Saturday, February 3, 2007


Finally got around to reading two essays that I had seen links to, printed out, and put in The Pile of Things I Need to Read When I Get a Chance. The first, Paul Graham's 2004 "The Age of the Essay," is obviously not new, but it was new to me. In it, Graham argues, as I have done elsewhere, that the kind of essay writing most students are asked to do in school (usually a five paragraph thesis essay in response to literature) is not really essay writing at all:
Defending a position may be a necessary evil in a legal dispute, but it's not the best way to get at the truth, as I think lawyers would be the first to admit. It's not just that you miss subtleties this way. The real problem is that you can't change the question.

And yet this principle is built into the very structure of the things they teach you to write in high school. The topic sentence is your thesis, chosen in advance, the supporting paragraphs the blows you strike in the conflict, and the conclusion-- uh, what is the conclusion? I was never sure about that in high school. It seemed as if we were just supposed to restate what we said in the first paragraph, but in different enough words that no one could tell. Why bother? But when you understand the origins of this sort of "essay," you can see where the conclusion comes from. It's the concluding remarks to the jury.

Good writing should be convincing, certainly, but it should be convincing because you got the right answers, not because you did a good job of arguing. When I give a draft of an essay to friends, there are two things I want to know: which parts bore them, and which seem unconvincing. The boring bits can usually be fixed by cutting. But I don't try to fix the unconvincing bits by arguing more cleverly. I need to talk the matter over.

At the very least I must have explained something badly. In that case, in the course of the conversation I'll be forced to come up a with a clearer explanation, which I can just incorporate in the essay. More often than not I have to change what I was saying as well. But the aim is never to be convincing per se. As the reader gets smarter, convincing and true become identical, so if I can convince smart readers I must be near the truth.

The sort of writing that attempts to persuade may be a valid (or at least inevitable) form, but it's historically inaccurate to call it an essay. An essay is something else.
Graham argues for a kind of essay writing based on trying, on meandering:

The Meander (aka Menderes) is a river in Turkey. As you might expect, it winds all over the place. But it doesn't do this out of frivolity. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea.

The river's algorithm is simple. At each step, flow down. For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting. Of all the places to go next, choose the most interesting. One can't have quite as little foresight as a river. I always know generally what I want to write about. But not the specific conclusions I want to reach; from paragraph to paragraph I let the ideas take their course.
In a recent post I was wondering out loud, in regard to the attempt to envision School 2.0, how our schools would change if we were to think of them as primarily places where students were creating knowledge rather than receiving it. Putting aside other subjects for the moment, I would argue that in regard to English, the subject I teach, the creation of knowledge can only be facilitated to the degree that students are allowed to stake out and explore territories that are not already mapped for them. To read someone else's map is to receive knowledge. To make a map of your own is to create knowledge.

It occurs to me as I write this—I'm meandering, here, unapologetically—that if we are going to speak of creating knowledge we are probably going to have to distinguish between creating knowledge that is new and perhaps useful to us individually, and creating knowledge which is new and perhaps useful to the community, or to mankind. Graham argues that the former is what drives true essay writing. You are trying to write what you don't know, in other words, to surprise yourself:

Surprises are things that you not only didn't know, but that contradict things you thought you knew. And so they're the most valuable sort of fact you can get. They're like a food that's not merely healthy, but counteracts the unhealthy effects of things you've already eaten.
And from that it follows that good writing, and good learning, in the sense of the creation of new ideas, is in some ways inherently contrarian: it arises out of a rejection of accepted wisdom:

Above all, make a habit of paying attention to things you're not supposed to, either because they're "inappropriate," or not important, or not what you're supposed to be working on. If you're curious about something, trust your instincts. Follow the threads that attract your attention. If there's something you're really interested in, you'll find they have an uncanny way of leading back to it anyway, just as the conversation of people who are especially proud of something always tends to lead back to it.
So, in our hypothetical English 2.0 classroom, if we wanted to allow students to be creating knowledge, we would have to allow considerable room for students to poke their noses into places that they've been told they're not supposed to go.

I had the good fortune, when I was a young teacher, to fall under the influence of both
Donald Graves, whom I've written about before, and Donald Murray, whom I haven't. Murray, who died recently, was the author of several books, including A Writer Teaches Writing, on what came to be known as "process writing." His motto, which I think is still instructive in the context of School 2.0, was that "I try to underteach so my students can overlearn." What I learned from Graves and Murray, and what still forms the most powerful part of my (under)teaching, is that you need to make room for what students have to say, what they are interested in doing.

