Find the River

Riding the post-exam current.


MAY 13, LATE EVENING

That first night of homework after an AP exam is strange. It’s as if some important character has been excised from the narrative, leaving behind a hole and a bit of an existential crisis.

Before we go any further, sink a little time into Garfield Minus Garfield. In the curiously robust subgenre of Garfield absurdism, I have it ranked only behind Lasagna Cat (which is itself one of the inspirations for maybe my favorite bit of surrealism ever.)

It’s not exactly a letdown. We've been too explicitly critical of high-stakes exams to feel anything but relief. So I wonder if we're not frogs who finally jumped out of the boiling water, landing a bit singed and unsure of what to do next.

Which is probably the best place to be.

Read on for information on your next essay, and remember: Critical thinking and close reading are part of the writing process, which usually starts with a post like this. Work together to understand it, and apply its ideas to the ensuing process and product.


ASTERION’S MAZE

Before I get to this year’s iteration, I think it will be helpful to give you the ramiform evolution of this next essay assignment:

Last year’s posts provide most of the language you are reading now. That group had more formal requirements, however, and less polished GAP and DAMAGES protocols in place.

My suggestion is that you tackle these old posts interstitially, even after you’ve begun writing. If nothing else, you’ll be reminded that you are part of an ongoing process to teach and learn a little differently.


A (NOT-SO) QUICK OVERVIEW

As you know, all learning can be chopped into grids like this. It can all be assessed through Scantrons, as well, and the best people to decide what we do are lawyers and politicians who have never taught.

For the next month, you will write. The calendar here is a guide, and the deadlines are there only to prevent us sliding into chaos.

Read this post again, and then make sure you have internalized the order of things:

  1. Carefully read Paul Graham’s “The Age of the Essay.”
  2. Clarify your understanding of Graham through in-class and interstitial discussion.
  3. Get curious and explore something interesting.
  4. Choose a subject.
  5. Delve into a potentially galvanic or catalytic essay about your subject.
  6. Develop a nascent approach to your own essay.
  7. Create a beginner’s bibliography as you continue to explore different texts on your subject.
  8. Use the DAMAGES protocol to write an essay that either takes its own shape and form or closely emulates that catalytic essay.
  9. Publish a working draft on Medium.
  10. Publicize your work in order to receive feedback from peers and other interested readers.

This is a straightforward process, really no different from what you’ve done before. There is a kind of freedom here, however, that can be difficult to manage without, say, 5000 words on the subject to guide you.

We start, then, with Paul Graham:

This has been shared with you a half-dozen times this year, most recently in the postscript of a Little Prince-inspired lesson.

Our menagerie of mascots ought to include this boa and elephant. It’s a kind of Existential Crisis Zoo.

Your first task is to understand what Graham is saying about essays and writing in general. His philosophy should inform your work — not because he is 100% correct (no one is), but because he is insightful and thorough in dismantling the broken machinery of traditional ELA writing. His river metaphor is also a compelling one.

Take to our subreddit to work through Graham. Plan on spending a day or two in class on this — you must resist the desire to leap recklessly into the writing itself, even if you are chomping at the bit.

After you feel confident about “The Age of the Essay,” you need to generate a unit of study in order to write. This is explained more below, and there are about as many ways to do this as there are subjects — so I'll give you an example on my end that happened about three years ago.


CUE THE SYNTHESIZERS

On May 23 in 2012, I asked my tenth graders to spend a period using Google and a couple of databases to do research. We were working on an extended argument as a culmination of the year, but this was not as interesting to the sophomores as what Google had going on for Robert Moog’s birthday.

So it was only a few minutes into the period that the usual classroom cacophony was broken by a student wailing on a synthesizer.

It wasn’t particularly catchy, but it was loud. Just as loud: the student shouting “Damn it!” as he tried to find the volume button.


A QUICK ASIDE ABOUT UGLY DOGS

Now, students swear out of surprise all the time. My favorite example comes from 2005: While I was passing back essays to a group of Honors students, the students were passing around a picture of the World’s Ugliest Dog.

(Don’t Google it. Of course that warning will make you Google it, so just… just be prepared.)

When it reached the hands of a girl named Kristen, she startled out of her seat and shouted — really shouted — “F**K!” She immediately realized what she’d just said — and that she’d said it very, very loudly — and sort of threw the picture of the World’s Ugliest Dog at me by way of explanation.

