Blogs and Essays (Part 1)

Not long ago, one of my students asked me if I could take a look at her essay before she handed it in. "Could you just glance at it, please, so I know that everything's OK?" I asked why she was so concerned. "I'm applying for a scholarship and they will ask the school for my grades and for reference letters." Before I had a chance to reply, she started explaining to me how hard she had worked on this assignment. She explained that, in her opinion, her paper was well-organized, contained a strong thesis statement, an intriguing hook, and lots of solid, well-supported arguments. In short, she was feeling rather confident but wanted me to take a look. "Just in case."

So, why am I telling you this?

After skimming her essay, I noticed that, despite some sentence structure problems, it was a good paper. I said that it was well-organized, contained a strong thesis statement, an intriguing hook, and lots of solid, well-supported arguments.

And that's when it hit me.

When she shared with me her thoughts about her work, she was using my voice. To be more specific, she was using the voice of her teacher who had spent months making sure that she understood what writing an essay is all about, who spent hours going over thesis statements, topic sentences, and "intriguing hooks." Consequently, her work "was well-organized, contained a strong thesis statement, an intriguing hook, a lots of solid, well-supported arguments."

How sad. Not a word about the topic itself (Social Justice). Not a word about her ideas on this topic or what she had learned about it. Not a trace of genuine engagement with her own text.

I was reminded of this after reading Will Richardson's post about Victoria A. Brownworth's article on the superiority of essay writing to blogs. In her article, Brownworth writes that blogs are mere "pretenders to the throne of true essay writing." She argues that blogs can never achieve the clarity, the eloquence, the succinct organization of essay writing. It is an interesting article primarily because it reminds me how many of us are still stuck in the linear universe of print and refuse to acknowledge the emergence of the acoustic environment created by the proliferation of the electronic media. But I digress.

Blogs are not pretenders. Blogs do not attempt to replace essay writing. When used in education, blogs foster the development of expressive language which, as Britton and his colleagues discovered in 1975, is the "seedbed" of all other modes of writing. Since they encourage expressive writing, blogs foster the development of genuine, inquiring voices. The expressive mode does not concern itself with form. Instead, it focuses on content. It focuses on voicing and exploring ideas.

Expressive language provides us with a unique way of knowing - it is a tool for discovering, for shaping meaning, for reaching understanding. Expressive writing allows students to explore, to speculate, to come to grips with their own experience through writing. It encourages active rehearsal of knowledge.

My grade 12 student, having abandoned the expressive mode in favour of the transactional, one that emphasizes detachment and focuses on the delivery of information, failed to engage with the topic. Her comments about her work focused on its format, style, organization. She wrote a fairly lengthy paper on social justice and almost all of her energy as a writer was consumed by fairly superificial concerns.

What have I learned from this? I learned that a strong emphasis on transactional writing can lead students to develop artificial and adopted voices because they are too preoccupied with what other people will think of their work. They are too preoccupied with making their work conform to some criteria that we as teachers seem to value more than a genuine expression of human thought.

Do students develop independent, creative, expressive voices when they write essays? Perhaps. My experience has been that essay writing often distracts students from their own ideas. They know that if their essay is well-organized, contains a strong thesis statement, an intriguing hook, and lots of solid, well-supported arguments they will get the mark they need to get their scholarship or get into whatever program or university they need to get into. The truth is that they adopt our voices - the voices of their teachers. Instead of working with their real voice, they imitate what they are accustomed to hearing or seeing. Expressing their thoughts does not always guarantee a good mark. Having a solid hook often does.

While essays are written for the audience of one - the teacher, blogs foster community-building and an active contruction of knowledge. They remind us that writing and reading are social, communicative processes between writers and readers.

This morning, my class and I looked at some excerpts from Brownworth's article. When we came to the part where she argues that essays are "complex and long-lived" and asks "Do you remember last week's blog? Yesterday's?," one of my students said:

"Yeah, I remember it. I'm still writing about it."