By Adam Katz
So. The reason why I don’t feel comfortable any longer within the constraints of academia is what I’m doing right now. Starting out an essay (from the French essayer—to attempt) without a clear goal except to communicate what is on my mind in a given moment. This attempt may or may not have a bibliography. It probably won’t have footnotes; if it does, they’ll be sarcastic as fuck.
Right off the bat, an irony comes to mind. The very word ‘essay’ derives from the work of one Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. So why is it that when we write ‘essays’ in grade school and grad school alike, they feel a lot more like the work of Thomas Hobbes than that of Montaigne? What is the skill we are meant to demonstrate in an ‘essay’—which is to say, a scholastic essay? The ability to defend a rhetorical position. What is the skill most in evidence in a Montaignean* essay? The ability to explore a topic. In a scholastic essay, we often ignore preconceived notions and prejudices; in Montaigne’s essays, we see an honest effort to examine those preconceived notions alongside the topic, no, as part of the topic. Honest effort. It takes effort to be honest. That’s the essence of Montaigne, for me, as a reader and a writer.
It gets worse. A scholastic essay, that is, an argument in defense of a thesis, based on evidence, was not a new thing, neither for Montaigne, nor, for that matter, for Aristotle. Montaigne had the ability to write rhetorical exercises of that nature; he just… didn’t want to. So using the word he coined on a genre he had a documented distrust of is just… rude. Here is what Montaigne had to say:
“The truth of these days is not that which really is, but what every man persuades another man to believe, as we generally give the name of money not only to pieces of the truest alloy, but even to the false also, if they will pass.” (On Giving the Lie, 2.18)
I think it’s telling that Montaigne immediately links passing false arguments to passing false money. He himself, as a local politician, implicitly makes the connection between an idea having currency and a false coin being used as currency. Both are done to make a quick buck out of the pockets of the credulous.
I don’t hate rhetoric; I don’t hate argument; I don’t hate the scientific method. I don’t even really hate scholastic essays. I do agree (this is a low bar, but I clear it just fine) that something demonstrated by evidence and analysis is a fact, until disproven by evidence and analysis. There are issues with the system, but I don’t disagree with that premise. That’s not what I’m complaining about. What I’m complaining about is that by forcing students, time after time, to write essays about topics they don’t really care about, we are teaching them that the search for truth is a superficial exercise. That kind of education system breeds adults who engage in discourse when their goal isn’t to seek truths but rather to make money. Because when that happens, we start to see exactly what Montaigne is talking about: falsehoods being passed around like counterfeit coins, and being supported or undermined based on whether they conform to the audience’s preconceived notions, which usually means their self-interest. Whatever else may be true, it’s harder to lie in a Montaignean essay than in a scholastic one.
What does this have to do with academic writing? Well, “Publish or Perish” is another face of the problem; another way to craft arguments for the sake of self-interest rather than for the sake of learning and discovery. I am not saying that when one of my former-colleagues writes an essay, they don’t believe in the thesis; or worse that you can’t believe in something if you’re getting paid. That’s not it. They might believe in the thesis. But what if you’ve been writing an essay for too long and you just want to get it done? What if you are in a rut? What if you find out that your argument doesn’t work? And you still have to finish the article, because you’ve sunk a year’s work into it and even if you finished it tomorrow you’ll have to wait 6 months to hear back from whatever journal you send it to (where the editors work for free even though the magazine is published and sold for a profit by its host-university) and you don’t really have that long to wait because by then you need to be working on another article because if you don’t maintain a certain pace you won’t make it to assistant professor, or from assistant to associate, or from associate to full professor, or from there to having a fancy name on your chair. Lots of people tell themselves the tenure process is there so they can write what they believe without consequences, but in practice, I hear complaints from professors all the time that people go along to get along even after tenure. Being intellectually honest after tenure might be like taking up a hobby after retirement; something you always meant to do but by the time you reach that point you don’t know where to begin. And if, somehow, in all of that, you manage to publish work you’re proud of, work you came by intellectually honestly? It certainly happens. I have read a lot of great academic writing, and I am thankful to the people who wrote it. But nor do I want to ignore the corrupting influence of the publish-or-perish mentality on the people who are doing good work despite operating under a bad system, and not because of it.
