Re: What's the Essay for?

Brent R. Henze (brhenze@MAILBOX.SYR.EDU)
Thu, 8 Feb 1996 11:19:02 -0500

On Wed, 7 Feb 1996, Steve Krause wrote:
> Personally, I'd hate to see the essay as a form generally disappear. I
> like writing essays and I like reading them too-- creative essays, but
> also the sort of thing that shows up in journals and in the popular
> presses. And as someone else said along these lines, we should remember
> that most of the world is not wired-- they have either been denied or
> have denied themselves access. So it seems to me a bit premature to
> entirely dispense with the form.
....and then...
> the class that I'm teaching this semester, I am purposefully avoiding the
> word "essay" and am encouraging students to try and do some other sort of
> writing project that is not a 5 page paper.

To pick up on the "teaching the essay" part of this thread--it's an
interesting issue, and I wonder if we can decide what we mean, in various
situations, when we refer to "the essay" (is it a formal classification?
do we use the term to denote a particular way of organizing/presenting
ideas? a specific *kind* of ideas?...)

Steve offers a couple different impressions of what we mean when we say
"essay"--first, the sorts of texts we find in popular and creative
journals, newspapers, and magazines, pieces that take up a theme in some
more-or-less innovative way, using few if any direct quotes, and so on;
second (and more generally), the "five-page [academic?] paper", the kind
of thing students might be asked to write to demonstrate their knowledge
of, and skills in, working with the issues arising in academic fields.
I'm not sure if these descriptions exactly represent what Steve is talking
about, but they may serve as working descriptions, at least.

Beth also suggests that "the essay" should not be made the center of
the fy comp curriculum--not that it shouldn't be taught altogether, but
that it shouldn't be the canonical rhetorical form in comp classes, so to
speak. She goes on to distinguish, I think, between
dialogical/"multi-vocal" writing as an alternative to essay
writing--another way we might describe "the essay" (as a univocal text?)

I'm mostly intrigued by this issue because I find that I refer to
lots of things as "essays", and upon seeing some of these
characterizations of essays, I recognized some of the ways I've used the
term--as a specific form or genre, as a kind of "voicing" by a writer, as
a specific way of organizing informed opinion, as a topical issue, and so
on. Though I may mean something quite specific when I use the term in
any given conversation, I suspect that the play in its meaning might
affect what people understand me to mean (whether these people are my
students, my colleagues, or anyone else).

Not that we should necessarily boil the term down to one thing only,
but when y'all say "essay", what do you mean (and how does that alter
some of our questions--like "should we teach it?")