A Better Way with Bacon: a Meditation on Creative Synthesis

Bacon is one of my favorite foods, even if it shares its name with a second-rate philosopher. For years I made bacon the old-fashioned way in a skillet on the range-top. The results were delicious—nice crispy bacon with tons of flavor—but the time it took to pan-fry a thick-cut strip (a package can easily take ½ hour) and the subsequent cleanup were serious impediments (greasy pan and backsplash) to making this tasty treat. So coveting the sweet delicious taste without the mess, I recently went in search of a better way with bacon.

I first made the mistake of reading a “click-bait” bacon article on Yahoo! that insisted the best way with bacon was in a hot oven with bacon strips laid across a rack set inside a lipped cookie sheet. The results were disastrous. The bacon was not carmelized (insufficient Maillard reaction) and the cookie sheet contained a disgusting pool of grease—not to mention that cleaning a greasy cooling rack is no fun.

Then I began to think about the “tricks” I already knew. For years, whenever I craved a homemade BLT, I have turned to the trusty microwave. On a plate lined with paper towels, I microwaved a few slices of bacon that I also covered with paper towels. My three girls have all turned about to be bacon lovers, so I’ve increasingly used this method to make a quick treat for them. Your bacon cooks quickly with acceptable results, but I still don’t consider microwave bacon to be the equal of stove-top. The cleanup is easier, since most of the grease collects in the paper towels, but the bacon can dry out, and I miss the browning and flavor of the stove-top method.

I was still mulling over my bacon quandary when my wife reminded me that we were having a special a breakfast-for-dinner night. In our family we have pancakes for dinner on Shrove Tuesday (i.e. Mardi Gras). My wife was in charge of the pancakes and I, as usual, was on bacon duty. But instead of opting for either the stove-top or the microwave, I took a moment to consider. What was I really after? Taste? Texture? Less mess? All of the above. Could I come up with a way to achieve all of that?

And then I had a sudden realization: what if I par-baked the bacon in the microwave and then transferred it to the hot skillet? I recently had followed my wife’s instructions for baked potatoes. “After scrubbing them, microwave them for five minutes and then put them in the oven. They’ll cook much faster,” she told me over the phone. Why not adopt that same approach for bacon? I set my microwave to one minute per strip (thick-cut) on high—enough to render much of the fat but not completely bake my favorite meat candy. Then I moved the bacon to the skillet and finished the bacon in just a few minutes. The results were very close to baking exclusively on the stove-top. The bacon was crispy and brown but not dried out. I had found a better way with bacon! I was the hero of Shrove Tuesday. Just ask my kids.

As I thought over my better way of making bacon, I realized that—trivial as it may be—this episode illustrates an important truth about human creative endeavors. Most good ideas, like my serendipitous Shrove Tuesday bacon discovery, are the result of combining vectors of previous thoughts. We can labor fruitlessly to come up with some grand new idea, but often the “new” idea is no more than a creative synthesis of two existing ideas.

As a professor, I am always looking for ways to explain abstract concepts to my students. I notice that students—and their professors for that matter—often struggle to find “original” arguments for their scholarly work. I hope that this tasty illustration will help my students understand one of the ways that truly insightful original scholarship can come about. I plan to use my bacon discovery to show them that while research is necessary and useful, you might not need to slog through hundreds of pages of dry, boring academic prose. Instead, you might just need to bring together ideas that have not been previously synthesized. This creative synthesis is sometimes slow to mature but it is always intrinsically rewarding once achieved. Especially if it involves bacon.

Love and Death in Ancient Rome

Last Monday I studied the Latin poem “ad Lesbiam” in class with Dr. Steven L. Jones. On first translating the poem, which fits within the familiar carpe diem motif, I thought it looked and sounded like it was written by a high-school boy. Here is the original Latin along with my translation of the poem:

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,

rumoresque senum severiorum

omnes unius aestimemus assis!

soles occidere et redire possunt:

nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,

nox est perpetua una dormienda.

da mi basia mille, deinde centum,

dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,

deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.

dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,

conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,

aut ne quis malus invidere possit,

cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

[Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,

And let us consider all the rumors of severe old men

To be worth a penny!

Suns are able to rise and set:

When once our brief light dies,

Night must be a perpetual sleep.

Give me a thousand kisses, and then a hundred,

Then give another thousand, and a second hundred,

Then a thousand kisses more, then a hundred.

Then, when we will have made many thousands,

We will mix them up, lest we know,

Or lest any evil man is able to envy,

When he knows that there are so many kisses.]

