When people think writing classes, they think…essays.
That can be a problem. As I’ve written before, many students think “essay” means “formulaic five-paragraph essay.” And even when they don’t feel tightly constrained by the five-paragraph format, students still often think of essays as purely performative — as a means of proving to the teacher that they listened (sort of) in class, and (sort of) did the assigned reading. The teacher is the intended audience, and, joy of joys, gets to read his or her own words repeated back to her, with varying degrees of (in)accuracy.
Don’t get me wrong; I think essays can be a useful way to test knowledge and understanding. The problem is that this is often the only type of writing students are doing, and they’re doing it in dull, clunky, five-paragraph-essay chunks.
Writing isn’t just a means of regurgitating information onto paper; it’s a way of exploring, shaping, and transforming ideas. Writing is a tool for learning, not simply for reporting what one has learned. A practice of teaching which employs the essay only as a tool for reporting has divorced itself from the very meaning of the word essay.
“Essay” doesn’t just mean “a piece of writing I threw together last night using SparkNotes, some stuff I half-remembered from class lectures, and an unreasonable quantity of Red Bull.” An essay is an attempt, an effort. It’s related to the word “assay,” as in the process of testing metals to determine their value. The root of the word goes back to the Latin exigire — to try, to measure, to test through experiment. To essay is to test the very nature of something: in writing, it means to test the very nature of our ideas.
Compounding the problem of essay-as-performance, students are in many cases given few opportunities to work through the problems and challenges they encounter in reading and research. When the learning process is also the test of what has been learned, students are under enormous pressure to appear as if they know what they’re talking about, even when they have no clue. Result? Bullshit.
Happily, some colleagues of mine developed an assignment which prevents a pileup of bullshit better than Hercules diverting the waters of the Alpheus and Peneus rivers to wash out the Augean stables. Bonus: we don’t call it an “essay,” which means that right off the bat we lose more baggage than Delta.
We call it the “difficulty paper,” but it’s no more difficult than a traditional essay; it’s named for the fact that in this assignment, we embrace difficulty in a text as an opportunity for learning and growth. I’ll be going over this four-part assignment in the next few days; if you like, you can play along and try it out for yourself. Or, if you prefer, you could say that you’re going to….
…essay it for yourself.