One of my students opposes the word “seem” and won’t include it in his essays without a tussle. For him, too many uses of “seem” show uncertainty and make his interpretations and ideas less convincing.

I shouldn’t pick on him because many of my students feel the same way… and I’m partly to blame. My students might be parroting other English teachers, but perhaps they’re echoing me. I hear myself telling them they need a more contentious thesis or argument, more evidence in their essays, a more compelling case. I tell them to be more credible, persuasive, and convincing, more winning. I say they should be irrefutable.

My colleagues and I spend much of our time preparing students to write legal briefs in rigid five-paragraph form. No wonder they recoil when I ask them to admit some uncertainty—so much for Aldous Huxley’s famous statement that “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything” or the origins of the form in the French word essayer (to attempt) or Montaigne’s formative efforts mulling over irresolvable issues.

Of course essays need authority. If a writer were truly “writing to think,” we’d quickly lose confidence and patience. We’d walk away. However, does the need for assurance suggest a need for absolute certainty? Is a reader in better hands with a demagogue or a real human being who accommodates doubt?

Phillip Lopate, in his brilliant introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, writes, “to essay is to attempt, to test, to make a run at something without knowing whether you are going to succeed.”

The essays I write are nothing like the essays I teach. I have a habit—maybe an annoying habit—of undermining my own reasoning and never quite overcoming the word “seem.” If I have a thesis statement at all, I’m often arguing for looking at the subject in a more subtle and complicated way. My cases focus on reasonable doubt. I mean to get the suspect off.

Huxley identified three sources for an essayist’s authority, what he called, “a three-poled frame of reference.” An essay writer could use an “objective… factual… concrete-particular” authority akin to a legalistic compulsion, but he or she could also have a second sort of authority born of personal experience, reflection, and anecdote. The third sort of authority he describes, “the abstract-universal,” is more rare, derived from a philosophical perspective we might call wisdom. Every writer, Huxley says, is more comfortable in the vicinity of one of his poles, but the good writer operates near two or three.

Am I helping my student writers feel comfortable in this three-poled frame of reference? I don’t think so. Personal experience has little or no place in the writing I assign, and wisdom? Forgetaboutit. My colleagues might tell me it’s not my job to make them three-poled, but to make them well-organized, focused, and confident. They would tell me my students aren’t ready to address doubt, or they’d warn me to be careful about what I ask for. “Do you really want a bunch of Socrates,” I hear them asking, “asserting all they can know is that they don’t know?”

But I’m ready for questions. If I’m choosing essays that are sure or essays that are real, I’ll take a class of Socrates Jrs. At this point, I might prefer aimless rumination to essays that are only right because they are safe or essays that are more sensible than they are stirring.

Lopate says, “Part of our trust in good personal essayists issues, paradoxically, from their exposure of their own betrayals, uncertainties, and self-mistrust.”

I’d rather focus on what seems.


Filed under Essays, Teaching, Writing

2 responses to “Seeming

  1. Jan B.

    Between the adamant and the hesitant are the likes of Daniel Dennett, for example. I’ve come to expect that he will expose his transitions from one to the other. Part of the pleasure in reading him is the invitation these transitions, these exposures, provide to me as a reader. I can imagine being judge or jury member and responding with a feeling of regard by one who is trying to tell me what to think.

    I don’t know Dennett’s work all that well, and I’ve wondered how his interest with consciousness plays itself out in his writing. How do you talk about something you are currently doing? I wondered how to write about the limitations of argument in writing without arguing against it. Writing seems inevitably twisty. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  2. “Seems madam? Nay it is. I know not seems…”
    My favorite essayists are willing to expose the machinery, to let the wheels of thinking be exposed. This is a delicate line, and one that may be hard to teach to young students.

    Thanks for another posting with that signature Marshall provocation.

    The day after this post, I went to an English department meeting where colleagues lamented our students’ weak critical writing skills. Students do seem to face considerable challenges mastering critical arguments, but I wonder why. Are they having trouble because they’re not interested and not listening or because they study the essay as strict form instead of an writing impulse? If they came at argument less structurally, maybe they’d have a clearer sense of what they were trying to accomplish. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’d like to try starting with self-expression first and then moving on to capital-F-capital-E Formal Essays.

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