Defining Utopias and Dystopias: Where Dreams become Nightmares

Michael Amey


(Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster/Salon)

The divisive election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has sparked renewed interest in dystopian fiction, and books such as Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four have, at least briefly, once more become best sellers.  The popular streaming video site, Hulu, has even released a televised adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Because of this renewed interest, we Spoilers thought it would be valuable to start blogging about dystopian narratives and about how these narratives intersect with current political and social trends.  As part of that project, I’ve decided to make available lectures that I wrote for an online course on dystopian narratives for the University of Maine in Presque Isle.  What follows is an adaptation of what I wrote to introduce students to the dystopian genre.

In this post I’m going to be establishing the theoretical foundations for later posts by providing you with some definitions of our genre, dystopian fiction, and describing how dystopian narratives function, and why they are such a major genre in the 20th century.

Thomas More -portrait by Hans Holbein, the Younger

Before we can properly understand the term “dystopia”, however, we first need to understand its older, antithetical twin, “utopia”.  The English diplomat, scholar and Catholic martyr, Thomas More, invented the word “utopia” as the name for a fictional ideal society.  More’s book, Utopia, published in 1516 in Latin, purports to narrate the experiences of a European traveler in the hitherto unknown country of Utopia.  Utopia is depicted as a well structured society where efficient laws and customs have done away with the problems that More perceives in Europe.  Thomas More appears to have invented the word “utopia” to convey the meaning of two Greek words: eutopos, meaning “a good place”, and outopos, meaning “no place”.  Thus More’s Utopia is a good place that does not exist anywhere.  Since 1516 the word “utopia” has entered common parlance and refers to a perfect society.  The term also has certain negative connotations in that utopias are generally viewed as unachievable.  Thus dreaming of a utopian society may suggest idealism on the part of the dreamer, but may also imply a certain naiveté.

The utopian ideal existed, of course, long before More invented the word.  Plato, for instance, created a blueprint for what he envisioned as a perfect society in his Republic.  Following the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516, utopian schemes and utopian fiction became fairly commonplace in the 16th and 17th century (Thomas 1987, 20-46).  Keith Thomas, in his essay on “The Utopian Impulse in Seventeenth-Century England” provides the following examples of early utopian works:  Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602; published 1623), Johann Valentin Andreae’s Christianopolis (1619), Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1624; published 1627), Gabriel Plattes’s A Description of the famous Kingdome of Macaria (1641); Samuel Gott’s Nova Solyma (1648) and Jame Harrington’s Oceana (1656), to name but a few (Thomas 23-25).

From these various Utopian narratives Keith Thomas has derived the following description of Utopian narratives:

Characteristically, the literary utopia describes an imaginary society which is, at least by implication, better than the one in which the author lives.  This society is portrayed as actually in existence, usually in some remote location.  Its workings are evoked in detail, with special attention to the political structure, the laws and religion, the system of education, the economy and the working habits and living conditions of the population.  The activities of the citizens are regulated in meticulous detail; and the society exists in a timeless state of unchanging equilibrium. (23-24)

We’ll want to keep this definition in mind later when we’re describing the characteristics

John Stuart Mill

of utopian and dystopian narratives in greater detail.  For now, however, lets move on to discuss the term “dystopia”.  John Stuart Mill, the 19th century political philosopher and writer, coined the term “dystopia”.  Essentially, by dystopia Mill meant the exact opposite of utopia, in other words a completely undesirable state or society.  A synonym for dystopia, which you may come across in your secondary reading, is anti-utopia.

Early examples of literature depicting dystopian societies would include parts of Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels published in 1726, some of the science-fiction of H. G. Wells, and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited published in 1872 and 1901 respectively.  Notice that Butler has borrowed from More’s term “Utopia”, meaning no place, and that the name of his society is “No Where” spelled backwards.  In the 20th century, a great deal of science-fiction is in fact also dystopian fiction.

But lets return to our definitions:  utopia is an ideal society or state, and dystopia is an undesirable society or state.  How are these ideal and un-ideal societies represented in literature?  I’m going to begin by delineating some of the characteristics of utopian literature.  My reasons for doing this are simply to provide you with a contrast by which to compare dystopian literature.  So after we’ve examined some of the characteristics of utopian literature we’re going to look at some of the characteristics of dystopian literature.  Hopefully you’ll start to see some patterns emerging.

First, according to Alan Swingewood, “Utopian novels tended towards an uncritical portrayal of a world made perfect for man through science and education”.  In other words, utopian narratives are optimistic that human knowledge is growing, and that problems within societies can be resolved through human means.

Secondly, utopian fiction stresses the collective nature of the perfect society, often with the result that individuality is either suppressed or ignored.

Thirdly, given what I have just said about individuality being ignored, it is no surprise to learn, as Swingewood states, that “utopias have no problematic hero, their structures are not dominated by a deep sense of conflict between individual and society”.  I would take Swingewood’s observation a step further and suggest that while utopian fictions have protagonists, they cannot have “heroes” insofar that heroes implicitly are involved in conflict, and a perfect society cannot have a conflict.

Fourthly, as Swingewood points out, “The question of how these societies evolved to such perfection is never raised.”  Swingewood goes on to state that these fictions ignore the problem of social change.  Perhaps authors of utopian narratives ignore the problem of social change because it is impossible to conceive of the social change, short of a miracle, which would be necessary for creating a utopian society.  Besides, alterations in society inevitably spark off chain reactions.  These chain reactions seem to be antithetical to the static idea of a utopian society.

Fifthly, utopias are frequently didactic in nature.  Although, as I indicated in point number four, utopian literature does not typically discuss how their utopian societies came into existence, now that they are in existence they are vehicles for suggesting ways of improving our own society.  As such these novels implicitly offer implicit, and sometimes explicit, criticism of the societies in which their authors live.  Typically the authors introduce strangers into their fictional societies who, being impressed by the perfect societies they have encountered, but ignorant about how these societies operate, end up with guides who explain everything to them.  For example, in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward:  2000-1887, the protagonist, Julian West, is put into a hypnotic trance in 1887, and is not awakened until the year 2000.  The doctor who awakens Julian in the 21st century serves as his guide to this new order.  As is the case in most Utopian novels, Julian, as the outsider spends a lot of time asking questions, while Doctor Leete, his guide, provides lengthy explanations.  This small passage on economics should illustrate the pedagogic nature of the novel:

“How is this distribution managed?” I asked.

