16 September 2010
Thinking about Essays
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.