FAQ: The Personal Academic Essay
Questions Writ 101 students have asked about the PAE. Many are answered by the assignment sheet and the readings we’ve done, so always check the textbook when questions come up.
Assignment in General
Q. What is the next step in the PAE? How many drafts will we write before the final draft?
A. At least a sketch and one complete draft before the "final" draft (though you still get to revise that for the Final Portfolio at the end of the semester). After the sketch, you'll compose a complete draft of six to eight pages, including a Works Cited page. We'll have a workshop on the full draft to address high-priority issues such as content, purpose, meaning, and research, and look at success balancing personal experience and academic research. The more drafts you do, and the more time you can let them rest in between, the better.
Q. How many pages is 1,500 to 2,000 words? Can I go over?
A. Six to eight pages when formatted to course requirements. The body text (excluding heading, title, and Works Cited) must be no more than 2,000 words. This constraint is designed to allow you to practice hitting precise word- and page-count parameters you will encounter in your college work and beyond.
Q. Does my topic have to be about Montana, Missoula, or UM? Can I write mainly on something else, then tie it to Montana?
A. Writers often struggle with the constraints of a rhetorical situation. It's hard to put aside a topic that interests you. Put that beloved topic on the shelf, open your mind, and explore some topics that fit the assignment. You may discover a topic that interests you even more than the old one did. That's one beauty of scholarly study. If you find yourself working to write elaborate explanations or connections to tie your beloved topic to the assigned subject area: stop wasting valuable time. All the creative writing in the world won't transform a topic into something it just isn't. Choose another topic.
Q. Will we be provided with information about how you will grade our papers?
A. As with all major assignments, I will provide you with comments and a mark using the check system. This system is explained in full in the Syllabus.
Genre and Rhetoric
Q. Is the PAE genre made to create arguments? Should I be persuasive or informational?
A. The PAE is an exercise in inquiry: to explore a topic, listen to some ongoing academic conversation, and gain some understanding you didn't have when you began. You are asked to listen to the conversation and develop some preliminary ideas of your own, not to jump in and debate. The PAE purpose is to explore, not to persuade (argue) or inform (report; research paper). During the course of your PAE inquiry, you may discover controversy and, by the end, may form preliminary opinions. This may be useful in showing the complexity of the topic, and your thinking, but you should not aim to argue "sides" or offer up a single answer to your question.
Q. Will I be able to get my point across?
A. This is what rhetoric is all about! Your "point" in the PAE is to inquire, to explore a topic without arguing, promoting, or advocating. Do multiple drafts, experiment with organization, think carefully about why and how you choose to include sources, mind your vocabulary, and keep your personal interest in mind. Best idea: have someone else read your draft and see what "point" comes across.
Q. Apart from using first-person voice, how does the PAE genre differ from a research paper? Is it more useful than a research essay?
A. There are many ways to participate in academic conversation. The PAE and Research Paper are similar in terms of research and how sources are used. But the focus of the research paper is the external research; the focus of the PAE is your inquiry into that research, to listening to the current conversation before you enter. The PAE relies on personal interest and experience, and uses personal tone to express how your experiences motivated and steered your inquiry. It suggests commitment and dedication, and gives you the freedom to develop your own thinking, offering something new to the conversation.
Q. How can this type of writing help me grow in terms of writing techniques?
A. Writing is more than words on a page; that’s just the product of the writing process. The words on the page are a result of choices you make during the process. The PAE process will help you discover how size up writing situations, make choices, and evaluate what works and what doesn't. Once you understand your process, you'll be able to apply it to new situations and genres, a powerful skill in all communication.
Sources and Research
Q. Are there a certain number of sources we must use? Am I using enough?
A. Good writing comes from good ideas , and in academic (and other) contexts, those come from good research. The PAE is an inquiry, so you should do enough research to explore a good amount of ground for a 6 to 8 page essay. You should have a good working knowledge of the topic, and be able to show how research explored your question and influenced your own thinking. The goal is to have more than you need without getting mired. As a general rule, a PAE of this size should have at least five relevant, credible, quality sources (academic or government).
Q. How do I decide how much background, how many examples, or which controversy to include? How many paragraphs of each do I need? How do I stay on task and not get sidetracked in research?
A. Which source, how much, where, etc. are choices made when you pull research into a draft. They should be governed by source usefulness (BEAM is handy shorthand to help). Don't allow any one source to hog valuable page space unless it is unusually exciting and important, and don’t neglect your own interpretation and ideas. Consider relationships between sources: what connects them, contrasts them? Is it interesting? If so, organize them to highlight this. Don’t even let a source onto the page unless it helps you say what you want to say about your inquiry. For a first draft, use an outline or similar planning device to organize information and pull it in accordingly, just get it onto the page. Use revisions to experiment and play with organization.
Q. How do I make my topic more interesting to others?
A. Be interested yourself. Remember that your personal interest and experience is a source of evidence for the PAE. We started this project with fastwrites and lists in order to find personal connections and interests. What is it that made you choose this research question? What did you discover in your research that most surprised, excited, perplexed, or disturbed you? Share it with us.
Q. How should I organize the PAE?
A. The underlying PAE organizational structure is question-to-answer(s). Now-to-then, and cause-effect may also be appropriate, depending on the topic and research. Sections of external source material and personal narrative should be balanced, but not necessarily exactly the same length (personal narrative may gain weight just by being emotionally evocative; academic research by being important or striking). Connect external and personal evidence. Play with organization, such as opening with personal experience instead of a formal introduction. Do a draft in strict chronological order (from selecting research question through what you discovered to new understanding at the end), then cut the draft into paragraphs and play with the order.
Style and Mechanics
Q. How do I make my paper personal? How do I shift the tone that way?
A. Two main ways to convey personal interest and tone are by including personal experience and by using personal voice. Personal experience includes anything you may have done, seen, heard, read, or otherwise experienced, firsthand, that led you to become interested in this topic. Personal voice is crafted through first-person voice, using personal pronouns such as "I," "me," "my," "we," and "us." Avoid terms that pull the tone away from this individual focus to a general one. Watch out for words such as "one," "a person," "people," "humanity," "society," "the world."
Q. Will I learn how to cite websites and online publications in MLA style? MLA style in general?
A. MLA style was developed in order to help us all communicate more effectively by following standards. It's like rules of the road; we all share some basic traffic rules, such as driving in the right lane and stopping on red. MLA citations work similarly. They signal readers and researchers that you are drawing on the intellectual work of another. We will cover MLA citation style briefly in class, but your textbook is your guide. Don’t expect to become a master of MLA style; even veteran writers rely on MLA stylebooks rather than memory. Take care to follow these guidelines in research and writing, no matter if a research journal, notes, sketch, or early draft. Every single time you write (or paste) something that draws on someone else’s ideas, words, images, etc., cite the source.
Q. Am I doing “Works Cited” the right way? Can I abbreviate in-line citations if I have used them previously?
A. Find the answers to these questions and more in chapter 24 of the EAA textbook, “MLA Style.”
Q. How do I format my document?
A. By now, you should be following the Formatting Requirements for the class. Campus computer lab staff can also help with this. If you mean structure and organization, see How should I organize the PAE, above