The Seven Deadly Sins of Essay Writing

In Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, the good doctor makes a deal with devil and is taken on a tour of hell to meet personifications of the seven deadly sins. As he meets each, he exclaims “O, this feeds my soul!”. What could have driven Faustus to such a desperate appreciation of villainy and sin? If you ask me, it was probably his experience as a theology lecturer in Wittenberg, where he constantly came into contact with all of the following “deadly sins” of essay writing. None of us in the department have yet followed Faustus in turning to necromancy and dark magic (I hope!) – make sure it stays that way by steering clear of the following. As well as preserving our sanity, it will also have the added bonus of getting you a high mark. We’re all winners in this one…

1.      No argument: An easy mistake to make – the essay that makes no argument at all, instead trying to repeat as much information as possible: “Augustine was born in 354 in Thasgate, Algeria. His mother was Monica. His father was Patrick. He had black hair. He didn’t like gladiators (not the TV show – I don’t know what he thought about that). He liked gardens.” This is all very interesting, but what does it tell me about Augustine’s theory of the self? Answer: Nothing at all. Therefore make sure you have a clear argument throughout your essay!

2.      No sources used: Also known as the “essay written in a panic when all the books had gone from the library”. This type of essay is usually written in the vain hope that your general knowledge will be enough to get you through the question. For example, while it may be true that Gandhi was played by Ben Kingsley in the film of the same name, is it really relevant to the essay on Gandhian ethics? Start you research well in advance of the due date to avoid this one. If you have problems locating sources, then email me.

3.      No structure: Imagine I’m following a recipe for a delicious pie. However, in my excitement to make the pie for you, I throw out the recipe book and decide to use all the ingredients in whatever order makes sense to me at the time. If I make the filling using flour and butter and try to make pastry out of apples and cinnamon my pie will be a disaster. In the same way, good research needs to be structured in a logical way – it cannot just be thrown together. Make sure your structure fits in with your thesis statement; that the evidence you present links logically with the arguments before and after, and fits into your conclusion.

4.      Plagiarism: This one doesn’t just infuriate your marker – it can get you a zero and in even more trouble down the line. It’s just not worth it. Plagiarism insults both your marker and your classmates who have actually done the work. It isn’t fair… it is shameful.

5.      Wikipedia and friends: When I was an undergraduate the internet was a wonderful place filled with excellent information, a great sense of community and download speeds rivalling that of a snail covered in super glue.  Even back then, though, the very first piece of feedback I received as an undergraduate read: “If you spent less time on strange websites and more in the library you might have made more sense”. This was true in a world in which Wikipedia had yet to be invented; a time when we thought “Broadband” was a nasty way of describing the Rolling Stones in their old age. Now of course, with the advent of superfast downloads, the internet is a dangerous place full of dodgy people and even dodgier information. While Wikipedia is useful for checking general information (i.e. just what are Jedward up to these days?) it is not an academic resource. In fact, taking information from Wikipedia is a bit like trusting information that you’ve just found scrawled across a random wall somewhere. It might be true, but you’ve no way of knowing without checking a proper academic resource.

6.      Not answering the question: Sometimes you won’t like the question that’s been set, or not really understand it. In these cases, it is always a good idea to ask your lecturer for help in interrogating the question, seeing what it is really asking. The way out of your conundrum is NOT to answer the question you would have liked the lecturer to set (i.e. “In this essay I will be discussing Luther’s opinion of the mass by examining his views on the quality of German beer”).

7.      Being late: We’re all late from time to time – but if you’ve had months of notice for an essay then it should be no surprise when the deadline suddenly approaches. Don’t leave it to the last minute and you’ll be fine.

Avoiding these sins will leave in good shape when submitting your final essay. While I know that there seem to be a lot of different elements in essay writing don’t panic about it. We are not looking for the perfect essay (there’s no such thing!). All we are looking for is evidence that you have tried your best and done the work. I look forward to reading what you produce!

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Augustine and the Power of Reading

I like reading. To be honest, I’d probably be in the wrong profession if I didn’t, as texts are a vital part of the work of anybody in the humanities. Books have an amazing power to make us think, to challenge us, to encourage us to change. Books can therefore be profoundly dangerous: their ideas do things, piercing through the papier-mâché screens of our ill thought-out preconceptions and opening our mind to new, potentially revolutionary ideas. It’s no coincidence that in the early modern period the moveable type used to print books was likened to “shot” used in muskets – words, just as easily as bullets, could rip apart a social, political or religious order.

