Re: What's the Essay for?

Thu, 8 Feb 1996 14:08:14 -0500

On Thu, 8 Feb 1996, Brent R. Henze wrote:

> 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?...)

When I use the term "essay," I do so broadly. I use the term to mean
*any* monological written artifact. I generally exclude fiction, but
even that's debatable. I also include your standard scholarly
dissertation (an essay with a hormone problem).

In general, the academy now holds to theories of the social construction
of knowledge. We promote the Bahktinian notion of the "dialogue" of
texts. Yet, the kind of writing we ask students to engage in is
monological. It's often an individual voice making some kind of claim.
It's written to an imaginary audience, generally speaking (no matter
what kind of pretending we ask students to engage in), it's written
for the purpose of assessment (again, generally speaking), and the
content (generally speaking) provokes no genuine response. In other
words, where's the dialogue?

In the January 1995 issue of _CCC_ (I think) there were two essays
presented as a "conversation" -- one by Bartholomae, one by Elbow.
Yet, I maintain that these were two monologues. Each writer presented
his position in isolation. The "conversation" or "dialogue" was

Now, the writing that we do on this list, for example, *is* dialogical.
it *is* written conversation. I write for a real audience and I get
genuine response. I learn to communicate more effectively because
I know almost immediately when I've been unclear, when I've engaged
in a rhetorical strategy that my audience disapproves, when I've
touched on a hot issue, when I'm talking about something that's not
important to the "community," etc.

So, I contrast the exercise of rhetoric dialogically/multilogically
(as on this list) with the exercise of rhetoric monologically (in
an essay, especially a school-related essay). NOT that I want
essays to disappear, I just think that there may be more effective
means to teach rhetorical skill. Life, after all, is lived in
conversation. In conversation, we are in relationship with our

Incidentally, I do not believe that the only way to teach through
conversation is by using electronic media. It's just that e-media
make it so much faster.

Our university mission statement reads "the University fosters knowledge,
intellectual skills, and the joy of reasoned inquiry in its students so
that they may become thoughtful and responsible members of society."
Now, we may debate until the cows come home what we mean by "thoughful
and responsible members of society," but it's pretty clear to me that
the university sees its mission as a social one. This mission is what
warrants the nearly universal requirement for composition. This is what
we comp teachers are up to. My question is -- if our mission is a
social one, then why do promote this imperative to exercise rhetoric
and writing in isolation?

There are courses in "essay writing" -- I laud them. I love reading/
writing essays. It's just that fyc is not a course in "essay writing" --
it's much more.

Beth Baldwin