This year, I was asked by one of my colleagues if I could give her students a seminar on essay writing. She teaches history and SPS – Social and Political Sciences to give it its proper name, or silly, pointless studies as it tends to be informally called. And I thought it would be rather fun to try out a group exercise, as an hour of conversation with new students who don’t feel they owe you anything can be remarkably hard going. So I wracked my mind for something that would convey the difficulties of university-level essay writing, the mass of information to be dealt with, the problems of structuring a response, the complexities of reaching a conclusion. In the end, I decided to let golden age crime help me out. I concocted a whole list of factual statements about a supposed crime, rather in the way a detective might in the closing stages of a criminal investigation just before the denouement is reached, and decided to let the students solve the mystery.
A brief outline of the information I gave the students is as follows: It was 1950, and the Major had been shot in his study at 9.30, his body discovered an hour later by his butler and time of death established by the local doctor. His wife supposedly went to bed early and took a sleeping pill, missing the whole thing. His son was working in his artist’s studio all evening and also heard nothing. Earlier that day, the Major had had an upsetting conversation with the vicar, whom he suspected of fiddling the parish accounts. He was also on bad terms with his son, having discovered he was a homosexual, and was threatening to disinherit him. His wife was having an affair with the local doctor, who was becoming increasingly unhappy at the thought of being involved in a scandal with a married woman. Also in the village was a war veteran who had been involved in a disastrous mission with the Major that had caused him post-traumatic stress disorder. He was under care of the local doctor, suffering from blackouts that could last for several hours. I added a whole lot of other details – muddy footprints at the French windows, a blackmailing past for the butler, cigarette butts in the ashtray, available guns stashed about the house, any number of clues, suppositions and red herrings. What I would ask the students to do was to recreate the crime and denounce the murderer and, along the way, to build up a case for one other suspect which they would then dismiss en route to their conclusion.
The whole point of this was that any of the protagonists could have committed the crime; the effort called for from the students was to piece the necessary information together, present it logically and tidily and come to a reasoned conclusion.
So, last Friday I set out with my photocopied sheets to a pre-booked seminar room in the newly-opened Corfield Court. This courtyard is just outside the main precincts of my college, tucked away behind the old school of divinity and in the midst of a maze of buildings. Someone involved in the design has clearly gone mad on the security issue as there are gates barring the two entrances (which come out on opposite sides of the courtyard onto different streets) and even an internal gate whose purpose is there solely to confuse. It took me forever to find the part of the building housing the seminar rooms and once inside nothing was intuitive. Somewhat rattled, I tried to hold open a heavy internal fire door with one foot while searching for the light switch to the stairs on the wall behind me and ended up wrenching my shoulder. Finally in the room, itself triangular with no place for the lecturer to sit down, I felt flustered, sore and late. Fortunately, the students had even more trouble finding the place than I did, and were even later.
Teaching adolescents is like teaching toddlers with surprisingly good motor skills. Barely had they all sat down than one girl asked if she may be excused; she was receiving texts from a friend headed to this seminar who was lost – could she go and rescue him? I said she could, and kept on explaining. A few moments later, both returned, but not for long. It soon transpired that the latest arrival had somehow contrived to lose his wallet whilst searching for us – could he go and find it? This was a particularly restless group but I adhered to my usual policy of transcending all minor disruptions. I split them into two groups and gave them the exercise, instructing them to designate one member as a witness to the process they were engaged in. The boy returned sooner with his wallet than I had feared and quite quickly they settled down to business. Despite the fidgety start they soon were completely into the task.