Reading is also essential to Augustine’s conversion in the Confesssions. When Ponticianus visits Augustine and Alypius he was drawn into deep conversation with them on the basis of his discovery of a book. This, the life of the Egyptian monk Antony, recounted the ascetic ideal of a man “held in high honour among your [God’s] servants”. It was this act of reading that filled Ponticianus with “holy love and sobering shame”. The act of reading was not just about absorbing the details of the story, but acted as a kind of mirror for Ponticianus: “…he read and turned over and over in the turbulent hesitations of his heart…then he perceived the choice to be made and took a decision to follow the better course”. As Augustine felt the same feelings that Ponticianus had originally felt he was reminded of another book that had influenced him. This was Cicero’s Horensius, the book that had originally spurred the young Augustine to seek after wisdom. Yet now, some twelve years later, he felt no closer to achieving this aim. The influence of the two books—the philosophy of Cicero and the story of Antony—gnawed at Augustine and led him to an experience of physical and mental anguish: “Uneducated people are rising up and capturing heaven, and we with our high culture without any heart—see where we roll in the mud of flesh and blood”. As he approached the moment of existential crisis that would lead to his salvation Augustine heard his old lusts whispering in his ear: “from this moment this and that are forbidden to you for ever and ever”. The fear of losing the pleasures, which had once brought him such joy, filled Augustine with terror. How could this crisis be resolved?

The answer was found in another book, the same one that had begun Ponticianus’ discourse in the first place: the bound copy of Paul’s epistle to the Romans sitting on the gaming table in Augustine’s villa. Hearing the cry to “pick up and read”, Augustine stopped his tears and ran inside. For he had heard from Ponticianus’ description of the book on Antony that the monk had been converted when he had, by chance, heard a reading from the gospel of Matthew. Perhaps, thought Augustine, the same might happen to him? Grabbing the book, he fell upon Romans 13:13-14: “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts”. This reading at once stilled Augustine’s heart: “with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled”.

What’s so interesting about this conversion experience is the number of different readings that influence Augustine. So Ponticianus was converted through reading, as was Augustine. But books also play a circular role in this narrative: Ponticianus only begins his story when he spots the bound copy of Romans on Augustine’s table. This book therefore inadvertently begins (and directly ends) the conversion narrative. Indeed, Augustine’s entire quest for wisdom was inspired by his encounter with a book:  Cicero’s Horensius. The search that began in Cicero ends in Paul, as the search for knowledge began in philosophy and Manichaeism and ended in Christianity.

Of course, the other thing to remember about books is that they can deceive. As somebody commented to me after the lecture today, Augustine’s self-presentation in the Confessions might well be just that – a presentation, an image that he wants us to accept that does not accord with reality. There are certainly some hints of malicious gossip in the background: Augustine needed to defend his decision not to quit his position of rhetorician immediately on his conversion (he preferred to wait until a vacation period so as not to appear to be making a scene) and was a little over zealous in defending Monica from the accusation that she was overly fond of wine (only a sip, apparently). Nonetheless, the fact remains that whatever image Augustine was trying to project, he was wildly successful. For it is the Augustine of the Confessions that we remember today, a persona who has influenced theologians from John Calvin to Robbie Williams (No, really. See Confessions VIII.vii (17) and Mr. Williams). Whether the image he presented is true or not, Augustine’s own literary efforts serve as a fantastic testament to the enduring power of reading in inspiring, challenging and changing us. Why not read the conversion narrative for yourself in Confessions VIII?

[NB: I’ve linked to a free online version of Confessions here. I would advise you to get the more readable (and more contemporary) version by Henry Chadwick published in the Oxford World Classics series.]

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Gadamer and Prejudice in Interpretation

Is all prejudice bad in interpretation? At first glance we might  think so. As we discussed in the lecture, there is always a danger that we might project our prejudices onto a text. For example, the belief that language is simple and that the meaning of words stays static presents certain problems. This can (as we saw) produce some quite unusual readings of a text: if John Bunyan wants us to “move our bowels” for Christ, then a “literal” interpretation of this will lead us to some questionable religious practices! More seriously, prejudice can have seriously detrimental effects on the way we see the world. The consequences of prejudices against particular races and religions are all too clear both in history and contemporary life.

