The University of Auckland
The essay is not merely the articulation of a thought,
Hic sunt dracones (Here be dragons)
Students and teachers alike bemoan the sorry state of academic writing, as both readers and writers. Nonetheless, they are loath to venture beyond what they take to be the well-known territory of the academic (read: expository) essay for fear of going astray, or unsettling their readers. Here I aim to map the academic essay as it is practised for the most part ... but also as it might be practised. That is to say, the essay is not as monolithic a form as it has often been taken to be, but it also offers a greater range of possibilities than have commonly been taken up.
Broadly speaking, there are two main spatial models of the essay, namely, the essay as round trip and as one-way journey: the point-first (PF) and the point-last (PL) essay respectively.
The first model is the more common in, and seemingly native to, the academy, in that it is an epistemic (knowledge-displaying) and thus expository writing technology.  But it is less open, as it stakes its claim at the outset and then sets out to prove it. The second is less common, but truer to the origin of the essay, in that it is a heuristic (knowledge-discovering) and thus exploratory writing technology. It is more open, as it arrives at its claim as an end-point – although its openness is often only provisional, or pretended even, because it arrives at a claim nonetheless. These different aims also imply different rhetorical and stylistic objectives: the PF essay aims to express a single voice and to achieve transparency, namely, plain speaking and plainness; the PL essay, in contrast, is able to express multiple voices (or a multiple voice) and to achieve a certain idiosyncrasy, that is to say, complexity and a stylistic ‘complex’. (Table 1 outlines the binary that will guide my exploration of the essay.)
In short, some essays (PF essays) allow writers to show what they know, to negotiate known territory (terra cognita); others (PL essays) enable writers – and readers – to find out what they think, to navigate unknown territory (terra incognita), where lie dragons ... or riches.
Figure 2. Abraham Ortelius, ‘Islandia’ (1590).
Most of the time, academics read and write with the PF model more or less explicitly in mind, and they teach it too (if they talk about writing at all), though often in a formulaic way and without thinking, let alone talking, about the epistemological and institutional baggage the model brings with it. If students have a model in mind as they write (or read, for that matter), it is this one – though most know it sketchily at best. This is why we need to map the academic essay. Such a ‘narrative cartography’ can give us a vantage-point on academic writing (Ryan 2003), so as to get ‘outside’ it better to describe it and so as not to get lost in language, in the ‘literariness’ (literarity), ‘writtenness’ (textuality) and ‘writerliness’ (authorial voice) of the essay as text. It can also tell us a lot about the nature and place of writing in the ‘academosphere’. Writing in the academy, whether point-first or point-last, is almost always about making a point, or case (thesis); that is to say, its rhetoric is forensic (L. ‘of the law courts’) in Aristotle’s sense (Russell 2002: 51-63).  It serves the drive to examine because these models in their ‘pointedness’ make for easier reading and grading. But it also preserves academic authority, whether that of the institution or of the élites within it, because these models normally remain unspoken and unexamined (Hoskin 1982; 1993b). However, although both models are ‘pointed’ by nature, the PL essay does open up different, that is, more indirect and idiosyncratic ways of getting to our point. In short, then, to map the essay can give us a sense of the essay as shaped inwardly and outwardly, as an aesthetic whole (a structure) and an institutional medium (a construction).
Terra cognita: the made-to-measure model or template essay (the PF essay)
To turn first to the PF essay: the standard formula is ‘tell me what you’re going to tell me, tell it, then tell me what you told me’ (Hahn 2003: 141). From this instruction follows what is in the United States called the ‘thesis-support form’ (Heilker 1996: 4) or, even more prescriptively, the ‘five-paragraph theme’ (Schaffner 2003). This standard form has become so internalized for academic writers as to become, as David Chapman puts it, ‘the ‘default-drive’ for expository writing’: the form of ‘conformity’, almost Procrustean in its execution (Chapman 1991: 73). 
Figure 3. ‘Theseus Fighting Prokrustes’ (c. 440-30 BCE) (Nguyen 2011).