The last seven lines sound a bit like the fantasy of a desperate boy seducing a girl whose parents are disapproving. But Dr. Jones asked his class to look past the apparently puerile aspects of the poem and consider the philosophical nature of lines 3-6. Indeed, these lines express a familiar pagan lament about the inability of man to participate in the eternal cycles of nature. We have but one “brief light,” and once the night comes, we must sleep forever. The paraphrastic construction of line six underscores the unavoidable necessity of the eternal sleep. Continue reading

Latin Lover

As a professor, I have taught more than one subject that skeptical students (and their parents) might question the usefulness of. Literature. Philosophy. Latin. Much ink has been spilled by defenders of the Humanities in recent years as students depart from these departments in order to take classes that will prepare them for a specific career, and, they hope, a certain job. I won’t attempt such a defense here but I have been thinking lately about why I enjoy teaching Latin so much, and that has made me remember important aspects of my own education.

As an undergrad at University of California, San Diego, I struggled to find my academic calling. In high school, I excelled in English and math, so I began my college career with disparate interests. During my first year of college, I took courses in syntax, semantics, and phonetics because I was interested in linguistics and none were offered at my high school. Credit hours were cheap, so I could explore and expand my interests without worries about long-term debt. My interests broadened even more, which as I look back, was a wonderful experience.

I excelled as a linguist but struggled a bit with mathematics. Unlike high school, my colleagues at UCSD were quite gifted in math and science, whereas I routinely struggled to get good grades. My struggles were primarily motivational, as I discovered that my natural talent for math was accompanied by only a moderate desire to learn the subject. As I lost interest in math, I began to wonder if I should pursue a new course of study.

Continue reading

Merciful Justice, Shakespeare!

I have a little homecoming ritual that I practice at the end of most weekdays. I walk in the door, and greet my three girls who are ecstatic at my arrival because they, too, have a part in the homecoming ritual. We walk together to the kitchen and the baby is already yelling, “Can-ee! Daddy!” Upon reaching the kitchen, I open a very high cupboard and measure out a few candies for each child. Should I accidentally (or not) give an additional jellybean to a younger child, my oldest daughter is sure to point out my transgression. To her demands for equal treatment under the candy law, I reply, “Life’s not fair. Have another candy.” I don’t get into a long treatise on justice with her. She’s so transparent: her cries for justice are nothing more than a ploy for more candy.

But at some point in her life, she will probably cry out for justice in a very different way. All of us do. I recently read Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure with my undergraduates and was struck by the nuanced account of measuring justice. In the first Act, Duke Vicentio decides to leave Vienna in the hands of Angelo, his deputy, giving him power to enforce the laws as he sees fit. Angelo is a swift judge when presented with Claudio, who has fornicated with the now-pregnant Juliet. Angelo brings down the full weight of the law against Angelo and sentences him to death. Ostensibly, Angelo wants to reestablish the law of the land by making Claudio an example.

Claudio admits he has broken the law, but Shakespeare includes several extenuating circumstances. Most importantly, Claudio and Juliet were engaged, but could not marry for want of a dowry. While this reason may seem antiquated to the modern reader, the dowry was no small matter to the Elizabethan audience and real cause for delaying marriage. In comparison to the rampant sexual immorality displayed by comic characters like Pompey, who regularly visit brothels, Claudio’s sin is mild. He loves Juliet, is faithful to her, and plans to marry her. Continue reading

Writing and Thinking in the School of C. S. Lewis

In a previous post, I wrote about using the essays of C.S. Lewis to help college students learn to write well and think well at the same time. While writing and thinking seem to go hand in hand, they frequently do not. But why should that surprise us? Humans are perfectly capable of speaking without thinking. In fact, considering the human capacity for communication without any real reflection, it should surprise no one that the hardest part of teaching college students to write is getting them to shed their habitual mental blinders, look about themselves, and think a little.

C.S. Lewis is in a class of his own when it comes to reasoning by analogy, which makes his writing extremely attractive to a professor who is desperate to get students to think. In the final paragraphs of “Religion: Reality or Substitute,” Lewis turns his attention the relationship of faith, reason, and doubt. Lewis recognizes that doubt is not the enemy of faith but a part of human experience. He points out that humans are subject to fears, passions, and moods that threaten to overwhelm one’s faith. Clearly, Lewis is not a fideist, someone who sees an adversarial relationship between faith and reason. But almost every college student has been trained by our culture to see just such a conflict between faith and reason, so they are a bit bewildered by Lewis’s claim that “When we exhort people to Faith as a virtue, to the settled intention of continuing to believe certain things, we are not exhorting them to fight against reason.” Even if they agree with Lewis, they are not sure why.

