Before the pandemic I asked 150 high school juniors in four separate classes to think of a word they associate with writing essays. After giving them a couple minutes to think, I stood at the board and wrote down the words they called out. Here are the lists:
As you can see, the students’ feelings about writing essays were overwhelmingly negative.
I was struck by the patterns. “Stress” is on every list. “Anger,” “crying,” and “dropout” showed up multiple times. I tried to imagine what writing must be like for the student who contributed “shaking.” Shaking?
When I showed one of the lists to another teacher, he said, “What’s wrong with those students?”
It was a loaded question that made me reflect on the ways adults stereotype those lazy, complaining teenagers, and how teachers often rush to defend a system that rewarded them with degrees and jobs but doesn’t work the same for today’s students.
There is definitely something wrong here — but why assume it’s the students? Especially when four different classes of 36+ students answered in the exact same ways?
Writing as Trauma
In our culture, the person who names a problem risks being identified as the problem. Too often we blame the victim. An employee who points out a legitimate issue at work may be targeted for having a “bad attitude.” Even victims of rape and violence are forced to endure ridiculous questions and sometimes even direct accusations, as if they had anything at all to do with the horrible thing that was done to them. No wonder people are so often reluctant to come forward.
The students in these classes trusted me enough to be honest. My first response was gratitude. I thanked them. I acknowledged the courage it took for them to speak up. No one likes to admit that something is this awful, especially when they’ve been told repeatedly to get over themselves because it shouldn’t be a big deal and everyone else can do it and they should too.
My second response was to ask the students if, when they thought of the word “essay,” they were describing an experience that involved:
- hard-to-understand instructions
- to write a long thing
- about a harder-to-understand text or idea
- in a too-short time frame
- to be returned with scrawled comments
- like ‘need clearer thesis’ and ‘fix your conclusion’
- and a letter grade
- which made them feel badly
- so they crumpled up the paper
- and eventually lost it
- wherever things go
- after they escape
- the bottom of the backpack.
The students became animated at this point in the conversation. In every class. They nodded and said, “Mmhmm. Yes. That’s exactly it.”
In that moment, the expressions on their faces were so open. Their eyes were wide. There was energy in the room. I get to know my students pretty well, but I was reminded that there is so much more to these young people than they usually show in class. You could tell they were surprised to hear their lived experience described so plainly and accurately by a teacher. One student even said, “Thank you for offering us some understanding.”
The Hawthorne Effect
As I watched the students take notes (i.e., as I watched the students write things down without being asked) I started thinking about the Hawthorne Effect. The Hawthorne Works was a big factory in Illinois where thousands of workers made telephone equipment and consumer products. In the 1920s, the company commissioned a study to learn about productivity.
During the study at The Hawthorne Works, every single change, like making the lights brighter or making the lights dimmer, seemed to increase employee productivity. What kind of sense does that make? I get how making the lights brighter made productivity goes up — but then how did dimming the lights also make productivity go up?
The real insight wasn’t that productivity increased because of the actual changes that management made; it was that when management was sympathetic, willing to listen, and able to keep their promises, the employees put in more effort.
This is an excellent place to start in the classroom. Getting any kind of honest feedback depends on trust, and trust is earned. At this point in our culture, trust also has to be modeled, because many young people simply haven’t seen a working example in practice.
TRUST Your Audience
I made it a practice to demonstrate trust on the first day of school. Every year, I gave students choices and invited them to decide how the course would run. Then I walked out of the classroom and closed the door behind me so they could talk freely.
First impressions are nice, but they are easy to create and trust takes time. Students saw me repeatedly honor my word. They watched me make mistakes and openly admit to each one. They observed me listen and help without getting frustrated with them.
These are some of the reasons why students trusted me when I asked an open-ended question about a touchy subject. After I recorded the first few contributions without judgement, they began contributing more openly and enthusiastically. This is no small thing. Outside of feeling self-conscious in class, students are often experiencing multiple levels of trauma of their own.
Trust YOUR AUDIENCE
According to studies published by the American Psychological Association, anxiety in our culture has increased so much in recent decades that “typical schoolchildren during the 1980’s reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients did during the 1950’s.” One of the studies’ authors said the trend is likely to continue, and she linked anxiety to depression: “The results of the study suggest that cases of depression will continue to increase in the coming decades, as anxiety tends to predispose people to depression.”
Fast forward to present day. Students’ lives, experiences, and feelings are complicated and intense. Our bizarro culture now includes mass shootings and active shooter drills at school. Students navigate a challenging maze of opportunity (which they have to find) and danger (which finds them). School is a game even the winners often don’t like playing. And the prize? Graduation (read: escape), followed by toxic student loans and other financial instruments dressed up and marketed as essential opportunities.