I do love watching groups at work, seeing who emerges as the main spokesperson, watching the interplay between the strong characters and the mild ones. After a while I went and spoke to each group in turn, to see how they were getting on. Group A was working with order and harmony. One boy, with a lively aureole of curly brown hair, was the naturally ‘loud’ member, but he was quite ready to balance his presence out with that of the two girls, who were quiet but tenacious contributors. They had written out a list of the suspect’s names and were eliminating them one by one. ‘Don’t forget that there are several people who could have committed the crime,’ I told them. ‘That might make it easier for you.’ The other group was falling into an acrimonious dispute. There were four members of this group and two were quite headstrong. One young woman, dark, pretty, clever, had taken a natural, early leadership, but this was being continually challenged by a boy, the kind of slightly plump, unsporty boy (but clearly very bright), who had found a way to subvert the usual typecasting by setting up as devil’s advocate to his peers and gaining attention and respect from his alternative viewpoint. He was maintaining that the murderer was Nigel, the war veteran with the blackouts and he was unwilling to let go of his idea until it had been acknowledged by the rest of the group. This was something that the dark girl was stubbornly refusing to do, insisting his solution was perverse and only chosen as a provocation. ‘Do remember that any number of people could have committed the crime,’ I said. ‘See if you can make a case out for all the suspects who appeal to you, and then decide which one looks the most convincing.’ They unwillingly went along with that, and shortly afterwards the impasse seemed to have been breached.
After a few more moments I called on them for their solutions. Both groups had done a very good job. Group A had decided that Tristan, the Major’s son was the murderer, arguing that he had been afraid of being disinherited and needed money to fund his actor partner’s drug habit. The alternative solution had been the Major’s wife, but they discounted her on the grounds she would have feared the blackmailing butler. Group B were running with the theory of Nigel, the shell shocked war veteran as the culprit, but they plumped in the end for the Major’s wife, claiming the need to protect her son, as well as avoid a divorce provided her with the strongest motive. Instantly an argument broke out between the groups over the strength of the threat posed by the blackmailing butler, but once that had subsided, there was only one thing they wanted to know.
‘Who did it?’ they cried. ‘Who was the real murderer?’
‘Well I did tell you at the start,’ I replied. ‘There is no single solution. Any of the cast list could have done it. The point was for you to assemble evidence and argue a case.’
At this there was a notable outcry.
‘But this is how it is to write an essay,’ I pointed out. ‘There is never one final conclusion or one right answer, no matter how much you may want there to be, or how strongly you feel about any one argument.’
There were still grumblings but they died down for the moment.
‘So,’ I said, ‘what did you learn from the process of doing this?’
‘That everybody hates me,’ said the plump boy, partly out of mischief, partly out of genuine wounded feelings.
There was much laughter, a few protests, and the danger of the old argument starting up again.
‘Opposition is a useful thing to think about,’ I said. ‘When you write an essay, you have to think of yourself as a diplomat, ensuring that all sides of any argument get heard, even when you don’t agree with them. Also, there will always be conflicting evidence and opinions and you’ll have to think about how to deal with them, how to incorporate the most significant elements of each into your own exposition. Anything else?’ When they were quiet I added. ‘You did well, you know, to handle all that mass of information and emerge from it with strong, coherent arguments and well-argued alternatives. You dealt with your uncertainties and conflicts and you can be proud of what you put together.’ This went down with far less cheerful receptiveness than compliments usually do. I looked at their mournful, resistant little faces and knew what was wrong.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘You really, really wanted there to be one murderer, didn’t you?’
‘Well who do YOU think did it?’ burst out the boy with the curly hair.
‘I told you there isn’t a solution,’ I said. ‘But… oh I don’t know. I suppose the Major’s wife and Nigel have perhaps the best claims to the murderer’s role.’
‘No!! It was Tristan!’ wailed Group A. ‘It had to be Tristan!’
And so it went on. Ever since I’ve been doing study support I’ve been increasingly intrigued about what people can hear. I told them all at least twice that there was no one solution to the puzzle and yet it never made the least impact on their comprehension of the task. Which makes me wonder whether I should alter the scenario for next year and turn it into a soap opera script whose outcome they can decide upon. The principle of finding a logical route through a mass of information would be the same. And yet, and yet… I sort of cling to this overturning of their desire for clear cut answers, even in the places where we most expect and desire for them to be. To accept complexity, lack of resolution, ambiguity and the absence of closure, is difficult to do, but it is a step towards genuine learning and mental growth.