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May 27, 2013

The essay as a form of assessment

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In a New York Times blog post, French Studies lecturer Christy Wampole writes of the difference between the kind of "essay" we usually write - and have our students write - these days, and the type of "essay" written by Montaigne, the 16th-century Frenchman who pioneered the genre. "Essai" means "attempt" - it was a way of trying out an idea, of making a suggestion and seeing how it worked - of "groping" around a topic, as Adorno put it. Now, of course, what is called an essay, particularly in an academic context, has almost the opposite properties:

Much of the writing encountered today that is labeled as “essay” or “essay-like” is anything but. These texts include the kind of writing expected on the SAT, in seminar papers, dissertations, professional criticism or other scholarly writing; politically engaged texts or other forms of peremptory writing that insist upon their theses and leave no room for uncertainty; or other short prose forms in which the author’s subjectivity is purposely erased or disguised. What these texts often have in common is, first, their self-conscious hiding of the “I” under a shroud of objectivity. One has to pretend that one’s opinions or findings have emanated from some office of higher truth where rigor and science are the managers on duty.

Second, these texts are untentative: they know what they want to argue before they begin, stealthily making their case, anticipating any objections, aiming for air-tightness. These texts are not attempts; they are obstinacies. They are fortresses. Leaving the reader uninvited to this textual engagement, the writer makes it clear he or she would rather drink alone.

By contrast, the older essay-writing mode

is defined by contingency and trying things out digressively, following this or that forking path, feeling around life without a specific ambition: not for discovery’s sake, not for conquest’s sake, not for proof’s sake, but simply for the sake of trying.

It's unclear whether Wampole is advocating or simply describing a contemporary return to this older form - an ambiguity she seems to leave deliberately open in her avoidance of an air-tight argumentation style. Her blog-post-cum-essay is rich with nuance, situating random ideas next to each other, and refusing to alight on any particular conclusion. It is exploratory rather than decided.

This struck me as having a lot of overlap with our own pedagogical goals in the Gendered Knowledges project. Something we've been grappling with is how to fit the requirements of assessment into a Gender and Sexuality Studies course that is taking an exploratory, subjective attitude, and that is open to students from all academic backgrounds. Perhaps opening up academic writing forms to greater flexibility, and greater subjectivity, could be one potential answer to this quandary. We could encourage students to attend to their own thoughts, and their own lives, through a writing style that meanders in and out of the theoretical concepts they're learning in a non-linear, non-argumentative fashion. A kind of un-exam.

What do you all think of this as a method? What could be some problems with it for the modules we're designing?

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