Of Who We Are And Who We Might Be

jlehn, a student enrolled in this semester’s ENG 5998 reading group, reflects on some of the readings provided by Professor Stuckey-French for our upcoming discussion on Teaching the ‘Digital Age’:

The word for essay comes from the French word “essayer,” meaning to try. The genre of the personal essay is one where the author tries to understand—to understand an idea or more often to understand him or her self. In his syllabus for “IFS 2030: Reading, Writing, and Speaking in the Digital Age,” Professor Ned Stuckey French challenges students not only to understand the genre of the personal essay but to think about “what the digital revolution means for the personal essay and how we use essays to understand our world and ourselves.” How is this urge “to try” to understand ourselves and the world happening—and how is happening in a contemporary setting? The same questions (How do I understand an idea? How do I understand myself?) might be being asked as when Montaigne was writing his first “essais”, but how they are expressed in today’s world is shifting. And what does this mean in the context of digital humanities? One thing that I want to posit before I go any further is that the pondering of the human condition, something usually under the purview of the humanities is an activity that is occurring online and is being facilitated through the use of digital tools. This humanist effort to document ourselves in essay form is something that is worthy of study and of close analysis, and it deserves a place within the digital humanities.

When we think of the “global participatory learning landscape” as Davidson and Goldberg discuss in their book chapter, “(In)Conclusive: Thinking the Future of Digital Thinking” from The Future of Thinking is where I see this issue of fitting in a humanist impulse into digital humanities becoming more sticky. We don’t usually think of humanist, aesthetic efforts in the context of a “global participatory learning landscape” in quite the same way as we think of the sharing of skills based knowledge and information. Sure there is an interest in art, but it’s complicated.

The personal essay is an established genre but may not be one that is given as much attention in literature, and if it is being given attention, the essay is used for its easy application in a classroom setting. Personal essays are usually short and direct, perfect for a composition or literature based discussion. The pedagogical attention given to these essays may be underdeveloped as Professor Stuckey – French points out in his essay, “An Essay on the Context of Essays.” Professor Stuckey-French notes how close readings of personal essays like that of “The White Album” by Joan Didion and “Me and My House…” (although originally titled “Notes of a Native Son”) by James Baldwin can give us deep insights into art and society. For example, Baldwin’s essay examines the deep and pernicious effect of racism and bitterness on all humans. His essay was so powerful that it was edited to be less emphatic for public consumption at the time of publication because of sensitivity to racial issues in public discourse. Baldwin’s essay was not just a record of his attempt to understand his experience, but was also constitutive of a time and place in American consciousness, and America’s response to his understanding. The story of Baldwin’s experience and of his publication of his essay as it relates to racial issues is a story still prescient in American discourse with the issues regarding violence against black bodies in the news within recent years. These are human issues and they are captured in the personal essay distinctly.

That human element is valuable academically and personally. As a side note: of all the textbooks I kept from my undergraduate education, The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate, was one of the few that I always chose to hold onto. The work had stayed with me—maybe it touched on those civic impulses we all have to be better humans in a way my other coursework had not. It was academic work that affected me personally. It seemed like important work to me as a person, and not just as a student.

The attempts to understand our place as humans against a larger social and civic backdrop is certainly not an activity that has ceased since the digital/visual turn of the 20th century. Where do we see these same impulses surfacing? Does it happen as an “essay” or an attempt in Montaigne’s sense of the word? Philip Lopate in his essay, “In Search of the Centaur: The essay –film,” tries to articulate the tenets of an “essay film.” In his sense of the genre, he notes that an essay film features the following criteria:

  • One: “An essay-film must have words” (19).
  • Two: “The text must represent a single voice” (19).
  • Three: “The text must represent the speaker’s attempt to work out some reasoned line of discourse on a problem” (19).
  • Four: “The text must impart more than information; it must have a strong, personal point of view” (19).
  • Five: “The text’s language should be as eloquent, well-written and interesting as possible” (19).

I think Lopate’s criteria point out how much reflection from a single mind is what is characteristic of the essay—an open pondering and desire to figure out something. Images may figure in, but reflection is front and center. This single minded reflection is what distinguishes an essay film from something like DVD commentary. An essay film is searching for answers and a commentary might just be layering on information over a visual.

While Lopate attempts specifically to define the “essay film” as a genre, John Bresford notes that the “video essay” has similar characteristics, but is something that has been facilitated by the increased availability of affordable and easy video recording technology. The cell phone and the computer make both the creation and the distribution of video essays much quicker and affordable than had been previously possible. Online social media makes global sharing and global learning about video essays simple.

When I think of digital video or film essays in a global context, I see this genre emerging as a tool for rhetors/writers/composers/filmmakers to show how they are thinking about who they are and who they might be. Thanks to our increasingly networked lives, we (this is a global we) are able to more easily view what others are thinking about who we are and who we might be and we can start a dialogue about it.

Works Cited

Bresland, John: “Video Essay Suite” and “On the Origin of the Video Essay

Davidson, Cathy N., and David Theo Goldberg. “(In)Conclusive: Thinking the Future of Digital Thinking” in The Future of Thinking, MIT 201

Lopate, Phillip. “In search of the centaur: The essay-film.” The Threepenny Review (1992): 19-22.

Lopate, Phillip, ed. The art of the personal essay: An anthology from the classical era to the present. Anchor, 1995.

Stuckey-French, Ned. “An Essay on the Context of Essays.”

Stuckey-French, Ned. Course Syllabi: IFS 2030: Reading, Writing, and Speaking in the Digital Age.

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