The essay was first coined as “essai” by Michel Montaigne in 16th century France and the term in French means “to attempt” or “to try” (Ballenger, pg. 10). However, over the years, the essay became more about following the right procedure with an opening, 3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The essay became less about the process of writing and more about its generic product despite the honest efforts of those involved in teaching the process of writing an essay.
Even with the best intentions, this kind of “easy to bake” recipe for essays creates a major deficit in students’ educational experience because it assumes that the students do not know how to write and should not want to write in an individualized style or have a unique voice. In “The Five-Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education” by Lil Brannon et al. of the UNC Charlotte Writing Project describes this deficit model that may unknowingly be perpetuated by instructors who want to give students the “key” or easy formula to writing essays:
There is a seductive “commonsense” logic to two opinion pieces that have appeared over the last two years in the “Speaking My Mind” section of English Journal: Byung-In Seo’s “Defending the Five-Paragraph Essay,” which appeared in the November 2007 issue, and Kerri Smith’s “In Defense of the Five-Paragraph Essay,” which appeared in March 2006. These two educators are not merely giving their personal views but, we would argue, are also speaking the minds of many teachers.
They speak a logic that is important to challenge precisely because this logic perpetuates the commonsense myth that the five-paragraph theme is an actual “form,” and that “forming” in writing is simply slotting information into prefabricated formulas rather than a complex process of meaning-making and negotiation between a writer’s purposes and audiences’ needs. They are speaking a logic that makes this damaging mechanistic practice appear to be an acceptable survival technique for overwhelmed, overtaxed teachers. They speak “down” from the college level in favor of a made-up-for school essay format, and their voices (albeit uninflected by scholarship and research) can be used as justification to insist on this dominant school practice. (p. 16)
But now, with the use of digital essays, perhaps we can get closer to the essay’s original meaning. The digital essay can take many forms in terms of text and layout, but it’s the process of making rhetorical choices that becomes paramount. The digital writer is taking more of a rhetorical leap or attempt to try and create meaning in the online space.
Since the e-ssay or the digital essay is writing that has been created to exist in a digital rather than a physical space and is meant for the screen rather than the page, there needs to be more attention paid to how that creation process is different than the traditional essay format. Many writers assume that as soon as you upload an essay online or paste it into a blog, then it is a digital essay; however, there is more to the composition process than that.
A traditional academic essay is composed in a flat, linear space, so it cannot simply transpose into the digital space of Composition 2.0 that operated in a networked, connected, and social framework. Rather than simply transposing the flat, linear genre of the academic essay into a digital space, digital writing should explore the constraints (both limitations and affordances) of the digital space by using hyperlinks, audio, videos, comments, blogs, and images as well as consider the visual and textual composition. (Please see Dr. Joseph Harris’ thoughts on the digital essay here.)
Digital composition allows the reader to add another layer(s) or dimension(s) to his work. If Composition 2.0 is a new version of composition, then there is both continuity and change. The students are still writing and composing as the main task, but digital composition asks students to make new and complicated decisions as writers and composers. In the digital space, not only do writers make decisions on the textual level, but they also must carefully consider:
the rhetorical situation
layout, structure, and genre
connections and reflections
how to compose for public spaces
how to create purpose and authority
For more information on what digital composition can allow student writers to accomplish, please visit my Digital Design page that has versions for both instructors and students. You can also read my next post about “What is Multimodal Composition?”
Ballenger, Bruce. The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing Research Papers. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2012. Print.
Brannon, Lil, Jennifer Pooler Courtney, Cynthia P. Urbanski, Shana V. Woodward, Jeanie Marklin Reynolds, Anthony E. Iannone, Karen D. Haag, Karen Mach, Lacy Arnold Manship, and Mary Kendrick of the UNC Charlotte Writing Project Collaborative. “The Five-Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education.” English Journal 98.2 (2008): 16–21