Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Learning (Why) To Write Papers

I can't really point to an event or lesson that taught me how to write the way I write today.  The learning curve was very gradual.  I can remember some events and studies that contributed, though.

I know that I was taught the basic essay structure sometime in high school.  I think it was in 10th grade history class.  My teacher taught us the "5 paragraph" structure and gave us plenty of opportunity to practice it.  He was preparing us for an AP exam, so the opportunities were always in-class, and were always timed.  As I learn by contemplation and depend heavily on rewriting, this method didn't leave a lasting impression.  I was interested, however, in the theory behind essay-writing.  Up to that point, I hadn't really read academic writing--everything I read was in a magazine, novel, or textbook.  My teacher said, "You could write an essay about bungee-jumping to practice."  I wrote down the idea, then never actually did it, but it gave me something to think about that would gestate for several years: The capacity for focused writing to explore a particular topic.  I don't recall caring much about essay writing after that until I got to college.

Later in my high school education, I had an AP English teacher who was a complete beast to me.  My papers came back red and smelly (not really--she wore ok perfume).  I felt like my teacher was constantly haranguing me about this or that little detail in my essays.  My essays, far as I could tell, were no good.  I didn't have high hopes about passing the AP Exam, but I did it anyway.  During the essay portion of the Exam, I wrote a long and passionate essay about Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton.  I was sure my friends had done better than I had.  Surprisingly, the day the scores came back, my teacher came up to me and said, "I knew you'd get a five!" and handed me my results.  Sure enough--a perfect five.  My attitude about essays changed for the better after that.  It's wonderful what success can do!

My favored form of essay writing these days is the philosophical essay.  Studying philosophy in college has given my essay-writing a sharp elbow to the stomach.  Philosophers write with so many different forms and standards, with one primary goal: Make It Work.  Studying so much philosophy, my preconceptions about what an essay has to be have faded away, and I've come to focus much more on what academic writing is about: It's not about form or structure or following a code; it's about thinking, analyzing, contemplating, and guiding others to do the same.  And, of course, giving others an opportunity to respond to something they hadn't thought about, and perhaps give you an opportunity to learn something from their response.  Structure just helps us accomplish this important task.


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