“On the simplest possible plan,” replied Dr. Leete. “A credit corresponding to his share of the annual product of the nation is given to every citizen on the public books at the beginning of each year, and a credit card issued him with which he procures at the public storehouses, found in every community, whatever he desires whenever he desires it. This arrangement, you will see, totally obviates the necessity for business transactions of any sort between individuals and consumers. Perhaps you would like to see what our credit cards are like.

“You observe,” he pursued as I was curiously examining the piece of pasteboard he gave me, “that this card is issued for a certain number of dollars. We have kept the old word, but not the substance. The term, as we use it, answers to no real thing, but merely serves as an algebraical symbol for comparing the values of products with one another. For this purpose they are all priced in dollars and cents, just as in your day. The value of what I procure on this card is checked off by the clerk, who pricks out of these tiers of squares the price of what I order.”

“If you wanted to buy something of your neighbor, could you transfer part of your credit to him as consideration?” I inquired.

“In the first place,” replied Dr. Leete, “our neighbors have nothing to sell us, but in any event our credit would not be transferable, being strictly personal. Before the nation could even think of honoring any such transfer as you speak of, it would be bound to inquire into all the circumstances of the transaction, so as to be able to guarantee its absolute equity. It would have been reason enough, had there been no other, for abolishing money, that its possession was no indication of rightful title to it. In the hands of the man who had stolen it or murdered for it, it was as good as in those which had earned it by industry. People nowadays interchange gifts and favors out of friendship, but buying and selling is considered absolutely inconsistent with the mutual benevolence and disinterestedness which should prevail between citizens and the sense of community of interest which supports our social system. According to our ideas, buying and selling is essentially anti-social in all its tendencies. It is an education in self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization.”

“What if you have to spend more than your card in any one year?” I asked.

“The provision is so ample that we are more likely not to spend it all,” replied Dr. Leete. “But if extraordinary expenses should exhaust it, we can obtain a limited advance on the next year’s credit, though this practice is not encouraged, and a heavy discount is charged to check it. Of course if a man showed himself a reckless spendthrift he would receive his allowance monthly or weekly instead of yearly, or if necessary not be permitted to handle it all.”

“If you don’t spend your allowance, I suppose it accumulates?”

“That is also permitted to a certain extent when a special outlay is anticipated. But unless notice to the contrary is given, it is presumed that the citizen who does not fully expend his credit did not have occasion to do so, and the balance is turned into the general surplus.”

“Such a system does not encourage saving habits on the part of citizens,” I said.

“It is not intended to,” was the reply. “The nation is rich, and does not wish the people to deprive themselves of any good thing. In your day, men were bound to lay up goods and money against coming failure of the means of support and for their children. This necessity made parsimony a virtue. But now it would have no such laudable object, and, having lost its utility, it has ceased to be regarded as a virtue. No man any more has any care for the morrow, either for himself or his children, for the nation guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.”

As the above passage might suggest, one criticism of Utopian fiction is that it can be rather dull and pedantic.

So, a quick review of what I’ve just said.  Utopian literature is 1) optimistic about progress and society, 2) stresses collectivism over individuality, 3) does not have a problematic hero and is not dominated by a sense of conflict between the individual and society, 4) does not explain how the perfect society has come into existence, and 5) is didactic in nature and critical of real society.

Now lets examine the characteristics of dystopian literature.

Firstly, dystopian fiction is extremely critical of society, and in dystopian fiction science, society, and typically the government, all conspire to destroy individuality.  Individuals are typically treated as cogs in a machine.  For example, in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, people no longer have names, and, instead, are identified by an alpha-numeric sequence.  The protagonist, D-503, lives, as do all of the citizens of the One State, in a glass apartment so that he is under constant surveillance.  Similarly, the handmaids in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale have been reduced, to use the protagonist, Offred’s phrase, to “ambulatory wombs.”

Secondly, dystopias are usually narrated from the perspective of a socially marginalized The Handmaid's Tale lipsor disempowered character, who is resisting oppression.  In other words, dissidents, like Winston Smith from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and disenfranchised members of society, like Offred from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, describe the society to the reader.

Thirdly, a major element then of the narrative is the conflict between the individual and society.  Clearly, dystopian fiction frequently does have problematic heroes.

Fourthly, dystopian fictions warn about the excesses of social power.  They are also explicitly critical of society and humanity.

Fifthly, strangely enough, while dystopian fiction is critical of society and humanity, it can be argued that dystopian fiction is also optimistic about humanity.  Dystopian narratives are meant as warnings, so implicitly their creators must believe that their dystopian visions are preventable.  Society has not yet crossed the point of no return.

So again, in summary, dystopian fiction:  1) is extremely critical of society and pessimistic about society, government, technology and science, 2)  is, as M. Keith Booker points out, usually narrated through the voice of an alienated individual, who is struggling to assert his or her individuality against the oppressive power of a dehumanizing social system, 3) focuses on the conflict between the individual and society, 4) is didactic in nature, and warns of the excesses of social power, and 5) is marginally optimistic about the possibility of preventing the dystopian vision.

In short, where utopian fiction is optimistic about society, dystopian fiction is pessimistic.  Where utopian fiction focuses on the possible advantages created for society by science, technology and good governance, dystopian fiction describes the potential dangers of science, technology and governance.  Where utopian fiction concentrates on the collective nature of society, dystopian fiction deals with the alienated individual’s resistance to society and conformity.  Utopian and dystopian fiction do, however, share some common features.  Both are ultimately optimistic in nature given that they are premised on the possibility that society can change.  They are also both didactic in nature, although utopian fiction exhorts the audience on how to build a better society, while dystopian fiction provides a warning about the dangers of society.

A final point needs to be made about depictions of utopian and dystopian societies:  they are by necessity relative.  Not everybody will agree on what constitutes a perfect or imperfect society, and a society that seems utopian to one individual may be dystopian for another.  Historically Nazi Germany exemplifies this point.  On the one hand, Hitler’s regime appealed to many Germans because it created jobs, promoted a sense of national pride, stabilized the economy and provided law and order.  From this perspective it is easy to see why many Germans, following the humiliation caused by the First World War and the suffering caused by the depression, saw Nazism as utopian.  On the other hand, as we all know today, under Nazism, freedom of expression was suppressed, Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and other groups were tortured and exterminated, and Germany was led into a devastating war.  So, from another perspective Nazism was an example of a dystopian system.  One more point needs to be made – no society can achieve an absolute level of perfection or imperfection, nor would we ever be in a position to determine if society had achieved such an absolute level.  Dystopias and utopias thus exist on a continuum, an ever-expanding scale that measures the status of the society being examined against its relative position to other societies.

