Right around now, the last few of you are retrieving your term papers from our virtual classroom. And I imagine that you're reading my irascible comments with sinking hearts. Your pristine margins are littered with scrawls: "wrong word," "unclear," "awkward," "redundant," "superfluous," "SIMPLIFY!" As the pages scroll past, the handwriting becomes increasingly erratic. Exclamation points and underlining appear more frequently. The comments at the end contain almost no encouragement and much disappointment.
It's clear that your papers have been the victim of a cranky, belligerent professor, one whose frustration over unmet standards has gotten the better of her. That professor is me.
Yes, I marked your essays with increasing agitation. Yes, I became angrier, as the page count mounted, at missing commas and run-on sentences and empty phraseology like "the fact that," as if you should have learned from your opening mistakes and ended better than you started. Yes, the exercise of correcting your grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure indeed struck me as a waste of my time, considering that it was aimed at such accomplished students with such a keen interest in ideas, and considering the woeful state of basic composition pedagogy that it revealed.
And I'm here to apologize for my wrathful pen. Because I don't think it's your fault that your papers were dreadful. I think it's mine. And I think it's my profession's.
All semester you've been writing for me. And it's been wonderful. Almost none of the faults of these essays have been in evidence in your previous writing. Responding online to prompts that asked you to reflect on your texts and on ideas related to them, encouraged to free-write without revision and with no attention to the formal structures of the essay, you've been eloquence incarnate. Your ideas have shone through simple, clear language. You've used words appropriately. Your passion and thought process have been crystal clear. I've read you all semester with such joy and interest that your writing has all but disappeared for me. Instead, it's like we've been communicating mind to mind.
Yet faced with a blank word processing document, your name and my name and the course title and the date left-justified at the top, you've turned into incompetents. Did you suddenly lose your ability to write?
No, of course not. What happened was that the form of the academic essay snapped handcuffs on you. Instead of being taught to think in high school, you were taught to "write." That meant introductions and five point outlines and transitions and formal, useless phrases intended to make your sentences more varied and complex.
What you do every week for me in those journals, you don't think of as writing. That's why it's so good, so natural, so transparent a window into your minds. As soon as we give you a writing assignment, though, the prison door snaps shut. Writing becomes labor. Thoughts struggle to escape the format, and fail. Language is tortured beyond recognition. Meaning dies, suffocated by the airless vacuum of the academic essay.
You need to learn to produce these papers. Most of you are going on to graduate school; you'll be cranking them out for years to come. But we've gone at it completely backwards. We've made writing into essay production. What you do so well in your tweets, on your blogs, on Facebook, on our online community, even in the weekly journals you send me, we have related not at all to what we're asking you to do come term paper time. We've squandered your strength as writers by not teaching you to harness it for that arcane, convention-bound, largely irrelevant form called the academic essay. Instead of showing you how well you write in the genres that come naturally to you, and then gently and gradually placing our unnatural mold around you so that you can fill it with meaning, we demand that you fill the essay bucket over and over again before you've even found your voice. Is it any wonder that you have become adept at producing padded, repetitive, completely unnatural drivel, just to get the slop up to the rim?
And so, beloved students, to atone for my hostile remarks on your papers, I'll make you a promise. With your help, I'll stop making the production of academic essays into the culmination of each succeeding semester. Course by course, we'll strike a blow against the outdated hegemony of this ivory-tower-bound genre. Maybe then, we can start over and learn how to produce them when needed, beyond our current myopia about the aesthetic superiority and universal relevence of the form.
Yours for progress and clarity,