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.