It helps to know something of its history. To begin with, the essay was heuristic and philosophical, or literary; only later was it epistemic and pedagogical, or academic.  Interestingly, the etymology of the word ‘essay’ bears both senses – but in reverse order. Its use to mean ‘a composition of moderate length on any particular subject’ is first attested in the 1590s in the Essays of Francis Bacon (1597). He took the term from Michel de Montaigne, whose Essais (1958) were first published in 1580. The Old French essai means ‘trial, attempt, essay’, whence its philosophical or literary sense.  Essai comes from assai – our ‘assay’ – which derives from the Latin exagium, ‘weighing’, the nominal form of exigere, ‘to weigh, prove, measure, examine’, whence its pedagogical or academic sense (OED Online). The PL essay, then, predated the PF essay.
Generically speaking, the academic essay grew out of the expository prose of scientific scholarly research, in particular, the peer-reviewed journal article, which began, with The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society under its first editor Henry Oldenburg (1665-77), as a medium for the communication of scientific knowledge, or, more crudely, for writing up or reporting on research. That medium was institutionalized with the emergence of the research university after the example of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s University of Berlin (founded 1810), with its ‘ethos of [scientific] objectivity’.  Nonetheless, the essay as we know it mixes the ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’. This leads to several paradoxes: for example, academic authority is seen as singular (located in individual scholars) and citational (distributed through a scholarly community), and scientific research is seen as public and private good (common or individual intellectual property).  The forensic rhetoric of the essay, whereby the author makes a case supported by evidence, be it experimental, statistical or textual, exemplifies this uneasy mix. Related pedagogical writing technologies like the student essay – not to mention reports, proposals, dissertations, theses and exam essays – came later to support the massification and ‘textualisation’ of education. 
The academic essay was and is, essentially, a scientific (or pseudo-scientific, in the case of the humanities) report on research, describing the aims, objectives, outcomes – and outputs, or findings – of our research. It is thus writing after-the-fact or in hindsight. Reports usually follow what Susan MacDonald (1994; 2002) calls the ‘AIMRaD’ formula: Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion, summarizing the findings of research and answering the why, how, what and so what questions. Why use such a formula? Because it speeds up reading and literature review, as the reader can easily select what is relevant to their purpose. It presents information logically, chronologically in fact (though this neat order rarely corresponds to the process of scientific discovery) and it eliminates unnecessary detail. Most importantly, it focuses on the findings, or outputs, of the research, its point.
In practice, this formula generates an essay template known popularly as the ‘five-paragraph theme’, variously described as a double funnel – or rocket, keyhole or burger, even. To fit it, essays ought to announce their point, or thesis, about the topic at the outset and support it with a series of sub-points (usually three), each addressing an aspect of or offering a justification for the main point:
Figure 4. The PF essay template.
A similar introduction-body-conclusion – or, to put it more simply, beginning-middle-end – form marks each body paragraph. According to Jane Schaffer’s (1995) paragraph model, each body paragraph should ideally comprise eight sentences in two ‘chunks’ (b-d and e-g below), following a 1:2 ratio of data (evidence) to analysis (explanation):
This introduction-body-conclusion form, in which the point is given in the introduction and returned to in the conclusion, could be described as the academic writing ‘fractal’. This self-similar, or scale-invariant, structure underlies essays, articles or chapters, essay sections, paragraphs, even sentences in the academosphere, such that academic writing is fern-like in its symmetry. 
Figure 5. Fractal fern (de Campos 2011).
Or, perhaps, less poetically, it is like a Sierpiński sieve through which content is filtered.
Figure 6. Sierpiński sieve (adapted from ‘Sierpinski Triangle’ 2011).
At their best, essays that fit this template feel like a round trip; they feel as if they are going somewhere, and we read them in that expectation (see figure 1, left). They work like a film that begins with a flashback, or a police procedural, in which the outcome (be it a denouement or a murder) is known at the outset, and which, as it were, works its way back around to their starting point in order to explain it. When this departure-and-return model of the essay works, it does feel ‘organic’ (Zeiger 1990).
