English 1900j (Fall 2012): Blogs

In this course you are expected to maintain a blog. Postings will be required from you most weeks. And every so often you are asked to review and/or comment on your blog postings and those of your class mates.

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The unessay

The essay is a wonderful and flexible tool for engaging with a topic intellectually. It is a very free format that can be turned to discuss any topic—works of literature, of course, but also autobiography, science, entertainment, history, and government, politics, and so on. There is often something provisional about the essay (its name comes from French essai, meaning an attempt), and almost always something personal.

Unfortunately, a teaching approach that emphases the use of templates and standardised formats have turned the essay for most students into the academic equivalent on compulsory figures.

The unessay addresses this problem by asking you to throw out all the rules and concentrate on the effective communication of your ideas and interests.

Unfortunately, however, as the Wikipedia notes,

In some countries (e.g., the United States and Canada), essays have become a major part of formal education. Secondary students are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills, and admission essays are often used by universities in selecting applicants and, in the humanities and social sciences, as a way of assessing the performance of students during final exams.

One result of this is that the essay form, which should be extremely free and flexible, is instead often presented as a static and rule-bound monster that students must master in order not to lose marks (for a vigorous defence of the flexible essay, see software developer Paul Graham’s blog). Far from an opportunity to explore intellectual passions and interests in a personal style, the essay is transformed into a formulaic method for discussing set topics in five paragraphs: the compulsory figures of academia.

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Active Pedagogy and University English

For the last four or five years, I’ve been investigating ways of changing my teaching. Like most faculty of my generation, I learned to teach largely by imitation and guesswork. I mimicked the teachers and classes I enjoyed as a student and otherwise experimented with techniques and ideas grabbed magpie-like from various sources. This worked well at Yale, and, as I was recently reminded during a PhD seminar in Digital Anglo-Saxon studies at Memorial, is probably generally a good approach with highly motivated students who already have a sense of how literary scholarship works. It works less well with students who don’t have a natural sense for what is interesting and appropriate in critical discussions or who have yet to develop experience in that kind of debate. Read the rest of this entry »

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