For many years the two classroom activities that I have gotten the most mileage out of have been, in essence, activities that have demanded that I step out of the way. The first activity is is simply a regular open-ended writing assignment. I ask students to hand in a piece of work each week (in School 2.0 it might be each day) that represents and
hour's worth of work. No other constraints. Genre, topic, length, degree of difficulty, draft status (rough or final): their choice. I just collect them, read them, try to figure out what they're trying to do, and then try to help them do it better. I learn more about the students through those writing samples than I ever do from the assignments I design for them. And, by their own testimony, they learn more from doing them than from the other assignments they have been asked to do.

The second activity is called "Open Forum." Once every two weeks or so I simply turn the class period over to the students for an open-ended discussion. I hand a file card to each student and ask them to write down a question, a topic, or a statement they would like to discuss or that they think their classmates would enjoy talking about. Then I collect the cards, shuffle them up, read the first one out loud, and we're off. When we get burned out on one topic, or when a student makes a request that we move on (a request that must receive a majority vote to be acted on), we go on to the next card. Again, the dynamics in this discussion are often completely different, in interesting and sometimes exhilarating ways, than the dynamics of other more traditional small-group or teacher-led content-targeted discussions. Often, I am surprised: I learn something. Knowledge is being created, not delivered.

The other essay I read last night was Zadie Smith's provocative article from the Guardian entitled "
Fail Better," in which she has a great deal to say about writing and reading. One of her key points is that writing—she is thinking of novel writing but I believe what she has to say is true of poetry and essay writing and blogging as well—is always and inextricably bound up with personality, which is to say, character:

A writer's personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner. When you understand style in these terms, you don't think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer's way of telling the truth.
She looks at revision as the means of paring away what is predictable, what is already known, what is second-hand wisdom:

When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people's, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment - once you have removed all that warps experience into a shape you do not recognise and do not believe in - what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception. That is what I am looking for when I read a novel; one person's truth as far as it can be rendered through language.
She ends the essay by extending these writerly notions of responsibility to the reader as well:

A novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing - I really believe that. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television, they only wish to debase reading and readers. The more accurate analogy is that of the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. She must use her own, hard-won, skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift she gives the composer and the composer gives her.

This is a conception of "reading" we rarely hear now. And yet, when you practise reading, when you spend time with a book, the old moral of effort and reward is undeniable. Reading is a skill and an art and readers should take pride in their abilities and have no shame in cultivating them if for no other reason than the fact that writers need you. To respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader, the type of reader who is open enough to allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason. The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer's style so that together writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park...

The skills that it takes to write it are required to read it. Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced. That is certainly one of the many things fiction can do, but it's a conjurer's trick within a far deeper magic. To become better readers and writers we have to ask of each other a little bit more.

I read this lines last night with certain degree of fascination and excitement. Because what she is saying here is the analogue of what Paul Graham is saying, and of what I have been trying to tease out in regard to English 2.0 and School 2.0. It's not about stating and proving your the thesis you decided on before you started writing. It's not about having your vision of the world confirmed by what you write and what you read. It's not about going to school to be told what to do or what to think, to be a passive recipient of knowledge, however important. It's about exploration, it's about finding out what you don't know or haven't thought of yet, it's about surprising yourself with a new idea that is delightful and useful and true.

I'm not arguing that we should abandon skill-based instruction or content-driven instruction. I'm arguing that there has to be a balance. When Paul Graham talks about "the things one has to write in school," he's conjuring up a bugbear that many, if not most adults, would shudder at. In school 2.0, we need to change that.


Jeff said...


Thanks for this--you've articulated, once again, something I've been thinking. I'm currently working with my sophomores on an ongoing project in which they, the students, try to figure out what it is we're supposed to be doing in English class, as I'm completely at the end of my rope.

Konrad Glogowski has a great bit on this subject, as well. I definitely recommend reading it if you get a chance.


Tom Hoffman said...

So... it seems like English 1.0 done well is pretty good. Why do we need a 2.0?

Sarah McIntosh Puglisi said...

Thank you,
This is very helpful to me.
I find writing often a discovery process, and recall Steinbeck speaking to this in his letters to his friend while writing East of Eden. But cannot find my book to cite, not necessary really.
I recently read a book by Patrice Vecchione which talked similarly. She creates poetry and poetry anthologies, as well as writes on her work instructing writing with adults and children. I found this work helpful to me also.

Sarah Puglisi