Assay the state of critical writing

Posted by Jack Ferguson

Now that I am a senior I feel there is one statement about my college career I can fully stand behind: I hate, hate writing academic essays. And with the much-touted rise in plagiarism, it seems that you do too. But why else do we attend college if not to grow in knowledge and learn how to better express it? I will proceed with the assumption that if you pay roughly $50,000 a year, you hope to leave with a functional education and adept expression.

The college academic essay is not difficult to write – rather, it is absurd. Almost nowhere does one find so narrow a concept desired in so little space from such a paucity of information. If you're like me, you approach a paper either in begrudging acceptance of the high school topic-sentence-and-four-supporting- points format, or in willful rebellion against it. How did this come about?

I know that I came here not feeling skilled at writing essays in the least. But even supposing that the student body had perfected the clunky unreadable high school essay format: should colleges ask for and support the perpetuation of this rigid template of expression? At a school with a motto such as ours, at least, one would expect not. Further, is this any way for a liberal arts school to help its students engage the world – through tired, desiccated regurgitation?

It seems that the college system is a place where teachers and methods of pedagogy are allowed a wide range of expression. Perhaps for the first time in their academic careers students are exposed to information in accordance with their teacher's – and not the school's – methods. Given that each of us learns differently (the most cited example being that of group-learners v. isolates) the variety here allows for greater individualization, the student choosing his or her professors and classes as best suits his or her mind's proclivities. Why then do we stick to a method of composition designed for ubiquitous utility instead of individual expression?

One could hardly argue that de Montaigne, Didion, Orwell, Sontag, Eliot or any of the great essayists caught even a whiff of the format we hammer away at here. And many of us have never come upon an essay of their ilk nor been taught it in class.

I am of the opinion that before any paper may be assigned the professor should hand out a published essay and hold a discussion on it, pore over its contents, dissect its twists and buttressing evidence. And not just in low-level intro courses, but every time. Why pretend that a student who is unread in the best forms of writing will be able to fashion anything like a readable piece of work?

There is an old saying about how all undergraduate writing is, as a whole, almost hilariously unreadable. This is the central injustice at stake here. To spend time and money and walk out with nothing to show, never reaching a point when I feel my skills have been honed feels to me like being the victim of some cruel (and expensive) deception, in which I myself am complicit.

Once we accept dreadful composition as one of college's necessary evils, we master the art of bluffing it. I have heard my peers talk at epic lengths of BSing one's way through a paper. You're familiar with it, I'm sure. It involves taking one thing and pretending it's another – a somehow distinctly different and better thing. The worst part is that feeling that the teacher is rolling his or her eyes but accepting it. BSingdoesn't feel like lying so much as lumping together rude thoughts in a hasty and careless manner. It's expressing the words and not the point. It's learning how to ignore the point altogether.

Before I proceed, chest-pounding and hollering, a caveat: students very often choose to go home and watch videos or have a beer or chat online or kiss their boyfriends when they could (and probably should) be staying in the library for another hour or two. If you want to have some fun, bring a tuba to the third floor of the library late next Saturday night. Pause, and listen for the reproach that will never arrive. Do we really lack so much work ethic? Do we really desire to squander this unique opportunity?

I would argue that the rise in plagiarism results not from student laziness or lack of knowledge, but from not knowing how to fashion one's knowledge into a coherent, manageable form. I believe that no student wants to potentially mar his or her name or take the unnecessary risk of getting caught. But the task of forming out of nothing a piece of coherent knowledge presents a daunting, nearly insurmountable task. Why else do we always resort to the first form of writing we were taught, though it be a repulsive process?

This is not in any way a defense of plagiarism, often the product of duplicity, haste or rank inattention; this is sympathy for the struggle of those without recourse to a nonbrain-deadening format. The professor might argue: suck it up, bang the thing out. But try it for four years. In fact, try it for two with the immediate prospect of two more years of this drudge, and pretend that the feeling welling up inside isn't that of fear and revulsion.

Try attempting, as we do, to marry the money and debts we face at every new matriculation with the growing knowledge that we will leave here with nothing for which to feel proud.

Try having only this format to use, and then you tell me why the library is deserted on a Saturday night.

Jack Ferguson is senior History and English double major from Philadelphia, Penn.

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