However, in the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer, the German philosopher explores what he describes as the “the fundamental prejudice against prejudice itself” in the Enlightenment tradition. What if, Gadamer asks, the Enlightenment has actually skewed the meaning of “prejudice”?  What if prejudice can be returned to its Renaissance meaning, “Pre-judgement” rather than simply used as a negative category? How would an awareness (and an acceptance) of our own pre-judgements (our prejudices) influence our attempts to understand a text?

The “historicist” tradition that Gadamer is critical of emerged from the Enlightenment. This imagines that we can somehow approach the text in an entirely neutral way: as a completely blank slate ready to understand the text in all its purity. The text is imagined as a historical artefact that we can understand if only we can lose our pre-conceptions and understand the historical, social and culture background of those who produced the text.

Yet as Gadamer argues, this is not actually a very useful way in which to work. The historicist approach imagines that we have come to a place in which we will have a broad understanding of the circumstances of the original text’s production. In other words, we will be able to criticise the text from above – as the all-seeing historian we can look down from on high and interpret. The problem with this approach, as Gadamer points out, is that we are constrained by our own historical existence. In other words – each of us is writing at a set moment in history. We will be superceded by the next generation, who will no doubt look down their noses at our foolish attempts to understand the past. We always like to think that right *now* is the pinnacle of civilization, but give it fifty years and scholars will be laughing at the research we produce. Similarly, Gadamer argues that while we should be careful not to apply our own fore-meaning to a text, we can’t expect to approach it with some kind of robotic neutrality. “The important thing,” Gadamer writes “is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings”. After all,  our own biases are usually responsible for what we choose to study. It is unlikely that we will be researching a text that we have no interest in. We have chosen to study the texts that we study because we have some form of interest in them (the exception being when I *make* you study them on this course). At a very basic level, our prejudice therefore not only influences the texts that we choose to study, but what we hope to get from them. If I read a book, I expect that what I am reading can be understood. More than that, if I choose to read a book motivated by my own interests, I accept that the book might have something to say to my present situation or contemporary concerns. After all, I’m unlikely to read something that I think is entirely irrelevant (even as a historian!). While recognising that the world of the original text is different from my world, I can nonetheless attempt to bridge the gap between my own limited view of the world (my “horizon”, which I cannot see beyond) and the limited view of the text. I can enter into a dialogue with the text, allowing it to speak to my world and my concerns, while appreciating the world of the text for what it is. As my horizon fuses with that of the text, the prejudices I hold (the meanings I expected that I would find) become clear – I can examine them, question them, find out whether they are valuable or hinder my understanding of what the text is saying.   Of course, this doesn’t mean that we uncritically accept the prejudices we find in the text – it too is susceptible to the insights that I might bring in from within my own horizon. In this way, we can engage in a fruitful conversation with the text that allows us to see, modify (or perhaps even verify) the  prejudgements we have when approaching it.

This is not to say that Gadamer’s approach is the right way to interpret a text, but he gives us one of many methods through which we can approach a text. Why not explore the hermenutics section of your bibliography to find out more?

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Faith and the Magic Bus: Religion on Oxford Road

It was raining again. But Tom knew that before he opened the curtains. It was always raining in Manchester. It was rumoured that there had once been sunshine here. One scholar had even gone so far as to claim that the city had once been warm enough for locals to begin sunbathing in parks. His findings, however, were generally laughed off by his colleagues who pointed to the continuing drizzle and occasional flashes of angry lightening that punctuated the gloom of the place.

Dragging himself out of bed, the kebab and beer fighting inside of him, Tom wondered why anybody would schedule lectures on a Tuesday. This, surely, was not on. He shook his head in disgust, splashed some water onto his face and dashed out into the autumn rain. He’d counted on walking in, but the sleepiness and weather were conspiring against him. Yawning, he stumbled across the road towards the massed ranks of students piling onto the nearest Magic Bus. Nothing about it struck him as magical. There was a damp floor, standing room only and a vaguely concerning odour that he couldn’t quite place. Still – it was dry and fast and anything was better than the rain. The driver was (for once) in a good mood. Tom noticed a strange emblem hanging from the driver’s mirror – some kind of many armed god.  He pushed himself through the melee of people and thought no more of it.