At the very least, though, the PF model is a useful template for efficient academic writing because it is up-front with its point – which is, after all, what most academics read for. Stylistically, it aims for transparency, in other words, plain speaking and plainness. It can thus be said to be indicative in ‘mood’: to express a fact, or a given point, and thereby to inform or instruct its readers. Rhetorically speaking, as an epistemic (knowledge-displaying) and thus expository writing technology, it allows writers to show what they know and to emphasize their voice (or point) at the expense of others’ (or their ‘counter-points’). In addition to its virtues as a medium for the communication of knowledge, albeit of a monological kind, it offers an easily teachable and gradable (examinable) model, and a common lexicon for teachers and students to talk about the essay. As Paul Lynch puts it in ‘The Sixth Paragraph’, somewhat tongue-in-cheekily, ‘Teachers teach it for three reasons. First, it is easy to remember. Second, it’s easy to perform. Third, it’s easy to grade’ (2011: 288).
Mundus vetus (the Old World)
There are those who argue that such formulas are not such a bad thing, and that the bias against them is snobbery on the part of the humanities against scientific or technical prose.  But although the PF template is efficient, it is not necessarily the most effective. Leaving aside the epistemological problem of assuming that form (an essay) is simply a container for content (an argument), there is a ‘cartographical’ problem with PF essays.  Though they can achieve a sense of ‘organic’ wholeness, most often their arguments seem tautological (and cut-and-pasted): we don’t get a sense of having travelled far between the thesis-statement in the introduction and its return in the conclusion.  And we know where they are going because their path is singular and returns to its starting point, and because there is a limited range of moves possible in the body of the essay (away and back, basically, say, to address counter-arguments). For these reasons, they can easily become boring and predictable – formulaic, or Procrustean even – for students and teachers, and disabling for students, if, for example, they feel that their point must always be supported by exactly three subpoints (Heilker 1996: 2-9). The PF template is most problematic if it becomes the template, if we assume that there is only one way to write in the academy, whatever the content and methodology.
Why the academic essay might have become formulaic has to do with the econometric design-drive of today’s academosphere, which projects aims, objectives and measureable outcomes in the service of outputs, or rather, an efficient – and manageable – relationship between inputs and outputs. This leads to what I call teleological, or ‘end-stopped’ (Sturm & Turner 2011), teaching and learning (also known as ‘goal-oriented’, or GO, education [Popham & Baker 1970]). In other words, in the academosphere, everything must be seen as if in hindsight. It is thus a future anterior world, a closed loop that achieves a predetermined outcome – not unlike the ouroburos, or mythical serpent that eats its own tail (see figure 7). 
This explains the obsession of the academy today with econometric measures that close the loop of teaching and learning, like constructive alignment and summative assessment. Such measures allow for total quality management (TQM) of the academy according to corporate best practice (with teaching and learning as professional development and research as product development). 
Worryingly, as the diagram of the ‘PF essay in hindsight’ in figure 8 suggests, the PF essay works similarly: from a predetermined outcome (‘o’) – its point, or thesis – backwards. 
The PF essay can thus be seen to serve and to be informed by the econometric design-drive of the academosphere. Because it is teleological (and often tautological), it can readily be templated, taught, read and graded. This makes it efficient for teachers – and seemingly so for students. For a student (or academic, indeed) to perform the template well might demonstrate their membership of the academy and thereby serve the ‘epideictic’ (performative) function of ‘promoting values that are shared in the community’ (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 52).  But the upshot is problematic: if the ‘values’ teachers are ‘sharing’ are econometric, they are simply training academic writers – and academics – to be good econometricians. The alternative is to explore the PL essay.
Terra incognita: the bespoke model or true essay (the PL essay)
The turns and re-turn of [one’s] wanderings,
Whereas the epistemic (knowledge-displaying) and expository writing technology of the PF model is more common in and seemingly native to the academy, the heuristic (knowledge-discovering) and exploratory PL model is less common there but truer to the longer history of the essay that goes back to Montaigne’s Essais from the Renaissance. It is common in the literary essay, namely, the familiar essay, the personal essay, creative non-fiction and so on, but much less common in the academy (outside writing studies programmes or papers) – though, as Helen Sword (2009) has argued, many academics would like it to be, as readers and writers. To read off from our binary schema (table 1), whereas the PF essay stakes its claim at the outset and then sets out to prove it, the PL essay seems more open, as it arrives at its claim as an end-point. And whereas the former allows writers to show what they know, by speaking in one voice and plainly, the latter can enable them to find out what they think, by adopting more than one voice (or one more their own) and cultivating a certain idiosyncrasy, that is to say, complexity and a stylistic complex. For this reason, it has been called the ‘genuine’ – I would call it the true – essay (Kazin 1961: viii).  It is a bespoke, or custom-made, model of the academic essay. 