Having said all this, what is the relationship between dystopian and utopian fiction?  John Griffith’s statement seems to sum it up:  “The writers of the Utopias of earlier days were teaching Man how to build heaven; today they are content to teach him how to survive in hell”.  Griffith’s metaphorical comparison of utopia to heaven and dystopia to hell raises some interesting questions.  Certainly in many respects one could argue that heaven is utopian and hell is dystopian.  For the purposes of these blogs, however, we are going to divide utopias and dystopias into two categories:  supernatural utopias and dystopias, and natural utopias and dystopias.  Supernatural utopias and dystopias would include heaven and hell, and the good and evil lands described by fantasy authors.  Examples of those would include Tolkien’s Undying Lands and Mordor.  The major characteristic of supernatural utopias and dystopias is that they are inexplicable in natural, human terms.  By contrast natural utopias and dystopias, which is what we’ll be discussing, are explicable in human terms.  Because I think that the difference between natural and supernatural utopias and dystopias is important, I’m going to describe those differences in terms of the heaven/hell versus utopia/dystopia dichotomy.

As we’ve already noted, utopias and dystopias are socially produced, while heaven and hell are supernaturally produced.  Because utopian and dystopian societies are products of socially constructed they are also limited in time.  They have a beginning and probably will have an end.  Heaven and hell, by contrast are eternal.  Because utopian and dystopian societies are social constructs, they are also mutable – they can be changed.  Heaven and hell by contrast are unchangeable.  Heaven can never be made less perfect, nor hell be improved.  Finally, living in a utopian or dystopian society is a result of random chance.  One does not choose to live in a utopian or dystopian society, and living in a utopian or dystopian society does not reflect on the morality or immorality of the individual, and is neither a punishment nor a reward.  By contrast, heaven is a reward for good behavior, while hell is the punishment for bad behavior.

Having compared and contrasted utopian fiction and dystopian fiction, and compared and contrasted supernatural and natural utopias and dystopias, I think we can safely start focusing on dystopian literature, keeping in mind that dystopian literature is always in a referential relationship with both utopian literature and reality as we live it.

In the final part of this post, I’m going to examine the rise of dystopian narratives in the 20th century.

In the 20th century utopian fiction has all but disappeared, and has instead been replaced by dystopian fiction.  Indeed, when I first began planning this course I went to a science-fiction bookshop and asked the proprietor what he had in the way of dystopian literature.  He stated that nearly all science-fiction is dystopian.  While he may have been trying to flog as many of his wares as possible onto a naïve academic, his point about science-fiction being dominated by the concept of dystopia has merit.  Not all science-fiction is dystopic according to the more rigid definitions I provided earlier in the lecture, but much of it is responding to the idea of an imperfect society.

This raises an interesting question:  “Why is dystopian literature more common than utopian literature?”  There are undoubtedly many plausible explanations for this phenomenon.  The reasons I’m going to suggest naturally do not include all of these hypotheses, and indeed, my explanations for the sheer quantity of dystopian literature may in fact be wrong.  You will eventually need to evaluate the evidence and come to your own conclusions.  Basically I’m going to divide the catalysts of modern dystopian literature into two groups:  1)  Narrative or Structural Causes and 2) Social / Historical Causes.  By the term “narrative causes” I mean the elements or building blocks of a story that are necessary for it to be successful, particularly for 20th century audiences.  Perhaps the most important ingredient for modern stories is conflict.  Any of you hooked by the Harry Potter series will recognize that each book revolves around a conflict.  Conflict is important not only in driving forward plots and maintaining audience participation; it is also inextricably linked to our sense of history and reality.  We measure history according to when conflicts occurred, whether those conflicts are conflicts between individuals, societies, or nature.  Thus we refer to how many of the Irish left Ireland following the potato famine (a conflict between nature and society), about what happened after Al Gore was “defeated” by George Bush in the 2000 presidential election (a conflict between individuals and political parties), or what happened following September 11th (a conflict between societies, cultures and ideologies).  Imperfection and conflict seem necessary for us to relate to reality.  As Keith Thomas notes about 17th century utopias, “When peace, harmony and perfect knowledge had been secured, history would by implication stop.  No one considered the possibility that if people were freed from pain and worry they would become bored, living a life of indifference or finding some new source of unhappiness” (45).  A more recent dystopia, The Matrix Reloaded illustrates this point by having Neo informed that a perfect Matrix was made for humans but that they didn’t do well in it.

The problem posed by utopian fiction is that in a perfect world, conflicts simply do not arise.  Without conflict the narrative or fictional history quickly grinds to a halt.  Presumably in an absolutely perfect world, even differences in opinion don’t arise.  The early writers of utopian fictions, like Thomas More, resolved this problem by introducing a stranger, a traveler, into these otherwise static societies.  The conflict, or point of tension that produced the narrative and helped it flow was the difference between the stranger’s preconceptions about humanity and society and the “reality” of this newly discovered perfect society.  Such utopian literature, however, is didactic, and to modern audiences comes across as preachy and unrealistic.  In any event modern audience distinctly prefer more overtly conflict driven narratives.  For this reason, Dante’s Inferno remains more popular than his Paradiso and Milton’s Paradise Lost remains more popular than Paradise Regained.

For authors, perfection also seems harder to envision than imperfection.  Again, descriptions of heaven and hell illustrate the point I’m making.  Descriptions of heaven from the Middle Ages on to the present are much scarcer than descriptions of hell.  This seems to be due to the fact that, as Saint Paul stated, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).  These constraints on describing heaven are equally applicable to describing the perfect society.

Dystopian literature is also easier to write because at a basic level the author merely takes the problems she sees in her own society exaggerates them and projects them into a fictitious future.  Since virtually everybody can find fault with their society, identifying problems for dystopian literature is not a problem.  By contrast writers of utopian fiction have to create, out of the fabric of their imagination, an entirely believable perfect society.  Given that their fictitious perfect society implicitly criticizes the society they live in, they are less able to draw on their society for the inspiration of their dystopias.

So in summary, the narrative causes for the supremacy of dystopian fiction over utopian fiction is that:

  • narratives need conflict to propel them
  • perfection is difficult to imagine or describe


The social/historical causes of dystopian literature may be summed up in what I term the crisis of modernity.  Firstly, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen an unprecedented amount of technologically and structurally advanced warfare and violence.  The First World War, the Second World War, the Holocaust, and subsequent wars differed from earlier wars and violence not merely in the quantity of suffering they caused, but in the way that this violence was made more efficient and more impersonal.  The concentration camps of the Holocaust were managed as factories of death, with serious consideration given to the “rate of production” of people killed.  The First World War, the Second World War and the Holocaust in particular shattered the West’s myth of progress.  These conflicts had a great deal of influence on literature and the arts because technology had also made it possible for civilians to intimately observe the wars and violence via newspapers, cinemas and televisions, and thus become familiar with wars and violence in a way that previous generations of non-combatants had not.  The horrors of warfare, and the effect that warfare and violence have on societies has been depicted in Orwell’s 1984 and the film version of Starship Troopers.

