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To Essay Is To Try
Recently, I was reading Annalise Mabe’s great blog post on connecting through writing, and the impact of social media on our writing situation – both the unintended, usually negative, consequences and the ones glimmering with hope on the horizon, the possible outcomes worth striving for. The outcomes that inspire composition instructors each new semester to set aside past disasters and keep bringing technology and social media into the writing classroom.
Annalise’s post reminded me that the French word essayer is the verb to try. So to write an essay is to write an attempt: at understanding, at giving meaning, at making a human connection.
That essay might take a long form, such as those we read in our favorite online publications, or it might take the form of a rambling social media post. (I won’t quite call a tweet an essay, but feel free to disagree with me in the comments. It sounds like a fascinating debate!) Polished or scattershot, print or digital, the essay is not an outmoded form, as some have claimed, it is the linguistic manifestation of the human experience, lived out in 12 point font or scrawled on a napkin.
It is this definition – this striving – that I think gives the essay its best hope of having meaning for future generations, whether or not they study French. Or even English. The essay as an attempt connects the writing of the classroom with endeavor in the real world. Students might not feel inspired by “Once More to the Lake,” no matter how much of a paragon E.B. White may be. But they know who is saying what about the social issues that matter to them. Whether it is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip hop retelling of the history of Alexander Hamilton or Katie Kieffer as an up-and-coming Millennial columnist for Townhall, students are following the words of the people they admire. By tracking those words, they are tracking social and political currents, keeping an eye on leaders as they try out ideas on a national – and international – stage. Those words, if you will allow me to set aside strict genre conventions for a moment, are foundationally essays.
One of the great gifts of the Internet is the platform it can create, the readily available audience. Even as students engage with the language and rhetoric of writers and leaders online, they can also use writing to express their own social justice concerns, their own responses to political upheaval, and their own values as future leaders and citizens. As they essay these ideas for the audience of the classroom, or the audience of the Internet, they will learn to refine their thinking, to polish their thoughts, so that they leave college with ideas – and words – that can make a difference.
The textbooks I work on every day include sections on “Writing to Convince or Persuade” and “Ethical Arguments.” Even a simple “Cause and Effect” chapter can change the world, in the right hands, if it inspires the right language. That sounds hyperbolic, but haven’t we all found our lives changed by the right words, read or heard in the right moment? And this is what students are missing, I think. Both the power they hold and the dark side of the democratization granted us by the Internet. When everyone’s words are available, when there is no threshold for publication, is it really worth the time to become a strong writer?
The answer to that, like the answers to so many things, is really a question. In a platform overly saturated with words, how can you be heard? What will make your thoughts, your ideas stand out, what will bring eager minds to read your work?
It will be the quality, the clarity, the vividness of the words that will bring attention to the message. Students who want to make a difference – in their own lives and in the lives of others - will need to write well to do so. Even as they strive in the world, trying to shape it for the better, they will need to strive, to essay, in their writing, as the easiest, fastest way to reach a digital world with a global audience. The intro-composition class – and the essay – is an important first step.