Viewpoint

Writing: It Ain’t the Same Anymore

Is the essay a native electronic text? No. Can rhetorical elements of the essay be better taught in a form that is native? Probably.

Why the Essay?

The defacto claim that the essay is the ordinal rhetorical form in higher education, particularly as taught by people from English departments or writing programs (as opposed to “writing in the disciplines” faculty), has been questioned for at least 40 years. Do English or writing folks structure an argument the same way as, for example, social scientists or biologists? Based on research from the 1970s, we know the answer is “no,” and so we have reason to question how generalizable the English department version of the written argument is.

Hybrid Orality

But now a much larger challenge faces the sacred essay: Since most writing in our culture is done as some form of hybrid orality, say in e-mail or texting or blogs or wikis, and since these electronic forms of writing now do the business of the world, why do we still mostly teach the essay, a form made popular in the 16th century? And designed as a print artifact?

What Kind of Writing Do We Do?

A Pew Internet & American Life Project study (see www.thejournal.com/articles/22512) suggests that “Teens See Disconnect Between Personal and School Writing.” The young students involved don’t think of their electronic writing as “real” writing. The senior researcher for the Pew study laments that “high-tech communication by teens might be affecting their ability to think and write.”

Does anyone else see the logical fallacy here? When English settlers arrived “on the green breast of the new land,” (Fitzgerald) they at first wore the leather shoes designed for city streets as they stumbled through the forests. Now, 400 years later, educators are the settler and they are once again claiming that “leather shoes” are the proper footwear, but “teens” are out there in the digital new land wearing boots. Which one is the group grounded in reality?

Native Written Forms

A native form (“the boots”) in the digital world is e-mail. Yes, the first reaction to suggesting e-mail is a form worth studying and teaching is, “Oh, e-mail is simple, nothing there to teach or examine.” Until you look under the hood, that is. We thought spoken interaction was pretty simple, too, back when many people predicted we’d have natural language processing software by 1967. Forty years later, we’re doing ok, but no one counted on it taking us 40 years.

In fact, e-mail is one of the most complex written forms any of us has ever written. Essays only seemed hard in school because educators made it artificially difficult: Though many writing teachers are changing the paradigm, the essay has traditionally been taught as an autonomous (not collaborative -- that’s “cheating”) structured communication written by a novice to an expert, telling him or her (the teacher) what that expert already knows.

Who can do that? Or, better, why do that? In real life, a novice learner trying to speak to an expert about her business would be rebuffed; it would be a demonstration of presumption. But those are the kind of assignments we’ve often given in writing class, thereby convincing a series of generations that they are not good writers.

The Value of Replacing the Essay with the E-mail Form

E-mail has attributes that should be tantalizing for the academy:

 - A choice of infinite possible audiences, primary, secondary, tertiary at first and then other potential audiences over time. Since audience and purpose are the key writerly criteria for good communication, the “To:” line in an e-mail alone is worth a couple of weeks of instruction.

 - And, how do you construct the “cc:” line and the “bcc:” line?

 - The subject line can be as simple as a topic, but in the e-mail firehouse, it is better thought of as an executive summary that includes purpose. You need to catch the attention of your intended audience knowing your e-mail may be one among a hundred in the inbox.

 - The diction in e-mail writing often shifts from a hybrid oral form and then back to a formal written form, sometimes in mid-sentence. How do you choose which diction to use with whom?

And so on. You get the point. E-mail is the ordinal form of this age. Higher education is adapting in small measure by including more courses in more different departments about writing for the Web or in electronic discourse. But in the collective conscience of higher education, the reference form when talking about writing is still the essay. And that’s too bad because we could teach writing principles so well by using e-mail as the standard current form, and we’d be teaching a form that students do anyway.

The essay is a design challenge (state your thesis in the first paragraph, limit yourself to five paragraphs, and conclude by summing up) whereas e-mail is a communication challenge. Designing a good e-mail is even more difficult than designing a good essay, but it’s more enticing and it’s suited to the writing landscape we are in now.

And, Now, the Conclusion to this Blog, er, Essay


Is “real writing” the context-less essay or is real writing what we all do during a large part of each day as we work at our computers? We wonder if the Pew study is coming to the right conclusions: Maybe it is not that teens are eroding their essay-writing skills, but that education has not evolved with the culture.

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