Re: Reassessing our practices

Greg Ritter (gritter@FELIX.VCU.EDU)
Mon, 12 Feb 1996 19:26:03 EST

Michael said:
> Someone said:
> >hierarchical chain of being which places them pretty low
to the
> >bottom -- again making it a short step to "starting at
the bottom" in
> >an industrial era job.
> But isn't the "essay" the rhetoric device by which
knowledge gets
> forwarded in the academy?

Depends on what *kind* of essay you're talking about. The kind of
essay that gets published in academic journals is a far stretch
from the kind of essay that freshman are asked to write in comp
or sophomores asked to write in American History, etc. etc. I
didn't learn how to write a "professional" academic essay until
my second year of graduate school (and I still haven't had any
luck publishing, though I seem to be getting the conference
presentation thing down).

Knowledge does not get forwarded by the '5 Causes of the Civil
Way' kind of essay, the kind of essay that requires students (as
we've been discussing) to prove they've comprehended the
material. We could call that the 'banking concept essay'. :)

Knowledge gets forwarded by essays that critically engage the
subject matter. Unfortunately, most undergraduates aren't asked
to perform that kind of writing very often.

> And then isn't it the thinking of those thinkers at the
top (research)
> that business uses to develop the capital to control the
system and
> retain the factory model?

It's the critical and creative thinkers who get to be on top (in
any endeavor) and the ones who know the forms and apply them
rigidly and unthinkingly who get to be the cogs.

There's not a business in the world that would promote someone
who was still stuck in the five-paragraph theme paper mode.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of college professors who will
promote (i.e., pass) someone who is stuck in that mode.

> So isn't the device useful to whomever might apply it? In
> context they choose? If its good enough for [insert your
> theorist here], isn't it valuable enough for the

I think there's a distinction between the kind of essays
theorists write and the kind of essays undergraduates (and many
grad students) write. IMO, the sad fact is that the essay is
mainly regarded in academia as a tool to ascertain whether a
student has comprehended the material. Even in our composition
classes, the essay is too often used as a tool to ascertain
whether the student has comprehended the academic rhetorical
standards which are our duty to expose them to.

Speaking as someone who is an academic, a creative writer
(fiction and drama), and a freelancer (newspapers, magazines,
public relations, technical manuals, CD-ROMs), I can assure you
that the academic forms students use and are taught as
undergraduates have little application in the real world of
writing. Of course, *any* regular writing will make you a better
writer, but I think it's a mistake to believe that the
"undergraduate academic essay" form will significantly help a
student anyplace outside of academia.

The solution? Provide freshmen with real writing situations? Make
them write for publication, make them write letters to the
editors, op-ed columns, etc.? But if we do this what will we do
when they get to History 201 or Psych 376 or even English 420
where they're expected to write a good "undergraduate academic
essay" and not an op-ed position piece?

I don't have the solution. I hate teaching students to write for
the academy, but I know that I have to prepare them for the kind
of writing situations they'll meet in the next 3 1/2 years and
hope that in that time the classes in their discipline teach them
the kind of writing that their careers will require of them.

> And
> important enough for us to teach?
> Just thought I'd ask.
> Mike Hamende

Greg Ritter