Backgrounding my essay: question and resources to be used

I set someone I have been helping a question a little while ago. He did not do it very well, so I foolishly promised to show how it could be done. Yes, I am already regretting this. Students have my sympathy; much nicer to be a mean old teacher and pass judgements without actually trying the task for oneself!

We took an old HSC question and adapted it:

How has your study of Belonging broadened your perception of “belonging” in reference to yourself, individuals, community and the world?

In your answer you must refer to TWO poems by Peter Skrzynecki and AT LEAST TWO additional texts.


How personal can you be?

In this case, you are being invited to talk about the issue “in reference to yourself”, so you can be personal and you can use “I”. However, be aware that the focus is not on you really, but on the issue. Looking at the sample essays published by the Board of Studies for the original question – not online but it was 2005 – shows the balance needed pretty well. None of the high achieving scripts were especially autobiographical, but there was no hang-up about adopting a personal but formal register.

My problem, having set myself this highly artificial task – and it is just on the edge of insanity really – is to negotiate the potential mare’s nest of “in reference to yourself, individuals, community and the world.” Now really! In forty minutes? While juggling “at least” four texts? And do note the wording in the instruction – TWO (not one, not three) poems and AT LEAST TWO additionals. Now that I always interpret as “three”, though that’s not a law. Any more than three and the chances of any depth go out the window.

Oh my God! How to organise all the possibilities into something that a) can be done in the time, b) is coherent and unified and c) includes enough specific comment on the techniques deployed in each of the chosen texts.

Another “rule”. You can’t possibly say everything. You have to choose a small number of reasonably important points and develop each in some depth. Nothing worse than an essay which tries to say too much and then says very little about anything. Well yes, there is worse: an essay that says nothing much at all! What I am trying to avoid is a string of perfectly nice but unsupported points.

So in a question like this you have to learn to pick what will work best for the question and discard all sorts of things you would like to say, given time. That skill is hard to achieve. I don’t guarantee what I do will be a 100% fantastic example either, but I will try…

But given the constraints every point you do make must count. There’s no room for weak points.

Oh, and can you see that learning an essay off by heart won’t help much? Your rote-remembered essay may be fine, but it may be a very poor fit to the question. (See also How can I improve my essay grades, especially in exams, without learning “model essays” off by heart?)


Peter Skrzynecki

The two poems I choose are “In the Folk Museum” and “10 Mary Street”


1. A poem I found on the internet: “Lone, Glasgow” by Kevin McFadden: see Wednesday Poem on 3 Quarks Daily (an excellent site, by the way).

Lone, Glasgow
Kevin McFadden

Where I first learned to say things, Ohio, my accent
was the local legal tender: good in Edinburg
as in Dublin or London.  Then came Glasgow (proper).
One year abroad in Glaswegian, the notes
brought home bouncing everywhere, overdrawn.
Want a wild time?  In Glasgow it was tame.
See the town?  You had to hear the tune.  New loans,
including my name; I began saying Cave-in
if I wanted the right introduction to a pub. The road
was rude, the power sometimes poor, My voice
skim milk in that butterchirn of gutterals, Scots vowels
clotted and spread like cream, I learned to hear
everything twice and nothing the same. Glasgow
still hasn’t left me alone: it’s left me a lane.

2. A wonderful book: Amin Maalouf On Identity (Harvill Panther 2000). It has been published under several names, but I am using the edition I own. Here are some reviews: In the Name of Identity, by Amin Maalouf; Al-Ahram Weekly | Books | Identity crisis. See also Google Books where you can read the “Introduction” to which I would especially refer.

3. These two photos, which I took myself.

dec03 025

dec03 026

Photos by Neil Whitfield 2008

For the sake of the exercise I will pretend these were published in the Sydney Morning Herald “Good Weekend” in February 2009. Don’t you follow my example here and make up texts!

4. An autobiographical speech by William Yang published in Neil Whitfield (ed) From Yellow Earth to Eucalypt (Longman 1995) which is sadly out of print. To give an idea I have stolen this from his blog. It’s OK, I know him and he will forgive me.

Born William Young in North Queensland in 1943, he changed his name to William Yang in 1983. His grandparents migrated from China to Northern Australia in the 1880’s. He worked as a playwright from 1969 to 1974, and since then as a freelance photographer. His first solo exhibition in 1977, Sydneyphiles, caused a sensation because of its frank depiction of the Sydney gay and party scene. Later these photographs became part of a larger exhibition, Sydney Diary, which was published as a book of the same title in 1984. In the mid–eighties, William Yang began to explore his Chinese heritage which had hitherto been lost to him by his complete assimilation into the Australian way of life. His photographic themes expanded to include landscapes and the Chinese in Australia. During this period he made visits to China.William Yang integrated his skills as a writer and a visual artist in 1989. He began to perform monologues with slide projection in the theatre. These slide shows were a form of performance theatre and have become his favourite way of showing his work. The third one, Sadness, wove together two themes: the discovery of his Chinese heritage, and the rituals of dying and death in Sydney. The piece has toured successfully nationally and internationally as has all his subsequent pieces. William has done seven full length monologues in all, including Shadows, Blood links, and Objects For Meditation.

5. A movie would be good now. I have selected Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) but I am sure you could think of something more recent. Now I’m going to watch it again, just to procrastinate so it is fresh in my mind when I start the essay…

Clearly two of those will not get a look-in. You should always have a good stock of additionals though, as many as fifteen I would say, chosen from a much larger collection you make during the year – and not just in the few weeks you studied “Belonging”.

I  believe this is the hardest essay to write in all the HSC Standard/Advanced. What do you think?

The essay is here now.


One response to “Backgrounding my essay: question and resources to be used

  1. anna

    March 29, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    very helpful. thanx!


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