The essay prompt was simple enough: “If you had been an Enron executive during the months preceding the company’s bankruptcy, what course of action would you have taken?” My job was clear: to analyze the corrupt, over-valued company’s crimes and then explain how I, the noble corporate white-knight, would have taken ethical action, either by resigning or blowing the proverbial whistle. Easy as that. That would be the paper I would write and the paper that everyone else would write.
But suddenly, sitting in class, I was seized by a somewhat contrarian, altogether ridiculous notion: why not write a swashbuckling Fleming-esque crime piece on my hypothetically dastardly escape from Enron, loot in hand? I would sell my shares, pocket millions, assume a new identity and abscond to the Maldives. The vision was tantalizing. Aboard the “401K,” my 60-foot sailing schooner, I would fish tuna and sip daiquiris, my bad-conscience-spurred-tensions deftly massaged out by the expert fingers of my bikini-clad crew. I would consider growing and twirling a villainous moustache.
The romanticized travelogue could have been more than fluff — the intricacies of foreign bank-accounting, the legal and technical ways to cover my tracks and the contents of US extradition treaties (the Maldives has none). But, of course, I copped-out, writing two outlandish paragraphs before quickly coming to my senses: such a pursuit may have been F-worthy.
In many ways, this fallback to formula, this creative catastrophe, is characteristic of the writerly ethos that lies at the heart of academia. In high school, we begin with the classic five-paragraph slog: Introduction and Thesis, Point One, Point Two, Point Three, Thesis Restatement and Conclusion. Following formula, we effectively regurgitate or interestingly restate another thinker’s ideas. We have all, of course, become phenomenally good at this type of essay writing. Otherwise we would not be at Yale.
But even here, in one of the world’s most vaunted centers of innovative thought, our writing often falls into similar patterns and modes, stripping it of originality. The core of a liberal arts degree can be summed up in five words: reading and writing about books. We objectify and distance the material of study, rather than actively engaging with it or using it as a jumping off point for our own mental explorations. Great, profound ideas — which should provoke great, profound responses — become dusty and sterile.
The academic system requires us to temper our writing out of necessity. In Yale’s intensely competitive pre-professional world, in which our peers are every bit as remarkable as we are and graduate school always seems tempting, we have a thousand reasons not to roll the writerly dice. For perfectionists like us, making a mistake is a terrifying prospect.
Essay writing is a form of practice, we are told — but for what? It would seem that in this system, created by professors, the emphases that steer our writing focus on developing a professorial skill set. And since we are not professors, our formulaic efforts are often structured around stoically mulling over things already said, following the academic script to boredom and tedium.
Good grades are achieved by fulfilling all-too-predictable rubrics. As a professor (one of my favorites) wrote in a term paper guidelines sheet, “In these papers, clarity of writing and precision of analysis are more important than creativity, originality, or profundity.” Rationally self-interested, we standardize, pushing our writing into homogeneity. The process distills the creativity out of us, step by step, casting our words — those most fundamental footprints of mind — in rigid molds, limiting us to theses, topic sentences and supporting clauses. We neatly wrap it all up with a concluding paragraph, then check to see that we have fulfilled all of the perfunctory requirements and given our professor exactly what he or she was expecting. This is all profoundly limiting.
Our writing is, for the most part, far too safe.
Personally, I very much enjoy writing a good, thoughtful essay about an interesting subject. The analytical paper is an incredibly important and valuable educational tool. But I think we would all appreciate a little extra room to take a risk or two, to dive into more passionate, exploratory writing. Ideally, the body of written work at a university should be a chaotic arena, a testing ground for novel — even exotic, even ridiculous — ideas, a dynamic laboratory in which experimentation and the commingling of disparate, uninhibited experimental efforts yield truly novel thought.
Indeed, in the real world, the writing that catches fire — that captures attention, hearts and minds — always has an edge; it is writing that crosses a boundary, blazes a trail or opens up new territory. There is no reason to suppose that we are not capable of such writing here, and even less reason to believe that efforts that try and fail to achieve these high goals should be academically punished. It may be impossible to be completely original, but getting in the habit of trying is incredibly valuable. Our professors should encourage risk-taking and experimentation, and we, as students, should give them good reason to, by exercising not only our talents of analysis, but also our freewheeling creativity.
In short, I hope that in the future we will be more free to write something ridiculous; in any case, if others start to do it, it won’t look quite as bad when I finally do.
Alex Klein is a sophomore in Davenport College.