Still, the students show up. There they were, courageously expressing their feelings about writing essays. So I told them about Montaigne.
The O.G. Essayist
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne lived in France from 1533 to 1592. He worked as a government official and he was also a winegrower. Most importantly for us, Montaigne popularized a style of writing that changed the western world.
Instead of writing about his personal achievements or historical events, Montaigne wanted to express exactly what he thought and felt. Readers over the years have commented that reading Montaigne’s writing is like seeing their own thoughts and feelings in a mirror– they feel amazed that someone else seems to share inner experiences that they thought were unique to them and unknown to anyone else.
In this way, Montaigne created a connection between writer and reader that continues to transcend space and time. Montaigne wanted to create value based on a shared understanding, a bond between the writer’s inner world and the reader’s inner world. This isn’t easy. Montaigne himself called it a “thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind.”
The difficult things in life are often the most worthy of our effort. Once I made a sign and hung it front and center in a classroom: There is glory in the attempt. I liked the idea because it emphasized the process over the result.
I put the sign right next to Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote, which is still one of my all-time favorites. These ideas motivate me. The people I respect most give a damn and try hard.
Try, try, try just a little bit harderJanis Joplin
I’ve learned a great deal about courage and motivation from people in many walks of life. Sometimes I’m struck by how these universal ideas transcend culture. Just recently I learned that Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Glory lies in the attempt to reach one’s goal and not in reaching it.”
Long before Gandhi or Roosevelt or Wayne Gretzky, when Shakespeare was only 8 years old and hadn’t yet imagined Hamlet or “To be or not to be,” Montaigne understood that you can’t win if you don’t play. No one will understand your mind or your heart if you don’t consider and express them carefully in words that you write to the best of your ability. Trying is everything.
Montaigne really wanted to try and make sense out of his thinking in a way that readers could understand. That’s why he called his book by the French word that means attempt or try. The French word for attempt is… Essay. (Also spelled “essaye” or “essai” in Middle French.)
“Think about this,” I said to the students. “Whenever you’re trying to get your parents or your boyfriend or your manager to understand you– every one of those moments is an Essay. So really, when we write an essay, all we’re trying to do is make sure the reader understands us.”
Peace Love & Understanding
Which is really a gift. We are so well-trained to write for a grade, or to get people off our backs, or to be louder or clearer or [whatever] because we’re used to feeling frustrated when people don’t understand us, that it’s easy to forget that people WANT to know what we’re thinking.
Writing an essay the way Montaigne intended it, as an attempt to create understanding between writer and reader, is a win-win. The reader feels good when an idea or a feeling contributes to her experience, and the writer feels good when she knows something she wrote got through and made a positive difference.
Students began to respond as I described these ideas. One of them said out loud, “OK. I’ll try.” (I loved that. Without knowing it in the moment, what he said was, “OK. I’ll essay.”)
However satisfying that moment may seem, it wasn’t enough. I flashed on what Yoda said in The Empire Strikes Back:
Montaigne didn’t try to write. He wrote. All in, he wrote 107 essays, on subjects ranging from death to women to politics to whatever else ran through his mind. Although psychologists and authors wouldn’t know what to call it for another 300 years, Montaigne developed a style that has become known as “stream of consciousness.”
Stream Your Consciousness
The task before us is clear. Our job is to connect. Our job is to understand others and, in turn, to make ourselves understood. To do that, we must heal whatever trauma we associate with the idea of writing an essay — because now we understand that’s not at all what Montaigne had in mind or what school should be doing to us in the first place.
One of Montaigne’s essays was entitled, “Of the Education of Children” and he ended it by writing:
To return to my subject, there is nothing like alluring the appetite and affections; otherwise you make nothing but so many asses laden with books; by dint of the lash, you give them their pocketful of learning to keep; whereas, to do well you should not only lodge it with them, but make them espouse it.
Montaigne believed that we learn best when we love what we do. When we can choose how to direct our curiosity, our passion, and our effort.
We may not be perfect. We may not even succeed in making ourselves understood. But in honor of our deep needs for connection and mutual understanding, and in the tradition of Montaigne and the millions of writers (from famous pros to Instagram weirdos) who have attempted to share their thoughts and feelings with us, we must practice in order to become better. We must write.
In the End
It’s time to heal and forgive the past. We have reclaimed the essay and our power to define what it isn’t, and what it is. The essay is not a five-paragraph insult to our intelligence or a cynical exercise in getting a grade. The essay is our attempt to participate in the grand human conversation, one paragraph at a time. It will be messy, and it will be beautiful, and ultimately it will be ours. There is glory in the essay. I look forward to reading yours. In the meantime, thank you, dear reader, for spending some time thinking about this one.