Breaching the Boundaries of Traditional Essay Writing by Kellie Money
**Please note, this essay is accompanied by a reflective note from the student’s instructor, Professor Paul Walker.**
Breaching experiments directly confront the “web of unwritten rules that govern behavior” by challenging society’s unconscious norms in a social situation (Luo). The most widely known breaching experiments were carried out by students in the 1970s under the supervision of famous psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram instructed his students to repeatedly board crowded New York subway trains, approach seated individuals, and then ask these individuals for their seats. Results revealed that 68 percent of people who were asked for their seat actually surrendered it willingly; however, the most unexpected consequence of these breaching experiments occurred in the students themselves. Milgram’s students reported themselves as emotionally troubled, even traumatized, by their own violation of seemingly trivial social norms.
When I heard about Milgram’s experiment in my introductory sociology class, I wondered why breaching society’s unwritten rules could prove so unsettling to people. Perhaps breaching generates discomfort because humans usually cling so tightly to custom. Any behavior that has already proven its effectiveness and has come to be regarded as a method that “works” often cements itself into the fabric of society. I could not help but explore this conformity further, as well as attempt to discern its extent, namely in the institution by means of which I was inspired – the American educational system. In the education system, the traditional “testing model” used for teaching and learning has emerged as the chief means to measure student growth and therefore remains the most deeply established “norm” within the system. All American school students, including myself, are products of this method. Could this norm be challenged or breached?
At the same time I was learning about breaching experiments in sociology, another of my classes was actually beginning to breach one of my customary beliefs. The course—Honors Rhetoric, Composition, and Research—surprised me with its unconventional approach to academic writing. One assignment in particular, the exploratory essay, challenged the conventions of what I had always considered the “proper way to write.” The purpose of this essay was for students to select a topic, narrate their research, and analyze their own thinking process without initially narrowing their perspective to a thesis. This approach forced me to develop my ideas objectively in a way that I had never before done.
Throughout high school, I had been taught to approach essays as very structured entities, organized based on the necessary condition of a clear and cohesive argument. The best example of this is what many students will remember from high school: the 3.5 essay. One of the first essays I completed was a 3.5, which consists of five total paragraphs, including an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. In the 3.5, each body paragraph proves one component of a student’s thesis statement, and as one might imagine, often induces theses with three main points to prove. As a result of executing 3.5 essays repeatedly in high school and building on that technique over the course of four years, essay writing had become almost formulaic to me. Perhaps this is why the exploratory essay assignment initially proved so unnerving to this freshman, because it seemed to flout many of the formal conventions of composition that I was accustomed to and subsequently raised more questions than I felt capable of answering. Would I have to sacrifice clarity in order to write it? Are structure and clarity always necessary to good writing in the beginning? Is there only one way to measure structure – with topic paragraphs and topic sentences? Overall, I knew that the assignment was not trying to undermine the importance of form, structure, and clarity, but rather encouraging us to understand their purposes in another way: to experiment with writing. As such, the exploratory essay afforded me more freedom than I had ever enjoyed in my prior experiences with essay writing, and this freedom led to a much more holistic process with a different agenda.
Through this exploratory process I was able to confront contradicting ideas that surfaced in my research, rather than marching blindly forward with a thesis that remained irresolute, even in my own mind. I could establish an easily distinguishable thread of inquiry and ultimately arrive at a conclusion in which I vested much confidence. I felt myself free of restrictive conventions that have bound students throughout scholastic history, such as the need for every element to support the thesis. Instead, I could embark on a true Socratic dialogue, in which all views warranted explanation and attention, and which ultimately contributed to a unified synthesis and analysis of my own thoughts.
Initially, however, my classmates and I vehemently resisted the exploratory essay. When our professor, Dr. Walker, detailed the new approach we should adopt, we all felt sheer panic. So many questions and so much confusion ensued as everyone struggled to embrace a different process, a process that did not conform to the writing we were comfortable with creating. To begin drafting, Dr. Walker invited us to open with the following question: “Today I was thinking about…” while basing our explorations on any topic, especially one about which we were uncertain. Above all, Dr. Walker wanted us to breach the boundaries of contemporary English essays by working backward – select a topic, research that topic, dictate the findings, conclude with an assertion. Almost like Pavlovian dogs, my classmates and I had been conditioned to make an argument upon first glance at a textual passage and then remain uncompromisingly aligned with that argument. If some piece of research should present itself contradictory to my thesis, I should immediately tuck it under the desk with all the other loose ends that I viewed as nothing more than self-erected barriers. None of us had even the remotest desire to confront these loose ends, or break free from our comfort zones, lest we risk the possibility of writing something embarrassing.