Secondly, while war has always been a part of human history, it is only in the twentieth century, with the development of nuclear weapons that humans have posed a serious threat to the continued existence of not only their own species, but of the entire planet.    A number of dystopian fictions like A Canticle for Leibowitz, Planet of the Apes, and The Mad Max series are set in post-nuclear holocausts.

Thirdly, the twentieth century has seen the rise of powerful national governments that have threatened individuality.  These governments are certainly evidenced by fascist and totalitarian regimes, which have transformed the media into an instrument of propaganda and misinformation, and have used other technologies to maintain control over their people.  Even in democratic nations such as the United States and Britain there is a tendency by governments to exert control through the media and other technologies.  These governments can be further dehumanised by the their own bureaucracy, a tendency we find depicted in the Kafka’s dystopian style fiction.  Dystopian narratives that deal with authoritarian governments also frequently reveal a concern with the degree of surveillance exercised by the government.  The danger of a technologically advanced government spying on its citizens is depicted in the novels 1984 and We.  These concerns seem timely given the amount of information that Western governments are able to collect about their citizens by checking computer usage, credit card transactions, satellite images and even CCTV.

Fourthly, humans seem to be having difficulty coping with the rapid pace of technology.  Technologies such as genetic modification, cloning and cyber technology offer great potential for the improvement of society, but also raise unique moral issues and pose a threat to society.  A serious concern is that we are unleashing technology that we cannot entirely control without fully knowing what all the results and ramifications might be.  It may be impossible, for example, for us now to rid the world of genetically modified foods, should they prove dangerous to humans.  We are very like the sorcerer’s apprentice in Fantasia, who has called up spirits to help him clean the house, only to find that he cannot control those spirits.  The Matrix series, The Terminator series, Gattaca and Brave New World are all dystopian fictions based on the premise that technology poses a threat to the individual.

Fifthly, there is an increasing awareness of the hegemony or control of certain social groups at the expense of others.  Our awareness of marginalized groups is to a great degree due to the influence of movements such as the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay and lesbian movement, and Marxism.  The emergence of these movements, and the way they have demanded a re-evaluation of history, combined with post-modern scholarly skepticism about authority, has made it possible for authors of dystopian literature to depict and scrutinize hierarchies, ideologies and authority.  This scepticism of authority and concern for the disempowered is picked up in Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia, The Hand Maid’s Tale, and Fritz Lang’s black and white film classic about the plight of workers, Metropolis.

The different social and historical elements I’ve just listed all contributed to the dominance of dystopian fiction in the 20th century.  The list I have provided, however, is by no means exhaustive, as you will see next week when we begin looking at specific examples of dystopian literature.

Suggested Readings and Movies as well as Works Cited in this Blog



Anderson, M. T., 2002.  Feed.  Candlewick Press.

Atwood, Margaret.  1998.  The Handmaid’s Tale.  Anchor Books.

Barry, Max.  2003.  Jennifer Government.  Doubleday.

Bradbury, Ray.  1995.  Fahrenheit 451.  Ballantine Books.

El Sadaawi, Nawal.  1991.  The Fall of the Imam.  Heinemann.

Foster, E. M.  1970.  “The Machine Stops,” The Eternal Moment and Other Stories.

Harcourt., pp. 3-38.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.  1998.  Herland.  Dover.

Golding, William.  1959.  Lord of the Flies.  Perigee.

Huxley, Aldous.  1989.  Brave New World.  HarperCollins.

King, Stephen.  1982.  The Running Man.  London:  New English Library.

Le Guin, Ursula.  1978.  “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omalas.”  In The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.  London:  Victor Gollancz, pp. 275-284.

________.  1999.  The Dispossessed.  Originally published 1974.  London:  Millenium.

Lewis, Sinclair.  2005.  It Can’t Happen Here.  Signet Classics.

London, Jack.  1981.  The Iron Heel.  Lawrence Hill Books.

More, Thomas.  1965.  Utopia.  trans. Paul Turner.  Viking Press.

Moore, Alan and David Lloyd.  2005.  V for Vendetta.  Vertigo.

Orwell, George.  1981.  1984:  a novel.  New American Library.

________.  1996.  Animal Farm.  Signet Classic

Skinner, B. F.  2005.  Walden Two.  Hackett Publishing.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny.  1987.  We.  Avon Books.



Hobbs, Thomas.  Leviathan.

Huxley, Aldous.  1966.  Brave New World Revisited.  London:  Chatto & Windus.

Machiavelli, Niccolo.  1984.  The Prince.  trans.  George Bull.  Bantam Classics.

Marx, Karl.  2002.  The Communist Manifesto.  Penguin.

Packard, Vance.  1958.  The Hidden Persuaders:  An Introduction to the techniques of mass-persuasion through the unconscious.  London:  Longmans, Green & Co.

Plato.  1955.  The Republic.  trans.  Desmond Lee.  Penguin Classics.

Postman, Neil.  1986.  Amusing Ourselves to DeathPublic Discourse in the Age of Show Business.  London:  Heinemann



Animal Farm.  1952.  Dirs.  Joy  Batchelor and John Halas.

Animal Farm. 1999.  Dir. John Stephenson.

Equilibrium.  2002.  Dir.  Kurt Wimmer.

Fahrenheit 451.  1966.  Dir. François Truffaut.

Gattaca.  1997.  Dir. Andrew Niccol.

The Handmaid’s Tale.  1990.  Dir. Volker Schlöndorff.

Harrison Bergeron.  1995.  Dir.  Bruce Pittman.

Logan’s Run.  1976.  Dir. Michael Anderson.

Lord of the Flies.  1963.  Dir. Peter Brook.

Lord of the Flies.  1990.  Dir. Harry Hook.

The Matrix.  1999.  Dirs. Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski

Metropolis.  1927.  Dir. Fritz Lang.

The Minority Report.  2001.  Dir. Steven Spielberg.

Nineteen Eighty-Four.  1984.  Dir. Michael Radford.

The Running Man.  1987.  Dir.  Thomas Del Ruth.

The Stepford Wives.  1975.  Dir. Bryan Forbes

THX 1138.  1971.  Dir. George Lucas.

