Essays are boring. There, I've said it. Call it my thesis statement, ha ha. Essays are boring for me to write, and I suspect they are also boring for many others to write (I know the large majority of my students find essays very boring to write; that's why I have retooled my classes to shift away from the traditional essay to other kinds of writing). Essays are also, in my experience, boring to read most of the time, too. Of course, this is not inevitable, and there are ways people can hone their skills at writing essays, so that perhaps their readers will not be bored in turn. But I have to then ask: would that time spent honing one's essay-writing skills not be time better spent developing other kinds of writing skills?
One alternative: creative writing. Speaking for myself, I far prefer to read creative writing for example, and I have built my own classes around creative writing for just that reason. Creative writing lets people write in truly original ways, getting in touch with their unique imagination and personal experience of a story, responding in a way that blends our shared experience of the story with the eccentric qualities of individual imagination; for an example of that, see the story I wrote in response to the Robber-Bridegroom, which is something I really enjoyed writing, far more than the perfunctory essay I turned in for the class assignment. In my experience, every single student - even if they are struggling with some basic writing skills - is able to write a really good creative retelling of a story. Why? Because even if someone's writing skills are not well developed, we ALL have great powers of imagination, and we can surprise both ourselves and others with those powers when we let the magic loose. (If you are curious, here is a list of prompts I share with my students just to get them started; sometimes they are hesitant at first about writing creatively... but they get over that very quickly!)
Test case: Brothers Grimm. Let's take Week 1 of this class as a test case for essays. Were they interesting to read? Well, no, I don't think so really. I turned in what I would call a perfunctory essay about the Brothers Grimm, as did thousands of other students (literally) ... and what a crime it is to turn the fantastic and imaginative stories of the Brothers Grimm into something as perfunctory as an essay. Of the ten essays I read by other students for the peer feedback assignment, they were all quite boring, with one exception, and I am sure that the student who wrote the almost-interesting essay would have written a brilliant creative piece, given the opportunity to do so. Same also for the people whose essays I read at their blogs and other public spaces. Sure, I can enthuse about people's essays no matter what (I'm a writing teacher, so I am good at enthusing) ... but whenever I read a good essay by someone, I figure that they could have written not just a good but a truly brilliant and memorable creative writing assignment. Just imagine if there had been not 5000 perfunctory essays, but instead 5000 new creative writing experiments that had come into the world last week as a result of the writing assignment. That, to me, would have been something really exciting, made possible by the massiveness of the MOOC.
Soylent Green is people! In that great scifi film of 1973 (one of my personal favorites), we learn that the mass-produced soylent wafers (in green, red, and other varieties; green is the most popular) which feed the overpopulated world of the future are not manufactured from ocean plankton, as the authorities claim, but instead from the recycled bodies of human beings. To me, that is the problem with essays: the impersonal format, like the cookie-cutter manufacturing of soylent green, takes all the humanity out of what we are writing. Sure, the essay is nutritious, and you can use it to "feed your head" - but it's just wrong to take human beings and turn them into wafers. I was staggered to see a discussion erupt at the class forum about whether or not the word "I" can be used in an essay at all. Yes, believe it or not, there are people opining mightily at the forum that "I" is strictly forbidden. So, just as there is no "I" in team, I guess there is no "I" in essay either, ha ha.
Amateurs and experts. It would be different of course if this were a graduate seminar and we were aspiring academics. It would also be different if we were English majors and literary criticism was our chosen field of study. But that is not the case; we are just random people with an interest in fantasy and science fiction; we are amateurs in the best sense of the word - we are presumably taking this class because we love (Latin, amare) to read books like the ones on the class reading list. Yet even if we do not have expert knowledge about the topic to bring to bear, we do have our individual personal reactions, our eccentric creativity, our very own selves. To my way of thinking, that is what we should capitalize on. That is what I capitalize on in my own classes, and the results are pretty impressive; so far in this class, I have not seen any reason at all to re-introduce more traditional essay writing into my classes. Of course, there are still eight and a half weeks to go... and I'm committed to doing all ten weeks of this class to see what I can learn. So, I'll report back each week with some thoughts on the essays, both about my experience writing the essays and reading them, too. Plus, starting around week 5 of this class, I'll be reading my own students' stories at the same time as I am engaging with the essays in this class; that should be a thought-provoking experience for sure!
And now, since it is the weekend (blissful weekend!), I think I may just go watch Soylent Green again. Yeah, I have the DVD... and I love that movie! :-)
(poster by tjdewey)