Make the essay Montaignian again (2)

This started out as a short post about worrying. It is dedicated to my FREN 220 students who will be sitting their final exam next week, to other students preparing for and sitting exams (notwithstanding amusing attempts to undermine our exam season), and to students more generally. You are why faculty are here. And we are here for you. We worry. We want to help: in respectful support.

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[Ending updated 2017-08-13]

As we have already ascertained, I worry too much. I worry about what we teach at this (or any other) university, and how. I worry about undergraduate BA classes having the opposite effect that they ought to: dehumanising, desensitising, mechanising fine lively minds into cogs in an unquestioning compliance culture, erasing art. Anti-humanities, anti-art(s), the opposite of every element in the “liberal” “arts.”

And now, it’s not just about how what we teach, research, work in and on, and do makes lives better; just as the medical sciences do for human physical health, what we do is about saving lives, preventing future further unnecessary and avoidable loss of life, enriching the quality of life, and changing certain current conditions that endanger life.

We’ve now borne witness to death in Charlottesville today.

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I worry, particularly, about the kind of writing that we require of our students. Many of our students come to us from schools that are more concerned with data, statistics, percentage scores, and their consequences for funding (be that public, via government support; or private, via fees); than they are about actual education. This translates to an unhealthy obsession with point-scoring and exact marking rubrics; the idea that any piece of work should be marked on a scale of 0-100; the idea that all things can and—worse—should be quantifiable and quantified. And many-to-most of our students’ main experience with longer-form writing has been the kind of essay that is taught at the secondary-school level. So as to fit with quantifiable compliance culture and the practical reality of teachers’ needs and over-stretching in a time of underfunding of education, that essay has become more and more formulaic. Yes, the kind of essay that I learned to write at school, and its French analogue the dissertation, are related; but such things were more fluid, mutable, and open back at the end of the previous century.

I worry, and I’m aware that this lament is now formally turning into a litany, about the promulgation and propagation of a kind of essay that, in its formulaic tidiness and formal fixity, is fundamentally anti-essay. As discussed in the previous post, it’s against the spirit of assaying, of trying something out, adventuring in an errantry that may well—indeed, should—include error, incompletion, unfinishedness, and failure. It’s a vital part of education to experience, experiment (the French word expérience means both), make mistakes, and fail. That’s how you learn, and now you accumulate knowledge and ways of learning and knowing that will prepare you for all the unknowns and unknowables of the rest of your life. That last post also talked about preparation as the purpose of an undergraduate education.

In this course, we also work on the commentary. Here is some more about the kind of commentary we’re talking about, in French; and for this specific course; and here’s a version in English from previous Medieval Studies courses. The commentary (under whatever name) is a useful exercise. It can be quite free-flowing, but anchored to the text which is what structures it. There is an infinite number of possible commentaries on any given text (well, if that text is of any richness or merit; even an impoverished text like a SCROTUS tweet can still yield more than one commentary). And there are ways of working with the commentary to protect it from plagiarism and make it more or less cheat-proof; in a way that is less possible for many essay topics.

I worry about plagiarism and cheating. That someone would care more about a grade and a GPA than about learning, and be willing to risk dire penalties as a calculating gamification strategy: this should be at least as much a cause for sadness as it is for righteous anger. There is something deeply wrong, and we have all failed, if moral principle is alien and if the pseudo-“value” of competitiveness, gain, and profit have supplanted all true values.

I don’t actually worry all that much about cheating in practice. If style, lexicon, syntax, and content scream out “cheating!” and it stands out a mile, that’s one thing. But I’m not going to spend my time running texts through detection software (which is disastrous for much literary-humanities writing anyway) or plain old search engines automatically. I’ll reserve energy (because it is not infinite) for actually attentively reading and marking, leaving “suspicious” papers to the end and to a next marking session. And if someone cheats and it gets past me—possibly because my time, energy, and attention are not infinite; I am human—well, that’s too bad. Not for me, but for a student who has put work into cheating that they could have put into something more worthwhile—we’re back to “value” and “values”—that would have involved learning. That is the real loss and sadness of cheating. It might not matter. We have other more important, pressing, urgent matters to think about. It might catch up with someone eventually. It might not. Such is fate, and the way Fortune’s wheel turns.

I do worry about worries about plagiarism driving students away from quotation and citation and thus preventing them from doing good close reading and writing good essays (and commentaries, research papers, and so on). That is: a worry about quoting exactly, a worry about getting that wrong which results in avoiding any kind of reference, and a worry about needing to provide a reference for everything said. Down to the colour of an everyday object or the associative emotion of a common sound. We also all need to think about données & culture générale, commonplaces, common knowledge, and common sense; as Voltaire and Paine said, not that common. We need to think about our assumptions about commonality when presented with real live evidence that something that Montaigne or Voltaire or you or I considered to be “held in common” was not in fact shared. If these things shared in common are what make a community and commonwealth, we need to work to make sure that it is and stays open to all, welcomes newcomers, and has space for them and for those new treasures that they bring to enrich it.