So I’m standing in the front of a room that has just gone stone silent, I’m holding a stack of essays, and a photo of the World’s Ugliest Dog is lazily seesawing through the air in front of me.

In her defense, one glance at that photo was enough to soften the need for a referral or lecture.

(You’re definitely going to Google that photo now, by the way, so I’m sorry in advance.)


BACK TO THE SYNTHESIZERS (AND PROFANITY)

What happened next in that tenth grade classroom is the interesting bit. When students swear, they almost always know they shouldn’t have; it’s usually enough to say, “Don’t swear,” before moving on.

This time, even though damn is just about the tamest curse I hear in this building, I got a rebuttal: “That’s not a swear!” And he was absolutely convinced. It was like I’d told him that his desk was actually a dog, and that he shouldn’t bring a dog to school.

I tried to explain how profanity works — that something is profane as soon as a community decides it is profane. This came up during our study of obscenity. You might remember that the Miller Test has as one of its criteria for obscenity “whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.”

I didn't explain prurient to this student, but I did say that his personal ruling on “damn” wouldn't really matter to the powers-that-be. As you might expect, he wasn't convinced.

And that got me thinking about the word “profane,” specifically its etymology: “out in front of the temple,” from pro- “before” and fanum “temple.” The people in the temple are the ones who determine what doesn’t belong, after all.

This led to a linguaphilia/logomisia unit — a chance to celebrate and explore the language that surrounds us. It is also a model of how to build your next essay. You can start with the simplest idea — what words do we like or dislike? — and turn it into a learning opportunity.

If you do nothing else, spend a period deciding on your favorite and least favorite words and phrases. The evaluative arguments that go into that discussion are always fun.

As with everything else we do, there is the potential to branch off and change your focus as you read and write. An example of this sort of ramiform mutation, still using that language unit:


OBFUSCATION AND CALVIN & HOBBES

I started with a list of my favorite words: desultory, which has its own kind of insane etymology (it involves the circus); ineluctable, which applies just as well as Sisyphean to the daily horrors of high school; umwelt, which I stumbled across here, and which is one of the framing philosophies for our course — the idea that the world around us has many perspectives and realities happening all at once; and obfuscation, a term drawn from a link in those linguaphilia/logomisia posts and exemplified in Harold Miner’s “Body Rituals Among the Nacirema.”

That last link provides a text to read, and it introduces a new wrinkle to the study of words: Miner gives a model of declarifying language, or what not to do in effective prose writing. It’s a trick of academics.

Here’s the thing: You won’t want to continue reading Miner after the first two or three sentences. Keep going. The academic language and obtuse imagery is deliberate. By the end, you ought to have figured out the twist that makes sense of the entire essay. I’m spoiling the surprise by saying that there is a surprise, I know, but at least I’ve buried the spoiler in a caption.

And it’s fun to write like this. You could wile away a few days just studying Miner and trying to emulate and update his language and satirical purpose for the 21st century. For instance, I could obfuscate the goals for your next essay with a title like Authenticizing Hyper-Differentiated Autodidacticism.

While that wouldn’t work — and there’s obviously a line between precision and pomposity — the point is that I’m letting myself get lost in an idea that interests me.


THE ASSIGNMENT

Fortunately for you, there isn’t anything obfuscating what we’re doing: You’re going to work with me and your peers to learn what you want to learn, to crystalize that learning through the most effective essay you can write, and to make that writing authentic by sharing it with the world in some way. You should see now how easily something simple — like a sophomore’s Moog-inspired profanity — can lead to a rich study of something essential.

Now it’s your turn.


Goal #1 — Organize

To teach yourself, you need an organizing focus with depth and richness. You ought to challenge your beliefs, to expose yourself to new concepts, to bridge the gap between high school and your hopeful future — to do, in other words, something vibrant and meaningful. Then you find the texts, determine the sequence, and work each day on exploration and writing.

The focus you choose for this essay, of course, is going to dictate how you spend your time. That might involve watching multimedia or visiting the library; it might involve heavy reading and annotation; it might involve group debates; it might involve reading short fiction or poetry; it might involve analysis and emulation; it might involve interviews and research and our old friend, the MLA.

You can work alone or in groups. All you need is a mechanism for reflection and eventually metacognition: a tracking system, really, for what you do and how you do it. You can’t complete the grade abatement report at the end of this quarter without a very strong sense of how this autodidactic work actually went.


THE FIRST DEADLINE

It’s actually the only real deadline: By May 26, you need to have started your essay.

It’s a singular but dense task, and it begins with a provisional subject. For Graham, selecting a topic is about paying attention (usually to the things you aren’t supposed to pay attention to) in order to “ferret out the unexpected.” You start with what you think about most, what you like most, and what you guess might provide the most fertile ground for “collecting surprises,” as Graham says.

Make a list, then, of all the possible subjects you could write about. Keep the entries in this list short — quick concepts, really, that you can explore. Graham tells you that “[a]n essay is something you write to try to figure something out,” and that essay-writing means that “[y]ou notice a door that’s ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what’s inside.” That’s another way of describing curiosity, so your first steps might also be written like this: Make a list of what you find most curious and interesting.

After you make the list, you choose a subject. Then you develop an approach to this subject — the first bubblings of the river of your essay itself — by thinking, drafting, and reading similar essays.

Another way of phrasing all of this:

Your first goal is to choose a subject by observing the world, getting curious, and asking questions. You follow Graham’s advice on achieving surprise, cleaning up your train of thought, and so on. You consider things you aren’t supposed to, that are seemingly meaningless, or that are close to your heart. Explore them. As Graham says, “[A]nything can be interesting if you think deeply enough about it.”

Next, develop a nascent approach to the subject. Start refining your questions and looking for a perspective that might work for a full-length essay. Let it emerge gradually, remembering that your essay is like a river. Graham is our guide again: “An essay is not a reference work. It’s not something you read looking for a specific answer, and feel cheated if you don’t find it.”

You will never be asked to create one of these monstrosities, though. I’ve tried to place this kind of arbitrary formatting under the Presentation section of our rubric, and I’ve written about the need to follow the rules; in the end, though, this is a vestigial part of a university system, and it is soul-crushingly irrelevant to good writing.

While you think and plan, your last goal is to create a beginner’s bibliography. Read articles and essays and Wikipedia entries on your subject. Keep track of each and every one of them, noting authors, publications, URLs, and so on. Bibliography comes from the Greek biblion for “book” and graphia for “writing,” and that’s what you’re creating: notes on what you read while you write an essay.

One of these readings will spark your writing. That catalyzing text is the most important, and we’ll discuss it in a little while.


A FEW HASTILY COMPILED EXAMPLES

Here, presented as a mixture of topics and texts, is a partial list of potential focuses, if you need a bit of inspiration after reading Paul Graham:

  • Veganism and animal rights
Sage Francis has a sort of triptych you might explore; if you’re interested, I’ll give you the other song titles. You can also look at Brother Ali for excellent music that sometimes provides political commentary. Really, we ought to have done an entire unit on hip-hop as argument and narrative.
  • Sage Francis’ “Hey Bobby” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” or political music in general
  • Transhumanism and the uncanny valley
  • Roger Ebert and the question of whether video games can be art
  • Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth” with Annie Dillard’s “Death of a Moth,” or death and loss in general

At the end of this increasingly long post, you’ll find a list of essays that might galvanize your thinking.


Goal #2 — Write

I believe what Neil Postman believed:

Writing is closer to the truth than any other form of communication. In writing, we freeze our thoughts; by revisiting and refining those thoughts, we give birth to philosophy and rhetoric. Writing crystallizes learning. It makes learning permanent.

So your second goal is to take what you are studying and write a very, very good essay about it. That essay should be among the best responses you’ve written all year — a demonstration of everything I’ve taught you and everything you’ve taught yourself. It should reflect a considerable process and a keen awareness of the components of effective prose. It’s also why you’ll need to devote a lot of time to an ETA process that involves the student models and feedback available through previous iterations of this course.

That last point needs its own paragraph: You will be given feedback and student models from previous years, and you probably need to read all of it to do the best possible job on this response. It will seem intimidating, I know; without studying those models and reviewing my old notes, however, you’re assuming that you need no help. Remember the Hydra-like dangers of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Not this Hydra.

(I wrote it all, so I have an idea how long it will take to read it. Trust me: It’s a lot. Your decision to invest in all this will go a long way toward determining how much you learn and the quality of the response you write. It is also part of the GAP criteria this quarter. Rise to the challenge.)