In the past, I have asked students to take note of the analogies Lewis uses to make his case, and then write their own analogical account of faith, reason, and doubt. On this point, Lewis likens faith to the experience of learning to swim. The instructor tells the student that he will be safe in the water and the student listens to the reasons given, agrees with them, and agrees to proceed with the project of learning to swim. But once in the water, he feels a little differently. With nothing underfoot and nothing to hold onto, the new swimmer might seriously doubt his instructor. Regarding this experience, Lewis writes, “You will have no rational ground for disbelieving. It is your senses and your imagination that are going to attack belief. Here, as in the New Testament, the conflict is not between faith and reason but between faith and sight.”

When students are forced to imagine their own every-day analogy of a conflict between faith and sight, they are forced to step away from many of their bad writing habits. Instead of sitting down to write an essay and looking for lots smart-sounding but insubstantial nonsense, students are forced to think: when have I been tempted to doubt something I knew to be true? They begin to examine their own experience. They begin to examine their own reason. They begin to think twice about what they always believed about doubt.

Students might write about flying on airplanes. Reason tells us that they are less risky than driving in cars. But once you are inside a metal tube, going several hundred miles per hour, several thousand feet in the air, well, not only sight begins to rebel against reason, but the other sensations do as well. Or students might write about a relationship. That girlfriend who you know to be kind, thoughtful, beautiful, and self-giving might seem not to be “the one” after all when you are having a wretched day and she neglects to notice and actually says some pretty heartless things about whiners.

When students write an assignment like this, I am not interested in seeing academic-speak. I am interested in organized paragraphs and well-wrought sentences, as always, of course. But more than that, I am interested in guiding them to participate in Lewis’s reasoning, which, this case, is particularly important because he is connecting reason with faith. In many ways, students must be asked to reason because only by doing so will their faith be strengthened. Hopefully when they try to write their own analogy about faith, reason, and doubt, they will begin to understand how human reason, though fallen, is not the adversary of faith. As Lewis notes, faith needs reason and reason needs faith. But faith is a both a virtue and a gift, and our reason must be redeemed. Our culture is not accustomed to seeing faith and reason in such a light; hopefully, after following Lewis’s example of reasoning by analogy students gain not only greater writing skills but greater insight into themselves and their own doubts, not as the assertions of rationality but as the temptation to reject reason.

From the Mundane to the Metaphysical: the Essays of C.S. Lewis

Like every other child raised in a Christian home, my introduction to Lewis came through his Narnia stories, and I still very much enjoy these stories, especially now that my oldest child can enjoy them with me. But as a teacher of college composition and writing classes, I have found his apologetic essays both delightful and instructive. One frequently overlooked dimension of C. S. Lewis’s talent as a writer is the careful attention he pays to form in the crafting of his essays. I have long admired “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” as being a particularly good examples of Lewis’s art. When I began teaching composition as a graduate student in 2003, I turned to this essay as a model of good writing and continue to use it today. Several colleagues, including my wife, have joined me in using this essay as an example of good writing that students willingly engage on many levels.  Why do this essay work so well? There are several reasons, but I think Lewis’s deft use of supporting evidence—or his ability to reinforce his thesis through variation and repetition—stands out as particularly skillful. And worth imitating.

The essay “Religion: Reality or Substitute?” illustrates Lewis’ skillful use of supporting evidence particularly well.  Here, Lewis confronts a frequent objection to faith—that religion is merely a comforting fiction we tell ourselves for protection against the grim reality of life. Lewis confesses that humans are pretty good at inventing such stories and likens the practice to Aesop’s fox, who comforted himself with the imagined sour grapes. In order to refute this persuasive argument rooted in human psychology, Lewis turns to his own experiences. The progression of his examples is a movement from the mundane to the metaphysical.

He demonstrates that experience alone is an unreliable teacher of reality by turning to such diverse yet analogous examples as smoking cigarettes, listening to gramophone records, and eating margarine. In his final example, he turns away from his own experience to a well-known scene in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The movement from the mundane to the metaphysical is also a movement from the more subjective (boys stealing cigars) to the universal (negotiating the movement between self-love and love of another).

