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The Essay Is Dead! Long Live the Essay!

When Open AI launched ChatGPT on November 30, 2022, it became the fastest-growing consumer internet application in history, gaining over 100 million users within its first two months. Early users, including myself, were awed by its capability, but as I wrote in my February 2023 newsletter, "Don't Believe the Hype about ChatGPT," its limitations made me conclude that, at this point, it is nothing more than a useful tool for aspiring student writers.

Others, however, were more alarmed by the technology and what it ultimately means for high school English teachers. Daniel Herman, an English teacher at Maybeck High School in Berkeley, CA, wrote two articles for The Atlantic: "The End of High-School English" (December 9, 2022) and "High-School English Needed a Makeover Before ChatGPT" (August 30, 2023) to express his concerns and suggest a new approach to the teaching of English that eliminates "using writing as a benchmark for aptitude and intelligence."

While Mr. Herman's articles contain many insightful (and humorous) observations, I think his conclusion is ultimately short-sighted and misses the point of the writing process.

The first and most obvious rebuttal to his idea of eliminating formal essays from high school English classes is that one of our primary jobs, especially for college-bound students, is to prepare them academically for the next level. We already have a benchmark assessment that determines a student's readiness for college-level English: the AP Literature and Composition Exam. On that exam, which students generally take in the spring of their senior year, they are required to handwrite three essays within a two-hour period—a poetry analysis, a passage analysis, and a literary argument—which are the three essays that students write in every four-week course at Literary Focus.

In order to succeed on these AP essays, students need to master the art of reading closely, thinking deeply, and writing clearly and coherently. It's a daunting task that requires years of practice for even the most talented student writer.

If ChatGPT eliminates anything, it should be the take-home essay, which can too easily be completed by simply giving a chatbot the essay prompt. I eliminated take-home essays from my classes in 2011, replacing them with in-class AP-style drafts that could then be revised by students over the course of the quarter (See the July 2022 Newsletter: "Managing the Paper Load"). My primary goal was to get students to write more frequently and to prepare them for the pressure of writing a 40-minute timed essay. With the advent of AI, however, in-class essays should now become the standard in every high school and college English course.

While preparation for the AP Literature Exam and college-level English is certainly important, even more meaningful is the critical thinking that is required of students when writing academic essays. Mr. Herman states that "what English teachers have been expected to do for decades—make students write essays—is no longer useful. Goodbye and good riddance." Instead, he wants English class to "look something like a book club. We'll read texts and then discuss them, with all the inevitable consonance and contradictions that come from different viewpoints." The question is what students will do with "the inevitable consonance and contradictions that come from different viewpoints." How will they navigate the complexity of literary texts and resolve the inconsistencies within their own thinking if not through the writing process?

The purpose of writing an essay is to come up with a personal interpretation that navigates those "different viewpoints" in a way that not only makes sense to the reader, but also makes the student think either differently or more deeply about the text. As French literary critic Roland Barthes once said, "Literature is the question minus the answer." There is no interpretation that cannot be countered with an equally compelling argument that creates a tension between those two opposing perspectives. A student has to create an argument that can withstand those counter-arguments in a way that makes the reader feel that the interpretation is valid and worthy of contemplation.

The problem with ChatGPT—at least for literary analysis, anyway—is that it is based on large language models that try to synthesize all of the information on a given subject based on the question or prompt the chatbot has been given. When I went through the process of using ChatGPT to analyze Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" in my February 2023 Newsletter, "Don't Believe the Hype about ChatGPT," I likened the results to looking at Picasso's cubist painting "Girl with a Mandolin" (1910).

We can see all the elements in the painting that identify its subject as a girl playing a mandolin, but we also notice that each element is disjointed and out of alignment, which artistically makes for an interesting, compelling portrait. When those same qualities are present in an essay, however, the resulting gaps, omissions, and inconsistencies create an incoherent argument that frustrates a thoughtful reader.

The "inevitable consonance and contradictions" that Mr. Herman aspires to generate in his class discussions also inevitably show up in student essays. The goal of the writing process is to work on clarifying a student's thinking to eliminate as many of those inconsistencies as possible. Moreover, from a teacher's perspective, it is through the process of giving individual feedback on essays that we can meet students where they are intellectually and academically.

For some students, the primary goal is to make a more coherent argument through improved structure and organization. For others, the goal is to make a more compelling argument through better evidence or more insightful commentary. Either way, individual feedback on essays is the way we can differentiate our instruction to help students improve in the specific areas in which they are most deficient.

When students structure their AP essays in our courses, we encourage them to use Hegel's Dialectic, which is an intellectual framework that German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831) created to pursue the "truth" in any intellectual endeavor. The framework requires students to identify a central tension within a text (i.e. thesis vs. antithesis) and then to resolve that tension in a way that reveals the "meaning of the work as a whole," which is language the AP uses to signify theme (i.e. synthesis):

Each element in Hegel's Dialectic—thesis, antithesis, synthesis—becomes the focus of an individual body paragraph. Students prepare the reader for the complexity of their argument in the introductory paragraph, where they effectively give the reader the subject of each paragraph (i.e. topic sentence) so we know the overall direction of their argument.

When a Level I student wrote her Steinbeck AP Passage Analysis on Of Mice and Men this winter, she had the following introductory paragraph about the conversation that Crooks, the Black stable hand, has with Lennie in the harness room when George and the other men have gone to town one Saturday night:

In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Crooks, a Black stable hand on a ranch

in California, tries to explain to Lennie, a mentally challenged white laborer, how it feels

to live in a segregated society. Crooks expresses that he is companionless and empty because

no one will be associated with him because of his race.  Through Crooks’ desire to have companionship, Steinbeck conveys the consequences of living in a society with limited opportunities, where people are not treated with equal dignity and respect.

The student's initial claim (i.e. thesis), which will be the focus of her first body paragraph, is that Crooks feels "companionless and empty" as a result of the racism that he endures as the only Black man on a segregated ranch in California in the 1930s. She then has an identifiable—although somewhat vague—resolution about the "consequences of living in a society with limited opportunities, where people are not treated with equal dignity and respect," which will be the focus of her concluding third body paragraph (i.e. synthesis). What she does not have, however, is a legitimate counter-claim (i.e. antithesis), which would identify the central tension in the passage.

When I met with this student during her individual writing conference, I asked her to consider why Crooks in the passage wants Lennie to imagine what would happen to him if "George don't come back no more." How is Lennie's life, as a result of his close relationship with George, fundamentally different from the cold, isolated world in which Crooks lives? The contrast between Crooks' solitary existence and Lennie's life with George should be the focus of the first two body paragraphs. For this particular student, the most important feedback centered on the structure and organization of her argument.

For a Level III student this winter reading Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, the primary feedback for his Field AP Poetry Analysis on Edward Field's "Icarus," a poem related thematically to Hosseini's novel, was the commentary in his concluding paragraph (i.e. synthesis) about the significance of the once-great Icarus now aging within the confines of suburbia and wishing he had drowned as a youth:

Icarus simply cannot come to terms with his new life: "Can the genius of the

hero fall / To the middling stature of the merely talented?" (19-20). And while he

attempts to fly, he attempts to fly only to "lighting fixture on the ceiling" (24), safely

within the confines of his workshop. Icarus wonders if his punishment for greatness

is aging in a suburb. He "wishes he had drowned" (30) when he fell from the sky, but

we should ask if anyone should be considered great if they do not truly try. Icarus,

remember, still fell and yet he looks most fondly on what is in essence is his greatest

failure. So while Field is speaking about Icarus, maybe anyone who has once achieved

greatness would do well to remember the greatest accomplishments often walk hand-in

-hand with important failures, and yet, with greatness accomplished, it is the achievement

that will be remembered.

My feedback for this student was that his concluding paragraph begins with a strong statement of Icarus' discontent with the reality of his "new life" in suburbia, but who does Field suggest is ultimately responsible for Icarus' despair? Why does Icarus no longer have the courage to escape the "confines of his workshop"? Nowhere in this conclusion is Icarus held responsible for his own predicament. The writer hints that Icarus perhaps should not "be considered great" because he does "not truly try" any longer, but he concludes that one day we will remember our "accomplishments" in life rather than our "failures." By creating such an optimistic theme for Field's poem, the student does not account for Icarus' being haunted by his past "accomplishments" and feeling like a failure because he can no longer live up to the legacy of his former "greatness." The poem concludes with Icarus' wish that he had died as a youth, which suggests that Field's theme is not optimistic—at least from Icarus' perspective.

After receiving feedback in their individual writing conferences, students then have an opportunity to rewrite and improve their essays. This process of writing a draft, receiving feedback, and then revising is essential in clarifying one's thinking in order to produce an argument that effectively resolves the "inevitable consonance and contradictions" that are inherent in any work of literary analysis.

The fact is that complex literary texts are incredibly difficult to analyze effectively. In Mr. Herman's articles for The Atlantic, he derides the use of ChatGPT and other study aids like CliffsNotes and "No Fear Shakespeare" as "short cuts," but even the best study aid can never satisfactorily resolve the inconsistencies and contradictions within a literary text. Rather than trying to ban or denigrate the use of outside sources, I encourage students to utilize any material that will help them better understand a text. To me, it is the same as reading literary criticism, which is an integral part of college English courses as well as every course at Literary Focus. When students read an excerpt from a work of literary criticism, I ask them to keep three questions in mind:

For instance, in our course for F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, students read an excerpt from Roger Pearson's essay "Gatsby: False Prophet of the American Dream" (1970) after we have read the first two-thirds of the novel (Ch. 1-6). Students come to the next class ready to discuss the relative merits of Pearson's argument by filling out the following Literary Criticism Matrix as homework:

Students tend to agree with everything a literary critic argues since the person is generally a college professor and a perceived expert on the material, so I often have to provide examples of ideas in an essay that I personally question, such as when Pearson argues that Gatsby is "aptly suited for the role of arch-high priest" of the Jazz Age because he is "the persona and chief practitioner of the hedonism that marked this period":

After we have defined hedonism as the "devotion to pleasure as a way of life," we discuss Gatsby's behavior during his own parties in Ch. 3 when Nick wonders

if the fact that [Gatsby] was not drinking helped to set him off from his guests, for

it seemed to me that he grew more correct as the fraternal hilarity increased. When the

"Jazz History of the World" was over girls were putting their heads on men's shoulders

in a puppyish, convivial way, girls were swooning backward playfully into men's arms,

even into groups knowing that someone would arrest their falls—but no one swooned

backward on Gatsby and no French bob touched Gatsby's shoulder and no singing

quartets were formed with Gatsby's head for one link. (54-55)

Rather than being a "high-priest" who embodies the hedonistic "Jazz Age," Fitzgerald depicts Gatsby as being separate from this hedonistic lifestyle, only using the wealth that he has gained to pursue Daisy because he thinks that money is the only reason she chose to marry Tom Buchanan rather than waiting for him to return from the war. Is Gatsby a hedonist who represents the corruption of the American Dream, or is his "heightened sensitivity to the promises of life" the reason why Gatsby "turned out all right at the end" in Nick's estimation?

The answer, of course, is that the text supports both interpretations. I stress with students that the debate over competing interpretations is what makes English fun—but also extremely challenging and thought-provoking. When students write their own essays, they have to come to their own conclusions as to what the text means. To deny students the opportunity of sorting through what Mr. Herman calls "the inevitable consonance and contradictions that come from different viewpoints" prevents them from resolving those inconsistencies and coming to a conclusion that makes sense not only to themselves, but to others as well. Writing essays is a vehicle to accomplish that more-than-worthy goal and should remain a fundamental aspect of every English course in both high school and college.

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