In all of this, Paul Graham is your guide. You should have a strong sense of what this means; if you’d like help, you can see your predecessor’s attempt at deconstructing “The Age of the Essay.” You must now prove that you can internalize Graham’s suggestions and apply them to an essay of your own. You must find your own river:

Fundamentally an essay is a train of thought — but a cleaned-up train of thought, as dialogue is cleaned-up conversation. Real thought, like real conversation, is full of false starts. It would be exhausting to read. You need to cut and fill to emphasize the central thread, like an illustrator inking over a pencil drawing. But don’t change so much that you lose the spontaneity of the original.
Err on the side of the river. An essay is not a reference work. It’s not something you read looking for a specific answer, and feel cheated if you don’t find it. I’d much rather read an essay that went off in an unexpected but interesting direction than one that plodded dutifully along a prescribed course.

There are, of course, dozens of other insights in Graham’s essay. Use them all.

I will work with you individually or in small groups — you are even allowed to work together to produce a response, provided we talk about it first — on the particulars. You might consider a small sampling of possible essay types as you begin:

  • policy papers with a distinct purpose (e.g., ending grade-based awards in high school)
  • explorations of a big concept (e.g., perfection, truth)
  • research-driven explication of a lesser-known topic (e.g., the history of Korean hip-hop)
  • multimedia-infused argument (e.g., an evaluation of various memes)

You have freedom here, as long as you exercise a little prudence. As you plan the writing, you’ll discover more of what you want to say and how you want to say it. It will also help — it’s quite necessary, in fact — to consider your next goal.


Goal #3 — Make the Writing Matter

We turn again to Paul Graham:

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.

Your writing has to matter beyond the confines of our classroom. To that end, you must solve the problem of publication. How do you get this essay to the right audience?

Medium is the most obvious choice, but you are not limited there. A particularly interesting idea came from one of last year’s writers: Create a bite-sized TED talk that showcases your essay’s ideas. You could shoot, cut, and upload a video to YouTube; then we could embed it in our school’s newspaper site, which would open it up to anyone with the URL.

This publication, whatever form it takes, needs to be authentic. If I am the only person who reads it, it has no authenticity; you need a bigger audience and a way to speak to that audience. Solving this problem will require some divergent thinking, and you will need to work together.

What I hope is that you create something that reflects your intelligence and curiosity, that you start conversations with the real world — to kick up dust, get people thinking, and encourage debate, if necessary. If you take nothing else away from my course, I hope it is this: Your work must have a purpose. Sometimes, you must create that purpose. Ownership and agency can make meaning out of Kafkaesque mazes and Sisyphean systems.

Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” is 100 years old this year. This essay on its many different translations was published just today, in another bit of synchronicity. (Image: Edward Watson as Gregor Samsa in the Royal Ballet’s adaptation of Metamorphosis. Photograph: Tristram Kenton.)

WORKING IN CONCERT

These three goals — study, write, and publish — work in concert, and you will see them come together over the next four weeks. Be open enough to let the river find the best course to the sea.

Remember, too, that autodidacticism requires more than diligence and investment. You must also have the right tools. I will be working with each of you closely over the next few weeks, but you are not dependent on me; you have an arsenal of interstitial resources built specifically for collaboration and individual learning. Use that arsenal:

  • žSet up digital ways to coordinate ideas and learn new things — especially through your subreddit, which should be a hive of bustling activity
  • Work in Docs, preserving as much of the process as possible
  • Schedule meetings with me, email authors and experts, and talk to each other in person

There are also tools beyond our course that you might use. Check out the Khan Academy and iTunes U, for example; they offer lessons in many subjects for free.

As always, you can contact me when you need my help. Send an email or share a document, and I will get back to you as soon as I can.


A BIT OF REITERATION AND REFINEMENT

Let’s use the last of our space here to discuss some of your other options in writing this next essay.

As you read, you will eventually stumble across an inspiring piece of writing. It will resonate with you, and you will use it as a catalyst for the autodidactic and writing work you do.

In some cases, it might be worth emulating that galvanizing essay. We can call this Emulation, capitalizing the word in honor of Hunter S. Thompson, who copied The Great Gatsby to learn how to write.

This is Ralph Steadman’s original cover image to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, one of Thompson’s best-known books. Personally, I think you should start with his obituary for Richard Nixon.

This sort of Emulation is different from our usual ETA approach to writing. This is about strict adherence to a structure or style. It’s about finding the freedom in restriction — the way that limitations can actually sharpen creativity.

