherently beneath me and an insult Montaigne. An introduction should present a reader with an  incomprehensible possibility that may, in the presence of a sufficient genius, become a comprehensible plausibility that only someone unworthy of their humanity would deny.

As for the rest of my Professor’s foolishness? That the third paragraph should, like any “good” relationship, continue to develop the feelings fostered by having made good on the promise of the introduction? This line of thought strongly suggests that relationships continue to develop after protestations of genius have made and accepted, which clearly falls under the aegis of facts not in evidence. Once proof of inferiority is established, the mendicant mind has no choice but to reel, twirling by half, then again, as if shielding itself from a light so bright it penetrates directly into its tiny brain.

Because knowing what it knows now, it will never know peace. It will only know humiliation. For there are no limits on the number of Grade Change forms I can request, or if there are, I plan to collect them like an ignorant naturalist on a well-trodden shore and submit them in perpetuity.

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  • rea

    Not bad–very hamburger-like.

    • DrDick

      Certainly an interesting presentation and should get some credit for style and chutzpah.

  • John

    What on earth was the assignment here? You seem to get some remarkably ridiculous communications from students. All I ever get is plagiarism and complete incoherence.

    • SEK

      It’s the number of students that I teach that leads to this: when I taught one or two classes, this never happened. Now that I’m all that stands between Literacy and The Hoards, more of this crops up. As for the actual assignment, well, that’s easy, as it looks something like this:

      Write an informative, thesis-driven essay that analyzes an aspect of rhetoric in a text covered by your class this quarter. The essay should be written for an academic audience that is interested in your text and your class theme. This essay may also be written as a comparative rhetorical analysis of two texts (covered by your class).

      Multiple drafts, peer review and revision are required elements of the assignment; failure to complete parts of the process will result in a lower final grade. The final essay must be 6-7 pages long and be presented in MLA format.

      Mine’s heavily tweaked to emphasize the visual, but you probably knew that.

      • rea

        I’m all that stands between Literacy and The Hoards

        Brave SEK, boldly preventing the masses from becoming literate!

        • SEK

          If they’re gonna write like that? I’m your man.

          • We are not barriers; we are rope bridges across the chasm of education, which our students may cross if they choose. And if they cling to our handrails and step carefully, they can emerge literate and thoughtful; if they choose not to cross, they remain ignorant; if they attempt to cross without caution or care, they may plunge into the depths and be lost in the darkness of half-digested ideas forever.

            • Hogan

              And never learn the difference between a hoard and a horde.

              • SEK

                Everybody’s got those words. For me, it’s “inherent” and, well, more often than not all the other ones, but only if they’re important.

              • And never learn the difference between a hoard and a horde.

                Since both can be Golden, this difference is an “irrelevant historical detail.”

                • calling all toasters

                  Then you’ve never been properly whored.

                • rea

                  Or nice and frosty–hoared

              • Njorl

                The difference is small enough. Just don’t mix it up with “whored”.

                • Njorl


                  Someone beat me to it by a mere 10 hours.

            • scholasticamama

              Ahistoricity – can I quote you? I want to put this on my next syllabus…

      • Laura

        Erm, you mean “the hordes.” The hoards are that which is hoarded.

        • Laura

          Oh, forget it. Always late to the party, me.

  • Entirely too many of these sentences contain both subjects and verbs for me to find your summary plausible.

    • SEK

      It might just be that I’m so anal retentive I can’t stand unintentional grammatical or syntactical errors wherever I see them. Put differently: he certainly didn’t include the bracket material in the Montaigne quote, but I’m constitutionally incapable of doing otherwise.

    • Morbo

      The sophistication of online essay generator scripts is becoming frightening.

  • Dave

    One assumes an automatic F, for the personal abuse of the supervising member of staff, possibly followed by a disciplinary referral.

    On the other hand, someone may just be being played…

    • elm

      I’m going out on a limb and say we’re the ones being played, i.e. I don’t think this is what the student really wrote but an artful interpretation of the student’s paper written by SEK himself.

