- Why Johnny Can (and Should) Write EssaysA Case for an Essay-centric Writing Curriculum
For the last one hundred years or so, critics of the essay have been sitting vigil at the essay’s bedside, waiting for it to die, and rallying at signs of life. Thanks to a misdiagnosis—the essay was never in peril—and to the miraculous medicine that late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century essayists administered, the essay is enjoying a remarkable recovery of late. Nonfiction studies, though, and essay criticism in particular are apparently not yet out of the woods. The chart at the end of its bed reads “languished” (Burtrym 1989: 5) and “ignored” (Klaus and Stuckey-French 2012: xi). In fact, one could comfortably fill a broom closet with the number of contemporary scholars devoted to the study of the essay—and still have room for the brooms. What is the harm of such inattention? A genre earns legitimacy from historical and critical examination. Some part of its ongoing vitality comes from the review and debate of its value, and that process of interrogation opens to further study the standards by which critics judge the genre, the tools by which readers consume it, and the moves by which writers produce it. Discoveries lead to new understandings, to new ways of thinking, reading, writing, and—especially in the case of the essay—teaching. [End Page 185]
In his introduction to Essays on the Essay: Redefining the Genre, Alexander Butrym (1989: 5) notes, and rightly so, that in the last half of the twentieth century most of the writing on the essay genre “has been done from a nonacademic viewpoint: it is the response of the practitioner rather than that of the professor.” In recent years, however, some of the most critically and pedagogically engaged writing on the essay has come from the practicing professor, providing an academic-craft viewpoint from the essayist-teacher. In fact, it is composition studies scholars like Paul Heilker and Lynn Z. Bloom, to name just two, who are shaping contemporary essay criticism. They understand exactly what the essay genre needs—history, criticism, context—and they are willing, perhaps even compelled, to deliver. As director of the undergraduate writing program at Columbia University and as an essayist herself, Nicole B. Wallack straddles the worlds of composition and creative writing. Perhaps more important, however, Wallack’s administrative experience compels her to advocate in Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies for the essay’s prominence in the writing curriculum. In offering a bold, global vision for the essay in the academy, Wallack helps us reimagine the way in which (essay) writing should be taught in schools. Fellow teachers who already know and understand the essay as Wallack does will readily embrace the idea of vaulting the essay from its bottom-shelf status in the academy while simultaneously pausing at what also seems utterly undoable, given the number of skeptical or downright grumpy colleagues who must be convinced of the essay’s value in order to implement the changes Wallack seeks.
Wallack’s frequent mention of the rift between composition studies and creative writing, as well as the ongoing tension between the critical writing and creative writing camps in writing studies, indicates that she is acutely aware of the essay’s long-standing dilemma in academia. In composition, she says, the essay is often reduced to utilitarian function, and in creative writing the essay is a form so “elite” or “eccentric” as to preclude student writers who may lack—in both their minds and their instructors’—the requisite craft or life expertise needed to produce their own “real” essays (11). The essay’s role in any given classroom, then, often depends on what set of assumptions and the amount of knowledge about the essay its teacher holds:
Often, we perch our understanding of the essay on a conceptual line that stretches between poles labeled “school writing” at one end and “literature” at the other. Once we step on this line, which...