The PL essay is no mere container for content: it can perform, or embody, its point or points; its content can be allowed to shape its form. As Vilém Flusser puts it in his essay ‘Essays’, this means that the choice of PF or PL essay (he calls them the ‘treatise’ and the ‘essay’ respectively)
What’s more, by implication, two different arguments are two different essays (as two different essayists are presumably two, or more, different arguments). The PL essay could thus be described as subjunctive in ‘mood’, in that it can express possibilities, even counterfactual or fictive ones, whether by traversing a range of points (by trying multiple paths) or by working toward a point (coming at it by multiple paths).  Figure 9 represents these two options (the former, on the left; the latter, on the right) – in hindsight, hence the ‘winning’ path is solid and the others, dashed.
So, unlike the PF essay, which is monological and instructs or informs its reader, aiming to communicate knowledge to them, the PL essay is dialogical and interacts with its reader, requiring them to co-construct knowledge through the medium of form.  It follows that the PL essay often takes the form of a narrative of enlightenment, of coming-to-know one’s topic or oneself, whereby the reader learns as the author does (or rather, as they seem to). As Paul Heilker puts it in The Essay: Theory and Pedagogy for an Active Form (1996), something of a vade mecum for the PL essay, ‘In the art of the essay, we write in a perpetual movement toward knowledge and wisdom; in reading essays, we witness writers perpetually moving toward wisdom and understanding’ (183). I would add ‘...and, as readers, we perpetually move toward knowledge and understanding’.
To co-construct knowledge through form thus requires that PL essays can take many forms. Generally speaking, whereas the PF essay is largely static, or rather, offers only a singular trajectory, the PL essay is characterised by what Heilker (1996) calls ‘kineticism’ and a multiple trajectory (167-184).  He argues that the essay is not a form, or that its form ‘not the form of a thing, but rather the form of an activity or action’ (169), that the essay is really essaying. Or, to put it otherwise, that what defines the PL essay is its quest for the right form, for a form that will activate, or mobilise, the content. As a starting-point, then, to venture beyond the well-known territory of the PF essay, it may be enough simply to say that the form need not be seen as closed off, as formulaic and end-stopped.
My favourite is Coleridge’s from the Biographia Literaria of the essay as pleasurably peristaltic:
All these metaphors capture the sense that the PL essay is mobile, and that its trajectory is multiple – polytropic – and does not, or need not, return to its starting point (the popular and my metaphors for the PF essay, by contrast, are static and singular). They suggest that there are a greater range of moves possible in its unfolding as it begins without a map (?) and proceeds to what seems an unknown outcome (x) (see figure 10: ‘The PL essay in hindsight and in process’) – although its openness often only seems provisional because it most often arrives at a claim nonetheless.
The logic of the PL essay is thus neither deductive nor inductive (Adorno 1984: 158). Rather, it is not unlike that of Socratic dialectic, a dialogue that is driven by Socrates’ ironic questioning (eironeia, Gk, ‘pretended ignorance’) to arrive via refutation (elenchus, Gk) at a final Truth, an endpoint (Vlastos 1983). Derrida’s essays are similar, often ending, despite what Barbara Johnson has described as their appearance of simply ‘[f]ading in and out’, with a ‘figural’ or symbolic clou (Fr., ‘nail’) that sums up the essay (quoted in Derrida 2004: xvii).  A genuinely provisional performance – one that might well be perceived as ‘point-less’ in the academy – would quest without resolution, more akin to the essays of Montaigne that draw on common-placing  or to a Situationist dérive (Fr., ‘drift’). 
