Tell Me an Essay

As some of you could probably have guessed, I should be doing something else right now. I am only two-thirds of the way done with my second paper and, while it isn’t due until Monday, my students’ finals and final papers will arrive tomorrow and Friday respectively. All things considered, I would prefer to be done producing my work before assessing theirs.

I am actually looking forward to their final papers, though. My students were given the option of writing a short detective story for their final paper instead of the traditional research paper and most of them took that option. I have a feeling – and we will soon see whether this hunch of mine is correct – that we are better storytellers than we are essay writers. Most human interactions that have passed the “hello, how are you” phase are either stories or arguments.* We tell people about what is going on in our lives, or what we are reminded of by current events or why it is we feel what we feel…we tell stories. Or we engage in conversations where we are either attempting to convince the other person that what we think is correct or attempting to explain to them the logic behind our opinions…we argue. Arguments are not a bad thing; in the right context and with respect, they can be incredibly productive. But, and this is just my personal experience so take that for what it is worth, we are far less discerning when it comes to arguments than stories and we reward good stories more often and more regularly than we do good arguments. In the end, then, we are far less capable of creating a well-crafted argument than a well-told tale.**

We know what a good story is. We all have a friend or two who can make even the most boring collection of interactions into an hour long comedic routine. We read stories, we listen to them, we play them on our computers and we watch them on our televisions. And sometimes the content of these stories is…how do I put this? Ah, yes. Godawful. But as we read, listen, play and watch, our tastes become more discerning. We discover not only what we like, but also what does not work for us. And we incorporate that into, if nothing else, the way we speak. But more importantly, the structure of the story; the way events unfold, the rising action, the climax and the wrap-up become more familiar to us and we know, even if we don’t know that we know or know how we know, how stories progress.

On the other hand, we collectively suck at arguing. This is not just because we live in a culture that still somehow thinks that volume is an effective debating tactic or because there is a whole collection of people who think that personal remarks are the same thing as an effective rebuttal, though I admit, those do lower the respect we collectively have for the act of arguing. If an argument will inevitably descend into a shouting match, then why engage in it?*** No, the problem is that we get into arguments because we think the purpose of an argument is to prove the other person wrong. What arguments should be, in an ideal world, is an attempt to articulate our own thoughts on a subject so that we can a) better understand why we ourselves think the things we think and b) help our interlocutors understand where we are coming from and how we arrived at our positions. As far as I can tell, the only place that argument still (more or less) aspire to that lofty goal is in critical writing – academic papers, nonfiction books and blogposts, with the obvious caveat that this is not always true, but is sometimes true. We are, however, not rewarded for engaging in this kind of argument the way we are rewarded for telling a good story. It’s hard to win an argument when all you are doing is being respectful of another person and then explaining why you feel differently. It’s equally hard for them to win if they are willing to grant you your experiences and thoughts that bring you to a different conclusion than they reached. But we want to win arguments. We want others to “see the light” and come around to “the right way of thinking”.

Of course, that’s the other side of the problem. Arguments are actually more unwinnable the way we currently perform them. They encourage people to dig in their heels and behave more obstinately, to hold to their opinion even more tightly because they are opposed. And if the entire point of the exercise is to change the other person’s mind to match yours, then the last thing you can ever do is admit that they are right in any way. So by not staging arguments as a battle where only one opinion can emerge victorious, we would actually do a better job of creating an environment where people can change their minds and think something new.****

This is all a very long preamble (emphasis on the amble) for why I think it’s easier for students to write a well-crafted story than a well-crafted paper. They’ve just have more practice at it. I’m not sure how to fix this problem, though. I’m thinking, for next quarter, of setting up a course blog/forum and making my students post responses to the readings and then comment on one another’s responses as a way of fostering dialogue, helping the shy students get participation credit and modeling how to engage productively with another person online. Hmm.

Before that, though, I should go back to crafting my own argument in this paper. Who knows, I might even figure out what it is I’m trying to argue before I’m done.

*Please refrain from using gross generalizations in formal writing…

**And that was the point when I realized I had accidentally structured this blog post like a paper.

***I’m wondering how long it will be until I have this line delivered back to me at the dinner table while I’m visiting my parent’s house. Which is just another way of saying that I can have a respectful conversation unless two or more of my co-conversationalists are related to me.

****Also, we seem to have this deep-seated aversion to changing our minds. We think there is somehow something wrong with having had an opinion last week that is not our opinion this week. Mind-changing is invariably met with good-natured teasing, if not outright mockery–oh, remember when you thought all pop music was terrible and now you know all the words to Call Me, Maybe. (I picked this example precisely because the person I was with at the time didn’t do this to me, but easily could have. Thanks, D.) But yes, for some reason, we are baffled by this idea that we are not exactly the same people we were yesterday and so might think about things differently.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Tell Me an Essay

  1. CALL ME MAYBE IS A TOUR DE FORCE.
    (The video is ridiculous but also awesome.)
    (That is all.)

  2. Abba

    As always, enjoyed the blog.
    I like the course blog/forum idea with required student posts; sounds like a worthwhile experiment
    ****Check out “Wild Young Hearts” by the Noisettes re: being a different person than yesterday.
    Next time I see Lizzy [Schmutter] we need to have a little chat about music.

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