In the first example, Lewis recalls how two “bad boys” stole cigarettes from their father. (Considering Lewis’s tobacco habit, it’s easy to infer who these two little boys might have been.) Only when the cigarette supply ran low did the boys resort to their father’s cigar stash to avoid detection. Because they preferred cigarettes, they viewed the cigars as merely a substitute for the better smokes. Lewis concludes that “the boys” were quite right so far as their own experience went, but if their own experience led them to conclude that cigars were an inferior place-holder for cigarettes, then their quite limited experience led them astray.

For the second example, Lewis recounts another experience of a child who is gathering information about the world. As a boy, he first heard orchestral music through a gramophone, which, owing to the technology of the time, collapsed all the individual sounds into “a single undifferentiated sound.” So when he first heard a live concert, and could hear each instrument, it seemed that he was not listening to “the Real Thing.” This he calls an even better example that the cigars/cigarettes misjudgment, for here, he really is confusing the reality with the substitute due to “miseducation.”

All this talk of “substitutes” reminds Lewis of wartime rations, so he recalls his experience of margarine: when he first began to eat it, he did not notice a difference, but as time wears on and there is no butter ever, only margarine, Lewis can hardly think of anything except that margarine is not butter. This, he says, is a different example than the other two. For in the first two examples, his early education and experience taught him to prefer the substitute and even view it as the reality. In the case of butter/margarine, Lewis is first acquainted with the real thing and can only stomach its substitute for so long.

Lewis quickly transitions from his own experience to an example drawn from Milton’s Eve in Paradise Lost. Soon after her creation, Eve happens to view herself in a pool of water. Taken with her own beauty, she falls in love with her reflection. But then God makes her look up to see Adam. She initially resists loving him, for he is nowhere near as beautiful as what she has just seen, but God guides her to see that loving Adam is better than loving herself. Here is reality and substitute completely beyond the realm of cigars/cigarettes, gramophone/concert, and margarine/butter.

Love is so near a religious experience. Though tied to the senses, it goes beyond sensation to the soul. If we are speaking of religious experience to those who are skeptical about religion, then it is an extremely good idea to use love, which transcends subjective reality most forcefully. Only the most hardened materialist cynic would disagree. So this last example prepares the reader for Lewis’s next move. What seemed so easy and natural—little boys stealing cigarettes or wartime rations—led to another fairly easy example (his audience at the time would have been familiar with Milton and this scene in particular). But this final example allows Lewis to move to his most forceful point: at times, “all of those sensations which we should expect to find accompanying the proper satisfaction of a fundamental need will actually accompany the substitute” and if we can all agree that is the case, then “we should hold it quite unflinchingly from this moment to the end of our lives.”

The reader is caught. If he is convinced that Lewis was right about the little boy listening to the gramophone and then going to the concert, and if he is led to agree with Lewis’s assessment of Milton’s Eve, then he has suddenly agreed to believe something until the moment of his death. Experience can no longer be admitted as a completely trustworthy authority.

Thus, in this essay, Lewis captures something about reality and human nature in both the form and content of his argument—we all form judgments based on experience and tend to give too much weight to experience alone. Each reader understands those examples about mistaking reality for the substitute because he has had that experience himself. The human proclivity to trust experience, however, has only increased since Lewis. Nearly all my students have never been taught to examine critically the authority of their own experience. I think it is a good exercise for students of writing to write a paragraph in which they provide their own example of discovering that the reality was the substitute or vice versa. Nearly all students enjoy this exercise. For they are invited to share in a quality of Lewis’s writing that gives it universal appeal: we see ourselves—our reasons and experiences—reflected in clear, forceful prose. We see ourselves reflected and then are made to admit an uncomfortable truth. However, in the end, as in Lewis’s essay, the “uncomfortable” truth may turn out to be quite comforting. For, Lewis reminds readers “Our faith in Christ wavers not so much when real arguments come against it as when it looks improbable.” Because our experience is unreliable, recognizing that reality ultimately helps the reader turn to a better teacher.  

Something New at Forty-Two

Recently, I was chatting with a friend of mine and was intrigued when she related how her mother-in-law, Anne, suffered a severe stroke and subsequently made a remarkable recovery.   I made the acquaintance of my friend’s octogenarian mother-in-law over five years ago.  For a year my wife and I participated in a Shakespeare reading group that she organized at our church.  Unlike every other reading group I’ve attended, this one was actually about reading.  We met every few weeks and simply read through Shakespeare plays as a group.  We were not there to “discuss”: in fact, Anne’s personality made me feel a bit reticent to put forth any insights I might have regarding the play of the week.  Her decades of teaching high school English and Latin shone through as she lead us to eschew discussion and read, laugh, and read some more.  Quite a few people attended, which is saying something for a Shakespeare reading group meeting in a church room at 7 pm on a weeknight.  After Anne’s stroke, the reading group fizzled.  To my sorrow.  My friend told me, however, that though Anne slowed physically after her stroke, she nevertheless regained most of her sharpness of mind despite every expectation to the contrary. “The doctors,” my friend explained, “think that her years of teaching of Latin helped her to recover. They don’t know exactly why, but one theory suggests that foreign language acquisition helped to develop a part of her brain unaffected by the stroke.” As I reflected on this conversation later, I began to think that while Anne’s experience gives reason enough for continuing to learn as we age, perhaps an even better reason has to do with our place in God’s creation.

