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How Do You Test On That Book?

What follows is the final I am giving my freshman literature students on The Consolation of Philosophy. The teacher who tires of grading fifty of the exact same essay needs to give his students options. In this assessment, I offer students four different options for a final writing assignment. Below you will also find my minimum standards for submission, which I now include on all longer writing assignments. It’s amazing to me now that it took me ten years to realize such standards were necessary.

Boethius was condemned to die for a crime he didn’t commit. He had it rough. He really needed consolation. We need consolation, too, although rarely for suffering as intense and wretched as Boethius was made to endure. In our hearts, we mull over unfair criticisms from parents and teachers, cutting remarks made by coworkers, the loss of a job, or the indifference of a friend. We use reason, confession, theology, philosophy, virtue, and distraction to cope with our suffering. Some consolations work quickly, but often the only cure is time. We simply have to wait until the offense has been forgotten.

Choose one of the following two options.

One. Write a conversation between yourself and Lady Philosophy. The conversation should assume one of the following scenarios:

You have just been dumped by your girlfriend or boyfriend.

A friend has declined to invite you to a birthday party because “you always want to make everything about yourself and ruin a good time for everyone else.”

The four thousand dollars you spent two years saving up to buy a new laptop was stolen.

You are angry, sad, and sitting alone in your room, justifying yourself and condemning the entire world. Then Lady Philosophy appears.

The conversation begins like this:

GIBBS: Life isn’t fair. Actually, that’s not the problem. The problem isn’t that life is unfair, it’s that life is more unfair to me than it is to others.

LADY: You appear distraught, my child. Quit feeling sorry for yourself and explain to me what has happened.

Of course, you’ll use your last name, not mine. Please adopt these dialogue tags for your own work. Write a 1000-word dialogue between yourself and Lady Philosophy using one of the scenarios described above. I need a word count at the end of the dialogue.

The goal of this dialogue is for you to find consolation for your suffering. Consolation means that you “feel better,” and yet consolation is not merely a matter of feeling better. If you are angry or anxious, taking a Xanax will make you “feel better,” but only for a short time. When the numbing effects of the drug wear off, you can take another, but chemical solutions to spiritual problems offer diminishing returns. Lady Philosophy offers Boethius a few quick “feel good” thoughts on his suffering in book II, but she knows he needs a long-term solution for his suffering. Real consolation does not come from feeling better, but from “thinking better” and “believing better,” which means Lady Philosophy needs to show Boethius the Truth.

Similarly, the consolation for losing four thousand dollars is not, “You can make the money back.” The consolation for getting dumped is not, “There are other girls.” You cannot simply tell yourself that Lady Fortune’s wheel will keep turning and good luck will come back around again. You must demonstrate an understanding of the deeper truths about contentment which emerge in book III and IV of The Consolation.

Two. Write a conventional three-point essay explaining the claim, “He who hath much wants much,” or, “All luck if good luck to the man who bears it with equanimity.”

Technical requirements for this option:

Your essay should have five paragraphs.

The first paragraph should introduce your subject and be no more than 75 words long.

Your final paragraph should survey all that you’ve argued but should contain no more than 50 words. I want a quick conclusion, not a lengthy restatement of everything you’ve already said.

Each of the three middle paragraphs should be at least 200 words long.

You must have exactly five paragraphs. You need to include a word count at the end of each paragraph.

Each of the three middle paragraphs should argue a separate point. The main idea of the paragraph should be stated in the first sentence of the paragraph. The first sentence of the paragraph should be in bold.

No matter which option you choose, here are the requirements:

First, your work needs to be typed, printed, and stapled in the top left corner.

Second, you need to use the Calibri font and may not mess with margins.

Third, the paper itself needs to be pristine. If it’s wrinkled at all, I won’t accept it. Seriously.

Fourth, your work needs to be signed by a parent. Your parent’s signature should go below the last line on the last page.

Fifth, you may not extensively quote from any work. You may include two quotations, neither of which may be longer than ten words.

Sixth, do not print on both sides. Print on one side only.

Seventh, in the top left corner of the first page, put your name, your section, the date, and my name. This assignment should not have a title.

NOTE: On the day this work is due, I will inspect each individual submission before accepting it. If your work doesn’t meet the requirements listed above, your work will not be accepted. You will have to submit it the following day at a twenty-point penalty.

What are you being graded on?

You are being graded on how well your paper is edited, by which I mean it should contain complete sentences, no run-on sentences, no bad grammar, no homophones or misspellings. You are not permitted to use colons, semi-colons, emojis, exclamation marks, italics or to have anything in ALL CAPS. I am not an editor. I will mark grammar errors, but I will not correct them. Your work needs to be edited before you turn it in.

You are being graded on how well you display a knowledge and understanding of The Consolation of Philosophy. If you are writing a dialogue, the sort of things you say need to be highly informed by what you have read and discussed in our time in the book. I do not want a Bible lesson or a Sunday school lesson. I want a philosophy lesson. Don’t assume that any true claim you make in your dialogue (“God works all things together for those who love Him”) is a valuable claim for this assignment. I want to see that you understand The Consolation of Philosophy, not that you can put a positive Sunday School spin on suffering.

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