Teaching Essays: suggested approaches

Not least because students will spend a great deal of their time working on essay skills, the form of the essay can be a particularly pertinent one to explore, and Part 4 gives you the freedom to read and discuss essays both old and new, serious and comic, persuasive and discursive.

It is worth reminding students that the word comes from the French, essayer, meaning 'to try' or 'to attempt'; this is a particularly salient point to make when you are talking to them about the ways in which good 'essays' argue a point of view, or present a reading of an idea, viewpoint or in our case, text - the fundamental skill of interpretation and evaluation, which many students struggle to grasp.

Approaches you might take:

1. Opening discussion

Spend time talking about what makes an essay similar or different to forms of writing:

  • The presence of an argument
  • The importance of a logical structure
  • Elements of literary craft
  • References to 'real world' experience
  • The importance of voice
  • The intersection of private and public experience

Read through the quotations below, each providing a different definition of the essay as a genre.  Discuss the implications of each:

  The drama of the essay is the way the public life intersects with my personal and private life. It's in that intersection that I find the energy of the essay.  

  The essay is a seeking of a pattern, meaning, or understanding in an area where I'm bewildered, puzzled, or confused.  

  A form that is itself intrinsically formless, the personal essay is able to take off on any tack it wishes, building its own structure as it moves along, rebuilding and remaking itself—and its author—each time out.  

  It’s not enough to render the experience. You also have to put it in perspective. It’s not enough to show. You also have to tell.   

2.  Give students the opening of any 3 essays e.g.

Michel de Montaigne: from Of Experience (1580)

There is no desire more natural than that of knowledge. We try all ways that can lead us to it; where reason is wanting, we therein employ experience,

"Per varios usus artem experientia fecit,
Exemplo monstrante viam,"

["By various trials experience created art, example shewing the way."—Manilius, i. 59.]

which is a means much more weak and cheap; but truth is so great a thing that we ought not to disdain any mediation that will guide us to it. Reason has so many forms that we know not to which to take; experience has no fewer; the consequence we would draw from the comparison of events is unsure, by reason they are always unlike. There is no quality so universal in this image of things as diversity and variety. Both the Greeks and the Latins and we, for the most express example of similitude, employ that of eggs; and yet there have been men, particularly one at Delphos, who could distinguish marks of difference amongst eggs so well that he never mistook one for another, and having many hens, could tell which had laid it. 

George Orwell: from A Hanging (1931)

It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard. We were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages. Each cell measured about ten feet by ten and was quite bare within except for a plank bed and a pot of drinking water. In some of them brown silent men were squatting at the inner bars, with their blankets draped round them. These were the condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two.

One prisoner had been brought out of his cell. He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the moustache of a comic man on the films. Six tall Indian warders were guarding him and getting him ready for the gallows. Two of them stood by with rifles and fixed bayonets, while the others handcuffed him, passed a chain through his handcuffs and fixed it to their belts, and lashed his arms tight to his sides. They crowded very close about him, with their hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, as though all the while feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water. But he stood quite unresisting, yielding his arms limply to the ropes, as though he hardly noticed what was happening.

David Foster Wallace: from Roger Federer as a Religious Experience (2006)

Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.

The Moments are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do. We’ve all got our examples. Here is one. It’s the finals of the 2005 U.S. Open, Federer serving to Andre Agassi early in the fourth set. There’s a medium-long exchange of groundstrokes, one with the distinctive butterfly shape of today’s power-baseline game, Federer and Agassi yanking each other from side to side, each trying to set up the baseline winner...until suddenly Agassi hits a hard heavy cross-court backhand that pulls Federer way out wide to his ad (=left) side, and Federer gets to it but slices the stretch backhand short, a couple feet past the service line, which of course is the sort of thing Agassi dines out on, and as Federer’s scrambling to reverse and get back to center, Agassi’s moving in to take the short ball on the rise, and he smacks it hard right back into the same ad corner, trying to wrong-foot Federer, which in fact he does — Federer’s still near the corner but running toward the centerline, and the ball’s heading to a point behind him now, where he just was, and there’s no time to turn his body around, and Agassi’s following the shot in to the net at an angle from the backhand side...and what Federer now does is somehow instantly reverse thrust and sort of skip backward three or four steps, impossibly fast, to hit a forehand out of his backhand corner, all his weight moving backward, and the forehand is a topspin screamer down the line past Agassi at net, who lunges for it but the ball’s past him, and it flies straight down the sideline and lands exactly in the deuce corner of Agassi’s side, a winner — Federer’s still dancing backward as it lands. And there’s that familiar little second of shocked silence from the New York crowd before it erupts, and John McEnroe with his color man’s headset on TV says (mostly to himself, it sounds like), “How do you hit a winner from that position?” And he’s right: given Agassi’s position and world-class quickness, Federer had to send that ball down a two-inch pipe of space in order to pass him, which he did, moving backwards, with no setup time and none of his weight behind the shot. It was impossible. It was like something out of “The Matrix.” I don’t know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs.

 Download the extracts here

  • Discuss the way the introductory sections of each compare and contrast with each other.
  • What do the differences suggest about the way the genre has developed over time?

3.  Apply the following questions to the analysis of any essay:

  • What is the essential purpose of the essay:
    • To inform/instruct?
    • To argue/persuade?
    • To entertain?
  • What are the core ideas of the essay? Try to summarise them
  • How would you describe the nature of the content e.g. controversial/polemical/factual/revealing/emotive?
  • In what ways does the essay change or develop as it moves along?
  • Identify key choices of diction. Would you describe it in general as simple or complex? Formal or informal?
  • Do any particular kinds of words predominate? Look carefully at choices of noun, pronoun, adjective, adverb or verb
  • What kinds of sentences are used - simple, complex. compound?
  • Does the essay make use of elements of literary, or figurative language - e.g. metaphor, simile, imagery
  • Would you describe any particular sections as rhythmical, or do they make any use of sound?
  • How would you describe the tone of the essay - the attitude of the author towards his or her subject matter? Does the tone shift at any point?
  • Does the essay make use of first, second or third person narrative?
  • How would you describe the register? Is it fairly formal, detached or informal and intimate, for example?
  • Look closely at the way the essay is put together. Does the argument or the sequence of ideas progress in any particular way? Where are the points of development?
  • How does the essay begin?
  • How does it end - conclusively? Open ended?

Other resources: 

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