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Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies

Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies

by Nicole B. Wallack


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Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies

Essays are central to students’ and teachers’ development as thinkers in their fields. In Crafting Presence, Nicole B. Wallack develops an approach to teaching writing with the literary essay that holds promise for writing students, as well as for achieving a sense of common purpose currently lacking among professionals in composition, creative writing, and literature.
Wallack analyzes examples drawn primarily from volumes of The Best American Essays to illuminate the most important quality of the essay as a literary form: the writer’s “presence.” She demonstrates how accounting for presence provides a flexible and rigorous heuristic for reading the contexts, formal elements, and purposes of essays. Such readings can help students learn writing principles, practices, and skills for crafting myriad presences rather than a single voice.
Crafting Presence holds serious implications for writing pedagogy by providing new methods to help teachers and students become more insightful and confident readers and writers of essays. At a time when liberal arts education faces significant challenges, this important contribution to literary studies, composition, and creative writing shows how an essay-centered curriculum empowers students to show up in the world as public thinkers who must shape the “knowledge economy” of the twenty-first century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607325345
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 06/01/2017
Edition description: 1
Pages: 260
Sales rank: 1,041,998
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Nicole B. Wallack is senior lecturer in discipline in the Department of English and Comparative Literature and director of the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia University. As a senior associate of the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College, she leads writing-­across-the-curriculum workshops for high schools and colleges around the country.

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Crafting Presence

The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies

By Nicole B. Wallack

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2017 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-534-5



Experiments in the psychology and neuroscience of learning show that learning that sticks — the kind that leads to the changes we expect of college, what we call higher learning — requires rich engagement with new material, not just memorization, and that the outcome of this engagement is a concrete and tangible change in the mind — a change in how one thinks and makes sense of the world.

— Richard P. Keeling and Richard H. Hersch (We're Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education)

As someone who has felt a lot of trouble being clear, concise, and/or cogent, I tend to be allergic to academic writing, most of which seems to me willfully opaque and pretentious. There are, again, some notable exceptions, and by "academic writing" I mean a particular cloistered dialect and mode; I do not just mean any piece written by somebody who teaches college.

— David Foster Wallace ("Introduction: Deciderization 2007 — A Special Report," The Best American Essays 2007)

What must American students learn to succeed as writers in college and beyond? What role can essay-writing in particular play for twenty-first century students in their intellectual development? Today, American high school and college teachers are expected to prepare students to write across a broader range of disciplines and in more discursive environments than ever before. Current national initiatives for curricular reform define literacy entirely in terms of skills acquisition, while in the process, essay-writing as its own comprehensive learning goal has been marginalized. To focus first on skills in writing asks students to compose for purposes that masquerade as genres — for example, a "summary," "description," "analysis," or "narrative." However, these skills do not carry intrinsic motives for writing. Put another way, when students write primarily in order to exercise skills they may not understand why those skills are valuable. Writers do not compose "descriptions" for their own sake; we do write essays. To devalue the essay also reveals troubling assumptions about the capacities of student writers and the future we imagine for them. A skills approach imagines students as protean workers who need to be readied to fulfill others' goals for their thinking and writing: intellectual "stem-cells" for the world beyond school. Teaching students to write essays acknowledges them as people who can — indeed must — construct and contribute original ideas to the world in many registers and guises while they are still in school.

There are several pedagogical values and beliefs that are foundational to this book and the composition programs in which these ideas have driven curriculum design and professional development. I offer them to reveal immediately my own orientation toward the essay but also to encourage my colleagues to do so both with one another and with their — your, our — students. To teach the essay acknowledges writing as a technology for original thought and deep engagement with texts, with the self, and with the world. The essay as a genre relies on those intellectual, ethical, and creative capacities we most need students to cultivate in order to thrive inside and outside of school. Essay writing over time and across disciplines teaches students to:

• modulate self-expression and social commentary

• situate themselves historically, intellectually, and culturally

• engage rigorously and ethically with ideas, data, and texts by others

• reflect on and revise their ideas, values, and sense of self

• develop discursive, aesthetic, and rhetorical awareness

• document shifts in their thinking, commitments, and modes of expression

In the chapters that follow, I pursue two inter-related arguments: one pedagogical, one theoretical. Pedagogically, I argue that the past 30 years of debate about the essay among scholars and practitioners of the form has left educators in composition and English literature uncertain about the value of essays for academic work, and creative writing faculty largely to focus on teaching craft. By extension, composition teachers who foreground the essay in our courses must demonstrate that writing essays will prepare students for every future writing task or context they are likely to encounter in or out of school. The essay fails this test, as naturally it might. While learning the discourse conventions of one discipline or genre can help students to "learn how to learn" others, writing essays cannot alone prepare students to write lab reports, dissertation chapters, memoranda, or policy statements. Calls for a profound rethinking of the content and approach of writing curricula by David Smit, Elizabeth Wardle, and Douglas Downs focus on how to address failures in knowledge and skills transfer from first-year writing courses — often presented as essay writing courses — to future occasions. However, as writing studies scholars, including Douglas Hesse, Kurt Spellmeyer, Paul Heilker, Wendy Bishop, Pat C. Hoy II, Joan Retallack, and Lynn Bloom, have argued for over a decade, the genre's association with the tradition of belle lettres should not lead us to jettison essay writing in composition and literature courses nor impoverish the practice to fulfill the requirements of standardized curricula and tests from secondary school onwards. Our colleagues working across the humanities, social sciences, and STEM areas would understand the centrality of the genre if we all acknowledged that the essay already has a home in many disciplines, but as the more public forum of our fields. We may write articles and reports for our colleagues within our disciplines, sub-disciplines, and sub-sub-disciplines, but when we need to write about our work in order to reach multiple audiences, we write essays.

