Essay style: Some basics

The following are some core standards for formatting University-level essays and similar types of work in my classes. Not all apply to all types of work (for example, blogs, unessays, or in-class writing assignments). Feel free to ask if you think your work requires something different.

Most of these requirements will be shared by other instructors, especially in English; if you are not told otherwise by an instructor, you probably won’t get in trouble following these guidelines. Whenever I am aware that there are differences of opinion among instructors (or that different types of assignments might require very different formatting, I have indicated this).

Class 2.0: Digital technology & digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom.

I just posted the slides for my lecture to the Department yesterday: Class 2.0: Digital technology & digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom.

Abstract: This lecture discusses some preliminary results from an ongoing research project on the use of digital technology and digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom. The goal of the project is to explore how these technologies and rhetorics can address common problems in the literature classroom: weak composition skills, lack of engagement, poor preparation. Initial, at this point still largely anecdotal, results suggest that the committed integration Web 2.0 technologies and rhetorics in the classroom can greatly improve outcomes in this area.

The lecture discusses how these techniques are used and some of the results we have seen.

Read the rest of this entry »

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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