So. What’s the alternative?
Well we can start by looking at the pernicious influences of the system, from grade school right up through the university, and imagine what life would be like if they just… went away. Where do good stories, essays, and other pieces of writing start? We know where they start. They pop into our minds in the shower, on the toilet, while reading, while going to sleep. Something just… clicks. But a good piece of writing can start with an exercise–a this-instead-of-that; a rhyming game, a visual organizer. Not every essay makes it out of the initial phase; not every idea needs to be carried to term. It’s a lot like throwing wet spaghetti against a wall, so to speak, and seeing what sticks. That is a process that takes time and leisure to get right. It really can’t be rushed. So what a writer needs is time. If we give people more time, we will have more and better writing as a result; more time will allow for necessary parts of the writing process like false starts and flights of fancy and self-care. On a practical level, this can be introduced in the university starting tomorrow. Students could have all semester to write something I call “unstructured-structured.” The essay-prompt itself is unstructured. But the way in which the essay is written is structured by meetings between student and professor.
Teachers always assign essays with quantitative guidelines: “x pages long,” “bibliography must include primary sources and contain a certain number of items,” thesis must conform to certain guidelines. So let’s try substituting qualitative guidelines: “pick a subject that interests or bothers you. Why does the subject interest or bother you? When did you first become aware of it? What are some angles you haven’t considered? Are there multiple sides to the issue? Do all of those sides have merit? Why or why not? What are some things you feel you could explain to those engaged in discussion of the subject? What are some things you imagine they could explain to you?” This kind of essay, you may observe, would be much more interesting to read as well as to write. It puts the obligation on the student to think a topic through and come up with something original to say, no matter how old the student is. But while it doesn’t focus on contributing new knowledge to an ongoing scholarly debate, I feel that new knowledge could indeed by arrived at this way. Perhaps most importantly, the focus is on respecting the other people in the discussion, but still weighing their ideas and arguments on their merits.
Whatever we do, we must slow down the writing process. As long as an essay is something you hand in instead of a process you engage in, students will write their essays at the last moment and professors will engage in self-care by skimming them. Meanwhile the great writers are precisely the ones who try things out and see if they work. Thomas More is a great writer. Michel de Montaigne is a great writer. Margaret Cavendish is a great writer. What each of these people have in common is that they wrote for pleasure. Yes, they were on the wrong side of colonialism, and thus had money and free time and were entrenched in a certain Euro-centric outlook (I hesitate to say that they were white because that concept had not even solidified yet). But that is not a reason to discount their works entirely; it is certainly a reason to work harder towards a society in which a less privileged person has leisure time to write—or to do whatever. But that may be a hill for another hike.
And yet I want to strike even more of a Utopian stance for a moment and ask: what if? What if the essayistic form of Montaigne and his descendants—Thomas Browne, Margaret Cavendish, even Derrida, although I hate him for being so obscurantist—what if that were the process they taught us in school; the process we were to teach our students? Not the only method of writing, but the main one: how to explore a topic, how to include your own preconceived notions in that exploration. How to engage in an intellectually honest manner with a topic, damn the consequences. It would be harder. But it would put the focus where it belongs: not just proving a random thesis because your teacher says that if you don’t have 6-8 pages on their desk by next Tuesday, you get a failing grade for the assignment. Not being motivated to prove a point; being motivated instead to discuss some ideas.
In my own writing classes—the ones I teach, this is what I do. My kids, as a rule, do not write persuasive essays; they write fiction or personal essays. I think some of the students are paralyzed by the freedom, at first. But they warm up pretty quick, and it’s not surprising to me that I regularly read short stories that are among my favorites; short stories that stand up to the work of the old, dead, white masters, even though they are written by children who aren’t even in high school yet. It turns out that when you ask a person—child or adult—to write something from the heart, and, of course, you shepherd them through the process so they don’t get discouraged, they have the potential to write something incredible. And if you ask them to write a scholastic essay about a topic they aren’t particularly invested in, they will write a scholastic essay they aren’t particularly invested in. And when you read it, you won’t be, either.
*Seriously. There must be a better way to turn French names into adjectives. “Montaignean.” “Foucaultian,” “Rousseauian”? 5 vowels in a row? Am I writing words or stretching them on a rack?