Essays feature qualities that we need pedagogically and curricularly in this age of increased specialization and interdisciplinary work: they require writers to make their work comprehensible to others, but they also must attempt to make those ideas, the questions, and the consequences of that work compelling to others. Essays also rely on writers orienting themselves in relationship to their materials, and this act of self-representation is not neutral and cannot be driven solely by genre or disciplinary conventions. Writers "need not say 'I'" in essays, as Susan Sontag averred in 1992, in order for their work to be understood as crafted by specific individuals (Sontag 1992). However, for every essay writers must ask anew how they will represent themselves, other thinkers, and the world. The intellectual force of essay emerges from reckoning with Montaigne's question, "What do I know?" The ethical force of the essay arises when writers answer the question, "Who shall I be?" The choice of presentation is one without a pre-determined answer, a "live" question in every sense of the word.

My pedagogical argument relies on a theoretical one that can help us as teachers to understand more fully the central aspects of essay writing that make them rewarding and challenging to teach, and which cannot be taught in isolation as skills. Three formal qualities distinguish essays from other modes of nonfiction writing: presence, evidence, and idea. Among these qualities, the most ephemeral is what Gordon Harvey, Robert Atwan and Donald McQuade, and Peter Elbow have called the "presence" of the writer. This quality is least understood, frequently subsumed into other elements of writing (e.g., "voice" or "argument"), but central to how essays work at conceptual and formal levels. Close analysis of contemporary essays can highlight how accounting for presence provides a flexible and rigorous heuristic for reading that can help us to teach students in composition, creative nonfiction, and English literature courses to appreciate essays (a critical practice that has fallen out of favor but is worth reconsidering) and write strong essays for themselves.

To offer a historical perspective, I focus on works published since 1986 in the popular anthology series The Best American Essays, which provides a chronicle and artifact of the contemporary essay originally written for North American periodicals. Each volume offers a snapshot of its year in terms of key ideas and cultural preoccupations; for example, only a few months after the United States' invasion of Iraq, The Best American Essays 2003 featured both Michael Pollan's "An Animal's Place," which was later repurposed for his best-seller, The Omnivore's Dilemma, as well as Susan Sontag's "Looking at War," which became a chapter for her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others. The essays from the series that I feature here respond to questions that invite both self-examination and social commentary: how can we make sense of our histories and find our places in them? How can we be more responsible readers and responders to others' ideas and experiences? What does it take for us to re-see our selves and act on those insights?

The literary history that the series documents intersects with changes in the status of essays and essay-writing both as a public intellectual form and as the basis for a field of study. Examining collectively how the essay is theorized in the editorial forewords and introductions to The Best American Essays can help us to anticipate the changing fortunes of the essay in the field of composition and rhetoric as well as the newer fields of creative nonfiction, writing studies, and essay studies. While many of the editors see essays as a genre for exploring ideas, other literary qualities are more highly noted (e.g., voice or image), and several editors make clear that they see as distinct the notion and role of "essayists" and "scholars," as well as "essay" and "academic discourse" (including their language, conventions, and readers). In spite of these disclaimers by some of the genre's most well-known practitioners, I argue that the American essay in the twenty-first century increasingly is idea-driven and that current practitioners are finding new approaches to making arguments through their formal and rhetorical choices. Jonathan Lethem's essay chosen for The Best American Essays 2008, "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism," provides one dramatic example. Lethem assembles his essay primarily from excerpts of other writers' work on intellectual property and the creative process; he takes care in the body of the essay to make the pieces cohere stylistically and conceptually, and only acknowledges his sources in a "key" at the end, rather than a more conventional bibliography or list of works cited. Essays such as Lethem's bring to essays written intraditional media — that is, in a magazine and published in hard copy — the sensibilities and epistemologies of new media, and raise some of new media's most challenging questions about how we define authorship and citation.

Ultimately, Crafting Presence seeks to provide a portrait of the contemporary American essay that will overcome the ambivalence many teachers have about teaching essays in high school and college. More of us in high school and college would teach the essay without the prompting of formal standards initiatives if we better understood how central essays can be to students' (and teachers') development as thinkers in our fields. We would teach it with greater purpose and more effectively if we thought students capable of writing work that passes muster as "real" writing. However, it is unlikely that more teachers will embrace essay reading and writing as a rich pedagogical practice until more of us become readers of essays as they are composed in the world outside of school.


