Essay Prompts You Can’t Give the Students

By Shawn

When you’re a TA, sometimes the professor will entrust you and the other TAs to think up essay topics for the students to write on. It’s very important to take one’s responsibility to the students seriously and come up with questions that are answerable, but challenging enough to encourage thoughtful and creative responses. That said, there’s also the temptation just to fuck with them. I resist that urge by channeling it into fake essay prompts I keep to myself. What follows is a sample selection.

If a tree falls in the forest but doesn’t die, is physician-assisted suicide appropriate? What if the tree has saplings? Formulate your own argument on this issue, drawing on Hobbes, Locke, and Francis Bacon.

Suppose you strongly suspect one of the cafeteria ladies is a Nazi because she has a swastika on her forehead and screams at you in German. Is it wrong to accept lasagna from her? In your essay, draw on Sir Thomas Moore, the cover jacket of Eichmann in Jerusalem, and the enclosed Bazooka Joe cartoon.

Karl Marx once famously claimed, “Political history is nothing more than the dialectical unfolding of successive class antagonisms.” Or did he? If he didn’t, why would I lie to you? Discuss with reference to Kafka.

According to many interpreters, Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophical pessimism is grounded in his conviction that human reason is impotent and our deepest desires cannot be satisfied. How would you have cheered him up? In your formulating response, draw on the grab bag of cat toys that came with the course packet.

In risk management, it is often necessary to estimate the value of human life in order to calculate the economic consequences of adopting various safety measures. In a similar vein, I have your mother tied up in an abandoned warehouse; how much is she worth to you? In your response, use only quotations from the movie Taken.

Two homeless men are fighting over a tube of toothpaste. One would derive great pleasure from licking it, but the other saw it first. Does one man have a better claim to the toothpaste, or should Barack Obama descend by helicopter and divide it equitably? In your response, refer only to odd-numbered laws in Leviticus.

In 1952, President Eisenhower sent an army of pregnant babies forward in time to receive abortions from Nigerian witch doctors in the experience machine. You are one of those babies. Discuss with reference to John Stuart Mill and the mysterious engravings on this block of wood.

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