Sunday, September 22, 2013

How I learned to stop worrying and love English essays

                I think I can credit my university level writing to three professors I had that taught the 2000 level survey courses that were required for all English majors at University of Wyoming. The classes, in theory, were designed as a sampler of literature from Beowulf to late 20th century novels, but, in practice, were the place that a lot of the stronger elements of writing were developed.  My 1010 and 2010 were taken as online classes that, in retrospect, were not really worth the money I paid. I got A’s on almost everything without effort, but if I were to look at them now I would surely cringe.
                The first survey, covering Anglo-Saxon poetry through the Restoration era, was taught by Carolyn Anderson. She taught me an important lesson about writing a paper that actually says something by tearing apart the first paper I turned in. It was an analysis of a Shakespearean sonnet, focusing on wordplay and double meanings. I can’t remember the number off the top of my head but the opening line “Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing” could mean that the object is so beloved by the author that keeping them is an injustice, or the costs of maintaining the lifestyle desired by the object is ruinous. I basically did a close read on the two interpretations and though I did a hell of a job, but was horrified when I got a C- on the paper. She did allow rewrites, so I went in to ask if I could save the paper. The question she asked changed how I write papers, “The poem has two meanings. So?” this was the first time I ever really thought about essays in this manner. Yeah, the analysis was good, but what was the point? I reworked the paper, adding a general argument that, “Shakespeare wrote this as a commentary on the duality within relationships, that they have emotional elements and pragmatic elements” or something of that sort. Not the strongest, but it bumped the paper to a B and I learned about the purpose of writing.
                The second survey was English Romanticism and early American writing through mid 19th century, finishing with Moby Dick. Eric Nye taught me a very important lesson, although not one usually mentioned in classes. He is a man that loves literature, even tearing up while reading Wordsworth in class. He taught me that the best writing comes from something that you care about, and finding that connection improves your papers. I don’t think I had ever ENJOYED writing essays before I had that class, but he pushed us to find topics we cared about enough to want to share with everyone.  
                The final survey, focusing on the last one hundred and fifty years of literature, was taught by Robert Torry. The classes he usually taught were the senior and graduate level theory classes, so quite a bit of that seeped into this one. This is where I really fell into New Historicism as my preferred style, as I expanded my analysis with research in the historical context of my subjects. I spent more time reading about the 20’s than reading The Great Gatsby(yeah, I know, a difficult feat), and the resulting paper had more to do with the era than the novel. I really got into the idea that any work is an artifact of its time and it had really stuck with me in my writing.
                Any time I write a paper, something from one of these three classes comes back to me.  I have these three to thank for actually shaping me into a better university level writer. 

Gary Lindeburg


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