Commentary on Writing an Argumentative Essay for Professor Burke
Laura Wenk

*This paper was written by Laura Wenk, a former Writing Center Consultant, in fulfillment of an assignment for the Writing Center staff development course, Topics in Composition. The commentary provided addresses the writing process that the author went through while completing an argumentative essay for Style and Transition of the Arts, taught by Dr. Ed Burke.

I am continually amazed by our capacity, as human beings, to rise to the level of our expectations. We can rise to a negative expectation - "he's just a pot-head, never contributes anything to society," and thus become a useless, dope-smoking bum - or we can rise to positive expectations - "she's such a bright young woman, always has something thought-provoking to add to the discussion." I find that my classes provide this function for my personal motivation; the more that is expected of me, the more effort I am likely to exert to achieve a better quality product or experience.

For me, the writing center has become more than an avenue through which to channel this motivation. There are a certain professors on campus who have a tendency to bring out the best in their students. Such professors have earned the respect of their students, and to receive a compliment on a paper from one of these individuals is high praise indeed. Perhaps this is why I find myself willing to go to extreme lengths to write an exceptionally well-done paper for my Honors class with Dr. Burke. Rather than just spewing out a paper in the early hours of the morning on the day it is due, I make a very careful point to begin early so I can subject the paper to the revision process well before handing it in.

Entering the writing center, stage left. In this world of coffee and high quirkiness, I know I can find a variety of resources that extend far beyond what you can find on a library shelf. Studying in the not-so-shadowy depths of the couches and debating from behind their computer consoles, consultants of every shape, size, and background gather for the sole purpose of aiding students with their papers. Here I can find someone who is infinitely more knowledgeable than I, or infinitely less so, if that is what I need. And opinions galore! Opinions abound in the writing center, on every topic and to every degree.

So I take in my Burke paper. Actually, I take in a glimmer of an idea that might eventually, at some point, after much cultivation, become something like a Burke paper. The first conference I had with Brandon went nothing as I expected. (One should learn not to expect anything in particular when going into a brainstorming conference.) Our conference began with an animated discussion of one of the more obscure points made in class that day. The assigned paper was an argumentative essay, utilizing different aspects of ancient Greek society to illustrate that culture. I was rather confused as to where to start, so we started by brainstorming a list of major themes for that time period, drawing every possible connection to the literature and architecture we were studying.

It was a messy conference - perhaps one of the most productive I've ever had, but remarkably messy. The central focus of the conference itself was certainly the paper, but our conversation wandered all over the place during the pauses. I frantically scribbled down notes on anything and everything that seemed to have some potential, hoping I could later remember when I meant by "Parth. N/ pub. Fig to god but cong. --- pub image Orestes!!!" I left feeling slightly overwhelmed. All the ideas that had been running rampant through my mind were now running rampant on several sheets of scrap paper. Using those abstract ramblings as a guideline, I was able to map out a framework for my paper. With Brandon's insight, I managed to draw connections in places I would never have thought to go. I was left to decide how I would cope with my conclusions.

Lindsay was the recipient of the conference following the completion of my first working draft. She began with a remark on how she seems to be a magnet for Burke conferences, though she's never had a Burke class. It was precisely for this reason that I wanted her to conference my paper. I feel that an outsider's opinion is invaluable in dealing with my writing; I want to be intelligible to a collegiate audience at large, not just fellow class members.

Lindsay read my paper out loud, a technique I am personally very fond of. I was particularly effective in this case, as confusing phrasings and sentences pushed to the limits of their technical capacity are my favorites. The conference centered mainly on clarification of ideas and stylistic choices. Lindsay's analytical focus was helpful. I tend to function largely in the abstract. Sometimes I need a perspective like the one she used to bring me back to earth and tie down my points.

Much later that evening, after putting my paper on hold while I let me brain cool down, I pounced on Emily. It was after hours in the writing center, and Emily seemed to be having a contest with herself to see how long she could stay awake. I was looking for excuses not to go back to my room, so I asked her to look over my paper. It was a strange kind of conference. Emily would read my paper for a while, then we'd enter into a tangent sparked by something she read. It was a fun, informal conference. Her comments occasionally had something to do with the paper itself, and a few of these allowed me to pull some depth from areas previously left ambiguous.

The day the paper was due, I wandered into the writing center with three hours to spare. I was kind of hoping to find Brandon, but when he wasn't around, I snagged Chrystal. At this point, I just wanted to make sure I had some semblance of general coherency, and no silly mistakes. She read through my paper, noting only a few proofreading mistakes. The conference wasn't particularly productive, but that was okay. I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about doing any more revising, so I didn't push for any in-depth comments.

The paper was returned to me the next week. I'd received an A-, a good grade, but not quite satisfactory. The minus seemed to shout, "You did a good job, but I know you could do just a little bit better..." With this thought in my mind, I toted my paper, full of largely indecipherable Burke comments, back to the writing center. Will Smith cheerfully greeted me from behind the desk. Will had also not taken a Burke class before, so it was up to me to decipher the handwriting. He made himself useful by pointing out ways I could clarify and use the comments to further support my arguments. The comments were helpful, but toward the end of the hour, I felt myself growing slightly indigent that my writing wasn't perfectly clear upon first glance. It wasn't Will's fault. This is a demon I've been battling for a long time. Certain circumstances tend to bring out the frustration. I think he could sense that I was starting to get slightly flustered, and was extra careful to point out what I had done well, and how easily the slight mistakes I had made could be clarified and corrected. Good man.

Revised revision firmly in hand, I ambled back one last time to find Lindsay. She had dealt with this paper once before, and already knew the main gist of what I was going for. I wanted to make sure I was presenting the most clean-cut, "Fluff free" (to quote John Chaimov) paper of which I was capable. Lindsay was impressed by the progress, but didn't let that get in the way of making suggestions. This final conference was much more geared toward conversation than the first conference I'd had with her. The changes she suggested dealt with issues closer to the surface, and I was left with a sense of having accomplished something, which is always a bonus.

Very few things are more satisfying than turning in a paper in which you've invested so much energy. Even getting the paper back with a favorable score isn't always more relieving than the knowledge that you've given it everything you have, and it's now completely out of your hands.


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