Recently, Santa Fe tutor Krishnan Venkatesh sent out some advice to his students on writing St. John’s essays, specifically preceptorial papers, but the advice he gave was relevant to just about any essay written during the course of a St. John’s education. The text of what he sent out was as follows:
Some Thoughts on Writing Preceptorial Papers:
What is a good St. John’s essay? You’ve heard that it is not a research paper, nor an academic article, nor a defense of a thesis; but the College doesn’t officially present new students with examples of fine former essays for them to emulate. The reasons are threefold: 1) No previous essay will ever be as good as the ones you are going to write; 2) Most tutors do not agree; 3) Model essays might stifle originality, and we really do want each student to find his or her own way. I offer the following ten thoughts in the hope that they might be helpful as you start to think out your coming preceptorial essay.
1) Slow Down. Conversations move like the wind; essays are an occasion to dwell on a thought, see where it can go, and view it from all sides. It’s a chance to follow through on a thought that you began thinking in class. It is also both acceptable and respectful to acknowledge in an essay a thought that came from other people in class – for instance, “As was often remarked in class…” or “As Ms. P said in class…”
2) A Good Question. It’s not enough to have a topic. You must have a question and, moreover, be able to articulate why it is a question. That is, what’s at stake in this question? – why should any reader but yourself be interested? A poor essay will pursue a question that happens to be of interest only to the writer or that explicates a passage in such a way that the conclusions of the essay will matter to no one. In a good essay, the question should be so clearly significant that any thoughtful person you meet will be interested in it. Once you are clear about why your question is a question, the possible trajectories of your essay will become a lot clearer. Furthermore, is this the natural question for this book?
3) Doors and Handles: Essays should be doors to something big, but do not write an essay that offers a door without a handle. A good question is like a handle. For instance, “What is virtue in the Meno?” is not a good handle: too big, too vague, too difficult to manage. “What does Socrates mean by tethering or fastening?” is a better handle. Similarly, “What is Fate in the Iliad?” promises to be stupefyingly pointless, whereas “Why does Patroclus have to die?” could be pretty interesting.
4) Finitude. Essays are frightening when they are thought of as endless white expanses waiting to be filled. The trick is to make them finite – for instance, instead of one 15-page paper, think of three 5-page ones, of which each is a stage in the argument.
5) Picking Bones. If you plan on picking a fight with a book, I would recommend to you the following tripartite scheme: a) First get clear what the book is saying, and see why it would be compelling to an intelligent person; b) then articulate your dissatisfaction with it, and argue against a); then c) return to the book, and ask how it would respond to your objection. This way of picking bones with an author helps you to see a question more fully.
6) Detail: Good essays can begin with a specific bit of text – whether a few lines in Homer, a knotty sentence or paragraph from Aristotle. Let the big things emerge from the detail. Rhetorically, it lets your essay emerge from the text, and practically, it gets the interest of the tutor. Essays that map out general philosophical positions on things can be boring for tutors because over the course of decades they have seen all the general positions; but if you show your tutors surprising things in the text, they will usually be appreciative. Essays that work through a few paragraphs of difficult material can also be quite rewarding to read as well as write, for example on Aristotle or Kant (“Book 2, chapter 2, is the most important and most difficult chapter of the X, and contains the fullest account of the concept of Y. In this essay I shall work through this chapter in order to find out the relation of Y to Z…”). This strategy gives a fairly effortless way to structure your essay, since you only need to follow the author.
7) “Give me a Movie that Starts with an Earthquake and Moves to a Climax” (Cecil B. De Mille). See if you can construct your essay in the order of least interesting to most interesting. Many essays start by blurting out the most interesting thought, and spend the rest of the time unraveling the thought.
8) Roughness. One good thing about St. John’s is that we don’t expect you to have everything wrapped up and ribboned at the end of the essay. It’s good to ponder about whether you have answered your own opening question or have simply deepened it. An essay can even end on a question: “This essay has done E and F, but in the end my account of G remains unsatisfactory because…So I am left with this question…”
9) Exploratory. You will often be told that a St. John’s essay isn’t necessarily a thesis stoutly defended, but can be exploratory. This advice can produce some truly teeth grinding efforts. Remember that “exploratory” isn’t “aimless,” and if you consider the distinction you’ll see that sometimes (as in 5 above) espousing a thesis can be a fruitful way to explore if it enables you to see something important more clearly.
10) Squirm Test. The most excruciating test of your own prose is to ask a friend to read your own essay aloud to you. Every “Huh?” or “Aaargh!” will become instantly apparent. This method may be too drastic for the tender-hearted, but it works and is quick.
Needless to say, other tutors may disagree with some of this, and I’m aware there is a lot more to say. Don’t hesitate to try out drafts or ideas on your tutors, and keep asking them to be honest with you if they think your draft is boring, idiotic or mind-numbing in other ways; that is the kind of feedback you can really benefit from.
Thank you for letting me offer unsolicited advice.
– Krishnan Venkatesh