V for Vendetta.  2006.  Dir. James McTeigue


Critical Literature

Baker-Smith, Dominic.  1987.  The Escape from the Cave:  Thomas More and the Vision of Utopia.  In Between Dream and nature:  Essays on Utopia and Dystopia.  Ed.  Dominic Baker-Smith & C. C. Barfoot.  Amsterdam:  Editions Rudopi, pp. 5-19.

Beauchamp, Gorman.  1983.  Zamiatin’s We.  In No Place Else:  Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 56-77.

Bergonzi, Bernard.  1987.  Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Literary Imagination.  In Between Dream and nature:  Essays on Utopia and Dystopia.  Ed.  Dominic Baker-Smith & C. C. Barfoot.  Amsterdam:  Editions Rudopi, pp. 211-228.

Bittner, James W.  1983.  Chronosophy, Aesthetics, and Ethics in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:  An Ambiguous Utopia.  In No Place Else:  Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 244-270.

Bucknall, Barbara J.  1981.  Utopia and Dystopia.  In Ursula k. Le Guin.  New York:  Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., pp.  102-128.

Booker, M. Keith.  1994.  The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature.  London:  Greenwood Press.

Firchow, Peter Edgerly.  1984.  The End of Utopia:  A study of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.  Lewisburg:  Bucknell University Press.

Griffiths, John.  1980.  Utopia and Dystopia.  In Three Tomorrows:  American, British and Soviet Science Fiction.  London, MacMillan Press, pp. 98-118.

Matter, William.  1983.  On Brave New World.  In No Place Else:  Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 94-109.

Roemer, Kenneth M.  1983.  Mixing Behaviourism and Utopia:  The Transformations of Walden Two.  In No Place Else:  Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 110-124.

Rudnik-Smalbraak, Marijke.  1987.  Women and Utopia:  Some Reflections and Explorations.  In Between Dream and nature:  Essays on Utopia and Dystopia.  Ed.  Dominic Baker-Smith & C. C. Barfoot.  Amsterdam:  Editions Rudopi, pp. 172-187.

Steinhoff, William.  1983.  Utopia Reconsidered:  Comments on 1984.  In No Place Else:  Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 147-161.

Swingewood, Alan.  1975.  Anti-Utopia and Revolution.  In The Novel and Revolution.  London, MacMillan Press, pp. 142-168.

Thomas, Keith.  1987.  The Utopian Impulse in Seventeenth-Century England.  In Between Dream and nature:  Essays on Utopia and Dystopia.  Ed.  Dominic Baker-Smith & C. C. Barfoot.  Amsterdam:  Editions Rudopi, pp. 20-46.

Woodward, Kathleen.  1983.  On Aggression:  William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  In No Place Else:  Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 199-224.

Zipes, Jack.  1983.  Mass Degradation of Humanity and Massive Contradictions in Bradbury’s Vision of America in Fahrenheit 451.  In No Place Else:  Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, eds. Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Orlander, Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 182-198.




On Writing College Essays: Suggestions for Student Writers from a Traumatized Professor

Michael Amey

I hate grading, and I’m not alone in my aversion. Indeed, while I caution my students against offering up universal “truisms” in their essays, I think I can safely offer up one truism – all of my colleagues in the English department detest grading too.  We resent the mind-numbing task of untangling bad syntax, the desperate search for missing theses and topic sentences, and the endless scrolling up and down the page to check if the jumbled list of sources in the Works Cited page – assuming a Works Cited page exists – bears any relationship at all to the citations in the essay – assuming any citations exist.  We seethe when what we took for a good, or even mediocre, essay turns out to be plagiarized.  After all, the time we spent reading material that our students told us they wrote, but that was in fact written by some nameless hack on the internet, is time we’ll never get back.  We’ve been robbed!  Perhaps the greatest insult of all, however, comes at the end of the semester, when, after hours teaching and grading, our students return to haggle with us, with statements like, “But I worked really hard,” and “I attended all of the classes” and “Could you raise my grade five points so that I can have a B instead off a C?”  This last minute bargaining reveals that these students have misunderstood the entire purpose of attending our classes and of the grades they earn.  To state the obvious – the purpose of attending classes is to learn something and the grades merely indicate how well each student has demonstrated his or her acquisition of what is being taught. So, the entire process of grading is, for many teachers, traumatizing, demoralizing, and exhausting.

I’ve shown you the dark side of grading; the reason why your instructors move in a fugue of depression in the last weeks of the semester.  To be clear, though, not all grading is like this.  Sometimes, rarely, we receive an essay so polished, so thought provoking, and original that we sit there wishing that we had written it.  Often we share our delight over these essays, just as we commiserate over the poorly written ones.  The problem, though, is that by the time we’ve read over a hundred research essays that include phrases like “Since the dawn of time…” and “Webster’s Dictionary defines racism as…” we may be too burnt out to appreciate fully the gift of brilliant writing that a handful of students have given us.

So, here is the thing – I can either accept the status quo and acknowledge that my students and I are going to remain frustrated with each other and with the essays that they have to write and that I have to grade, or I can attempt to help as many students as are willing to work (seriously work) with me become the kind of writer that I strive to be.  That is, of course, the entire reason why I teach, but sometimes that fact gets lost in the fatigue of the semester.  So with that in mind, I’m going to do my best to set out here a very basic, and, by necessity, incomplete summary of what you need to know about essays and how I grade them.  My hope is that this summary will provide you with a starting point for better writing in my classes, and perhaps other people’s classes.  With that in mind, I have broken this down into categories so that you can easily return to the points most relevant to you.


To parody Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that grades are a quintessential part of an education.  Actually, what I just wrote isn’t true – author Alfie Kohn has written at length about how grading is actually detrimental to the whole process of education.  I happen to agree with much of what he says, and would love to find another way to provide feedback to my students on their progress, but the college I teach at insists that at the end of each semester I enter a letter grade indicating my assessment of the work completed by each of my students.  If I must grade, and apparently I must, then I need to be as ethical as possible in my grading, and you, as the recipients of those grades have the right to know what I’m grading and what I am NOT grading.

Let’s begin with two of the nots:

I’m not grading you as a person.  How I feel about you does not determine the grade you receive from me.  Students have, at various times, suggested that only students I like get good grades.  It’s true that I like many of the students who earn As in my classes, but my detractors have reversed the order of things.  I don’t typically have any opinion about my students when I first meet them.  Over time, though, some students invest themselves in the hard work of learning, while others do not.  The students who work hard, who see me after class to talk about ideas, and who come brimming with their own ideas are more likely to earn good grades, and, because I enjoy working with  these students, frequently, by the end of the semester, I like them.  They earned their As, and because they earned their As I like them.  After all, they’ve demonstrated an interest in the things that interest me.  That said, I  have had students whom I have liked very much who have earned low grades, and I have had students of whom I have not been particularly fond earn high grades.