When I could avoid the looming due date no longer, and I realized that I actually had to begin this awkward, unfamiliar procedure, I began searching for a topic. I knew that I wanted to write about something that my class had at least touched on in discussion because I would eventually have to share my exploration, and I surmised that my classmates would likely be more interested in a topic relevant to our mutual experience. I began by surveying notes I had taken, noticing the connections we made between real-world examples and the texts we were reading. I focused specifically on topics that had personally sparked a reaction from me during discussion. I soon remembered that one day we had discussed a state policy in Arizona that allows students to ask for a new textbook if they decide that they do not approve of the instructor’s text selection. I realized that this was the perfect place to begin my investigative essay, primarily because I felt absolutely ambivalent about the policy. On the one hand, the policy seemed to undermine the teacher—the person whom tradition upholds as having all the right answers—and on the other, the policy seemed to confer such a specific power to the individual student—the power to select the source of information—that it made me reconsider the intent behind the policy and perhaps its potential value.
While I wrote my essay, I slowly felt my apprehension begin to fade and shift toward an appreciation for obstacles. I learned that things like loose ends and contradictions are essential to a genuinely well-rounded process of research and writing. If only one solemn Truth existed in this universe, those loose ends would never emerge in the first place. Ideas must be fully explored and cultivated lest we confine ourselves to assumptions of our own first impressions– as well as make things much too easy.
Higher education is not about making things easy, but rather achieving a level of critical thinking through which life’s complications are rendered accessible. Through this exploratory essay, my process of addressing complications became vocalized and the footsteps to my own conclusions could be followed in earnest. I found information that informed my opinions, rather than handpicking information to complement my opinions. This objectivity at which I arrived felt indescribably refreshing after the 13 years of test models I had faced, and ultimately I have this exploratory essay to thank for my awakening – a true breaching experiment. In my case, through breaching the conventions of a standard essay, similar to the way Milgram’s subway experiments breached society’s norms, my understanding of essay writing underwent a fundamental transition, and I realized that if students never challenge the standard model, they will never be able to truly grapple with the multiple perspectives that truth presents. As I established earlier, the fear of writing something embarrassing is often the biggest obstacle to students. I believe that sharing my exploratory essay could benefit new university students who might be afraid of exploring a new approach or challenging the conventions of essay writing that they learned in high school; hopefully, my willingness to share testifies to the rewards that come with breaching boundaries.
My Exploratory Essay: Learning and the Role of Educators
Today I was thinking about the nature and purpose of education in modern societies. I remember Dr. Walker telling us one day in class that a mandate in Arizona allowed students to approach their teacher, inform that instructor that they did not “like” a particular textbook, and then the responsibility would rest on the teacher to find a new “suitable” textbook for that student. Our Honors Composition class reacted with disbelief toward this alien policy and questioned the ethical boundaries that such a policy crossed regarding the objective nature of learning. In the majority of states, textbook policy operates on the following rationale that directs state-wide implementation: states are held accountable for student performance, and therefore, the responsibility for selecting textbooks that relate everything outlined in the state curriculum falls on state leaders (Tyson). Overall, the umbrella term “alignment” has become the criterion for selecting textbooks in the majority of Western, Southern, and Southwestern states, which posits that a “good” textbook is one firmly aligned with the state’s instructional content. Ultimately, such a boundary line in the development of ideas, methods, and content present in all classrooms can only create absolute standardization. Little to no individualism will be allowed to flourish within our school system because educators will be anticipating one answer from every student that will never come, because to standardize individual thought generates an unattainable paradox.
According to Paulo Freire, a well-known Brazilian educator, students are like deposit boxes, in which teachers attempt to “bank” knowledge and promote memorization and standardization (Freire 7). The approved curriculum serves as the ruling method in these teachers’ classrooms, and the more pieces of the curriculum that they can bank inside of students, the better they directly reflect their ability to teach. Ultimately, an open relationship between the students and the content will liberate the educational system of its stringent commitment to uniformity, finally accepting that it cannot manufacture the ideal student. Students would then be afforded genuine growth as individuals, fostering their ability to become active participants in their own reality.
In educational circles, the extent to which students exercise individualism and participate directly in the information taught to them is sometimes criticized and called into question. Paulo Freire examines this extent of individualism and asserts that open-ended communication will act as the only device to essentially “set students free” from the chains of the system. In the spirit of Karl Marx, Freire emphasizes that the transfer of knowledge has undergone a profound shift, and the new method of teaching advocates narration, in which ideas “tend in the process…to become lifeless and petrified” (Freire 71). Due to this lack of connection established between a student’s reality and the content, Freire argues that they cannot apply the information learned and therefore become alienated from their own “existential experience” (Freire 45). This forces those in the education system to grapple with the following question: should the content mold the student, or should the student mold the content? Freire would maintain that the student affords ideas and content a source of life, lest they become “disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance” (Freire 71). If the teacher simply deposits information “into” the students, Freire asserts that students become receptacles in which true “invention and re-invention” of ideas can never manifest (Freire 72).
Ultimately, individuals must employ their ability to question their current reality if they wish to escape “the passive role imposed on them” (Freire 73). Without inquiry, human beings cannot challenge the status quo, and thereby seek to understand their true potential. This ability to question should emerge as the principal objective that educators transfer to their students; however, the educational system has lately faced a defamation of its purposes. Rather than fostering the human inclination to question, education has become a banking system that focuses on the transfer of facts and information. In actuality, this system shackles students to one perspective, one reality, and one answer. Ultimately, students must liberate themselves from “banked” information and learn to analytically process the changing world, lest they remain stagnant and suspended in a standardized academic system.
If students are to effectively mold the content, rather than become objectified by the curriculum, a truly dichotomous partnership must emerge between the two key participants in the quest for knowledge: the teacher and the student. When discussing the relationship between teacher and student, I found myself wondering about the nature of true partnership, and the mutual expectations assigned to each. According to The Legal Dictionary, as the educational system is a system mandated and regulated by the state, a partnership is defined as “an association of two or more persons engaged in a business enterprise in which the profits and losses are shared proportionally” (“Partnership”). Although education may not be traditionally considered a business, “profits” and “losses” seem to characterize our modern school system. Grades on tests deemed “good” are the tangible profits reaped by educators, while poor grades represent the “losses.” However, I doubt the founders of learning and knowledge would have condoned this system of measuring progress, which offers only a means to “link one point to another and one problem to another” (Freire 74). Plato, whose work we studied this semester, advocated the mastery of discourse outlined by Socratic dialogue (Plato). In this question and answer format, Socratic dialogue is characterized by an “expert” standing on one side, with a “searcher” on the other. Through the inquiry of the “searcher,” Plato contends that gaps in the “expert’s” reasoning will be illuminated. Similar to Freire, Plato emphasizes the teacher-student partnership as the cornerstone of knowledge and learning. Through a mutual exploration of content, an open-ended line of communication materializes and the educator approaches the student with a “profound trust in people and their creative power,” rather than a skeptical cynicism of preconceived notions (Freire 75).
However, it must be noted that Plato and Freire likely mentored individuals who passionately sought education and knowledge; who studied the arguments of great philosophers and interpreted the theories of influential scientists. This system varies greatly from the education that every student must subscribe to in the United States. This in turn made me wonder if the pursuit of knowledge has changed over time, because the motivation to learn has changed. Modern truancy laws make the attainment of “an education” a compulsive obligation to American citizens, unlike the “badge of elite status” that education traditionally awarded individuals in pre-modern eras (Conley 486). Higher levels of educational attainment indicate to future employers that you have “been indoctrinated in the dominant group’s values,” implying the professional power that education now wields. Thus, education becomes a way to “credentialize” yourself, expressing everything from social status to area of specialty, and the iconic “thirst for knowledge” becomes a mere front for the degree you hope will hang on your wall someday. I believe the purity of knowledge is slowly declining in our culture, stimulated by our society’s chief emphasis on practicality and specialization, thereby contributing to the death of liberal arts education.
Shoving the knife deeper into the heart of the humanities seems to be a system called the tracking system. Defined as “a way of dividing students into different classes by ability or future plans,” tracking inserts students into an educational sorting machine, equipped to draw lines of social class and status (Conley 479). For example, college bound students will be placed in Honors or AP classes, while those who express vocational interests replace traditional classes with electives pertaining to their future trade. The argument stands that not all individuals are anticipated to perform well on the traditional academic track. The educational system justifies tracking by highlighting diversity, so that “students’ goals may be matched to their curricula” (Conley 479). Furthermore, research indicates that students in their high school’s college track are more likely to graduate from high school and therefore serves as a predictor regarding whether or not a student would attend college.