      • SEK

        Michelangelo claimed David was there in the marble, and I’m no Michelangelo. Just like last time, I’m more than happy to admit that the

        letter is written in the style of the student’s complaint, but I had a little fun with it. The student may find some of the phrasing familiar, but I freely admit to doctoring the original email. Granted, I parroted the style and diction as best I could.

        The material about taking it up with Montaigne is all in the original, as is his problem with both my hamburger-as-paragraph-structure and essay-as-a-courtship models of writing. (So to is the stuff about Foucault. Fallen we may be, but we’re still Irvine, damn it.)

        • elm

          And I’ll continue to maintain that when you write these, you should make that clear in the post and not when you get called on it later.

          • SEK

            I’m not getting called on anything. Anyone who knows about academia knows I’m not going to post a student email verbatim … and anyone who knows anything about me knows I’m going to tweak its liveliest bits because otherwise what’s the point? If the student were mentally ill, that’d be a different matter entirely — I’m poking fun at the incoherent posturing of an eighteen-year-old from Orange County who thinks he’s the next Montaigne because he talks about himself like he’s in a confessional booth on a reality TV show.

            • Anderson

              Okay, but now it’s not all that funny any more, just like those “students say the darnedest things” lines aren’t funny when it turns out a professor wrote them.

              • JohnR

                Now, now. Remember, no story is so good that it cannot be embettered, and yet all credit should properly be engivened to the original (if for no other reason than to avoid being tarred by the same roofing broom). Cut the man some slack; he’s just polished up the rough edges of the student’s initial assay into essayance, and czeched the spelling and such-like. You could hardly say he slaved over the project. As for the funny level, well, humor is such a subjective thing. Not to mention that if this was originally an entirely original effort on the student’s part, it’s something of a frightened rare bird in itself. You ought to cut it and him (and even them) some extra slack in the sleeve even if you feel the upper arm isn’t what it was.

              • SEK

                Here at the Home of All Internet Traditions, surely we know the value of the Shorter.

  • Blue Neponset

    Wow, if you had John Lithgow perform that monologue it would be epic.

  • tucker

    Reminds of a gentleman in my freshman humanities class who liked to go on and on about nothing. He was used to thinking of himself as the smartest guy in the room (small town intellectual or he hung around with a lot of dumb people). One day a fellow student from NY told him his point “moot” which was true. I had to stop myself from laughing and it looked liked he was going to cry. It was welcome to a bigger world. I think he transferred.

    • mark f

      Pff. Try community college. Seems like every class has a (different) kid in a swashbuckling Indiana Jones fedora who regularly needs to remind the professor that Western Civ I or English Lit or Intro to Statistics isn’t half as interesting as the Norse gods.

      • Thor

        who regularly needs to remind the professor that Western Civ I or English Lit or Intro to Statistics isn’t half as interesting as the Norse gods


      • Njorl

        Make him read the Poetic Edda.

  • scythia

    I hope you gave him an A, Scott, because he took your assignment and knocked it out of the park.

    • SEK

      If only it hadn’t been two-and-a-half months late, complete off-topic, and highly critical both of the class and the instructor in ways that can only be described as mean-spirited … maybe if it’d be Nabakov or someone pulling a fast one of me. This kid? I don’t think so.

      • Ian

        I see the mean-spiritedness, of course, and the unwillingness to respond to the actual prompt. But I guess I’m a little confused about the fun that we’re supposed to be having with it. If this is what the student wrote, then s/he is clearly a talented writer and reader. The imitation of Montaigne isn’t note-perfect but it’s not terrible either, and that demonstrates a grasp of style as a concept that’s beyond what most undergrads I encounter can manage. But perhaps these are the aspects you added, for reasons that aren’t clear to me.

        • SEK

          If this is what the student wrote, then s/he is clearly a talented writer and reader.

          First, it’s only clear that this student’s read one book in high school and an assigned text for my course … not including the comic books and television shows that are required to pass a course on visual rhetoric. So, there’s the snobbery. Then, there’s the fact that this is the student who needs to be mocked, who might otherwise skate through life on a handsome face and a handful of half-heard allusions to some books he heard some people reading a few decades back. I’m not being unnecessarily harsh on the kid — as before, I asked permission before publishing — but there’s a reason I published my own pablum online when I started blogging, and it wasn’t so people would be impressed by me. Sometimes we need to be knocked on our ass before we realize just how much of one we’ve been.