I’m not grading your effort. Effort is something I cannot see, so I can’t evaluate it.  You may be putting in twice as much time writing your essays as another classmate, and you may still earn a lower grade.  The other student may have an advantage over you in that he or she speaks English as a first language, has attended an excellent school, or has spent, from an early age, a great deal of time reading and writing, thus gaining the skills that are most valuable in my classroom.  Perhaps unlike you, he or she may also not be burdened with a fulltime job or a family.  It’s also possible that you might have things going on in your life that make school, at this particular moment, more difficult.  I can sympathize with all of the reasons why you may be hustling more and may not be achieving the same results as your more privileged classmate, but I’m not in a position to evaluate how hard you are trying.

So, what am I grading?

I’m grading the work you produced.  This is the only thing I can assess with any competency.  I can evaluate the formatting of your essay, the structure of your sentences and paragraphs, the validity of your arguments, the reliability of your sources, the cohesion of your paragraphs, the accuracy and precision of your diction; nothing outside of this domain of your writing is accessible to me.

When I grade I choose, for the most part, to look at each essay holistically, which is why I avoid, with rare exceptions, rubrics.  I have used rubrics as a high school teacher to encourage students to think about the individual components that go into the making of an essay, but the problem I have with using rubrics at a college level is that rubrics don’t accurately reflect the unity of the essays being graded.  How, for example, can I separate grammar and syntax from the content of the essay?  Is an essay that has flawless grammar and syntax but is devoid of meaningful content better or worse than an essay that is incomprehensible but that may contain a unique position?  Rather than parse these differnces, I respond to each essay as a cohesive, unified work, where formatting, grammar, syntax, evidence, transitions, and the introduction and thesis statement are intertwined.


A – As are earned by essays that are exceptionally well written.  In other words, it’s not enough for an essay to have few or no grammatical, syntactical or formatting errors.  It’s also not enough for it be carefully researched with all of the research appropriately documented.  All of these things certainly belong in an A essay, but, in addition, an A essay must be original in what it says and how it says it.  A essays are focused, nuanced and thought provoking, and convey complex ideas clearly and succinctly.

As are, by definition, rare, but that doesn’t mean you should abandon hope of earning one!  I don’t grade on a curve, or have a specific number of As (or Fs) that I award.  In theory it is possible for an entire class to be awarded As, and, in fact, in some of my upper-level literature classes a majority of the students do earn As.  I should point out here that that is more likely in upper-level courses because: 1) students in those courses have elected to take those courses and are often already gifted readers and writers, and 2) students in those courses have had to rise up through more basic English courses, and thus have developed the skills necessary for doing well.

B – Bs are awarded to essays that have few or no grammatical, syntactical or formatting errors, that are well organized and convey complex ideas clearly and succinctly, and that are carefully researched with all of the research appropriately documented.  When I’m reading a B essay I can focus on the ideas contained in the essay without having to spend much, if any, time struggling with the language employed by the writer.  What differentiates a B from an A is most frequently the issue of originality.

C – C essays are deficient either in the ideas being conveyed, or in their mechanics, structure or formatting.  I often have to pause in the midst of reading a C essay to make comments on incorrect grammar, awkwardly worded sentences, incorrect word usage, misspelled words or incorrectly or inadequately cited sources. This constant disruption means that I cannot focus on the ideas that the writer is trying to convey.  Additionally, C essays often lack a clear focus or purpose, and the ideas expressed may not be particularly insightful or original.

D – D essays have even more pronounced problems than C essays and frequently do not match the requirements of the assignment.  For example, analytical literary essays that do not quote from the primary text (the play, the novel, etcetera) being discussed automatically earn Ds. Similarly, a student who writes only three pages out of a four-page assignment is likely to earn a D.  D essays are also frequently so vague in their focus as to be virtually meaningless.  For example, I have had students write five-page essays entitled “Technology”.  These students frequently waffle on about how technology has “infinitely” improved our lives.  The problem with such an essay, of course, is the scope of the topic.  Technology can include, to name a few things, automated cars, medical technology, electronic security systems, gaming consoles, government surveillance systems, smart homes, smart phones, fitbits, genetic modification, the atomic bomb and the internet.  What could any student possibly say in five pages about this topic that would be meaningful?

F – Fs occur when the submitted work is so poorly written that it either does not meet the requirements of the assignment at all or is nearly indecipherable.


I’ve already stated that what I’m grading is the work you have produced.  Both the language and the ideas must be yours in order for it to merit a grade. I consider any attempt to pass off the work of somebody else as your own to be a form of theft.  Students who plagiarize are obviously robbing the person who originally thought up and wrote down the material being plagiarized, but, beyond that, they are stealing my time, and because the time I spent looking at what they submitted takes away from the time I might have spent looking at other students’ writing, they are also robbing their classmates.  Perhaps most importantly, though, they are stealing from themselves.  After all, they have paid to learn how to become academic writers and that investment is squandered when they don’t take the opportunity to practice writing.  With that in mind, whenever I detect plagiarism, I award zero points to that essay and I don’t allow the writer to make up those points.  If a student plagiarizes a second time, that student has demonstrated that he or she has no interest learning how to write and so I have no choice but to give that student an F for the semester.

I want to make clear that any plagiarism, no matter how limited it might be, will result in an F.  The following examples from actual essays should demonstrate the different types of plagiarism that occur.

This example comes from a student whom I like very much, and whose essay, for the most part, was not plagiarized.

Student’s essay:

The homoerotic undertones of Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship and interactions can be easily analyzed when examining the dedication and declarations of love by Antonio, because he does not have a heterosexual romantic relationship to counteract against his love for Bassanio.

This website includes this passage:

The homoerotic undertone of Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship is easily discussed by analyzing the dedication and declarations of love by Antonio because he does not have a heterosexual romantic relationship to counteract against his love for Bassanio.

Notice that this student did make changes to the material being used.  Those superficial changes, however, did not make this a paraphrase or summary of the original material, and even had the student radically altered the language, the student would have still been guilty of plagiarizing because the ideas being expressed belong to the writer of the webpage.

These examples come from another student’s essay.

Student’s essay:

“According an online study by psychology today on Science and technology ‘most people with prolonged isolation can result in sensory deprivation and mental illness, high blood pressure and venerability to infection.'”

