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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