Essai-ing the Essay

Earlier this year, I asked an exchange student from Austria what she thought was the biggest difference between her own university and University of Toronto (U of T). Her response was quick: the essays here are expected to be much more rigid and strict in structure and prose than the essays back home. She said that in European universities, or at least her own, essays are more free-flowing and personal—they are allowed to use first person pronouns!

From the very moment we learn about formal/academic essay writing in high school, we’re told that using first person pronouns and contractions are bad. My grade ten history teacher repeated to us again and again to not use contractions, even though the assignment was to write as if we were WWI soldiers from the trenches (who surely broke all kinds of writing rules). Even in university, professors have circled all the contractions I use, even though contextually, contractions helped the piece flow better. But, I guess formality overrides style. 

And indeed, one of the first true close reading papers I wrote exemplifies academia’s lack of attention to style. I wrote this paper in second year, so it’s bound to be unpolished. But I got a decent grade for it because the content was good. But, reading it now—heck, even editing it back then—makes me cringe from the chunkiness of the prose. There was little flow. There was little finesse. There was a lot of bland. But all that was irrelevant. The content was all that mattered.

Of course content does matter; it matters a lot more than style, in academic writing. But as we get into higher levels of thinking in university, we should move beyond just the basics of developing the content of our writing. We should also be developing our abilities to package and market our thoughts. As emerging scholars, we rarely have ideas so unique and original that have never crossed anybody’s minds before (of course, there are the select few who are indeed this brilliant). In this case, we need to be able to distinguish ourselves and our opinions from the others. And that’s where style comes in.

Essai-ing the Essay

But how do we develop style, if content is virtually the only aspect our essays are evaluated on? How do we develop style, if the journal articles we read are often infected with academese like “this paper will” (there are better ways to road map!) and unnecessary jargon that can alienate even the best of us (and not in the avant garde experimental way)? How do we develop style, if all we’re focused on is proving that thesis?

A handout on thesis statements I once received claims that while not all essays require a clear thesis, humanities essays usually do. While I have had professors who told us not to worry too much about the thesis, but rather to just start writing and exploring, the general rule of thumb is to acquire an argument before formally writing. But why is that? The very word “essay” means “attempt”. Even the more modern usage means “a composition of moderate length on any particular subject, or branch of a subject; originally implying want of finish, ‘an irregular undigested piece’ (Johnson), but now said of a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range”. A lot of essays are quite indigestible and limited.

In the seminar where I met the exchange student, the professor assigned us to write short “essais”. She used “essai” specifically to draw attention to the idea of “attempt”. We were able to engage with the texts in various forms, but most of all, we were able to engage with them on a personal level. These essais could be very personal, or very academic, or a combination of both elements. Through these essais, I worked through my own ideas and the ideas from the texts, and weaved them together into something new-ish. In short, I had the platform to create.

The problem is that essais or other more personal forms of analysis can be challenging because of the D word: Disinterest. This word is the reason we tell students not to use personal pronouns. This word is the reason so many essays are so dry. Not that I don’t like impartiality. In fact, for the most part I do champion disinterestedness in academic studies, because it allows—nay, forces—us to branch out of our limited boxes of perspectives and try to find and understand other points of view. Disinterestedness, when used effectively, can make us better learners and writers. 

But have we used it effectively, or have we simply created for ourselves the trap of disinterestedness? Have we become too interested in disinterestedness that we have forgotten why we are in our fields in the first place—because of our passion and curiosity? Because of our interest?

Essai-ing the Essay

I wonder where my curiosity went in undergrad. I have always loved to write, but writing essays generally made me feel detached and uninterested. Between all the thesis-forming and attempting to sound “academic”, I forgot to ask questions for the sake of asking. I forgot to be okay with not knowing the answers because I was judged on the answers I found. And how do we learn without inquiry? What drives us to truly learn without extrinsic motivations like GPAs and scholarships, if not the desire to know? 

