Essay #3 Tip Sheet

Essay #3: Agassiz and the Fish

Begin by reading:

"How Agassiz Taught Professor Scudder"

Your writing task:

Consider the way Professor Agassiz dealt with his student. It would have taken a lot less time if Agassiz had simply explained bilateral symmetry, and then gone on to other things. Why didn't he do it that way? Can you learn anything from this reading and from the Professor's teaching technique that you can apply to your own university studies?

Writing schedule:

  1.  Think  Monday, October 3 through Wednesday, October 5
  2.  Gather  Thursday, October 6 through Tuesday, October 11
  3.  Draft  Thursday, October 13 through Tuesday, October 18
  4.  Peer Edit  Wednesday, October 19
  5.  Revise  Thursday, October 20 and Friday, October 21


This piece was written 147 years ago, and two or three things have changed since then. One is that biological science has advanced enormously (and, unfortunately, Professor Agassiz's theories about the classification of animals have proven unworkable). Another is that educated writers in 1874 could make assumptions about their readers—assumptions we cannot make any more. Scudder could assume that his readers were familiar with Shakespeare, so when he said that the alcohol had "a very ancient and fishlike smell," readers would have picked up the reference to The Tempest by William Shakespeare. One of the oddities of the information age we live in is that general readers know a lot less than they did 147 years ago. (Your defense is to do what I did: Highlight the questionable words, right-click them, and choose "Search with Google." You don't have to remain in the dark when an author makes an allusion you don't understand.) A third difference, related to the second, is that authors in the 19th century were unafraid to use high level vocabulary. Today's printed publications tend to pitch low (Newsweek magazine, considered to be fairly intellectual, is written on a ninth grade reading level. Internet reading level is lower. Politicians, probably attempting to reach the broadest possible audience, are even lower. One study claimed that Donald Trump's speaking level was about fourth-grade, typical of an 8-year-old.)

What all this means for you is that you may need to swallow your pride and do some dictionary work—a lot of it—to get through Agassiz. I considered writing up a glossary, but I decided against that because, in the spirit of the Professor, I thought you might get more from figuring things out for yourself. Two warnings:

  1. If something sounds stupid or senseless, don't assume it is stupid or senseless. Look up the words you don't know.
  2. Scudder didn't use that language to make you look like an idiot. He chose words such as "entomologist" (rather than "bug specialist") because he thought they were the best, most precise language. Try not to get offended if you don't know something.

A few more thoughts

Looking back on this experience, Scudder said, "what I had gained by this outside experience has been of greater value than years of later investigation in my favorite groups." As an entomologist, Scudder would not have had a lot of daily need to know about the anatomy of a specific fish. What was the point of the exercise? Did Agassiz just want Scudder to know everything there was to know about a hæmulon? Is there something in all this that the student in a writing class (or a nursing student or a student in business or education) can apply to the process of reading, thinking, and writing?

We think of a "museum" as a place where tourists wander through to get a casual look at dusty exhibits in glass cases. Obviously, Scudder is using the term to mean a place where academic research is taking place—laboratory might be a better term. (I got that by thinking about the internal evidence: how the author used the word.)

Hint for success:

I phrased the assignment as questions, but you haven't really finished the work when you come up with short answers to those questions. You need to craft a thesis statement and an essay which begins with those questions and makes a mature statement. I'm looking for an essay, not bullet points. Those questions aren't necessarily your outline.

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Revised 7/28/22 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: