Friday, November 28, 2008

On essays, blogs, and walls

Most teachers have the challenge of making their material come alive for their students. We all try, in whatever way we can, to persuade them that what we teach in here also exists out there. In my department, this is often a challenge of convincing students that the books we read have currency beyond the margins of the syllabus: that Gulliver’s Travels is really good, or that people used to line up to get the next installment of David Copperfield, or that Gabriel Garcia Marquez eventually pawned his blender to finance the writing of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In non-literary composition courses, however, the problem is a bit different. I have to convince my students that the thing I’m teaching actually exists. They know they have to periodically pass in essays in order to pass their courses. Since sometime in Junior High, when we move beyond the diorama phase of our education (special skill: I can make a mean killer whale out of plasticine), the essay has become the main method of evaluation in many disciplines. It’s an old friend, or an old albatross, in any case, it’s familiar. What that familiarity in part obscures, however, is that the essay is a genre, in the way that the Bristol board collage is not, beyond the walls of the school. Good enough for Montaigne, Bacon, Jo(h)nson, Kant, Carlyle and Eliot, the essay has been a way of honing ideas, of bringing the private conviction into the public sphere for a good long while now. When I urge my classes to try to look beyond Virginia Woolf’s (wonderfully) meandering obscurity in A Room of One’s Own, or to not be deceived by Orwell’s apparent simplicity in “Shooting an Elephant” (no, the essay is not about shooting an elephant, it’s about imperialism), I tell them that Woolf and Orwell are two of the most respected essayists of the twentieth century. Why, they ask, does that mean anything?

I decided one possible way to answer this question was to invite my students into the public sphere of discourse and ideas. I decided to make them read blogs. The blog, I told my class, simulates a modern version of the immediacy of the essay. Sure, there are some uninteresting, poorly written, self indulgent blogs, but that is true of nearly everything. A good blog offers inspired writing, on a wide variety of subjects—my favourite is Theory of Ice, which raises the love of hockey (and the habs) to an intellectual pursuit of the first order. Even something like, the product of two catty girls who like to make fun of the sartorial slip-ups of celebrities, often has brilliant comic timing and tone—a difficult success in composition. Whatever the subject, the blog has current, dynamic examples of how critical thinking (and good expression) is a way of life that can be applied to daily experience, and not just an archival, dusty, controlled exercise for the classroom.

As with most trends, it turns out I might be too late. Wired, the magazine for the hip and techno-savvy, has declared, to my dismay, the blog to be “so 2004”. In his article for the October issue of the magazine, writer Paul Boutin suggests “the time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter.” He points out that the so-called blogosphere has become inundated with “paid bilge.” Once a forum for personal expression, it is true that the blog has become increasingly professionalized and corporatized. Wired’s website itself hosts a long list of affiliated blogs. I wonder, though, at the relevance of this point. Aren’t many things a struggle between the corporate and the independent? According to that logic, Eastside Mario’s precludes the possibility of Allegro.

My main concern, however, is with Boutin’s cavalier dismissal of the virtues of the blog. He suggests that the blog is being happily replaced by Twitter, because of its limit of 140 words per post, and Facebook, because of how easy it is to post visuals, saving time otherwise spend “fretting over words.” Surely to fret over words is to think carefully. Boutin predicts and celebrates the end of what I think was a particularly triumphant moment (apparently located somewhere in 2004) for composition. At its best, the blog values the careful, considered paragraph. As long as that’s still on the table, who cares about its worst?

Emily Doucet