          • SEK

            Plus, rich white entitlement so naked and raw? That’s top-shelf humor, it is.

      • scythia

        Ah, reading this and one of your comments above I see I’m mistaken….6 to 7 pages, on time, and cited this is not. I had assumed you had assigned a five-paragraph essay on generic rhetorical analysis, and this kid had turned it around and used it to critique both the format itself and your class. In which case it would have been fairly brilliant — he would have been using the content of the essay to subvert its form and structure.

        Also….sure, it’s mean-spirited and arrogant and privileged. But thinking back to when I was 19, I was mean-spirited and arrogant and privileged as well. Writers have to find their voice, y’know? Even when they’re still teenaged douchebags. And given that this kid obviously has talent w/ words….as a teacher, that’s what you’re trying to bring out and develop, right?

        It’s easy for me to say this outside the ivory tower b/c I don’t have to suffer these kids on the daily, but just like a parent w/ a rebellious 5-year-old or a bartender w/ a line of leery drunks, you can’t take their bullshit too personally. You’re an authority figure, they’ve spent the last 7 years rebelling against authority as a way to develop their personality. I think it’s better to roll w/ the punches and work w/ what their giving, especially when they’re actually bringing something to the table.

        Again, since this so far outside what you assigned, none of this applies necessarily, but food for thought in the general. YMMV.

        • SEK

          Writers have to find their voice, y’know?

          The problem is when you’re asked to write a sonnet and you turn in a 4,000 line-long free-verse epic. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the latter, it’s just that you were assigned to produce the former. Students have strangely strong commitments to what they think of as their “muse” or “art,” and believe that following a prompt necessitates violating some core belief … as opposed to thinking of it like Shakespeare thought his sonnets, the necessary part of a poetic apprenticeship.

          • Yes.

            You are hitting on exactly what I needed to learn as a non-trad student: closely following the assignment so as to better engage with the course material.

            This was extremely hard for me when there was an assigned topic that was laughable. Writing an eighteen page term paper on how Sarah Palin could win the 2012 election and whether or not the Tea Party would then become an actual third party is brutal if you follow politics as closely as anyone who comments here. Being forced to do it required me to ignore any thoughts of inspiration and to lean harder on the assigned readings.

            I think there is a switch that gets flipped. The student stops thinking of the assignment as a series of hoops to jump through and instead sees it as a series of targets to take aim at.

  • John Emerson

    You are the Mil Millington of the professoriat. I don’t believe a word of it.

    • SEK

      John, as someone who’s been present for some of the shit that’s happened to me, you’re not allowed to make comments like that. It’s against the Internet Law that I just made up.

  • Hogan

    I’ve had worse hamburgers. I have not, however, had a worse relationship. I give it a C-, the minus because I can’t dance to it. Or even twirl by half, whatever the hell that is.

    • SEK

      I believe that was his play on Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” actually. The references to my class are thick on the ground.

  • LKS

    I always wanted to be able to write like a hamburger. Can I take your class?

    • rea

      On the other hand, my attempt at cooking hamburgers for the grandkids this weekend was indignantly rejected as too wordy. The fries were okay, though.

      • Furious Jorge

        I heard they were also too prolix.

  • LKS

    Also, too, it seems your principal defect is in failing to be a dead French philosopher.

  • tedra

    God I hate those students the most, I think. Give me a student who can’t write a coherent sentence over a pretentious oh-I-am-such-a-genius wanker any day.

  • tedra

    News to student: YOU ARE NOT MONTAIGNE.

    • Hogan

      You may, however, be Bernard Henri-Levy. See your doctor immediately.

