Introduction to Unessay Research

There appears to be a fundamental discord in the way students are taught to argue and the what professors view as a “good argument”. High school students are taught that a good argument is a point that can be evidentially proven, but professors are searching for a more open-ended approach. Students are taught to answer, while professors want them to question.

Yet, the essay seems to be a loose term in regards to genre and its conventions, with variations being prevalent across disciplines. Does “anything go” when it comes to formulaic standards? Some scholars make a distinction between the “essay” and the “article”. But how many students are taught and become truly aware of this distinction? Students read articles, yet are told to formulate essays. This distinction is one that is not often communicated to students. Upon beginning my research of the subject, I myself had never entertained the distinction.

But of course we must have a thesis. Professors require a melding of the genres, into what Heilker calls “exploratory, essayistic discourse” (Heilker 191), to be mixed with a strong thesis proven in a logical and well-supported manner. Indeed, Heilker continues, “[c]larity and order are virtues, no doubt, but overdone they produce prose that is flat, predictable, and boring” (197). But why does a separation of merely rambling discourse and a logical thesis seem so hard for students to come by, and to produce such stilted writing that it pains professors to read it? Heilker states the plight of professors most clearly when he says that “[t]he ideas of pleasure reading and student writing seem contradictory, but it shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be that way” (Heilker 197). There must be some model of argumentation that is so often ingrained in students that it requires an extensive remodelling to overcome.

There is also often an absence of emotion in traditional student writing. In my own experience, I know this to be true. As a high school student, I was told to take all personality and all traces of emotion out of my writing, and to produce a technically sound and cleverly written piece of prose. This is easier said than done. University professors and the grades they assigned to me seemed to agree as I realized that my best writing was often produced in a state of passion and emotion. It was the overwrought, overdone, and highly manipulated phrases that came out the most critiqued and awkward.

I loved writing the blogs, because there were quite literally no rules, other than they had to get done. For the first time, I felt liberated from the strictures of removing myself from my work; personal opinion, emotion, and cheering enthusiasm were all tolerated. What a novel experience! Upon beginning the blogs, I never imagined that I would be allowed, even encouraged, to write essays in a similar manner. While I never had any major difficulties in formulating some acceptable argument, I often felt frustrated when it came to conclusions. My essays would often be returned with an exhortation to expand and elaborate in my conclusions, to question and answer the question “why is this important”? “But I thought I did,” I would exclaim. I had neatly summed up my points and provided a short abstract about possible implications for my conclusions. But this was not questioning. This was restating the obvious.

So what is different between secondary and college level writing? What is expected, but more saliently, what is taught? I have had instructors tell me that a brilliant idea argued poorly will earn a much lower grade than a mediocre idea presented clearly. While to some extent this premise makes sense, is this the standard that should be strived for? Based on these standards, good grades earned from essays written begin to become a bit more arbitrary. A’s are earned not because of inherent brilliance written into the student’s work, but because there is nothing overtly wrong with it.

In pursuing this strain of research, I would like to continue to examine the literature on the way essays and argumentation are taught at the secondary and undergraduate levels. I think it would be helpful to speak to professors in the Academic Writing department, and possibly in English and Education, to determine how students are emerging from their high school education, and what is specifically lacking in the arguments constructed by undergraduates. Dan’s Unessay research has already determined what differences emerge when writing and argumentation are approached from a different angle, so I would like to provide the context for why students writing efforts are not living up to the expectations presented in a conventional undergraduate classroom.

–Emma Dering

Works Cited

Heilker, Paul. “Twenty Years In: An Essay in Two Parts.” College Composition and Communication 58.2 (2006): 182–212.


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