Beyond ABC: Going Deeper with a Subject

Here’s a handout I just put together for my ENG 101 class when I realized (after more than a decade of teaching!) that my students might not know what I mean when I tell them to “go deeper” with a subject.

Frequently, a teacher will respond to an essay by saying that the author could stand to “go deeper” with an argument or discussion. What this frequently means is that the student has done a decent job of explaining the facts of a given topic or issue but hasn’t fully explored that issue. It can also mean that the student has only discussed what might be described as “obvious” or superficial concepts associated with the issue at hand but hasn’t really done anything interesting with the material or explained something that the reader might not have already known. One way of describing this problem is to say that the author has sacrificed breadth for depth.

Imagine, for example, that you’ve decided to write an essay about Facebook, and you’ve narrowed your subject down to the subject of marketing products and services on Facebook. Let’s further assume that you’ve personally had some good experiences with marketing a your band’s music on Facebook and that you’ve come to the conclusion that Facebook is a great marketing tool. Although this is a decent place to start, it runs the risk of leading to a paper that does little more than list some of the reasons why Facebook is a great marketing tool. A paper on those lines would tend to be somewhat formulaic and wouldn’t allow you to explore your position in great depth.

Let’s look a little more closely at what I’m talking about: It would be pretty easy to write a paper arguing that Facebook is a great marking tool. The opening paragraph would provide a little bit of background and end with the statement that Facebook is a great marketing tool. The next few paragraphs would then provide evidence of why it’s a great marketing tool. Body paragraph A would begin by saying something like, “First of all, marketing on Facebook is free.” Then it would go on to provide examples or explain why free marketing is a good thing. Body paragraph B would say something like, “Additionally, Facebook has many users.” The rest of that paragraph might discuss the numbers of users in different demographics and why they matter. Body paragraph C might mention something about the ability to target specific types of users. The paper would then end with a conclusion that says something like, “Facebook is a strong marketing tool because of A, B, and C. A is good for this reason. B is good for this reason. C is good for this reason. Therefore A, B, and C make Facebook the ideal marketing tool.”

The trouble with this approach is that it really doesn’t leave any room for debate and doesn’t fully address the complexity of marketing products and services on Facebook. Basically, it presents information that everyone probably agrees with. At the same time, though, it leaves some questions unanswered. For example, why do some products and services sell better than others on Facebook? Are the marketers of these products and services using the Facebook more effectively? If so, how are they doing that? Or is it a question of the type of product or service that’s being sold? Are Facebook users more likely to purchase some products and services than others? Which products and services are most conducive to being marketed through Facebook? By dedicating a paragraph to each of these questions, you will be able to write an essay that takes the reader much deeper into your subject matter than the basic A, B, and C pattern.

Strayer University: Seriously?

This evening, I came home to find a curious piece of mail addressed to my dog, Pete. It was a letter from Strayer University, a private for-profit institution of higher learning. The letter informed Pete that drive and ambition like his “can’t be taught” and that Strayer’s degree programs cover everything else. In case you think I’m making this up, here’s the envelope:*

And here’s the back of the envelope:

And here’s a picture of Pete:

On the surface, of course, I can see why Strayer University might have gotten confused when they sent this letter to my dog. Pete, as you’ll notice, is wearing glasses in this picture. Likewise, the gentleman pictured on the envelope is also wearing glasses. Additionally, and perhaps more to the point, Pete was, at one time, a stray. In this respect, it would make perfect sense for Strayer to seek him out.

Two factors, however, complicate this situation. First, as noted above and as the attached photograph makes clear, Pete is a dog. Second, and sadly, Pete has been in doggy heaven for a little over a year.

Just so I’m clear, let me explain what’s going on in plain English:  Strayer University is actively trying to woo a dead dog. Again: Strayer University wants my dead dog to apply to their degree program.

This turn of events certainly raises many questions, chief of which is whether Strayer will change its slogan from “ONLY THE DRIVEN” to “ONLY THE DRIVEN (AND DEAD ANIMALS).”

On a more serious note, this letter reveals the lie at the heart of Strayer’s latest push for more students. Clearly, the language of this correspondence is meant to suggest that Strayer has targeted individuals who have a track record of being ambitious. More significantly, the letter begins, “Dear Pete, As someone who has already earned a bachelor’s degree,** you understand how critical a quality education is to improving your career potential.”

The intended message is clear: Strayer wants potential applicants not only to feel special, but also to feel as if Strayer has done their homework. We’re getting in touch with you, the letter seems to say, because we’ve heard good things about you. You are special to us. You are the kind of student we want. There is, in fact, something about you that separates you from everyone else, and it’s the fact that you have ambition.

Needless to say, the fact that this letter was sent to a dead dog belies the basic message of the letter. Pete, after all, was never especially ambitious, even for a dog. Now that he’s no longer with us, his ambition, sadly, has dropped to zero — which means that Strayer either has a seriously skewed definition of words like “driven” and “ambition,” or they’ll take tuition money from anybody who has a pulse. Or doesn’t have a pulse. Or isn’t actually human.

All of this really makes me worry about the future of higher education. It also makes me worry about the lengths that institutions — especially the for-profit variety — will go to to fill their coffers. While I’m sure (which is to say I hope) that Pete wouldn’t get through the application process on account of the fact that he’s a) dead and b) a dog, I have to wonder how rigorous Strayer’s standards are if its admissions officers can’t distinguish between humans and dogs or the living and the dead.

I can only conclude that what matters in the end to such institutions is not education but the bottom line.

Caveat emptor.

*My best guess is that Strayer bought my dog’s “contact information” from a nonprofit organization. When we put Pete to sleep, our vet informed us that she had made a donation in his name to an animal shelter. Though I never thought of him as “Pete Schuster,” I suppose it’s not too big of a leap to assume that the donation was made with my last name attached to Pete’s. The shelter probably sold its list of donors so they could make ends meet, and Strayer probably got a hold of the list somewhere down the line. Again, this is only a guess.

** Pete did not earn a bachelor’s degree.