Lots of medical and scientific authorities encourage you to learn new material in order to keep your short-term memory sharp or to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s or, as in Anne’s case, to help you recover from a stroke.  But as a person who witnessed Anne enjoying As You Like It, I am certain that she would not say that the greatest benefit of her years of teaching English and Latin is her recovery from a stroke, but rather the world opened to her by her knowledge.  Particularly, her knowledge of the arts of language enabled her to love the works of Shakespeare and others.    

A learning experience of my own has lately impelled me to reconsider the connection between learning and love.  At 42, I have begun formal voice training for the first time in my life. I have sung in church and school choirs since I was a boy and have received formal training in violin, piano, and guitar. As I am discovering, however, my musical training in other instruments is only a partial help in learning to sing. Singing requires fine-tuned coordination of the diaphragm, mouth, and larynx in ways I had never imagined. Many people, including myself until four weeks ago, do not know that singing requires a different kind of breathing than what is natural. It also requires a sensitive interpretation of the lyrical lines, coordinating the poetic meaning with the musical whole. Fine singing engages the imagination in unexpected ways. For instance, I must learn to hear the notes before vocalization in order to shape each phrase. On top of these challenges, I have to learn vibrato and how to use it properly. (Who hasn’t suffered through the over-trained voice and the painfully wide and liberally applied vibrato?)

Singing is an extraordinarily complex activity, and—amazingly—it is only one art among countless others.  Languages, singing, textile arts, carpentry, billiards, for goodness’ sake—all of these arts are complex activities that require years to master.  As I learn any art, I discover something new about the Creator of all arts through His creation. I do not need a scientific study as an apology for my new pursuits; learning is its own reward.  It confers understanding of the beauty of God and, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, the world He has “fathered forth.”  And learning an art is particularly rewarding for it allows the learner to participate in that beauty.

Doubt, Faith, and the Heart

As the youngest of three, I was often the child in the car with mom, waiting for older brothers to finish appointments or extracurricular activities, and as she and I waited we listened to “Unshackled” on WMBI, Chicago.  This radio drama was devoted to stories of dramatic conversions.  Christians retold their journeys out of alcohol or substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, and broken homes.  As a kid in a sheltered Christian home, these stories fascinated me.  And they also established a paradigm of conversion in my mind.

But it’s a paradigm that has had to change.  While some Christians have a “Damascus Road” kind of conversion, many more have the kind St. Augustine describes in Confessions. In Book VI of the Confessions, St. Augustine laments his willing unbelief in Catholic Christianity even though he had already refuted the teachings of Mani. He describes a change that is a gradual letting go of old beliefs followed by an uneasy trust in a new account of reality. St. Augustine sought out a knowledge of God as certain as 7 + 3 = 10, but St. Ambrose instead offered allegorical teaching and holy mysteries.  As a result of St. Ambrose’s teaching, St. Augustine began to prefer the teachings of the Church before his conversion.  Further, Faustus, the Manichean bishop, could not satisfy St. Augustine’s probing questions. St. Augustine’s doubt concerning Manichaeism led him to a new kind of knowledge, not of the variety of 7 + 3 = 10, yet capable of providing rest for his restless desires.  As I reflect on Book VI, I realize that St. Augustine’s metanoia (change of mind) is analogous to the heartbreak and rebirth of romantic love.  This analogy is useful in exploring the experience of doubt and faith, which is as much a matter of the heart as of the mind. Continue reading

Model Search (or, Recognizing Authority)

Some years ago, just as I was finishing my dissertation, an old friend gave me a friendly warning about a pitfall that I would soon encounter.  He said to me, “You know, the problem is, once you are a “Dr.” people think you are an expert in everything.”  While he was exaggerating a bit, it is true that the letters Ph.D. behind one’s name lend authority to whatever that person says.  And my old friend was mostly right: once I graduated, people frequently responded to the letters behind my name.  One day I was a guy who had been in school way too long and the next day I was somebody worth listening to. 