And there’s a fear of making a pure argument and reaching a judgement, and of these being based in any combination of criticism and creativity. This might be connected to generalised over-emphasis on the (pseudo-)objective and quantifiable, to analytics over analysis, and to the conjunction of deeply worrying twin errors in the humanities and arts: desire for (a perceived sense of) “neutrality” and “fair balance” (as a false equality that is not equity), and science-envy. Let’s return “science” to its original sense, “sceptism” to careful (and caring) questioning, turn “academic writing” back into scholarly thinking, and bring arts and sciences back together as unified intelligent knowledge.

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“The Southern Poverty Law Center is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy, the SPLC works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality.”
Guide for being prepared, intended for students and student organisations; faculty and, especially, university administrators should read it too (above all, those who deal with campus events): https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/soc_alt-right_campus_guide_2017_web.pdf

I worry about students worrying in exams, and about these worries affecting their performance. (I also worry, of course, as any university faculty person should, about performance and exams.) I don’t always set essays in final exams. When I have more control over exam conditions, I like to tweak them as far as possible to minimise student worry. So for this upcoming exam, for example, I have to stay with an exam format (commentary on unseen poem + dissertation) that is set. But: exam questions have been discussed in advance (there’s a larger choice and they’re pre-circulated, so that students can at least think about them in the few days before the exam); they include questions set by the students themselves; and the exam is partially open book, in that students may bring their texts (and any notes in them so as to encourage active close reading and rereading, glossing, and annotation), a page of notes (but nothing resembling a full essay), and dictionaries. I also provide biiiiiiig dictionaries.

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Some sample exam essay questions

Returned to what it was, ought to be, and as we’ll see at the end of this post still is: an essay is an ideal “exam-conditions” form of writing. It ought to be proof against those who learn rote answers or learn whole texts off by heart; that will only take you so far. Knowing texts very well will make for a decent B; using—inhabiting and being inhabited by, caringly consuming and being consumed by, cannibalising, breathing life into, living—these texts can bring an essay to a B+; but even an A- needs more than that. It needs innovation. It should be innovative. In the true sense of the word. An essay can be conjured brilliantly out of apparent thin (or hot) air, without preparation let alone over-preparation, seeing how the spirit guides you on the day, a farai un vers de dreit nien. It can be an intellectual exercise that tests thinking on your feet; that shows how you apply all your previous knowledge to a new question or situation; it is the search before, under, in, after, and beyond “research”; and a focussed self-examination in which you think out loud, slowly, step by step, where you do the metacritical work and meditative spiritual speculative exercise of thinking about what you’re doing while you’re doing it. This is, in turn, a useful exercise for leading a good life that is careful and caring, thoughtful, virtuous, honourable, noble-spirited, benevolent and beneficient, and wise.

That is what a higher education in the arts and humanities ought to be about. Or any “higher” “education” at a “university.”

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Maybe I don’t worry as much as I think I do. (Maybe I should worry more. No-one can worry emough right now: but what can we do?) Here are two UPDATED three examples that might provide succour for fellow worriers.

The first is a video that I sent my students as light relief from exam preparation. It’s also exam preparation as its performative elements, brilliant timing and use of silences, absurdity, and an excellent line about tragedy are pertinent to our discussions around the last text we read, Molière’s Le Tartuffe.

The second is an essay about essays, and it’s a heartening note on which to end. The essay is alive and well and thriving. Not just with the great Clive James (as featured in the previous post); in essay competitions. Two excerpts follow below from Andy Martin, “Why do we keep writing essays, and what does it reveal about us?” The Independent 2017-07-07. There are Anglocentricities and modernisms, but that’s that individual essayist’s culture and it’s still a useful background from which to introduce the larger sense of the essay and its place in a unifiying inter-/trans-national comparative world literature.

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[UPDATE] The third, and last, word goes to Octavia E. Butler: an “essay-ist” in all her writing; difficult, speculative, cynical, sceptical, troubled and troublesome and troubling, stoical, wise, innovative, paradoxically hopeful. In support, sustenance, and solidarity for #AntiFascistSFF, here are excerpts from her short story “The Book of Martha,” and the ending of her essay “Positive Obsession”; all in the Bloodchild collection (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2nd ed. 2005, ISBN 9781583226988).

Welcome to la République des lettres, where as fellow citizens we can think, write, work, and dream revolution.

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“The Book of Martha”: p. 192

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(its beginning, p. 189)

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(p. 210-11)
In the razo-esque Afterword to this story (214), Butler comments: ” ‘The Book of Martha’ is my utopia story. I don’t like most utopia stories because I don’t believe them for a moment. It seems inevitable that my utopia would be someone else’s hell. So, of course, I have God demand of poor Martha that she come up with a utopia that would work. And where else could it work but in everyone’s private, individual dreams?”

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The final part of “Positive Obsession”: p. 134-35; originally published as “Birth of a Writer” (Essence, 1989).
In the Afterword to the essay (136), Butler adds: “I’ve often said that my life was filled with reading, writing, and not much else, it was too dull to write about. I still feel that way. I’m glad I wrote this piece, but I didn’t enjoy writing it. I have no doubt at all that the best and the most interesting part of me is my fiction.”
A statement and sentiment that share much in common with our old friend Montaigne as both writers, and their writings, are essentially about assaying / essayer innovations: the essay IS a speculative fiction.

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