16 September 2010

Thinking about Essays

The text I'm teaching this semester is riddled with political essays, and the first section covers the First Amendment as it relates to pornography, racism, and a flurry of internet issues. The other day, one of my students asked me if we were only going to read about the First Amendment, which prompted me to admit that I'm by no means equipped to discuss the First Amendment at length. I teach writing, not government. But political issues are very polarizing, and I suppose the textbook writers think it's important for students to wrestle with these issues as they learn to write.

What I'm wrestling with goes beyond what the text actually says. I'm thinking about the craft. Teaching academic and research writing is not hard. It's quite formulaic and can be deduced to a series of simple steps. If you've ever written a research essay, you know what I mean.

Then there are the essays in the textbook. They aren't linear. They aren't easy. What I am seeing as I read through them is that they are more exploratory than definitive. They delve into issues, but don't necessarily offer solutions. They raise questions. They make the reader think deeper.

The problem I'm having with them is at a direct contraction to my own writing. When I start writing an essay, I don't always know where I'm going. If I do know, I often end up somewhere very different than I planned. I take the word essay -- in French, essai, to try -- very seriously. Try. See what you come up with. Explore. See what happens.

As a writer, I like that. I like the freedom of knowing that I don't have to have a point when I write. That doesn't diminish what I have to say. As a teacher, though, I want the essay to have a point and a linear thought pattern. It makes my job easier. It gives me a clear pathway. Then when I discuss what we've read with my students, the pressure is off. Instead, this semester, I'm left with some ambiguity and open-ended discussion.

So, I am learning more about craft, and they are learning to be thoughtful readers. And in the midst of all of it, we are batting around some good old American ideas. Good things, I think.


kate o. said...

i'd like to be a fly on the wall of one of your classes. fascinating that their textbook is so political. has your class time become dominated by political discussion rather than writing discussions?

the colors and angle and exposure of this picture is perfect, by the way.

Lindsay said...

If there's one thing I've learned it's that students would rather discuss just about anything than writing. I have to keep circling back to it, from the flurry of personal anecdotes and the occasional brilliant thought. A student did say yesterday that she always learns something in my class, and I think that's good. Honestly, though, I'm not really liking the textbook.