In France, many schools and universities evaluate students on their capacity to write argumentative texts called 'dissertations.' These 1200-2000 word texts follow strict formal guidelines, which are often taken for granted at a University level. This method is quite different from the way professors evaluate their students in North-American or Anglo-Saxon Universities. Indeed, the French 'dissertation' (known as a variety of the 'argument driven essay' in English) should be distinguished from the dissertation in Anglo-Saxon countries, which refers to an entirely different exercise, part of a doctoral thesis.
In France, many schools and universities evaluate students on their capacity to write argumentative texts called 'dissertations.' These 1200-2000 word texts follow strict formal guidelines, which are often taken for granted at a University level. This method is quite different from the way professors evaluate their students in North-American or Anglo-Saxon Universities. Indeed, the French 'dissertation' (known as a variety of the 'argument driven essay' in English) should be distinguished from the dissertation in Anglo-Saxon countries, which refers to an entirely different exercise, part of a doctoral thesis. Foreign students may not be aware of some of the French guidelines, and may never even fully understand their subtleties during their short stay in France. For this reason, this article aims to explain – very briefly – what characterises an argument driven essay according to standards in France. Furthermore, we will try to determine which element is most characteristic of this type of essay.
Firstly, we will examine how the 'heart' of this type of essay is fuelled by one core question, which is referred to as 'problématique.' Secondly, we will approach the form of such essays, i.e. how they are organised. Thirdly and lastly, we will study how the introduction and conclusion parts are linked to the body of the text in a characteristic way.
In a first part, it is generally well known that essays are oriented, implicitly if not explicitly, by one core question, known in French as 'problématique.' In the case of the argument driven essay, the 'problématique' is a question which will fuel every subsequent argument of the essay. In this view, it can be argued that this interrogative element is perhaps the most important and characteristic element of this type of essay. This fundamental question should be stated at the beginning of the essay in order to allow the reader to gain a clear idea of the subject the writer has chosen to examine, and also to allow him to anticipate the subsequent articulations of the essay. In schools and Universities, such a subject is often given to the students by their teacher at the beginning of the exam, so that all students can be evaluated on the same theme. Such subjects can be declined in three types: firstly, a thematic type, which does not explicitly set a question, but rather states a general theme; this type of essay question incites the student to study and analyse a given subject in the essay. Here is an example of this first type of subject: “Bebop in Asia.” Secondly, an interrogative type, in which a question is explicitly advanced; this type of essay favours a discussion between the professor and the student. Here is an example of this second type of subject: “Can one still speak of a proletariat?” Thirdly and lastly, an implicit subject, where the student must relate two or more themes to one another. The student is expected to articulate each element of the question to one another, not separately. Here is an example of this third type of subject: “space and emptiness in Polish fiction.” After having received such a subject, the student is expected to elaborate a 'problématique,' which in a way represents the angle of approach of the essay. However, if the core question of the essay does have considerable importance in the case of the argument driven essay, there's more to this type of literary construction than one single question, as we shall now see.
In a second part, one must remember that each of the subsequent elements of the essay is usually directly related to this 'problématique,' and examines some of its complimentary dimensions. In this view, it can be argued that the form of the essay distinguishes the argument driven essay from other varieties of essays. In France, argument-driven essays are generally composed of three distinct argumentative parts, each consisting of one single paragraph, so that in the end, it should contain only five paragraphs with the introduction and conclusion (although sometimes the introduction alone can be divided into two paragraphs to better isolate the aforementioned 'problématique'). Typically, each part should contain one major argument – supported by three examples, or minor arguments – and each part is often articulated to the others through a dialectic logic in the attempt to account for the whole complexity of the subject in question. This means the first part will present a thesis, the second an antithesis and the third a synthesis. For example, if a student were to base his essay on a 'problématique' about corruption during the cold war, he could examine NATO members and allied countries in a first part, USSR countries and soviet allies in a second, and argumentatively compare how corruption exists in both sides in a third part. Furthermore, each of the three parts should ideally be of the same length; in some cases, the teacher may demand that each part contain between X and Y lines. Finally, each part should ideally be linked to one another with “linking phrases” which sum up the last paragraph and introduce the following one, in regards to the 'problématique.' This way, the reader will more easily be able to understand the writer's progression from one idea to another, and ultimately from introduction to conclusion. However, if the tripartite form of the argument driven essay is indeed one of its key characteristics, this type of form must be coordinated by proper introductory and conclusive elements, as we shall now see.
In a third and final part, the introduction and conclusion of argument driven essays are important inasmuch as they provide an entrance and term to the subject. An essay would not be functional without them. In this view, in can be argued that the way one introduces and concludes an argument driven essay is essential. Both the introduction and conclusion should begin with general catch phrases which allow the reader either to enter the subject or take distance from it, accordingly. Regarding the introduction, the student is expected to locate the topic of the essay within the corresponding field of study. Subsequently, the way in which the student appropriates the subject, through the 'problématique,' is expected to be clearly indicated. Finally, the outline of the essay, including each of the three succeeding parts, should be briefly indicated at the very end of the introduction; this last element can sometimes be contained within its own little paragraph. Regarding the conclusion, the principle arguments of each part should be briefly recalled. The student is expected to conclude by providing an opening which may allow the reader to link the present essay with other subjects, still unstudied. Hence, if both the 'problématique' and tripartite form are essential to the argument driven essay, the introduction and conclusion are both essential in structuring the readers relationship with the text.
As a conclusion, after having studied the heart of the argumentative essay (its 'problématique'), its tripartite form and the functions of its introduction and conclusion paragraphs, we may perhaps have less difficulty in answering the question of how an argument-driven essay is constructed in France. As for determining which element is the most characteristic of this type of essay, we have observed that all of them are important in their own way. It has been observed that foreign students are often unaware of the exact particularities of the argument-driven essay in France (aka 'dissertation' in French) upon arriving in their examination rooms. This is very unfortunate, since not only will this hinder their final grades, but it will also hinder their access to culture in a larger sense. Indeed, many prominent authors of today still follow the tripartite form of the 'dissertation' when writing their articles (ex: André Green in various chapters of his book, The Work of the Negative). In an attempt to give a rough example of the French 'dissertation,' this very article – as the attentive reader will have observed – follows its typical treatment of subject and its tripartite form, albeit in very clumsy and imprecise manner. Hence, the reader may now grasp how the 'dissertation' in France is a complex argumentative exercise, linking together ideas, form and rhetoric. The student who is aware of this will undoubtedly be better disposed to succeed in his courses and even understand Latin culture in general. Indeed, the exercise of this type of argument-driven essay is deeply rooted in the history of Latin countries, and originates in the XVIIth century from the medieval disputos. The 'dissertation' in France was initially a philosophy exercise. From 1864 onwards, it extended itself to other subjects, such as literature, history, etc. and still exists to this day.