Sunday, September 25, 2011

Essay tip: Hone the edge

Among the assignments I've been grading, the idea of the "double-edged sword" keeps cropping up. This cliche describes a subject (e.g., phenomenon; course of action...) that brings both positive intended effects and negative unintended effects. Somehow, acknowledging that it "cuts both ways" suffices as a 'balanced' consideration for the subject in question.

That mere acknowledgement bothers me because it's an easy cop-out. Essay questions demand a decision, and saying 'it's both' isn't so much a decision as it is a 'whatever' response to a difficult question.

For their best effect, "Double-edged swords" function as tools (or weapons, if you must), not museum objects to be thoughtfully gazed at and forgotten at the next exhibit. Questions involving double-edged swords are really questions about how best to use them; against whom; for what reason; and about how to prevent self-inflicted injury while wielding them. At the very least, there should be a consideration as to which end is the handle and which is the pointy bit.

Essays, themselves, are swords with an edge; and not for delivering blunt force trauma. So, stay sharp!

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