I Know What I Know

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There’s an interesting bit at Visible Darkness about the terminology we use to describe our students’ writing. Are they “papers”? “essays”? “articles”? He is trying to move away from “papers” and has, he thinks, settled upon “articles.” We have the same discussion from time to time in our program, and while no one but me seems to care all that much about it, I think that the language we choose to describe our students’ writing is terribly important.

I am violently opposed to referring to my students’ writing as “papers.” The word does not necessarily imply order or organization, nor does it imply argument. There is no suggestion that a “paper” will contain any coherent, deliberate effort to accomplish something, or that it will have uniformity of intent.

I prefer to call them “essays.” I choose this term deliberately, and in first-year composition I make a point of explaining to my students that the word “essay” is actually a verb meaning “to try, or to attempt.” I explain to them that in the essays they will write for me over the course of the semester, they will be trying to do something.

Students come to the university with a pretty standard set of ideas about what essays are and what they should look like. I know that when I was their age, I understood very little about writing essays other than how to throw together a five-paragraph essay in a few hours, and that simply didn’t serve me very well in my first year of college. This form doesn’t serve them any better. Even those who have the skills to write another kind of essay feel compelled to lock themselves in to a mere 3 points because that’s what they’ve always been asked to do.

The problem, obviously, is that very few arguments lend themselves to only three points. But in addition, because of these ideas students have difficulty seeing the essay as an incredibly fluid form, capable of taking all kinds of shapes and sizes. This five-paragraph form is, for most students, a kind of safe zone, and they’ll return to it if given even the slightest opportunity–even if doing so will do violence to their argument. I spend a great deal of my time trying to move them away from this, trying to get them to accept that some ideas are actually quite complicated, and to let the shape of their essays make allowances for that complexity.

I never try to offer them any definition of the essay, since there really isn’t one. It can take so many shapes and forms that you wind up unnecessarily limiting its possibilities when you try to define it. But when they ask, I always give them a definition from Scott Russell Sanders: “The essay is the individual mind at work and play.”

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Written by srogers

July 2, 2011 at 2:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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