Report? Paper? Essay? Making Connections

April 15, 2005

Keynote Speaker: Phillip Lopate

“While young people excel at lyrical poetry and mathematics, it is hard to think of anyone who made a mark on the personal essay form in his or her youth . . . . It is difficult to write analytically from the middle of confusion . . . ”
—Phillip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay (New York: Anchor Books, 1995)

“It takes at least a dozen years before the taint of the schoolroom—the ‘essay question,’ the college application essay, the essay on the principal exports of Bulgaria due Thursday at 10:00, all of which have as much in common with an essay by Montaigne as a vitamin pill does with a chocolate truffle—wears off completely.”
—Ann Fadiman, The Best American Essays (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)

“The field of potential within the essay lies in the active zones between believing and doubting. (Congealed belief, or doubt, produces tracts.) This is why the essay in its best uses can be the most important exploratory tool of humanistic thought. Its active middle terms is a particular kind of play with and of ideas—the play of minds in pursuit of both pleasure and meaning, the pleasure of making meaning.”
—Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (University of California Press, 2003)

All essayists were once young. Classrooms need not suffer from the taint of dutiful but lifeless writing that is commonly associated with the “essay.” And although essay is often synonymous with reflection on personal experience—which may require the experience of middle age—the essay is in fact not one thing. The essay represents a wide range of formal, informal, and experimental forms, a range of personal, critical, and analytical writing that lives in an interdisciplinary world. What distinguishes the essay, however, is that it is thinking by means of writing—a form of writing that is as appropriate in an analysis of a literary text or an exploration of a psychological phenomenon as it is in exploring personal memory and identity. Essay is writing that mirrors the writer’s thinking as she makes connections, explores an idea, or responds to a problem.

This conference explores what we—and our students—can learn about writing and thinking from studying the essay, and students’ lives can be enriched by practice of the essay as an act of imagination and exploration.

The Institute secondary and college teachers in all academic fields to reconceive the essay as a form of thinking that can be useful for writing papers in the social studies, history, and science as well as in English and composition or language arts. Whether we assign papers in history or literature, reports in science, or essays in English, many of us are disappointed with the results. Embedded in the form of the essay—as practiced by writers from Montaigne to Michael Pollan—are clues to improving student writing. Small group workshops, a keynote talk by writer Phillip Lopate, and informal discussion provide an opportunity to read and reflect on several varieties of the essay and to imagine writing assignments that will allow students to compose essays that are the equivalent of a “Milky Way,” if not the “chocolate truffle” of middle age.

Conference participants will receive a packet containing an eclectic collection of essays by writers such as Mary Gordon, Susan Griffin, Michael Pollan, Brian Doyle, and Rosemary Waldrop—along with selected student papers—to be read in advance of the conference. Writing in response to, and discussion of, the essay collection will be the focus of the small group workshops, led by faculty associates of the Institute for Writing and Thinking. Lively discussion of the essay collection provides the occasion to explore the common goals and techniques that themes, papers, exploratory essays, and scholarly articles share and to imagine how to teach students to do in their papers what essayists do. Additional examples of traditional and experimental essays as well as papers on the essay form will enrich the discussion.

Featured Speaker:
Phillip Lopate is the author of numerous essay collections, including Portrait of My Body (1996), Against Joie de Vivre (1989), and a memoir of his teaching experiences, Being with Children (1975). He is the editor of the Art of the Personal Essay, the Library of America’s Writing New York, and series editor, The Art of the Essay. He has taught at Fordham University, Cooper Union, the University of Houston, Columbia University, and New York University. He is Professor of English at Hofstra University, where he holds the John Cranford Chair in the Humanities.

Workshop leaders:
Celia Bland, director, Academic Resources Center, Bard College

Darlene Forrest, director of faculty development, Expository Writing Program, New York University, and instructor in English Education, New York University

Alfred Guy Jr., R.W. B. Lewis Director of Center for Writing Instruction, Yale University

Susan Kirschner, senior lecturer in humanities, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon

Sharon Marshall, lecturer, Program in Writing and Rhetoric, SUNY at Stony Brook

Nicole Wallack, associate director, Undergraduate Writing Program, Columbia University

Conference Schedule

Friday, April 15, 2005
8:00–9:15a.m. Registration and Welcome
9:15–10:45a.m. Workshop session 1
11:00a.m. – 12:15p.m. Plenary session
Keynote: Phillip Lopate
12:30–1:30p.m. Lunch
1:30–3:00p.m. Workshop session 2
3:00–3:15p.m. Break
3:15–4:45p.m. Workshop session 3
4:45–6:00p.m. Plenary discussion and closing reception

The conference fee, which includes tuition, materials, and lunch, is $125. Accommodations are not included in the fee. You will receive a list of area motels when you register. The Institute offers a 10 percent discount to schools sending three or more teachers to the conference.