I am at that time of year when the marking pile on my desk is higher than my laptop screen. Like a fool, each year, I go into the marking expecting great things. So far, I have never had a semester without bright spots, but there is great room for improvement for students coming into university. In my “great things” pile, this year, I ended up doing a sort of crazy marking response to a student. The student graciously allowed me to share it with you in this slightly updated and fictionalized form.
This post is for students, essayists, bloggers, and scholars who have accomplished the standard academic writing format and are looking for new ways to share research. The letter also invites your participation in the comments: who, for you, is a model research-based essayist?
Dear Esmerelda Victoria Lemminghol von Fanningbank, III (student #07734),
This paper, Esme, betrays a reading habit that is both broad and deep. Moreover, you have some skill with the pen. Thank you for letting me read this piece.
I think this would have been a perfect paper to play with academic genres. For example, you might want to consider moving to a more inductive style of writing. In this style you do not lay out your argument in the introduction and then go through the body of evidence toward analysis towards a summary-style conclusion. That is a more deductive style of paper writing—much like the very good paper you have written, and like the vast majority of papers at universities.
In the more inductive style, you draw me in, and set out the texts we will explore together. Your analysis, which is the bulk of the essay, leads through good argument toward a conclusion where you have finally revealed your hand. This kind of paper is, in fact, much more like the process of discovery for the research–a more organic way of presenting the researcher’s findings.
This approach is a subtle knife, and many students have drawn blood attempting to use it. It is a risk, and any risk in an academic program should be calculated well. You, however, have the skill to wield this blade, and the ability to draw the reader into a discussion in a different vein of academic conversation.
When you cut loose from an academic paper mould, you can also let loose on your creativity. For example, instead of a standard paper hook, you could begin by telling me a story. Cut a vampyric figure in the intro, begin with a character’s wildest thoughts, start with a cultural moment, or put me (imaginatively–not in a creepy way) in your library and walk me through the section that begins with the letter V. Take that introductory space to shape my experience as a reader.
You will no doubt have to get down to business and tell me what your core texts are about, but imagine that your professor is like a literary agent. You have a paragraph or two to invite me into your essay. True, I will read on no matter what, whereas an agent will cast it away as soon as her mind begins to wander. I have read thousands of academic papers–perhaps as many as 10,000. I am open, willing, and yearning to be won over, drawn in, wooed as a reader. I want to forget that I have to read critically. I want to blink, smile, reach for my coffee, lean back in my chair, and disappear into the text–your text, the one you worked so hard on.
Likewise, in disciplines like literary criticism, theology, anthropology, and history, you can make your experience part of the evidence of the argument. In this case, it is your reading experience that you are reporting on, even though you use academic language to cover it up. You use the phrase, “will be discussed”, in the introduction. I know there is something in you that avoids using “I” in an academic paper, and the royal “we” is very much embedded in the last century of paper writing. Move past that inhibition. It is true, in an age of the selfie, “I” is a dangerous word in research papers that students are already struggling to write. But you are a capable writer, and you will find that once you know how to include the self in your academic writing, you will find it unnecessary to use “I” very much.
Instead of “will be discussed”—quite apart from the passive verb voice that causes teachers to frown—you could write, “I will discuss,” or “We will explore.” I like exploring, and consider myself an adventurer. But in this case you are the guide and I am the tourist of texts, you are the knight and I your intellectual armour bearer, you are the master on the palmer’s way, and I have eyes open wide awaiting academic discovery. It is okay for you to say “I” and lead the reader on.
Once we cast off the illusion that researchers are perfectly distant from our research materials, we discover that one of the most powerful tools we have is our own life—in your case, the evidence of your reading experience. In the end, you are not at this level offering a definitive pattern that should cause all critical conversation to cease on the topic. Like a sculptor, you see a pattern in the grain of the wood, you see an image in the stone, and you are doing your best to reveal that visual story. You are teasing out the threads within a fabric that is too big for any of us to see in its entirety.
That is why your reading intuition, your critical experiments, the links you make between texts, the theoretical approaches you accept or reject, the discoveries that have brought joy or puzzlement–this is the real substance of the evidence you bring. It is true: you are linking it to the text so I can follow along. Without text examples your entire project falls. But you are inviting me into your way of seeing the material, and only you could do that.
So it is okay to say “I” in a paper like this.
This is, of course, a response I can only give to a very strong student. And not every teacher will be open to these approaches, so you need to be in conversation with each professor. But there is value in the “inductive” style essay. If you want to explore it more, you can see Prof. Corey Olsen’s old tutorial, here. The Kaplan University blog breaks it down in pretty simple terms here.
You might be thinking, the outline is interesting, but how does that actually look? That’s a harder question. What sort of models might you follow in this kind of life-integrated, discovery-style essay? Here are some suggestions, but you might find better ones now that you know the approach.
The style of essay you might find in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, or Walrus is open to you as a skillful writer—provided you have done the research well. As is an approach called “autoethnography” or “life writing.” This is a hot method in academic writing these days.
An essayist like Marilynne Robinson, Alice Walker, Stanley Fish, Dorothy Sayers, Virginia Woolf, Ursula Le Guin, Flannery O’Connor, George Orwell (when he isn’t too angry), Margaret Atwood (later work), B.R. Myers, John Updike, or C.S. Lewis will draw you into greater ways of integrating your own life into your writing. They are masters and diverse in approach, but worth reading for how they disseminate knowledge.
Examples of exciting critics who are a bit more traditionally structured include Toni Morrison, Erich Auerbach, Margaret Atwood (earlier work), and William Empson. It is perhaps best to avoid the bracing approaches of Harold Bloom, Christopher Hitchens, Slavoj Žižek, Roxane Gay, or Terry Eagleton until you have attempted it a few times. You may also want to avoid the style of authors that puzzle you, like the essays of David Foster Wallace, Žižek, and almost any French critic in the periods 1938-1971.
And, of course, you could lead me to some essayists who do this well in literary criticism; you can see my authors are very much collected around social criticism of one kind or another. I am always on the lookout for more. The key, though, is discovering how to rediscover new styles of writing and finding spaces to try them out. A class like this can be a limited but helpful place to give one of them a try, but one of the reasons I blog is to stretch my academic voice. In fact, academic-level and public intellectual blogging are great spaces to see life writing and inductive approaches in play.
Dear Esme, this must seem an intimidating response to the first 6 lines of your essay! I apologize, and hope you forgive the intrusion into your sphere of possibilities. And none of this is a rebuke: I think you have potential now to stretch your critical knowledge into new ways of knowledge dissemination (i.e., find new cool ways to write papers).
Now to the critical centre of your work….