Session Two, Part A: Sample Essay with Instructional Commentary
The INTRODUCTION of a literary response essay begins with a general discussion of the topic which is given to you in the instructions. The discussion doesn’t necessarily have to take any particular form, but it should explore what the topic is all about and gradually narrow itself down to one single controlling idea, or thesis. Here the topic is “the coexistence of human beings and computers,” from the June 2002 Regents. The essay begins with a general statement followed by a pop-culture reference:
Since the 1960s, when computers began to slowly make their way into our daily lives, people have examined the relationship between human beings and computers in both academics and entertainment. The original Star Trek television series, for example, repeatedly warned of the dangers of allowing computers to make important decisions for people and societies. In one episode, entitled “The Ultimate Computer,” a computer called M5 was placed in command of the starship Enterprise, proceeded to kill a few people and nearly wound up destroying all of Starfleet for the sake of its own survival.
The next segment picks up on the cultural reference as an example of a general principle, which is explained and illustrated:
Computers in science fiction stories are often presented as cold, unfeeling, and often indestructible or interminable, i.e., immortal, hence the very opposite of humanity, which inevitably causes conflict between men and machines. In such stories, men usually win, indicating the triumph of independent thought and feeling, as well as the will to survive, over cold, unadulterated logic and the absence of emotional encumbrances.
The next sentence narrows the topic down to a single controlling idea:
Despite the preponderance of computer technology in today’s society, and the widely-held belief that they will only become more and more advanced, and more and more integrated into our lives, human beings and computers seem to be an ill-fitting match.
The THESIS STATEMENT goes at the end of the introduction. It provides a full identification of each text (TAG = title, author, genre), and includes a direct and explicit statement of what the two texts reveal about the topic:
Richard Brautigan’s poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” and the untitled short story (Passage II) by the noted science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, both reveal that as computers work their way into our lives, we face the danger of taking that relationship too far.
Note that this is all one paragraph. It is an unusually long introduction; you don’t need to discuss the topic in that much depth, but you do need to explore it intelligently, without repeating yourself, and then narrow it down to a single controlling idea.
Each DISCUSSION paragraph needs to introduce the text, tell the reader essentially what it’s about, then respond to it in detail to illustrate (a.) how it’s written, and (b.) how it proves your thesis, i.e., how you got that idea from reading the piece. Here, the description of what the poem is about is somewhat indirect, but it does give the reader a general sense of what the poet was trying to do, and how the poem relates to the thesis:
Nature is a very common theme in poetry, but computers and nature combined poetically presents a conundrum. Computers, of course, do not occur in nature; they are machines manufactured by human beings. Yet Brautigan’s poem seems to suggest that someday they will, a seemingly absurd notion on its surface but thinly veiled as an exaggerated warning of our expanding reliance on computers.
The writer here introduces several literary elements and techniques:
Brautigan’s overall theme seems to be that we are progressing toward the point where computers actually will occur in nature, that they will replace trees and flowers as well as human beings. The poem’s tone is sardonic in a way, professing a certain eagerness for this time to come, yet with an underlying sarcasm pervading the piece, revealed by repeated use of paradoxical expressions and oxymorons.
The next sentences provide specific details to back up the general ideas in the previous two sentences, specifically supporting the writer’s statements about the theme and tone of the poem, and the poet’s use of paradox and oxymoron. Note that the writer quotes directly from the text sparingly; only as much as he needs to make the point. The writer’s comments on the direct quotations illustrate their significance, rather than simply repeat their basic meaning:
Brautigan combines traditional, almost too-familiar, images of nature (“pure water touching clear sky;” “deer stroll peacefully”) with paradoxical, almost absurd notions of computers inhabiting the natural world (“a cybernetic meadow / where mammals and computers live together in mutually programming harmony;” “a cybernetic forest / filled with pines and electronics”). Such descriptions may be mildly amusing, but the real warning comes in the final stanza, where Brautigan suggests that the “cybernetic ecology” (an oxymoron) will enable human beings to be “joined back to nature, returned to our mammal brothers and sisters;” in other words, that human beings will essentially become animals in a computer-run world, analogous to the modern relationship of lower-order mammals to a human-run world. The final line, referring to the eponymous “machines of loving grace,” is the ultimate paradox, in that machines are certainly not capable of such emotions, although we do psychologically tend to assign higher-order emotions to machines, as we do to animals.
The concluding sentence connects the text and the cited details directly to the thesis:
Brautigan may be implying that such thinking is dangerous; he may even be suggesting that computers are becoming the next step in our evolution, the next rung up the Darwinian ladder.
The second DISCUSSION paragraph begins with a transition from the end of the first:
That may very well be, but one universal truth about computers, at least today, is that they can only do what they are programmed to do by human beings; they cannot think independently or creatively or intuitively, which is why they always seem to lose those aforementioned sci-fi battles.
Here is the summary of the second passage, with literary devices introduced:
Asimov, however, uses a first-person narrative point-of-view to make a computer the narrator of his story, thus implicitly endowing a machine with a quality generally reserved for human beings: self-awareness. The machine even has a name, Joe, and therefore by implication a gender (male), and “his” job is to find the perfect woman for his human “colleague,” Milton.
The writer continues to discuss the story and its literary devices:
This self-awareness and gender identification, the personification of an inanimate device, become even more significant later in the story, as the highly particular and emotionally stagnant Milton, frustrated by Joe’s fruitless efforts to find him the perfect mate, programs Joe with an exhaustive and detailed history of his own life and mind, to the point where Milton and Joe literally think alike, and, more disturbingly, become interchangeable. In the end, Joe literally takes Milton’s place as he prepares to welcome the woman he discovered as the perfect mate for Milton, who is now, by extension, essentially the perfect mate for both of them.
Asimov’s clever use of personification through first-person point-of-view provides the same warning as Brautigan’s deeply sardonic poem: that computers are taking over our lives, and if we go too far, they will replace us.
A CONCLUSION can be written any number of ways. Generally, the best way is to read everything you’ve written up to that point and ask yourself, “OK, so what?” Your answer to that question becomes your conclusion:
Computers are extraordinarily useful tools that become more and more versatile, more and more capable, and more and more powerful, every day. Is it really likely that they will “take over the world,” as so many writers, filmmakers and philosophers have suggested? Some would say they already have. Brautigan’s speaker seems to hope that they will, suggesting that the jaded poet is convinced that they will, although Asimov is a bit more cautious; he suggests, probably rightly, that it will ultimately be up to us.