At first glance this may not appear to be plagiarism.  After all, the student has put the borrowed material in quotation marks and has acknowledged that the material comes from an online study.  The student, however, has failed to cite the source of the study.  No author or title is provided and nothing is listed in the Works Cited page, so this is plagiarism.

Student’s essay:

Throughout the story isolation because of technology, leads to little human interaction and an over reliance on machines.

This website includes this passage:

Throughout the story isolation because of technology leads little human interaction and an over reliance on machines.

In this case the plagiarism of this sentence is verbatim.  The student hadn’t copied material verbatim from the website throughout the essay, but this small, single infraction was sufficient to warrant the student receiving zero points for the essay.

You shall not paste

Although most plagiarism involves students copying and pasting chunks of writing from the internet, there have also been cases of plagiarism where students get somebody to write their essays for them.  Obviously these cases are more difficult to prove, but my policy is that if a student cannot demonstrate his or her ability to write at the level indicated by the essay he or she has submitted, then the essay is plagiarized.  Furthermore, if a student is unfamiliar with the argument presented in the essay he or she submitted, or if the student is unable to define words that he or she allegedly wrote, then the essay  is plagiarized.  Two real examples will illustrate this point.  One of my students wrote an essay mentioning the Tequila Party.  I had never heard of the Tequila Party.  It turns out, neither had the student who had “written” the essay.  That student received an F for the essay and failed the course.  Another student submitted an essay on abortion.  The quality of writing in the essay seemed substantially better than the quality of writing the student was able to produce in class, which immediately made me suspicious.  When I asked the student about the submitted essay, the student correctly identified the topic of the essay as being abortion.  Unfortunately, the student thought that the essay was making a pro-life argument when, in reality, the essay was making a pro-choice argument.  This case of plagiarism also resulted in the student earning an F for the semester.

I have provided these examples to drive home the point that no plagiarism is permissible, and that what appear to be rather small violations of the academic honesty code will have a huge impact on the grade of the student caught plagiarizing.

What I Look at in an Essay:

I want to give you a broader idea of everything I look at when I’m reading a student’s essay.  I consider the four following areas:

  • Formatting – Formatting includes what identifying information you have in your essay and where you put it, where you place your title, what font and font size you use, where you put your page numbers, how you space lines and indent paragraphs, and how you quote sources and cite them. There are many different ways to format your essay or report depending on which discipline you are writing in. Essays for English are formatted according to MLA (Modern Language Association) rules.  The format of your essay is the first thing your teacher will see, and he or she will immediately form an impression about your essay based on that.

Here are a few quick guidelines for MLA formatting:

  1. Everything needs to be in Times New Roman, 12 point font.
  2. The essay should be double spaced.
  3. In the top right-hand corner of each page should be a page number preceded by the last name of the author, like this: Johnson 5.
  4. The following information needs to be include in the top left-hand corner of the first page:

    Student’s Name

    Professor’s Name (always give your instructor the title of professor, not Mr. Ms. or Dr.)

    The name of the class (i.e. ENG 112, ENG 125, etcetera)

    The date (the date should be formatted like this 10 May 2017)

  5. Underneath the information listed above should be the title of your essay. The title needs to be centered, and needs to have the initial letter of each noun, verb, adjective and adverb capitalized.  The title should NOT be bolded, underlines or, unless there is a quote in the title, in quotation marks.
  6. Titles should have two parts. The first part should be a hook that captures the attention of the reader, and the second part should indicate more directly the focus of the essay.  This is common practice in academic writing.  Consider the following examples from published pieces:

    Just Walk on By:

    A Black Man Ponders His Power to Alter Public Space

    The New Jim Crow:

    Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

    Whipping Girl:

    A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity

  7. The initial line of each paragraph needs to be indented using the tab button.
  8. Quoted material must be in quotation marks, and all material borrowed from other sources must be cited using the MLA in text citation method.
  9. A Works Cited page must be on a new page from the rest of essay and must have sources listed in alphabetic order, either by the name of the author, or, if the author’s name is not available, by the title of the source. Sources need to be left justified and sources that are longer than one line need to be set up with hanging indentation.
  • Mechanics – Mechanics refers to grammar, syntax (aka sentence structure), and punctuation. Having lots of mechanical problems can be really distracting for your instructor, and your ideas might not receive the attention they deserve simply because the instructor is trying to untangle a poorly worded sentence.  Here are a few small rules to keep in mind:
  1. English sentences require a subject and a predicate. The subject consists of a noun phrase and is the object, person, idea, whatever that is being described or is doing somethingThe predicate is the verb phrase that tells you about the subject.  Consider this sentence:

    “The Handmaid’s Tale explores how religion can be manipulated to disenfranchise women.”

    The phrase “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the subject, while “explores how religion can be manipulated to disenfranchise women” is the predicate.

    Here is an example of a student’s sentence where the subject is missing:

    “Around 1981 Nintendo released Donkey Kong featuring a character named the Jumpman. Popularly known as Mario.”

    This is an example of a sentence fragment. This sentence fragment could be fixed by writing, “Today Jumpman is popularly known as Mario.”

    I think it’s worth noting that Spanish speakers are perhaps more likely to leave off the subject in a sentence because in Spanish the subject of a sentence can be left out.  The English phrase, “I went to the hospital,” can be translated into Spanish as, “Fui al hospital.”   The pronoun, “Yo,” has been entirely left off of the sentence.

  2. When a comma is used to join two independent clauses this is called a comma splice. Independent clauses are clauses that can be sentences on their own.  Consider these two independent clauses:

    “Mr. Collins is not in love with Elizabeth Bennet.”

    “He is offering her financial security.”

    Independent clauses can be joined using a comma and a coordinating conjunction or by using a semicolon:

    “Mr. Collins is not in love with Elizabeth Bennet, but he is offering her financial security.”

  3. Apostrophes serve two purposes:  they indicate possessive nouns (“The student’s essay”) or they indicate that something has been removed. (“She’s going to the store.”  “Don’t talk that way to me.”)

Students frequently misuse apostrophes.  One common mistake is demonstrated in this sentence:

“The Moral Majority came to power with President Reagan in the 80’s.”

This sentence should actually be written:

“The Moral Majority came to power with President Reagan in the ‘80s.”

The point here is that the apostrophe should not go between the zero and s, because nothing has been removed from there and the ‘80s is not a possessive noun.  An apostrophe should, however, go before the 8 to indicate that the 19 has been removed.