Opponents of the tracking system stress that those students lingering in the middle of the system, which did not prepare them for a trade or college, reap no concrete benefits. Additionally, higher-class whites are usually overrepresented in the Honors, college bound tracks, leaving behind minorities. Furthermore, these higher-class whites who are taking AP classes do not always meet the standards for AP classes. Research indicates that these individuals have higher rates of parental involvement, and have parents that are more likely to intervene to have their child placed in college-prep classes. Overall, opponents classify tracking as an important factor in replicating inequality, because often stark differences exist between “quality of teaching and content of materials between tracks” (Conley 479). Freire’s work alludes to the possibility that teachers of lower tracks likely underestimate the potential of their students, set lower expectations, and present a “ready-to-wear approach” (Freire 76). By upholding lower expectations for those not on the college track, a teacher assumes that these students embrace a passive stance regarding their roles as citizens and their ability to shape reality. Martha Nussbaum, a modern philosopher, argues that the lack of a comprehensive liberal arts education acts as a killer to democracy, in that individuals do not learn to critically think for themselves or assume an active role in their own reality, but “instead [become] generations of useful machines” (Nussbaum 2). Nussbaum contends that this process remains largely overlooked as a crisis we have not yet faced as a nation, as we encourage the development of highly profitable skills in our global economy rather than highly analytical minds.
Ultimately, the process of learning has undergone a fundamental change in purpose, so that it may complement the practicality and specialization that globalized culture demands. In an age where one can simply “Google it,” society operates with limitless potential in which constant innovation and circulation of ideas act as hallmarks of its progress. However, as a result of merely “banking” knowledge from those considered “experts,” individuals become objects, which educators mold to fit the content, and mere containers of information. Practicality and specialization will ultimately threaten the system of democracy, as critical thinking, reason, and individuality wither in their shadows. In order to combat this threat, direct communication between teachers and students must be actualized, so that the educated may fulfill their role in a mobile, tangible reality; a reality that they themselves mold.
Kellie’s Concluding Reflection
In accordance with the exploratory essay assignment in my Honors Composition class, the last paragraph should identify the thesis in a typical essay; in my exploration, the thesis comprises the final two sentences. The next step would be to write an argumentative essay based on the process of inquiry demonstrated in the exploratory essay. We prepared a speech based on this argumentative paper. Due to the value of my exploration, I crafted a speech that proceeded in a logical, clear direction; one that presented fully developed thoughts as well as an insightful awareness of the speech’s intent. If more classes provided students with this opportunity, and as a result, trained them to approach writing in this way, a greater authenticity of learning would be achieved in academia. In theory, students should be conducting this exploration prior to drafting their work; however, the pressure of deadlines often eliminates this expectation. Furthermore, many students do not grasp the need to fully research and approach their own ideas from different perspectives, because the educational system emphasizes the need to make quick decisions and support those decisions. Ultimately, I believe that critical thinking should be the overarching aim of education, but without fully valuing each component of the writing process and breaching the established “norms,” students will never achieve this goal. Instead of free, capable thinkers dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, future generations will further the mounting shift toward mechanized, uniformed learning. Hence, free thinking will become the future’s ready-made product, manufactured on the assembly line of the educational system.
Since writing my first exploratory essay for my Freshman Composition course, I have transferred the process to numerous assignments for other classes. For example, in my Research in Literary Studies class, I applied the exploratory essay method to my research paper on Jane Austen’s Emma. While researching, I read and assessed upwards of fifty scholarly articles in the process of honing and focusing my topic. I used the exploratory essay techniques that I learned in Dr. Walker’s class to draft a pre-writing essay in which I used the information I found to evaluate my own initial impressions and arrive at the thesis that I would argue in my research paper. Despite the usefulness of exploratory writing, I acknowledge that there will be and have been times that I did not follow the process as much, because time constraints did not allow for a proper treatment or organization of preliminary exploration. Overall, for most assignments, the exploratory essay would function like my application of it for my Emma paper, in which the pre-writing, exploratory portion is not graded and the professor only grades the final synthesis, although he or she may directly engage the exploratory component as well. Based on my understanding of effective writing, one eventually internalizes this two-part process of exploration and argumentation that I have described; but still, I have found that actually doing the process on paper rather than in my mind ultimately demonstrated my complete ownership of the content.
