Learning to Speak in Your Own Voice

Pupil writing at a school in Ghana [Amuzujoe, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons]

In elementary school, the questions and answers are frequently simple:

  • What is the capital of Washington? Olympia!
  • What kind of triangle is this? Isosceles!
  • What is the sum of 1/3 + 1/5? 8/15!

In cases like these, the teacher has provided the answers or the calculation method. Your job is to repeat back what you were taught, to prove you remember it.

As you progress in education, the questions get more complex and the answers (often in essay form) begin to involve evaluation and nuance:

  • Argue for or against the thesis that Captain Ahab is a tragic figure.
  • Describe some evidence that tends to support Darwinian theory.
  • Outline the chief events and outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg.

In these cases, the teacher has provided relevant information by lecture or in written materials. You are being asked to comment or argue. However — and here is the problem — the teacher and the text know a lot more about the subject than you do. How can you compete? What could you say that is original? What is the teacher looking for? You don’t want to simply copy what the teacher or text said. You don’t want to cheat by copying some source off the internet. How can you answer the question in your own voice? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Begin by describing the context.  Explain your answer, not to the teacher who knows all about it, but to some interested person who is not in your class. Provide basic background and context. Thus, your essay will begin with (perhaps not deep but multiple) truths. For example:

Moby Dick is a novel by the American writer Herman Melville. The book is narrated by Ishmael, a sailor on a whaling ship. The main character is Ahab, the captain of the ship. Ahab lost his leg to a notorious sperm whale, Moby Dick, on a previous voyage, and now he is obsessed with finding and killing that whale.  Tragedy is a type of literature that focuses on suffering caused by, or to, a central character (the tragic figure) because of some flaw or imbalance in that character’s makeup. The ancient Greeks wrote tragedies, so did Shakespeare.

2. Clearly answer the question.  For example:

Ahab is a tragic character in the sense defined above.

3. Use your own voice. Having stated your basic answer to the question, now comes the part where you think (think!) how to explain that answer in your own voice. For example:

The book’s narrator, Ishmael, is an experienced sailor, but he discovers that this is no normal whaling expedition. Captain Ahab’s obsession becomes clear when he says things like this, “What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me mad — Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and-Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer.” With disjointed ravings like this, Ahab drives the ship to an inevitable end when he finally confronts the whale. That is what makes him a tragic figure: his unbalanced personality (fixation on revenge against an animal overcoming normal economic motives, care of the crew, and even self-preservation) causes suffering to himself and others. He diverts the voyage from its normal pursuit of whales for profit and turns it into an act of personal vengeance that results in his own death and the destruction of the ship and nearly all of the crew.

4. Finish by asking, “So what?”  It is always useful to ask yourself this question when writing an essay (or, more generally, when learning anything). Who cares whether Ahab is a tragic figure? Conclude the essay with a brief consideration of the “so what?” question, which should take you outside the strict bounds of the question posed. Some possibilities:

Are there different definitions of tragic figure? Why did you choose this one?
What can we discern about Melville’s ambitions for this book from the fact that he adopts a dramatic form with ancient roots?
Can you ever have more than one tragic figure in a book?
Why has tragedy endured as a form of literature?
[If a more light-hearted comment is appropriate] How is Ahab like or unlike his reflection in Peter Pan, namely Captain Hook?

Have fun!

By Karl Oles

Seattle attorney, teacher of philosophy

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