  • Voice – Voice refers to the vocabulary and sentence structure the writer uses to convey who he or she is and to convey something about the nature of the communication occurring in the writing.  An email to a friend, for example, would be less formal and more “chatty” than a letter to a potential employer.  Academic writing needs to be more formal, but also needs to retain a personal aspect.  The following guidelines will help you develop a scholarly writer’s voice:
  1. Avoid euphemisms (i.e. replace “passed away” with “died”; replace “slept with” with “had sex with” ), slang (i.e. replace “cops” with “law enforcement” or “police officers”; replace “kids” with “children”; replace “cool” with “popular”; replace “guts” with “courage”), abbreviations (eliminate “i.e.”, “vs.” and “etc.”) and clichés (i.e. remove “through the roof”; “tons of opportunities”; “avoid like the plague”).
  2. Be aware of the denotation (dictionary definition) and connotation (emotional baggage) of the words you use and select words that precisely convey your meaning. Consider, for example, the difference between the phrases “illegal aliens” and “undocumented immigrants”.  Both phrases refer to the same demography, but these phrases have different connotations and suggest the writer’s political position on the issue of immigration.  Here’s another example: “rape victim” versus “rape survivor”.  The first term suggests that the person who was raped has no agency and is passive – the recipient of an act; the second term suggests that the person does have agency and has acted by surviving.
  3. Avoid entirely the second person pronoun (you). This pronoun makes your essay sound too chatty or too preachy.  You will have noticed that I’m using “you” throughout this post, but that’s intentional – this post is meant to be instructional for you the reader and, thus, directly addresses you.
  4. Limit usage of the first person pronoun (I). You should avoid phrases like “I personally believe…” or, even worse, “Me, personally, I believe…”. There are several problems with these phrases.  First, the word “personally” is redundant.  If you wrote “I” we assume that it is personal statement.  Secondly, the reader assumes that you believe everything you’ve written in your essay.  You wrote it, so you must think it’s true.  You don’t need to say you believe it.  There are a few times when I do condone the use of I in academic writing.  These occasions would include:
    • recounting a personal anecdote that exemplifies a point you are trying to make or that establishes your personal expertise in the field being discussed (i.e. “As a trans woman serving in the U.S. army I have faced a significant amount of hostility from fellow soldiers and, more alarmingly, from my superiors.”)
    • disagreeing with common wisdom or with an expert in the area being discussed (i.e. “Howard Bloom and other literary critics have argued that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is clearly anti-Semitic, but I am going to contend that while characters within the play do express anti-Semitic opinions, Shakespeare makes Shylock a fully human and fully sympathetic character.”)
  5. Be brief and succinct. Students occasionally think that the best way to impress their instructors is by writing long sentences or by using unnecessarily complicated language.  Your goal, though, is to express your ideas as quickly and as clearly as possible.  Sometimes, in order to accurately and comprehensively conveying your meaning, you may have to resort to longer sentences and technical terms like liminal, discourse, epistemology and hegemony.  That’s fine.  Just make sure your sentences make sense and that you know what those terms mean before you use them.
  • Content – Content refers to the ideas expressed by the writer. The type of content you include depends on what you are writing.  Lab reports for science courses, for example, will consist of your observations and, possibly, hypotheses and conclusions.  History instructors may ask you to write a critical book review of a secondary text.  In a critical book review the writer briefly describes the book in question and then offers his or her opinion of the book.  English professors may ask for a range of different types of essays, like descriptive essays, persuasive essays and “This I Believe” essays.  Most of the essays I assign, however, are going either to be analytic essays or research essays.

Analytic essays are more difficult to write than critical book reviews, but they are also a better indicator of the writer’s ability to reason and make arguments, and they are more interesting to read.  If you were writing an analysis of Pride and Prejudice you would need to identify a key idea that you wanted to explore in the novel.  You would make an argument about that idea, and you would find evidence (passages from the book) to support your thesis.  For example, you could argue something like this:  In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen subverts Regency era social conventions by having Elizabeth Bennet marry above her social status.  Your job now would be to retrace your way through the novel looking for passages that support this contention.

Research essays require writers to investigate a topic and then make an argument concerning that topic.  Notice that it is not enough to simply conduct research and report what you’ve discovered.  You need to balance the information you have uncovered through your research with the meaning or interpretation that you then give to that information.  Information is the data that you derive from your research.  An essay that is information heavy reads like an encyclopedia entry.  There are plenty of facts, but the facts don’t connect with either the reader or, it would appear, the writer.  The reader leaves the essay shrugging her shoulders saying, “Okay, I now know about the breeding habits of the platypus, but who cares?”  Meaning is the interpretation you give information.   Although it happens less frequently, it is possible to have an essay that is meaning heavy.  A meaning heavy essay reads like an opinion editorial.  The writer cherry picks one or two “facts” and uses them to spin off any meaning he or she feels like.  With that in mind, let me give you a couple of examples from historians:

  1. Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire relies on evidence that Gibbon gleaned from primary sources to support the contention that the Christian doctrine of the afterlife undermined the civic duty of Romans.
  2. In The Trial of the Templars, Malcolm Barber looks at primary sources, and what happened in countries where the Templars were not put on trial to suggest that the King of France was motivated, in part, by his desire to acquire the wealth accumulated by the Templars.

Here are some rather obvious topics that you could work with:

  1. The rejection of climate change science by a significant portion of American society is motivated more by economic concerns than by any flaws in the science.
  2. Transphobia, the fear of trans people, stems from an anxiety acceptance of gender fluidity would undermine traditional sex/gender roles.
  3. The distrust that some academics express towards Wikipedia as a source of knowledge has less to do with the accuracy of Wikipedia, and more to do with concerns that, because Wikipedia is free and widely accessible, it will displace them as the gatekeepers of knowledge.
  4. Free trade agreements, although they hurt certain demographics in the short term, are good for the economies of all countries involved in the long term.
  5. Globalization and the power of massive international corporations have undermined the very concept of the nation state.
  6. The continual demand for high stakes standardized testing is driven less by concerns about slipping educational standards in the United States, and more by the lobbying of lawmakers by companies that profit off of these exams.
  7. Providing laptops and tablets to middle school and high school students undermines learning.
  8. Providing laptops and tablets to middle school and high school students ensures that even students from low income families will learn skills that are absolutely necessary to succeeding in our digital economy.

Any of these topics can be researched and then argued about.  There are a nearly infinite number of similarly interesting topics that could form the basis for a successful research topic.  Your job is to find a topic that interests you.

I hope that this overview has clarified what I’m looking for when I grade essays and has given you ideas for how to improve your writing.  Good luck!

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