Anybody who's heard me on about this before should tune out now.
Remembering Whitman . . . do I repeat myself? Very well then, I
repeat myself; I am large, but I apparently contain only One Big
Idea. Here I go again.
> Am I reading correctly, Russ, when I understand you to be saying,
> above, that the academic essay is typically "entirely without
> authentic, instrinsic purposes"? If that is more or less what you
> intend, could you elaborate a bit? Or have I misunderstood?
Yes, I think you're reading correctly, that's just what I mean. And
the reason I say it is that the academic essay is read only by one
person, and that person is not (is certainly not seen by the writer
as) in a dialogic relationship with the writer. She's assessing and
helping; she's not being informed, being persuaded, being engaged.
Nor, even if she were, and even if the student believed it, is she
the appropriate _rhetorical_ audience for that essay. If a student
were writing _to me_, she'd write something _very_ different from the
essay she actually wrote. If she were writing to inform some
general audience, she'd write something else again.
What she's doing is writing an _example_ of public discourse, which
will never be public (except perhaps as an example). There is no
(real) audience for the rhetorical artifact of the student essay.
What we do, of course, is _pretend_ there's an audience ("out there
in chairs," as Anthony Pare says). The students who get the good
marks, and who learn from the exercise, are those who can pretend in
effective ways. Those who can't, can't learn from trial and error
because the trials and errors have no authentic connections, and
because what they're really trying to do (get a good mark) is
different from the ostensible rhetorical purpose of the essay.
> The second part of the sentence is a bit puzzling as well. Are you
> distinguishing between (inauthentic?) writing that is written "to
> demonstrate knowledge or ability" and, on the other hand, writing
> that "persuades, amuses, engages, informs, etc."? As if the two
> purposes and intentions were mutually exclusive? And the academic
> essay falls into the first camp? Or have I misunderstood you here
I don't necessarily mean "the academic essay" here, I guess: what
I'm talking about might better be called the _class_ essay, the
essay written as part of an assignment to demonstrate either
knowledge of a subject or skill at an analytic activity or discourse
form. Such an essay can be _stipulated_ to have some rhetorical
purpose. "Write an amusing essay," perhaps? No. "Write a
persuasive essay." That's better. But no one is going to be
_persuaded_ by that essay; someone's going to judge it as a
successful example of persuasion, or not. So the student never has
the experience of having wanted to persuade someone, and succeeding
(or wanting to, and failing). She has the experience of having
a professor as examiner try to explain why his judgement is that it
was, or wasn't, an example of successful persuasion for some third
> My questions are not, obviously, unmotivated. To begin with, an
> academic essay that is persuasive and engaging, as I understand it,
> may often also demonstrate knowledge and ability. And it might be a
> better academic essay if it accomplishes several of these goals.
"An essay that is persuasive and engaging" can't, if it's an essay
for a class, be one that has actually persuaded or engaged . . . but
it _can_ be one that demonstrates knowledge or ability. I'll buy
that last sentence ("it might be a > better academic essay if it
accomplishes several of these goals"), for sure -- what I'm
questioning is whether, given the way academic essays exist, we can
ever get past someone's judgement that that essay is or isn't a good
example of persuasion.
My students regularly come into my class, never, ever, having had the
experience of writing extended discourse in order to inform,
persuade, amuse, or present themselves to someone they care about
informing, persuading, amusing, or presenting themselves to, and
either succeeding or failing. My central aim as a teacher is to
offer them that experience. Academic or class essays aren't a tool I
can use for that.
Russell A. Hunt __|~_)_ __)_|~_ Aquinas Chair
St. Thomas University )_ __)_|_)__ __) PHONE: (506) 452-0424
Fredericton, New Brunswick | )____) | FAX: (506) 450-9615
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