Saturday, August 17, 2019

Writing essays sheds light on who we are and what we believe




Last week, a professor of mine asked our class, “Why do we write essays?” It was a question I had never put much thought into up until that point. I suppose my most immediate answer would be, “because we are told to.” Teachers and professors assign essays and we complete them because we want to pass the course.

However, with his comment my professor was getting at a much more important question about the value of writing essays. What instructional purpose does essay writing serve? What do we take away from it? My professor argued that writing is a means of finding one’s identity. It is through essays and other written assignments that we form our views about the world, about others, and about ourselves.

I was partially skeptical of this claim because I know that I have completed many written assignments over the years that I would not characterize as meaningful in any way. High school AP tests sprung immediately to mind. I have a particularly vivid and traumatic memory of the writing portion of the AP U.S. History exam. I remember desperately trying to recall everything I learned about Richard Nixon and then scribbling as many words onto the page as I could before the proctor said “time’s up.” I would hardly characterize that essay as “meaningful writing.”

In high school, I also remember in-class essays in which our teacher told us to resort to bullet points in lieu of complete sentences if we knew we weren’t going to finish by the end of class. This kind of “under the gun” writing, in my opinion, does not help us find our identity. It is just about the regurgitation of facts in an essay format. It is no different from a test in that way. For me, in-class writing accomplishes nothing because students aren’t even given adequate time to organize their thoughts.

When my professor described writing as a kind of self-discovery, I believe he was not referring to stressful writing assignments such as in-class essays. Instead, I think he was describing writing assignments that allow a student to explore a subject that they are passionate about. And I think that the vast majority of professors at Trinity embrace this kind of writing assignments. Many of my professors thus far have encouraged me to develop a connection to my subject. When a student is passionate about what they are writing about, the writing does become a kind of exploration into one’s own mind.

I imagine that this attitude towards writing might be a little laughable to some students. It does seem quite idealistic. I know there are many students who detest writing essays. I’ve heard many of my peers say that they would always rather take a test. I think many students feel this way because essay writing is often taught so poorly. I was first introduced to the essay in middle school.

I was taught an extremely strict and formulaic way of writing. There were so many rules, which made my writing rigid and boring. I was told, “start with your universal statement,” “insert three quotes per paragraph,” and “restate your thesis in your conclusion.” When we deviated from these rules, our grades were lowered. In this kind of writing, the writer has no real voice and is denied the opportunity to be creative. The writer is simply following a predetermined formula.

When I first arrived at Trinity, I had to work very hard to break out of the five-paragraph format that had been drilled into my mind in high school. Bad high school writing instruction cripples many students as they enter college and it gives them a negative attitude towards writing. During my first semester here, I had to unlearn much of what I was taught in high school in order to succeed academically. And I think many students go through a similarly difficult transition. It is for this reason that I think so few students would describe writing as a process of “self-discovery.” For most, it is a boring and unpleasant chore that we have suffered through during our time in academia.

Thankfully, there are so many good professors here at Trinity who help us break out of the high school writing stigma. I cannot think of an essay that I have written here at Trinity that I would describe as tedious. This is because all of my professors have focused on my ideas and my ability to communicate those ideas. In an ideal world, that is what essay writing should consist of.

I will not go so far as to argue that essay writing should be fun. However, I will say that essay writing can be extremely useful. Above all, an essay is an act of persuasion. You must persuade your professor that you have something of value to say. In whatever career you choose, the ability to persuade someone of the validity of your ideas is sure to be a valuable skill. Essay writing helps you organize your ideas and present them in a way that is understandable and clear to others.

Aside from developing one’s career skills, writing allows us to make sense of our thoughts, our views, and our values. I think my professor was right to describe writing in the way that he did. It is an act of exploration. It forces us to put our thoughts into words and make sense of them. High school writing instruction (and some college writing instruction) needs an overhaul to help students view writing in this way.

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