    • Ian

      True, but s/he’s clearly read Montaigne and (more interestingly) heard Montaigne. Montaigne’s essays are likewise full of abrupt observations, sudden changes in focus, an intense self-regard (albeit often in a more critical vein than this), and even this kind of self-reflexive commentary on what the essay is doing. It’s not a terrible parody. (I remain a little unclear, though, on whether the parody is SEK’s or the student’s.)

      • SEK

        I admit that I made the Montaigne a bit more palatable to those who’ve actually read Montaigne, but I’m in no way taking away from what the student attempted. He threw the party, I’m just the kid brother making sure his parents knew who was responsible for wrecking what.

  • Moons are wonderful, albeit limited, objects who cannot escape the gravitational conventions of the Earth without an intervention by the likes of myself or Montaigne.

    I would like to meet this mysterious man from Krypton.

  • c u n d gulag

    I would never pass your class.

    I always treat paragraphs like souffle’s.

    I try to keep them light and fluffy (and often fail). I have to break some eggs to provide some yolks, then beat some words around, and finally bake my grammar correctly, depending on whether that paragraph is the main dish, or is to be sweetened as a dessert.

    • Bill Murray

      see I do treat my paragraphs like hamburger. I take the less choice cuts and grind them all together into fatty pabulum. Eventually, with enough heat, they can be rendered into a concoction that, with the right condiments, can provide sustenance for these not worried about future health problems.

      • c u n d gulag

        In truth, if you read me, my paragraphs in comment’s sections are more like hot dogs.

        Leftover shit no one else wants, ground together, spiced up, shoved into the internet tubes, and then cooked and criticized by other commenters like you. :-)

        • JohnR

          mmm, hotdogs…. [argleargleargleargle]

        • Njorl

          Well, I’ve been reading your comments for about a year or two, and I finally figured out your name. So I consider your paragraphs some sort of Stroganoff.

          My own are Swedish meatballs – seperate ideas connected by the flimsiest of noodles. Whether there is lingonberry sauce depends on the day I’m having.

          I think it is safe to assume that, if not hamburger, all writing is some sort of processed meat product.

  • Epicurus

    I think your student really, really needs to take a gander at “The Elements of Style,” because he/she has broken just about every rule in that book. Overuse of complex adjectives? Check. Mistaking the requirements of the essay in favor of one’s own prejudices? Check. Overly-inflated sense of self-worth and intellectual powers? How unusual for an 18-year old to think they are the smartest person ever born…as always, I fall back on the literary lions of yesteryear. “When I was 18, I considered my father to be completely ignorant. By the time I turned 21, I was shocked to see how much HE had learned in three short years!” I will attribute it to Clemens (no, NOT Roger!) until proven otherwise. P.S. Hope you failed this little twerp.

    • dave

      You just said the nicest thing anyone here has said about the essay.

      See http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

      • Anderson

        That was such a dumbass, contrarian Chronicle essay, I was surprised it wasn’t in Slate.

        Good writers may not need Strunk & White, but I would think most of us who’ve taught English comp see the value in the book.

  • Corey

    Posting stuff like this seems like awfully bad taste, particularly given the power differential between student and professor. I mean, yeah, stop the presses, undergraduates are prone to flowery prose.

    • SEK

      Especially when I have the student’s permission, and he seems to be enjoying the attention — and, heaven forefend! — seems to be learning the desired lesson from it. Sometimes pomposity needs to be deflated, and sometimes the pompous are complicit in their deflation. More power to them, I say.

  • Mike Schilling

    Silliness does work. When I was in high school, my pre-calculus class were guinea pigs for an early version of this, and it was a huge help towards understanding limits (which, to me, is the hardest idea in calculus.)

    • Hogan

      Whoa. Is that book still available?

      • mark f

        Amazon has copies prices between $9.62 and $94.

        • Warren Terra

          I never bother looking for used books on Amazon; the prices usually suck.

          Abebooks, which has owned by Amazon for years but for some reason has never been integrated into Amazon’s listings, has the 1977 edition (Calculus is 400 years old, right?) from $4.36 shipped. Unusually, there’s only the single copy cheaper than those listed at Amazon.

