The Place of Form

As I noted in my last post, Dana Ferris has suggested that when I assign a five-paragraph essay to my students I am “forcing them into the content and the form.” I have already dealt with the content question, arguing that I literally let my students choose a topic they care about. (I had asked them to write about a place they know, and “topos” is Greek for “place”.) In this post I want to deal with the question of form, taking the idea of a “place” even further, to construe the essay as the ideal site of critique.

By requiring the students to write an essay, I want to argue, I am giving them a place to try out their ideas. (Here again there is an etymological connection: “essai” is French for “attempt”.) The form tells them something very useful about their reader, a specifically “academic” reader, someone they are entirely familiar with through their studies. In fact, the essay gives them a familiar place to meet this reader; it provides a conventional “here” for a scholarly conversation to happen. As I suggested in my last post, we can be quite philosophical about this. The essay lets the student exist as a “rational animal”, a “knowledgeable being”, or what Heidegger called a topos eidon, a “site of meaning” or “place of forms”. That, after all, is what human existence, Dasein, ultimately (or at least in some sense) is. Most importantly in this context, the essay is a space of freedom.

We can begin to see this place by considering a little thought experiment I often suggest to my students. Imagine you have one minute to explain one thing you know to one other person. Imagine that you already have their full attention and that they, too, are knowledgeable about the subject (imagine an intellectual peer). Finally, imagine that after the minute is over they will consider the matter carefully. If you have unlimited resources (time and materials) to prepare, I now ask my students, what would the ideal medium for this act of communication be? After they suggest face-to-face communication and, sometimes, a one-minute video presentation, I give them the right and obvious answer: writing. Under the conditions I’ve set up, the ideal solution is to give the other person a text of around 150 words and a minute to read it. This puts you in complete control of what happens in the mind of your receiver. If your aim is to communicate knowledge in one minute to an attentive peer, there is no better way than a carefully constructed paragraph of prose that says what you mean as well as you can. The job of an academic writing instructor is to help students develop that ability.

When we assign a five-paragraph essay, then, we are giving our students an opportunity to experience their limits with respect to a particular and very useful competence, and the first step to improving your ability is to acknowledge your limitations, to appreciate your finitude. A five-paragraph academic essay is five minutes of another knowledgeable person’s careful attention, and the competent writer is able to make effective use of it. Students should be imagining a reader at their own level, usually the most serious and capable student in their class. They should be imagining someone who understands the material as well as they do, perhaps a little better, but not out of their league (think: college, a colleague). What brings the reader and writer together is their shared qualification to be in this very classroom, the relevant “prerequisites” or “entrance requirements”. This relationship to an ever more “qualified” reader will develop throughout their studies and, if they choose, their subsequent academic careers as scholars. It’s what we are ultimately referring to when we talk about an academic “discipline”.

In this sense, discipline is not something we impose on students, but something we remind them of. We remind them where they are and who they are talking to. It’s not discipline in a sense that evokes punishment but in a sense that evokes regularity, familiarity. “Think of your reader,” as we all tell our students. The introduction is the first minute of your reader’s attention. What are you going to do with it; what are you going to subject your equally disciplined reader to? Why not tell the reader what ground you will cover during the next three minutes; what are the next three things you’ll tell them? Then cover that ground, carefully and deliberately laying out your ideas so your reader can get a good clear look at them. When you’ve gotten to the end, how will you conclude things? Where will you leave the reader just before they put down your text and begin to consider what you’ve said?

A “school” essay, then, is an attempt to be with others. But not just anyone. And not just anyhow. It’s an attempt to be with other knowledgeable people in writing. Heidegger helped us to see existence as a “clearing”, a space that “opens” us to experience. He famously said that we are “thrown into” it; but we must not imagine this as like being thrown into a prison cell. It is more like something we step into, and this often involves the altogether “existential” act of “stepping into character”, of becoming who you always already are. Ferris suggested that it was too much to ask my students to write about a place they “care about”. The very idea of such a place, she said, is “loaded with privilege”. But, “care” (Sorge) is also a fundamental component of Heidegger’s thinking and he would say that, not only can everyone care, our care, the care we take in our work, is what shapes our existence, our agency, in a word, our freedom. As William Carlos Williams put it, “discipline is implied.”

What then, as Heidegger might ask, is the specific kind of “care” that is associated with academic work? What sort of care must be applied in our academic writing and what kind of care can we expect of our students in theirs? What is academic existence — and, indeed, academic freedom — all about? Why are our students at university? My answer is straightforward: the business of scholarship is to expose ideas to criticism. “To have liberty one must first be a man,” said Williams (meaning a hu-man being, of course) “cultured by circumstance to maintain oneself under adverse weather conditions as still part of the whole.” The “adverse weather” of the academic “condition” is simply the constant possibility of critique, which is here the price of freedom. It’s the criticism I sought from those who oppose the use of the five-paragraph essay in the college composition classroom, and it’s the criticism that I am subjecting their ideas to. To be an academic is to live with your ideas out in the open, to stand in the clearing, in the light of everything that is known (by others). Indeed, “the open” is another way Heidegger describes the clearing of our existence, the site of meaning, the place of form. The form of the essay equips us to try out ideas we might otherwise be hesitant to express. Within the protective “garden” of academia, what we are “open” to is the possibility that we are wrong.

That sort of exposure, that sort of adversity, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Sometimes, there’s a tempest in it. It demands a certain kind of temperament, I suppose, and this temperament is shaped by discipline, which, finally, constitutes the prose of the world. It’s not a discipline that we are forced into, as Ferris suggests, but something we pick up ourselves through training. As composition teachers, we develop it in our students one careful paragraph at a time.

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