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Be Specific

Some teachers like students to begin with general statements and to end with specific examples. Some like papers that begin with the specifics and let the generalities flow from them. No teachers like papers that are all generalities, and only teachers of poetry relish papers that rely on specific images without any explanatory generalizations. Personally, I prefer papers that begin with specifics, that contain many specifics, but that do have occasional generalities when needed to make the point perfectly clear to the reader. As I warned you before, it's never safe in a college paper to let the reader infer the point; we professors read too many papers that have no point. We are always suspicious of papers that seem to be implying something but can never quite spit it out. Leave the artsy stuff for your first published novel, or for graduate school at the very least.

By specifics, I mean facts, dates, quotations, information, stories. I want to see pictures in my mind as I read. I cannot comprehend pure abstraction. Idolatrous as it may be, I would clotheeven the deity in some sort of form in order for my feeble mind to have something to imagine. If Newsweek runs an article comparing education in Russia and the United States, it will not begin with a generality like "Education in Russia is dogmatic and regimented, whereas education in the United States is permissive and value-free." Instead, it will begin with a word-picture that the reader can see, specific images that bring the comparison to life: "In his fourth-grade class in Moscow , ten-year-old Gorby Snititovitch sits down quickly after carefully reciting his multiplication tables and the ten most important obligations of a good citizen to the state and its leaders. Meanwhile, in Fairfax, Virginia, ten-year-old Stephen Whitebread draws pictures of airplanes in the margins of his math book while his teacher beams with pleasure at such examples of spontaneous creativity."

Like a political cartoon, the picture says it all. But to be safe, Newsweek will then go on to state the generality illustrated by the comparison of the two images. The article will include facts from the two schools, number of hours spent at different specific tasks, the level of instruction reached in a school year, number of pages of literature read and discussed, and so on. The writer will also incorporate quotations, lively word-pictures themselves that add color and veracity to the points being made. Even the generalities drawn from the specifics will not be allowed to stand without some more specific backing. Education experts or cultural anthropologists will be cited to back up the truth of the comparison and the significance that can be drawn from it.

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