What is true authority? Why ought we to listen to and pattern our lives after someone? We all need examples of how to live, and nothing instructs like flesh-and-blood. He who has no model is frequently adrift and unhappy, and he who follows a poor example may not realize that his unhappiness stems from it. What causes us to follow poor examples? Allow me to consider a couple of errant paths that are rooted in limited authority.

Authority is not merely given by conferred status. I may address a priest as “Father,” but according to Jesus, my trash collector may have more real authority. When the Jews challenged Jesus’s authority at the temple, he replied, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.” (John 7:16-18) The priest has the “authority” to carry out offices within the church, and as a parishioner, I do have to respect his “official” authority. But Jesus clearly separates true authority from false, and he who pursues his own glory should not be an example, even if he is a priest. Ideally, the conferred authority also has true authority, but frequently the two do not coincide.

A second species of limited authority is not conferred but merely limited to a “particular virtue”. I often read that an athlete has been cut from a team despite his near limitless talent, and the cause is typically a life of vice. Let’s get it through our heads that so many people have all kinds of particular talents with little talent for living. If I want to rebound a basketball like Dennis Rodman, then by all means, I should study his every move. Write a story? Look to Oscar Wilde. Design a house? Imitate Frank Lloyd Wright. But from what I read, I ought to forget everything else about their wayward lives.

Those men were each excellent in their particular way, and the world glorified them for their talent.  Jesus’ words in John 7 and his whole life show, however, that he who does the will of God and does not seek his own glory is the one we should take for our authority.  Jesus himself was and is the authority, but in so far as some people imitate him, they too are authorities. 

I frequently find models in people who have little in the way of worldly glory. My own mother and mother-in-law will not make the headlines, but they have lived well. My former priest has authority in my life, and so does a friend who grew up in inner city Los Angeles. None of these people will go down in history, be rich, or steer large institutions. But they each know how to love God and those around them. They have the right end in view, and their lives are a constant reminder of how I ought to live. 

An Apology for a Dinosaur (the College Essay)

It’s that time of the semester when term papers are due and students are turning their attention to nearly everything but their writing assignments.  As soon as a student sits down to write that essay, it suddenly becomes imperative to clean the dorm room, return long-overdue library items, and even finish that calculus set.  Why do procrastinating students leave writing until the bitter end?

Perhaps because writing an academic essay is hard work and offers little in the way of instant gratification. I suspect that my students (much like their professors?) stare glassy-eyed at the bewildering number of secondary sources on The Odyssey, asking why the world needs yet another essay about the virtues of a long-dead Greek hero. In my honest moments, I think such students have a pretty solid prima facie case.  You might argue that the academic essay has outlived its usefulness, since ninety-nine percent of students will never again in their lives write in this hallowed form. Perhaps we, the academic community, should abandon the essay in favor of a more up-to-date form like, say, a blog entry?

As persuasive as the case against the essay appears, I cannot imagine a replacement that requires as much synthesis of learning. A well-wrought essay requires a knowledge of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. To master the form, one must write one good sentence after another and organize those sentences into unified and coherent paragraphs, which in turn must be organized in support of a central claim.  As if that were not hard enough, the essay also requires students to think in a dialectical pattern between their own ideas and those found in primary sources.

As long as I am a professor, I will assign essays because the essay proves the student.  Just yesterday, I was speaking with students who were despairing of writing a decent essay.  I turned to a sample student essay in a textbook to show them, point-by-point, the body and form of a college essay.  The sample essay was about how Telemachus grows into manhood in The Odyssey.  My students and I analyzed how the student author went about proving that Telemachus surprises the boorish suitors when he boldly announces that they must leave his father’s house.  We talked about how the student showed how Telemachus signals his transition from childhood into manhood by suddenly speaking with authority.  Then he, too, becomes a hero, like his father.  And as we spoke, it suddenly occurred to me that here was an excellent metaphor for the experience of learning to write a college essay.  The experience of learning to advance an argument and support that argument cogently is an exercise in learning to speak with legitimate authority.  This process of learning to stand up with critics across time and space and assert one’s critical thoughts regarding the world’s greatest literature: it is a crucial step in the maturation of the student.

When my students turn in persuasive essays, written with due regard to the conventions of style and grammar, I am happy to see not that that they have proven their claims, but that they have proven themselves.  I can honestly say to them that there is something a little bit heroic in doing all that it takes to write a good essay.

 

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