  • Clever essay, well written, obviously a student who’s well above average. But – and I’m just guessing here – the student is missing the real problem. I say I’m just guessing, but it’s an educated guess, because I’ve been a professor trying to teach writing before.

    Here’s the guess. There are at least 25 students in the room. And 20 of them have writing skills that are no better than high school sophomore level. The professor KNOWS he’s doing some juvenile bullshit, but he can’t teach to the one person in class who’s competent and leave the rest behind. If he does, he’ll be looking for new career opportunities.

    I sympathize with the student. I empathize with the professor.

    • SEK

      There are at least 25 students in the room. And 20 of them have writing skills that are no better than high school sophomore level. The professor KNOWS he’s doing some juvenile bullshit, but he can’t teach to the one person in class who’s competent and leave the rest behind.

      And I was teaching five courses at the time, meaning I had 126 other students to look after. When I’m stretched that thin, I can’t help but feel I fail them all just a little bit.

    • John

      I suspect that much of the cleverness derives from SEK’s revision of the original email.

    • scythia

      Sam, I agree w/ your last sentence there, but: “the student is missing the real problem”??? The student’s problem is that (in the above scenario) he’s suffering through a class that’s below his level. So naturally, he’s going to be bored and discontent. He’s going to be no more concerned w/ Scott’s workload than you are w/ how often your dentist flosses.

      Not that institutional failings (large class sizes, university-wide pre-reqs, the need for remedial English instruction in 80% of H.S. graduates) are Scott’s fault. But ideally*, at least he’s taking out his frustrations creatively and as part of the coursework rather than just blowing off the class altogether.

      *obviously, per Scott’s comment at the top of the thread, this is not the case with this kid, and people who turn in snotty one-page notes as substitute for three-month old multi-page essays deserve the grades they get.

      • scythia

        he = the student, not Scott. (bad referent)

      • I love your comments: they’re self-refuting, so nobody really has to reply.

  • Ben

    I hate to admit it, but I see a lot of my first efforts at academic-ish writing in there.

    The first few months of my high school’s designated “this is what we’re going to tell sophomores to take to learn how to think and write with at least a little competency” AP class was devoted to essay construction like SEK’s. I don’t think I displayed the ego, but I definitely had the “misunderstanding the roll a metaphor plays in an argument” and “using personal anecdotes as evidence, because of course those are relevant.”

    I guess what I’m saying is give this kid another three years and he’ll be ready for college-level work.

    • Ben

      Look I had a roll with dinner earlier and must have had them on the brain don’t judge me.

  • Biff

    Wait, are these comments mostly some kind of meta-funny that i’m too uneducated to appreciate?

    …the personal abuse of the supervising member of staff, possibly followed by a disciplinary referral.

    uhh, ok… things a manager at a Hardees might say? And then he’s gonna be power-mad dimwit guy, so you’re all like

    …skate through life on a handsome face … rich white entitlement so naked and raw

    So, an unemployed security guard and a 12 yr old boy are reading an essay… ha?
    He’s (handsome) a math/physical sciences kid, right? And he wrote you a story to tell you that he read your material and he still thinks it’s bullshit because there are no answers. He thinks you’re teaching him how humanity solved problems after they gave up on sacrificing chickens, but before they figured out how integrals work.

    News to student: YOU ARE NOT MONTAIGNE.


    Maybe many of these kids are brats, but pretending they’re not making a point isn’t helping anyone. This is a parody. He does not believe you, or the humanities, have anything true or important to say. Refute it, for his sake.

    • JohnR

      are these comments mostly some kind of meta-funny

      Well, you know, humor is a funny thing.
      Anyway, meta-funny, not to put too fine a point on it, is the ideal essence of humor (or at least funny) and as such cannot actually exist in the real world. So, no.

      that i’m too uneducated to appreciate?

      As the great philosopher* said, “He who smelt it, etc.”

      *The Spleen**

      **aka Peewee Herman, partII: The Enflatulating!

  • Halloween Jack


  • I think it is safe to assume that, if not hamburger, all writing is some sort of processed meat product.

    Such as, say, Vienna Sausages?

    • Hogan

      Spam, mostly.

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