In addition, the formal mobility of the PL essay – its polytropism – thus reflects, or rather, embodies a certain critical mobility. As Heilker puts it, the true essay is ‘a form of transgressive symbolic action in which intellectual freedom is enacted as a movement across ideological boundaries and borders’ (1996: 181). This critical mobility is embodied in the various forms of critical-creative writing, like the performative essay, the creative non-fiction or fictocritical essay, the lyric essay and so on, that inhabit the margins of the academosphere.  These forms are not only vehicles for critique (critical in their content) but also implicit critiques of the essay as mere container for content (critical in their form). Because such essays resist the idea that writing in the academosphere must conform to a standard form or template (viz. the PF essay), they implicitly critique the econometric design-drive of the university that informs that template.
Mundus novus (the New World)
PL essays thus answer a different need than PF essays. Accordingly, they open up the academic essay, and thereby academic subjectivity, to new possibilities. Practically speaking, to mobilise the essay we might, in the first instance,
To conceive of the essay as a quest or narrative of enlightenment, as I have suggested we might, is to ‘storify’ it, but there are some straightforward storytelling moves with which we are familiar from the PF essay, for example,
But to conceive or construct the essay as a story also opens up the play of reader(s) and writer(s). It implies
Thus, as Roland Barthes has it, the genuine essay is not only a ‘readerly’ form but also a ‘writerly’ one, whose intention is ‘to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text’ (1974: 4).
However, there is more at stake here than some new moves or the play of reader(s) and writer(s) in the essay. PL essays embody Montaigne’s view of the essay as ‘essaying the self’ (Raine 2009), of the essay as essentially personal, idiosyncratic even (from Gk, idios, ‘one’s own’ and synkrasis ‘temperament, mixture’). Genuine essays balance fidelity to their subject matter and to their author’s voice(s). That is to say, in their treatment of a topic, they perform – or embody in their form – a certain subjectivity. This performance can be seen more or less straightforwardly.
Firstly, essays can be autobiographical, that is, fashioned after a self (‘I am myself the matter of my book’, writes Montaigne [1958: 2]), or autopoetic, that is, self-fashioning (‘My style and my mind go roaming together’, says he ).  Most creative non-fiction and lyric essays work this way, but the move goes back to Montaigne. As he confesses with his characteristic irony in ‘Of the Affection of Fathers for their Children’, he tends to the autobiographical: ‘finding myself destitute and void of any other subject matter, I presented myself to myself for argument and subject’ (1958: 278, translation amended).  (Not for nothing is his motto ‘Que sçay-je?’ – what do I know? – inscribed over a pair of scales [393; see Hardison 1988: 620].)
Figure 12. ‘Que Scay-Je?’ Detail of title page of the Journel edition of Montaigne’s Essays (1659) by N. de Larmessin (1659?).
Flusser and many moderns tend to the autopoetic. He describes essays as ‘existential’: if I choose the essay (rather than the treatise), ‘the style ... will begin to reflect, to articulate, to formulate my project of body and soul’, such that it constitutes, to cite the quote with which I began, ‘a point of departure for a committed existence’ (Flusser 2002: 194). The subjectivity implied by this form of ‘essaying the self’ might be described as lyrical or ethical, that is, autobiographical (fashioned after a self) or autopoetic (self-fashioning).
Secondly, and less straightforwardly, essays can be autotelic (Eliot 1932: 19), or self-sufficient.  As such, they are the art form of what Alexander Nehamas has called the truly ‘aetheticist’ ‘art of living’, in which
That is to say, the essay enables the multiplication of perspectives, that is, works of art (essays) and thereby ways of living (selves), as an end in itself. Performative and fictocritical essays work this way. The subjectivity implied by this form of essaying might be described as ironic (Kofman 1998). As such, it would permit a different reading of Flusser on the essay as ‘a point of departure for a committed existence’ (2002: 194). The essay would embody irony as a ‘style of existence’, as Claire Colebrook puts it, in which ‘[t]he subject ‘is’ nothing other than an ongoing process of creation’ (2004: 52). To explore such an idea of academic writing could be to find ourselves in unknown territory (terra incognita), but its dragons might well guard great riches.
Sean Sturm is an academic developer and teaches writing at the Centre for Academic Development and Department of English at The University of Auckland.
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Vol 16 No 2 October 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth, Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo