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Writing essays is helpful. Discuss.

Every training course involves assessment of some kind. Traditionally, this has taken the form of the standard academic essay. But, in recent decades, this old standby has come to be seen in a less favourable light—too rigid, too cerebral, and too disconnected from the challenges of real life. As a result, there has been increasing pressure to move away from the academic essay and towards more creative ways of evaluating student engagement.

Indeed, I recently came across a guide to diversifying university assessments that contained forty-some different kinds of student assignments, only one of which was the traditional essay. The list contained many creative possibilities: posters, role plays, reflective diaries, blog posts, and something called an ‘exploration table’. The options variously involved Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, and many were heavy on peer-interaction and the innovative use of visuals and technology.

What does one make of such recommendations? In theory, of course, there is nothing wrong with attempts to diversify our approach to assessment, and, indeed, the new curriculum introduced this year at Oak Hill has embraced some of those possibilities (though still no ‘exploration tables’ to the best of my knowledge).

Yet without denying the value in some of these more innovative approaches, as it currently stands, an Oak Hill education will still require you to write a fair number of traditional academic essays by the time you finish. Is that a problem? Or is it something to be excited about? I want to suggest the latter. While it is surely not the only option available to us, the academic essay endures as a staple of contemporary higher education for good reason. In addition to helpfully communicating to the instructor something about the degree to which the student has engaged with the course material, the traditional academic essay actually confers significant benefits upon the student who takes the time to complete it, benefits that are especially relevant for those who would hope to enter into Christian ministry.

After all, we are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to those who have not yet heard it, and to continue to bring that good news to bear upon the ever-changing life circumstances of those who already have. To the extent that our communication is unclear, muddled, or confusing to our hearers, we will not be as effective as we could be. And if clear communication is our aim, we must recognise that few things will develop that skill more efficiently than being forced to write an academic essay.

We should note the emphasis there on clear communication. Students sometimes labour under the misapprehension that a sophisticated academic essay, one that sounds ‘scholarly’, must be characterised by elaborate sentences and obscure, overly-long words. Yet the reality is almost the opposite: an effective essay is always a clear essay. Good writing (like good preaching and teaching) is not about linguistic pyrotechnics, but rather about the seamless flow of thought from one mind to another. Thus at Oak Hill we encourage students to write in a clear, direct style and to communicate their ideas in a manner that is simple, though not simplistic.

This observation is not, however, meant to suggest that writing clear and direct prose is easy. Far from it: writing an essay is hard work; this is surely one of the main reasons why this particular form of assessment is so unpopular! And yet, as is often the case, it is the difficult thing that produces results. Just as strength coaches insist that it is the strenuous, exhausting movements like the squat, deadlift, and bench press that most effectively build up the body, so too experience demonstrates that it is through the intellectual heavy-lifting involved in writing a careful essay that one can most effectively build up the mind. Writing is the engine through which our muddled, fuzzy impressions are transformed into clear and compelling ideas. And this conceptual combustion happens because the act of writing itself forces us to impose order on our otherwise disordered mental landscape.

In the first instance, writing forces us to clarify what we actually think about a topic. Reading, even when pursued with pencil in hand, is still largely a passive activity: you are tracing the contours of another person’s thought and receiving their ideas. This means that as you move from book to book, your gathering thoughts are still largely composed of other people’s thoughts, and it is all too easy to imagine that you have a greater grasp on a subject than you actually do. We all have had the experience of reading something, enjoying it, and feeling that we have ‘got it’, only to realise a few days later that we remember little of what we have read and would be very hard pressed to explain it in any detail to someone else.

But how, then, do you move from a jumbled, second-hand pastiche of other people’s thoughts to a real mastery of ideas and concepts? One of the best ways is through the act of writing itself. Through the process of forcing yourself to settle on particular words, arranged in a particular order on the page, you are forcing yourself to think more clearly. Indeed, it is probably not too strong to suggest that there is a sense in which you do not actually know what you think about a given topic until you force yourself to convert your intuitions and vague notions into actual, fixed, specific words and sentences. Reflecting on his own writing process, the great twentieth-century historian Edmund Morgan put it this way:

I don’t really know what I think until I try to write it. If I have great difficulty putting an idea into words, it is probably because the idea is fuzzy and needs thinking through. I have sometimes been embarrassed to find that I was holding two inconsistent ideas at the same time.’1

Morgan was both a great thinker and a great prose stylist, and here he suggests that that the connection between the profound ideas he formulated and the elegant words he used to express them were actually two sides of the same coin. And what was true for Morgan’s historical work holds equally true for those of us who wish to communicate clearly in ministry. Whether in the pulpit on Sunday morning, at a mid-week meeting, or an evangelistic youth event, people involved in ministry need to communicate clearly, effectively, and concisely, and nothing trains the mind more effectively to do this than the discipline of writing an essay.

Furthermore, writing an academic essay forces one to attend to aspects of communication that are critically important but often neglected. Writing an academic essay demands, for example, that one communicate ideas concisely. In the case of the classroom, the demand for concise communication is made explicit through a stated word limit. But in ministry, while one is, in theory, free to speak without such externally imposed limits, those wishing to keep their hearers would be wise to self-impose such constraints! We all have sat through a sermon or talk that just felt too long. Often this happens not because the speaker actually has too much to say, but rather because he or she is saying it in an inefficient, repetitious way. The discipline of writing an essay teaches us to be concise.

Likewise, the discipline of writing an essay forces a writer to organise a series of thoughts into a coherent form. I am convinced that many sermons and talks which we perceive as ‘boring’ or ‘dull’, are actually just poorly organised. If one cannot discern a logical progression in the speaker’s ideas, if one cannot understand why a particular section followed upon the back of the previous section, then one inevitably comes away befuddled, confused, and desperately bored. Essay writing helps cure this by forcing the writer to attend carefully to transitions, to logical links, and to the overall shape of the final product.

In these and other ways, it is the act of essay writing itself that builds the writer’s mental fitness. We could add that writing an essay broadens one’s perspective by forcing the writer to cite and engage with a range of views.2 Essay writing develops one’s vocabulary, demanding careful attention to the range of words available and their various shades of meaning. Essay writing helps cultivate a sense of proportion, balance, and coherence. The list could go on, but the point remains the same: though it is not the only worthwhile form of assessment, the academic essay helps to cultivate habits of mind that are essential for the sort of effective communication that lies at the heart of effective ministry. And, for that reason, it seems like academic essays at Oak Hill College are here to stay, and that we all will be the better for it.

1. Edmund S. Morgan, ‘Cultivating Surprise’ Huntington Frontiers (Spring/Summer 2005), 7.

2. The footnote deserves far more praise than it typically receives. Its thoughtful deployment fosters a sense of care, precision, and attention to detail that will serve its users well across a range of contexts. Moreover, one might even be so bold as to argue that footnotes help us develop Christian virtues, as the one who deploys them demonstrates humility in acknowledging the work of others, charity in accurately documenting their arguments, and courage in allowing readers to hold up the author’s representation of a position against the original. For more on this exciting yet oft-neglected topic, see, Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).


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