Tom’s mind drifted back to the previous day’s lecture. According to the lecturer, Manchester was a “unique and religiously diverse city”. Tom wasn’t sure of that. There didn’t appear to be anything religious in Fallowfield at all. Besides, the lecturer had a worryingly designed beard. His Dad had always told him not to trust men with beards, although Tom realised that this might need to change now that he was a student, as facial hair was a worrying trend amongst male staff members. Besides, he thought, Santa had a beard and he’d always struck Tom as particularly trustworthy.

Nonetheless, Fallowfield seemed a particularly unpromising place for religion. He glanced out of the left hand side of the bus and caught sight of a small chapel. For a second Tom wondered what it was. Had he been walking, he might have realised something of its history. Built in 1662, the small Unitarian chapel was associated with the estate that once encompassed what is now Platt Fields park. It was not always Unitarian. The very fact that it became such began to cause some controversy – for Unitarians did not accept many standard Christian doctrines such as the Trinity. The change in beliefs upset Thomas Carrill Worsley of Platt Hall so much that he determined to build a new Anglican church to rival the chapel. The new church sat just to Tom’s left hand side as his bus stopped at the junction of Platt Lane. Holy Trinity Platt, built in the mid-nineteenth century, was named after the Trinity to deliberately attack the Unitarians who remained in the chapel. Tom caught a glance of the church’s rare terracotta topped spire as the bus sped into curry mile. The different places of worship had different fates over the past fifty years:  the Unitarian chapel was closed in 1973, while Holy Trinity remains one of the largest evangelical Church of England churches in Manchester. Worsley would probably have been pleased – although he wouldn’t have liked the large and influential Unitarian chapel in Cross Street in the city centre, or the fact that his house was now a costume museum! If Tom had been able to see just opposite the church he would also have spotted the shining new Shah Jalal Mosque and Islamic Centre. Built from an abandoned early twentieth century building, the new construction stood proudly on the street with a green dome resplendent on top. Tom however missed the suggestion of a crescent peaking over the rooftops as the bus attempted to change lanes.

The bus was crawling now. Stuck in traffic and inching towards the neon wonderland that made up the curry mile. This was much like Las Vegas, thought Tom, albeit without gambling and with reasonably priced curry. In fact, he realised, this meant that it wasn’t like Las Vegas at all. The colourful restaurants seemed far removed from the world of religion, but had Tom been on the same street just a few weeks earlier, he would have seen Rusholme transformed as Eid was celebrated. Families dressed in celebratory clothes, restaurants full of people enjoying the atmosphere, young men hooting their horns as they drove through the suburb – Rusholme was always buzzing at Eid. It became the centre of Muslim celebrations and was renowned around the UK as the place to be, particularly for young Muslims. Other locals preferred to avoid the curry mile, meeting up with families for a homemade feast.  Tom didn’t realise any of this. He was too busy worrying about getting to the lecture on time.

The bus finally made it into the University. Stepping off opposite the imposing and (although he was unaware of it) beautifully decorated Church of the Holy Name, Tom almost ran into a table as he legged it towards the lecture theatre. A smiling bearded man viewed him with a half amused, half confused expression. “Any questions?” asked the amused Rabbi. For a moment Tom was tempted to ask him something about religion in Manchester, but dumbly shook his head and resumed his sprint. He quickly thought through the excuses he could give to his lecturer. At the last moment a plan came to mind – perhaps he could convince him that his delay was down to his academic nature. Maybe, just maybe, if he convinced the lecturer that hed been travelling to University thinking of just how diverse Manchester was religiously he could get off without a reprimand. He still couldn’t think of anything though. Was there really such diversity here? Was religion really all around? No, he finally decided, better to take his punishment. If religion was all around him, he certainly saw no evidence of it.

Embarrassed, Tom fell into the lecture theatre and sheepishly took his seat. He tolerated the man’s glare and tried to listen. “If only we kept our eyes open,” the lecturer was saying, “we would see the range of religious beliefs that surround and influence our lives in this city”. “Yeah , right” though Tom sarcastically. All this was too much. Sinking lower in his seat, his eyes gently shut and he allowed sleep to embrace him.

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The R&T Core Course Twitter feed is now live! Any course announcements, blog updates and generally interesting R&T bits and pieces will be on here. Follow us for more info:

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Welcome to the Manchester R&T Core Course Blog.

Welcome to the 2010 Core Course blog – a place to dig a little deeper into the subjects we study in class and discuss any issues raised.

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