Down with Essays!

This term I gave my students in English 410 (Elizabethan Poetry + Prose) an unconventional assignment. For their final critical papers, they had to make a compelling and effective argument about poetry’s function and purpose, and cite primary evidence from the poets and critics we read this term (Spenser, Sidney, Whitney, et al.)

The key feature of these papers is that they couldn’t be, well, papers: they had to adopt any form that would lend itself to a critical argument, so long as it was not an essay. I used Daniel O’Donnell’s model, as I’ve done in the past, and as my friend Ryan Cordell has, too.

The Unessay Assignment set my students the task of thinking outside the essay-shaped box that their education has taught them, and adopting the rhetorical form that would best present their argument. That meant any form or media — except a conventional research essay — that makes a compelling and effective argument using textual evidence.

My motive wasn’t just novelty (okay, they are way more interesting to grade), but also a desire to get students making verbal arguments that build on and depart from conventional forms.
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So I got podcasts and comic strips and TED Talks and narrated Pechakuchas (huh?) and vlogs and blogs and Socratic dialogues. I even got a mix tape (remember those?) arguing that poetry involves a nostalgia for lost media. I had to dust off my cassette player for that one.

In each of these media, students made complex, compelling, sophisticated, detailed arguments about Elizabethan poetry and criticism. I gave them a rubric in advance, so my expectations were pretty clear — about everything, that is, except the form.

2014-04-11 07.16.21I’ve got nothing against essays. There’s nothing necessarily deterministic about media forms — that you can be deeply intelligent on social networks and superficial on public radio. The medium is not the message: that’s been my mantra for years. Least of all the essay medium, which Montaigne invented and Bacon developed for its personal tone, its loose structure, its provisionality. In the 18th century Samuel Johnson defined essays as “A loose sally of the mind,” so they don’t restrict your thinking. And even if they do, I’ve read some spectacular, mind-altering essays over the years.

But the essay in high school, and in higher education, has become too automatic, too easy, too conventional. Sure, it teaches research skills and rhetorical flair and argumentation and critical thinking and all the rest. But does it have an exclusive hold on those skills? Since when, asked one student, are essays synonymous with arguments? Can other forms more readily bridge the gap between makers and thinkers, creatives and critics? They certainly help turn classrooms into communities, when one vlog entry addresses comments from our class’s social networks. When students know they’re making arguments in that community, and not just for their professor, they’re both liberated and inspired.

Oh yeah, and petrified. There’s something about unessays that makes some students, well, uneasy. There are a few things I’d change in the future to make it more accommodating:

  1. My absolute proscription against an essay-form argument of any kind. Instead, I’ll stipulate that students can always include a brief foreword or introduction to their Unessay, one that leverages the essay’s explanatory power. That’s something many students felt anxious about: too liberated to choose any form whatsoever, but too restricted if they couldn’t use any of the rhetorical tools they’d learned over years of education. Again, I have nothing against those tools; my research career depends on them, and in my first-year courses I teach them with the zeal of a convert. Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 14.18.02 But by fourth year, when you’re on the verge of a post-university career when you may never write another essay again, you’re ready to break the mould.
  2. My relative lack of examples, beyond a laundry-list of possible forms. So this time around, once I finish grading them, I’ll ask a select group of students if I can use their unessays as digital and real-world examples to inspire future generations. Is there anything more I could hope for?

Okay, that’s enough for now: I’m eager to get back to grading, as eager as my students are to get their grades.

14 Responses to “Down with Essays!”

  1. caedmon5

    Your point 1 is interesting, Michael, and actually something I struggled with originally too. When I wrote the first draft of the first unessay assignment, I initially said the essay could be anything you wanted except 5 paragraphs. But then I thought “if it can be anything you want, why can’t it be 5 paragraphs?” and so I removed the injunction. And I was pleased I did because exactly this issue came up right away.

    I think, in the end, as I was writing to a student today, the issue is this: “the essay” as most students understand it (and as most of us teach it) is the opposite of the essai, i.e. it is an artificial, rigid, and impersonal framework into which students believe they must wrangle ideas. Because it is impersonal, they have dialect problems (problems that don’t show up in their blogs, for example): poor diction choices, unusual grammar, and so on. But the core problem is that they see their assignments as being two part: have ideas and write those ideas up as essays.

    So the solution I proposed to this student today was to stop seeing “the essay” as a form in which you must write and instead see it as a form you occasionally need to edit your writing into. I.e. write your ideas and research up in a form you are comfortable with (most students seem pretty comfortable with blogs) and then, when you are finished, edit your blog til it looks like an essay–fix the margins, watch for informal diction, maybe remove first person references if the discipline requires, use the right citation format, and so on.

    The trouble with “essays” (in the college, composition, sense) comes when students confuse their difficulties with the genre as a difficulty with writing more generally. As long as they are comfortable with their ability to write in the first place, getting that writing to match the generic expectations of a particular form is relatively trivial.

    • ullyot

      I really like how you see the conventional essay as an end-point toward which you might edit your writing, once it’s done — rather than as a starting-point that constrains thinking from the outset.

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