Two recent initiatives in the United States — neither designed nor implemented directly by the Department of Education — have sought to determine what students should learn to write in K–12 contexts and in college. In June 2010, the National Governors Association for Best Practices (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) launched the "Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects" (also known as the "Common Core Standards," henceforth CCSS). The CCSS seek to identify literacy skills and "understandings" students require in primary, middle, and secondary schools in and across subject areas. The skills have been chosen based not only on their importance to subject-area learning at each grade level but also with an eye toward "college and career readiness in multiple disciplines" (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers 2010:3). In the first five years after their completion, the CCSS were adopted by 44 states and three territories.

The CCSS garnered strong support by key figures in American public education, including the secretary of Education, Arne Duncan; initially, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers was also a supporter but reversed her position in 2014. The CCSS have met with more mixed responses from classroom teachers both at the K–12 level and their colleagues teaching in two- and four-year colleges. Attitudes range about the effects of the CCSS on curriculum and the teaching of writing. Proponents believe with David Coleman, the president of the College Board, has been called the "architect" of the CCSS that its changes will increase the rigor of the literacy curriculum for K–12 students, and they value how the CCSS include writing as a component of teaching across disciplines. Some teachers express fears that they are already juggling too many curricular requirements; some ask how school administrators can implement the CCSS without reducing their ability to run their classrooms as they see fit including designing their own writing assignments. It is important to focus specifically on assignments since what we teach students to write shapes their day-to-day experiences in school and defines for them the fundamental purposes and values of school.

According to the CCSS, students in grades 6–12 should learn to write three types of "texts": "arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts," "informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas," and "narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events" (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and Council of Chief State School Officers 2010:41–47). A sub-section of the CCSS titled, "College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing" codifies both what students are expected to write and why they should write these things. The language used in the section includes a dozen words that are meant to evoke properties of academic discourse including argument, claims, analysis, information, and explanation, among others. Foregrounding these concepts signals a shift from previous curricular standards in which self-expression, student engagement, textual comprehension, and grammatical correctness were the markers of student achievement in writing. This shift is among the features that have made the CCSS the cornerstone of the Obama administration's education platform, "Race to the Top." The CCSS also communicates a shift in priorities in the teaching of writing through its taxonomy of writing into the three textual types. The three "types" emphasize the functions of the texts students write rather than their genres or topics; for example, teachers may assign a "book report" or have students write a story on a "a key turning point in life," but the assignment will only align with the standards if it can fulfill one or more of the textual functions. Each type also offers a complicated motive for its functions. Thus, students should be taught "arguments" in order to "support claims," create "an analysis," and identify "substantive topics or texts" (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and Council of Chief State School Officers 2010:42) Although foregrounding function potentially gives teachers greater range and agency over what they teach, the divorce of function from genre reduces genre to an occasion or site for skill-performance without other intellectual value. The twenty-first century student the CCSS imagine does not enact, extend, or revise genre-conventions but points his or her skills "at" them.

For all of the studious avoidance of genre in the CCSS, most of the skills that students are meant to acquire are closely associated with essay-writing. Essays are invoked if not stated as the most-likely expression of these skills. On the CCSS there are listed five expectations for "arguments" and six for "informational/explanatory" texts. On each of these lists, three recall formal — even formulaic — aspects of traditional essay writing in school. Regardless of genre, 11th and 12th graders must "introduce [topics or claims]," "develop [topics or claims]," and "provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports [the topic or argument]" (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, and Council of Chief State School Officers 2010:45). In the CCSS, the requirements of academic prose are abstracted away from the essay; this distance may reflect how vexed and even toxic the associations are around essay-writing in secondary school. Prior to the CCSS the essay in school was understood as the soul-less, mechanistic quasi-genre required by standardized exams that prompted the curricular corrective of experientially-based assignments for K–12 students in the forms of narrative, memoir, and poetry. Without understanding the fundamental value of the essay as a genre, writing in high school will increasingly become a protracted entrance examination without other intellectual, ethical, or civic merits.


Excerpted from Crafting Presence by Nicole B. Wallack. Copyright © 2017 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Acknowledgments xiii

1 Introduction 3

Devaluing the Essay in the Age of the Standards 7

On "Showing Up" 18

2 The Genre of Presence 20

What an Essay Isn't 21

Why Consider the Writer's Presence? 28

The Best American Essays 33

The Problem of Naming 34

Issues of Taxonomy 37

Essayists Theorizing Genre and Presence 42

Tracking Evidence and Presence 57

On Reading Essays 60

3 "Historical Thinking" in Essays: Crafting Presence in the Company of Ghosts 69

Kenneth McClane in the Otherworld 76

Jamaica Kincaid Traps History 87

Richard Rodriguez Through the Looking Glass 100

4 "Error and Illumination": Crafting Reading Presences 115

Susan Sontag Seeks Our Gaze 127

Gerald Early Reads Ciphers 138

Franklin Burroughs at the Point of Origin 151

5 Crafting a Self Made of Images in Essays 167

Charles Simic Adrift in the Night 177

Mary Gordon Comes to Her Senses 186

6 Learning the Essay 197

References 213

About the Author 220

Index 221

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