Dr. Paul Walker’s Explanation
The development of the exploratory essay assignment as described by Kellie emerged from several years of teaching writing and immersion in the scholarship of teaching writing. So much of the field of rhetoric and composition is embedded in the assignment, but it came together from the direct influence of a few specific sources. The idea of the name and general structure of the exploratory essay I borrowed John Bean’s Engaging Ideas, though the actual assignment design was influenced more by principles in Peter Elbow’s “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument to Ignore Audience” and Ken Macrorie’s I-Search Essay. Using Macrorie’s model, I require my students to ask themselves the questions, “What do I know?” What do I want to know?” “How did I find out?” and “What do I do with what I found?” Interlaced with these ideas was a more obscure source – Peter Turchi, whose book Maps of the Imagination ruminates on the relationship between writing and cartography. Turchi’s central premise is that writing, like making maps, consists of two distinct parts: exploration and presentation. Adequately presenting an idea/map is impossible without exploration of the area or topic, and likewise, merely exploring an area/topic is inadequate for scholarly expectations for clear and accurate presentation. The twist of Turchi’s book is his identification that every map is subjective and interpretive based on the audience, purpose, and perceptions and biases of the author/explorer, not to mention the constraints of representation – the necessity to make a globe flat. Turchi’s connections between cartography and writing caused me to reconsider how much I provide the opportunity for my students to truly explore “unknown” or just “uncertain” ideas before the pressures of presenting academic certainty stifles their voyage.
Therefore, as I have made this exploratory essay a part of my classes, I am aware that it reflects the process model that so strongly influenced writing instruction decades ago. Yet as shown by Kellie, such an inquiry-based process evidently disappeared from K-12 writing instruction, if ever adopted. Teachers constantly talk about teaching the writing process, but time constraints and common standards force teachers to emphasize products at all levels. The innovation, as shown by Kellie’s essay and her reflection on it, is that for this particular formal, graded assignment, the process is the product, and the benefit to Kellie, at least, seems remarkable.
Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2001. Print.
Conley, Dalton. You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking like a Sociologist. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009. Print.
Elbow, Peter. “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience.” College English 49.1 (1987): 50-69. Print.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2000. Print.
Luo, Michael. “‘Excuse Me. May I Have Your Seat?’ – Revisiting a Social Experiment, And the Fear That Goes With It – NYTimes.com.” Editorials, Columns, Op-Ed, Letters, Opinionator and More Opinion – The New York Times. 14 Sept. 2004. Web. 29 Jan. 2012.
Macrorie, Ken. The I-Search Essay. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook. 1988. Print.
Nussbaum, Martha Craven. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.
“Partnership: Legal Definition of Partnership. Partnership Synonyms by the Free Online Law Dictionary.” Legal Dictionary. Web. 07 Nov. 2011.
“Plato and Informal Education.” Contents @ the Informal Education Homepage. Web. 07 Nov. 2011.
Turchi, Peter. Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. San Antonio: Trinity UP. 2004. Print.
Tyson, Harriet. “Overcoming Structural Barriers to Good Textbooks.” National Education Goals Panel, 1997. Web. 01 Nov. 2011. <http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/negp/reports/tyson.htm>.
Kellie Money is now a senior English literature major and sociology minor at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. She wrote this piece for her First Year Honors Composition class when her professor assigned an essay with very unique parameters. The essay, called an exploratory essay, required Kellie to open with the sentence, “Today I was thinking about . . . .” The freedom of essentially filling in the blank allowed Kellie to explore any idea she found curious or puzzling for the purpose of arriving at a thesis statement in the final sentence of her paper’s conclusion. Kellie’s piece begins with a reflection about writing her exploratory essay, charting the insights that it afforded her about the process of writing itself, and then follows with her exploratory essay about the relationship between educational content and students.
Paul Walker is an Associate Professor of English at Murray State University where he coordinates the composition program and teaches writing and literature courses. Collaborating with undergraduate students like Kellie, and finding avenues for her and others to publish their work, is one of the most satisfying parts of his job. His research interests including writing studies, first-year learning communities, environmental rhetoric, and writing assessment. He is the author of Writing in Context: Composition in First-Year Learning Communities (Hampton 2013) and his articles have appeared in Rhetoric Review, Composition Studies, enculturation, Composition Forum, and Writing on the Edge.
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