Essays : Questions not Answers.

Not just a thing on school syllabus or the editorial of a newspaper , I believe essays are not just merely an form of writing or a tool to analyse an topic but as an scope to look to the world, to challenge an idea . The very form of debate with yourself, but you may disagree. Let’s change that, shall we?

So when I say the word “Essay” what is the first thing that comes to your mind. For a lot of you the word probably triggers a Pavlovian twist in your gut. A reminder of the times how pointless or stressful it was in your school or college to write five double space pages. So that is why when we got out of school or was done with the paper we do not care much about Shakespeare, Global Warming or any other generic essay topics ever again.

But the English paper in our syllabus does not represent what is best about the essays or what is exciting about it, from my point of view. Paul Graham , the English Programmer cum author shows in his fascinating work “The Age of the Essays”, that the English Paper as we know it today is sort of an Historical Accident,a result oway English Departments formed and how much medieval Universities focused on Law. If we think about that , that actually makes sense- Topic sentences, supporting paragraphs, conclusion the integral parts  of an essay is similar to the argument of an Lawyer. At least I have watched enough courtroom Dramas to  see the pattern here. Topic sentences are opening statement, examining the question, where supporting sentences are witnesses and evidences and Conclusion is nothing but forceful repetition of the opening statements,just this time more decisive.

If you obsess like me about the English classes, the place where we learn both English literature and composition, how to write , you may read a fascinating Article on Internet “Where Do English Departments Come From ?”(1967) by William Riley Parker. In it he traces the incredibly short history of teaching English at school. I found out while digging more into it saw that the first head of any English Department in The USA was Francis March appointed on 1857.

The publication of Gauri Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquests: Literary Study and British Rule in India (1990), which deals with the ideology and practice of English studies in British India, set the tone for deliberations on the social and cultural functions of English studies in India. This trend gained momentum in two seminars organized in Delhi and Hyderabad under the aegis of the UGC and the British Council in 1988 and 1991 respectively. This was followed by some seminal books like The Lie of the Land: English Literary Studies in India (1992) by Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Provocations: The Teaching of English Literature in India (1993) by Sudhakar Marathe et al., Rethinking English: Essays in Literature, Language, History (1994) by Svati Joshi and Subject to Change: Teaching Literature in the Nineties (1998) by Susie Tharu. These much-discussed volumes, which are serious critiques of English studies in India,with the exception of some papers in The Lie of the Land, mainly deal with postgraduate (PG) teaching experiences in elite academic institutions in Indian metropolis like Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad. The teaching-learning scenario at the undergraduate (UG) level in rural India is not a major issue in these books. The unique distinction of St. Peter’s HSS is this was the first school in the whole country to teach English to Indians. Rev. G. U. Pope, the renowned scholar who translated the immortal verses of Tirukkural into English, served with great distinction in this school for six years. This school, due to its great service for the cause of education, was promoted as a second grade college in 1864. However, due to financial constraints, the college was closed in 1908, and the institution continued as a school.

English literature had a hard time overtaking Latin literature, and in India though majority has not adopted the language as primary language, still became the largest English speaking community in the world.Eventually it did expand, but my focus here, writing had always been a province of another subject called rhetoric.

Basically what happened was this, as I understand it , as public speaking became less and less popular, the number of colleges doubled at the end of 1800. That is because we were encouraging more and more people to go to school and academics departments rose to power and they decided what was to be in the curriculum. So its basically an Arms race and English got really greedy and gobbled up  Literature, Linguistics, Journalism, Theater and Composition. So if English departments had to teach both literature and Writing , Its not a surprise that we have to right so much about literature.

So I know that is bit of an digression , totally frowned upon in academic stages, but in wider world of essays things are not so strict. You don’t have to follow the model of an Court case, You don’t have to rigorously defend your thesis point by point. You have other forms of writing for that. In an essay you are perfectly allowed to follow an train of thought. In fact essays are sort of trains of thought. I would say essays should be short, Interesting and get to the truth.

Michel de Montaigne , the father of the modern essays wrote about everything from sadness to drunkenness to friendship to cannibals to even thumbs. It was not so much what he wrote about, but how he wrote about things . The way he positioned facts with insights so that something that was so abstract, that you could not quite put into words suddenly becomes clear as a glass. Now that kind of writing opens up doors in your head, shows that you are allowed to think, invites you in for investigations of your own.

The essays are having a little of a cultural moment right now as Christy Wampole wrote in “The Essayfication of Everything”

“It seems that, even in the proliferation of new forms of writing and communication before us, the essay has become a talisman of our times.”

And you can see that in the ever rising number of blogs and think pieces or the site where anybody can write an essay on the topic of their choosing,public gets to decide what points of view to elevate. Media gatekeepers no longer have the power to marginalize radical or different points of view. Even the ongoing rise of vlogs and youTube has a lot to contribute. They what I say are video essays.

I find essay writers particularly important because they make a habit of paying attention to things you’re not supposed to, either because they’re “inappropriate,” or not important, or not what you’re supposed to be working on. If you’re instinctive about something, trust your own visions , follow the threads that attract your attention. If there’s something you’re really interested in, you’ll find they have an uncanny way of leading back to it anyway, just as the conversation of people who are especially proud of something always tends to lead back to it. Hence the next leap: could you do the same thing in painting, or in a novel?

See what you can extract from am abstract question? If there’s one piece of advice I would give about writing essays, it would be: don’t do as you’re told. Don’t believe what you’re supposed to. Don’t write the essay readers expect; one learns nothing from what one expects. And don’t write the way they taught you to in school.

The most important sort of disobedience is to write essays at all. It used to be that only a tiny number of officially approved writers were allowed to write essays. Magazines published few of them, and judged them less by what they said than who wrote them; a magazine might publish a story by an unknown writer if it was good enough, but if they published an essay on a topic it had to be by someone who was at least forty and whose job title had the topic in it. Which is a problem, because there are a lot of things insiders can’t say precisely because they’re insiders.

The Internet is changing that. Anyone can publish an essay on the Web, and it gets judged, as any writing should, by what it says, not who wrote it. Who are you to write about x? You are whatever you wrote.

Popular magazines made the period between the spread of literacy and the arrival of TV the golden age of the short story. The Web may well make this the golden age of the essay. And that’s certainly not something I realized when I started writing this.


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