As I discussed my notes about their first big essay of the year with my college students this week, it became clear to me that nobody had ever explained to them why we write essays. They saw the exercise as a pointless waste of time.
So I got some more mileage out of my trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. I read them parts of the entry for the word “essay.” Specifically, I pointed out the it entered the language as a verb, not a noun.
As seen below, “to essay” really just means “to try, to attempt, to practice, to accomplish.” Example sentence: “The noble knight essayed the glorious task of eating a thousand fish tacos.”
Moral of the story: today, when we write an essay, we are trying, attempting, practicing, accomplishing…what? To prove an assertion, to describe a new idea to others so they can share in our experience, to communicate clearly about something important between writer and reader.
These are–and I say this with no sarcasm–truly crucial skills, demanding the very greatest of all our energies in both teaching and learning. The world needs these skills, and needs them to be developed and implemented widely.
So maybe the “noble knight” example isn’t such a joke after all.