Another way to think about this is to borrow insight from Piet Hein:

Art is solving problems that cannot be formulated before they have been solved. The shaping of the question is part of the answer.

That can be applied to the other way of writing this essay, too — to emulation and to Emulation — and it highlights the mercurial, spontaneous current that runs through even a carefully planned essay.


EXAMPLES OF STRICT EMULATION

Example #1: One Kind of Shooting

The inspiration was this essay by Tom Bissell:

The eventual Emulation was by Megan Hoins, one of your predecessors:

Example #2: Another Kind of Shooting

The inspiration was a George Orwell essay:

The eventual Emulation was by Rory Wakeford. The file is available through that link as a PDF.


EMULATION THROUGH ANALYSIS

The other kind of ETA writing is what you’re used to producing: something that is inspired by and reminiscent of the reading you do. It’s something that synthesizes and explores.

You are using Paul Graham’s essay as a sort of philosophical or methodological frame, but you might also start your ETA work with him, because he is practicing what he preaches. Your next batch of ETA texts is below, drawn from the work of former students.

ETA: Student Work

Let’s start with a student essay from 2012 that has metacognitive analysis attached to it:

You can click on the image or load the essay through this Drive folder.

In terms of style and meaning, it is a powerful essay. It blends its research into a philosophical and logical exploration of perfection, and even its arrangement is deliberate and inventive. Where it really shines, however, is the metacognition. It’s a different mechanism than your post-writing — less precise, less utilitarian — but the gist is the same.

The next exemplar is from 2011, and it isn’t quite as effective:

This is a kind of pathology that English teachers have: the desire to mark up the text with commentary that will rarely be read, even more rarely accepted, and almost never used for revision.

Again, you can also load this exemplar through the relevant Drive folder.

(This is also a good time to remind you that that list of previous years’ posts would, if you read carefully, lead you to the general commentary page containing this essay.)

This paper is useful to you because it features exhaustive, direct commentary from me. It’s a relic from a time when grades seemed like a useful motivator.

Anyway, emulating the essay on perfection — a highly effective response — is one thing; learning from a limited response like this one is something else. And that something else is important, because the essays at the tapers of the curve don’t require as much explanation. A highly effective paper can be given significant feedback, of course:

That’s the feedback I gave to the first exempar. It’s specific and useful, but whatever direction it provides is less important than the holistic assessment of effectiveness.

In other words, a great essay comes from a student who already knows she wrote a great essay. For ineffective essays, clarity doesn’t come as easily:

This student didn’t read the feedback, because this sort of student never reads the feedback. That’s how the Dunning-Kruger effect persists: through the careful inculcation of confirmation bias and victimization.

see the original writing (it’s been lost to time), but you can see me quoting the student and providing as much feedback as possible.

Back to the limited essay from 2011: If you take the time to read my notes, you will have a better sense of how to avoid the same mistakes. Rushing through your own essay will create a limited response. Cutting corners will limit you. And limited work tends to complicate matters in two distinct ways:

  1. It takes more feedback to make sense of a limited assessment. The strengths and weaknesses interact in weird ways, and limited writing tends to be muddied overall; instead of pointing to overall clarity or control, for instance, we need to delineate what works and what doesn’t.
  2. Limited writing tends to fall solidly in the shadow of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Because the essay shows strength somewhere, it’s easier to focus on those strengths while ignoring obvious deficiencies.

POTENTIALLY GALVANIZING TEXTS

Let’s start with an article by Will Leitch that you’ve seen before:

This is an essay exactly in the vein of the one you must write. Use the DAMAGES-driven breakdown of it to see how it’s constructed, and then emulate that kind of analysis with some or all of the following:

I’m porting over the same list I used last year, which is why it’s so heavy on video games (and why it features nothing from this year) — these are part of a unit on games we studied.

That said, you really only need the last link to orient yourself. Crum’s essay is an excellent example of what you are being asked to produce. If you are prioritizing your time, put her at the top. In fact:

Read this, and then decide if you’d like to analyze it together.


TO TWITTER, GOD HELP US

One last thing: Over the next few days, I will tweet links to articles that might be galvanizing or otherwise useful to you. Keep an eye on it.

I’ll also send you anything I find that justifies an addiction to coffee. It’s a writer’s best friend, after all.
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