But I think the (arts) essay kills this innate curiosity. We write essays to tell the audience, which, really, is just our instructors, what they likely already know. In another seminar, my professor criticized my proposed thesis to be too “bold”. When I met with her during office hours, she steered me into writing about something on which the class has discussed extensively and issues to which she clearly has an answer. I can understand telling high school and first year students that their ideas are too “bold”, but fourth years? How can we possibly forge new paths in our fields if we can’t be bold? We are trained to formulate answers, not questions, and that’s deeply problematic.

The restrictions on creativity is related to the (unconscious) restrictions on style. We write blandly, and our ideas, in order to satisfy a quota and in order not to jeopardize our GPAs, are bland. Or at least, blandness is the safest route to academic success in quantitative terms. If content matters so much, such that it almost erases the significance of style, why aren’t we encouraging exceptional, rather than just decent, ideas? If I have to read bland prose, I at least want to be excited by the content.

To me, good content comes from good questions. But the arts essay, from my experiences, have never explicitly encouraged active questioning. There is not a lot I would take from the sciences (mainly because of my own ignorance of the fields), but I would look to the scientific method to approach essays. The method has five steps: “(a) systematic observation, measurement, and experimentation, (b) induction and the formulation of hypotheses, (c) the making of deductions from the hypotheses, (d) the experimental testing of the deductions, and (if necessary) (e) the modification of the hypotheses”

Our writing process should start with a question, which is derived from our observations of the text. Then, we formulate a possible answer, just to ground our inquiry, but we should not let this hypothesis, or question, limit us. They should be used as guides as we hike through the terrain that is the text. Next, we experiment. Or, in the case of the arts, we explore. We should constantly ask questions, which ideally build upon previous questions, in order to focus and complicate our findings. These questions should then lead us to a dialogue with both the text and ourselves. The Socratic method shouldn’t be limited to direct pedagogy, but rather ought to be internalized so that we can guide our own learning and thoughts, even when there are no professors to hold our hands.

This method can result in another type of formulaic writing, as the scientific method is literally a formula. But I think it’s a good way to start looking at essays as experiments, as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Essays, much like learning itself, are a process. A process that doesn’t end with the concluding sentence. I have so many essays from the past that I know I can add to, because as novice scholars, we and our ideas are always changing with experiences and knowledge. 

Furthermore, the difficulty with this process is that the writing can be vulnerable to meandering without being enlightening. But this is exactly why we should allow students to explore in lower risk assignments. Instead of having two papers worth 30% each, give students regular writing assignments that are worth less. Give students the room to make mistakes. When did we become so fearful of mistakes, especially as emerging academics? This fear is why we don’t ask questions anymore. This fear is why we write so unnaturally and in such alienating ways that nobody with any sense of verbal aesthetics would want to read about the brilliant, albeit poorly packaged, ideas we have. 

Essai-ing the Essay

Learning is a lifelong journey, but the academic essay reduces it to a process of regurgitation of what we do know, rather than an exploration into what we don’t know.

Writing, for me, has always been a search for some kind of “truth”. Academic writing is one way to search for one kind of “truth”, but by virtue of its stylistic restrictions and expectations, it also limits our search and our idea of “truth”. If we free up these stylistic limitations, we can encourage students to take more risks, in their writing and their thinking. If we allow students to write more freely, maybe they’ll be able to think more freely as well. In literature, we often talk about how style informs content. While they are distinct aspects of a text, they are also intrinsically connected. In other words, the medium is the message. And if you give me a medium in the form of an uninteresting essay, that blandness will bleed into the content.

Of course, not everybody is born a writer. Not everyone has a natural style. I’m sure somebody, somewhere, has the natural style of formal and academic writing. Perhaps we don’t go to universities to learn how to write beautifully. But we do go to universities to learn how to learn and how to think, and writing can develop these skills. You can’t not write if you’re in academia, for better or for worse. So, if you have to write anyway, why not write well?


Essai-ing the Essay
Part time hater. Professional loner.