Monday, 22 December 2008

The neglected art of writing real essays

In the shadows of the more immediately useful exam essay writing tutorial at Fullspate is an interesting piece reminding us what a real essay looks like. Some of us who are obliged to get students quickly to the point where they can write 300 words about the pros and cons of genetic engineering, and who habitually insist that students write an even more stilted version of the kind of essay that generations of high school students and undergrads have had to write, often forget what real essay writing was, and still is, all about. In a nutshell, the typical high school student or undergraduate is urged to demonstrate their familiarity with other people's ideas and arguments, keeping to an absolute minimum the expression of their own feelings about the matter. By stark contrast, the essence of the modern essay (although some would call it classical) - a kind of real essay writing that began with the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne in the late 16th century - was its novel expression of a very personal point of view (analogous to the emergence of the highly individual Renaissance artists from the anonymity of icon painting). To a certain extent, this represents a reaction against the kind of scholarship we inevitably bolster when we hurriedly get our students to mimic the wholly uninspiring academic essay. Of course, it is not our fault. The exam questions and the marking rubrics clearly expect a more impersonal and quasi-academic piece of writing. And who amongst us would feel comfortable (or be allowed) to begin a lengthy series of writing classes to help students begin to put their own feelings and opinions down on paper and learn to articulate them thoughtfully when everyone knows that this has no connection with the demands of the final exam?

Why, by the way, this insistence upon the impersonal? If this sort of thing is perpetuated throughout a person's education, it leads to a rather nasty fragmentation: a hypertrophy of the intellect disconnected from the life of personal feeling. Both the intellect and the life of feeling suffer from such a fragmentation.

1 comment:

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