Sunday, October 28, 2012

Essay Writing - Why Analyzing Essays and Teaching Writing Has Been So Difficult

Why is it so doggone hard to talk sensibly about essays and to teach how to write them?

Definition Problem & Assumption

The difficulty is reflected admirably in a statement within Wikipedia's coverage on the subject of Essays:

The definition of an essay is vague, overlapping with those of an article and a short story.
And the further we read in that discussion on Essays, the more we are lost in a muddling Valley of Vagueness, even though some specific historical facts are offered to give a false sense of definiteness and a falsely comforting sense of knowledge.

Here's an equally telling definition of "essay" from an Internet dictionary:

A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author.

If we take the strongest elements from each of those statements, we can come up with: An essay is a vague composition, usually presenting the personal view of the author. Let's focus on the last part of that-the personal view of the author.

There's a HUGE assumption in that phrase. Do you see it? Can you bring that out into the open in your own mind, before I do it for you? Think about it for a moment-and then read on, here.

It's one of those assumptions that, when spelled out, makes all the difference in the world for truly understanding something. And I'm sure that when I point out the very obvious assumption, you'll smack your forehead with your open palm and say, "Right! He's nailed it! That's it! Why didn't I see it?"

Why haven't you, personally, seen what I'm about to tell you? Don't be too hard on yourself-the entire academic community hasn't seen what I'm about to tell you, and they've been wrestling with this problem at least since 1580, when Michele de Montaigne published his two volume work, Essais (French for our English word, Essays; and the meaning of the word is the same in both languages: to try, to attempt).

In fact, as I see it, academics of Western Civilization have actually been struggling with this assumption since a Greek by the name of Gorgias introduced Rhetoric to ancient Athens around 425 B.C.

Assumption Clearly Revealed

Okay, I've dangled the bait long enough.

Here's the assumption in that phrase, the personal view of the author - we assume that the personal view of the author is different from most of the rest of us.

If the author's personal view isn't different or NEW to the rest of us, then why bother with it? We surely don't want someone just repeating back to us what we already think, do we? So the underlying assumption has to be that the author of an essay-or anything else, for that matter-is saying something different or new.

AND THERE'S THE PROBLEM-academics (people involved in formal education and teaching) simply have never presented a way of talking about-of teaching about, across the board on all subjects-what's different or what's new. 'How's that?' you're wondering, no doubt.

Well, do you have-or do you remember coming across, in writing or speaking-a definition of different or new that covers everything? Tall order, right?

Look no further. The following discussion clears up the matter:

You see, the idea of new or different has always been a difficult problem because it's so formlessly vague. New (or different) has simply been a big, black, mysterious, even seemingly magical box that could hold just about anything and everything in it-and did!-because, up to now, we've never had a UNIVERSAL way of distinguishing one kind of newness (or differentness) from another.

However, one thing we do know about newness is that something couldn't be new unless there was something old to compare it to, right? But part of the whole problem is that old is just as formlessly vague as new.

What's missing? Answer: Two helpful sets of categories.

Old View Categories

You see, for something to be new, we must be able to compare it to a former version or type that is accepted by the reading or listening audience as old. You know the old saying, "You can't explain color to a blind man."

That is, if there's nothing shared to compare something to, you can't talk about it to someone who hasn't seen or experienced anything that is "like" it. All you can really say is, "Like wow, man!"-and doesn't that just electrify you and make your hair stand on end with insight! Here's what I see as the full list of old view categories:

  • values
  • expectations
  • experiences
  • reasoning
  • language

We can't say anything without using these in basic, everyday communication-especially in essays.

New View Categories

Now, here's where old meets new. Through years of study and research, I've found that you can change an old view in one or more-or some combination-of the following five major ways to make it "new:"

  • reverse
  • add
  • subtract
  • substitute
  • rearrange

That seems like an absurdly small number to cover all things new, doesn't it? Well, try it out yourself--just think of something new, identify the old that it's related to, and you'll see one or more of those new view categories in use (excepting merely "recent," of course; in such cases, the only difference is that something old has happened nearer in time).

At first, I doubted that small list. One word that gave me a brief hang-up was synthesis. But as I researched and thought more and more about it, I found that to explain synthesis you have to use words like blend, integrate, and merge. With those and similar words, it always comes down to put together in some special way-which is the same as add together. That's simply the add category of new views.

The word analysis gave me similar trouble. But I found that analysis was actually a form of the subtract category, with which you subtract parts from the whole to study the functioning of the whole through its parts.

Conclusion

Hmmmmm. I could bore you with a lot of detail-oriented analyses of published essays and student essays that use the old view categories and the new view categories. But I'm not going to do that because it would take away from the idea-level strength of the major insight I'm expressing here. If you are interested in such proofs, go out and look up on the Internet some widely anthologized essays, such as these:

  • Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
  • The Abstraction of Beasts by Carl Sagan
  • The Eureka Phenomenon by Isaac Asimov
  • The Nature of Scientific Reasoning by Jacob Bronowski
  • Thinking As a Hobby by William Golding

All the essays in the list above do unmistakably first state the old view very early on (in Sagan's essay, it's the very first sentence) and then follow up quickly with a statement of the new view (a new view reverse category of the old view value category; published essays practically always have a reverse new view). Then each of them follows with support of the new view in the form of stories, examples, and reasoning. That's always the pattern.

A couple of these five essays play a little loosely with the pattern, but you can still see the pattern for all that. But the more closely and clearly an essay follows the pattern, then the more easy it is to follow and to understand. That's always the case, too.

You simply can't get away from the pattern of old view first, then new view reverse of the old view, and then support for the new view.

Interestingly enough, that very same pattern occurs in short stories, novels, and poetry-with an important twist that entices you to read through to the story's end.

But that 'twist' should be the subject of another article or essay or book, now, shouldn't it?

And it is.

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