Opinion | We place too much importance on academic writing

By Dalia Maeroff, Senior Staff Columnist

I have a deep, somewhat unsettling love for learning. I think it is my love of learning that makes me reject the academic nature of school. My love for school is the learning, not the grades, papers and academics. I am sure that everyone who loves learning will tell you the same thing. People who love to learn despise the structuralization of every act, of every word read and of every paper written.

It reminds me of a computer, a machine, a system. I hate to break it to curriculum designers and teachers, but our brains are not computers. Learning is not a system or a structure. It is an organic process, an instinct built into millennia of evolution, like breathing, speaking, reading and writing.

Many say that rigid academic writing is necessary in order to standardize how people write to make it easier to grade and read. Strict academic writing is necessary for nothing except killing the individuality and plasticity of thought. This argument is a lazy excuse for limiting the kind of creative critical thinking that makes great thinkers, writers and learners.

I wrote a paper this past week about Edgar Allan Poe and his poetry. A fascinating guy, horribly tortured by his own mental illness, which psychologists believe was an undiagnosed bipolar disorder mixed with grief from a lifetime of trauma and an unhealthy dose of substance abuse. I wrote about how his work — in this case, his poetry — was a manifestation of his mental illness, trauma and substance abuse. I actually had fun with my research, reading linguistic journals about the differences in lexicon between manic and depressive episodes, and looking deeper into Poe’s metaphors and poetic devices to see how they reflected how he felt at the time of writing them.

My research was so fun, but writing the seven-page paper was not. I felt like I was being dragged through it. I realized I wouldn’t be able to get creative at all with my work, that I had to follow a near five-paragraph style of essay writing with a thesis in the introduction, body paragraphs detailing my thesis and restating the thesis in the conclusion. That was the first time I’ve had to write such a structured essay since my first year of high school.

I have always hated the five-paragraph essay — it’s reminiscent of book reports. Books and writing don’t need reports, they don’t need structure and they don’t need to be organized. They are organic — a little piece of a writer’s neurons and synapses and grey matter. A great writing professor I had said that “the beautiful thing about writing is that your subconscious does most of the work.” I saw that more than ever in my research on Poe’s life and his work.

My English teachers over the years taught me that learning wasn’t just absorbing other people’s ideas and work, but forming your own. They were passionate about what they read and wrote and taught. The lessons from these English teachers make following the five-paragraph essay feel like a chore. I’ve always seen writing as an art, no matter the type of writing I’m doing — whether it be an opinions column for The Pitt News, a personal essay, a lab report on the framing effect and its relationship with emotion or a paper analyzing Edgar Allan Poe’s life and work. The most intriguing part of writing to me is my ability to mold it into any shape I want, while still getting my point across in an effective and impactful way that I will enjoy writing and readers will enjoy reading. That’s part of why every writer writes, I think — to influence their readers in some way. Their writing is their art. It’s a way to paint if you don’t know how, and a way to express feelings, thoughts and ideas in a way that will make them think, make them feel something, make them have an opinion.

It does no justice to the book or to the author to write a seven-page paper without even stating if I liked the work. There is no point in putting my “thesis” in the introduction of my five-paragraph style paper when it can be spread out through the whole essay and make the same argument. There is no point in restating it in the conclusion when my reader just read a seven-page essay about that sentence. It’s repetitive, kind of like Edgar Allan Poe’s poems.

Creativity is essential for smooth and successful cognitive function, which directly relates to how well we function on a daily basis and how well we learn. Creativity is not only essential for cognitive function, but also for success in life in general, whether that be in emotional, social or occupational circles. Creativity decreases stress, something that can negatively affect our day-to-day function and how well we learn.

Due to the requirements, my Edgar Allan Poe essay ended up being a dreadful five-section piece of writing including an introduction, an analysis of three poems and a conclusion. It could have been a heartbreaking story about the struggle that Poe endured throughout his life with an analysis that blended in with his mental illness and trauma spread out through the essay. Not only would I have had so much more fun writing it, but it would also have been more enjoyable for the poor soul who has to read my dry and boring essay.

Limiting creativity stunts learning, growth and knowledge. The single most important thing to consider when learning is whether or not it is enjoyable, because enjoyment is necessary to learning. Enjoyment of learning is rarely existent without the presence of creativity. People creating is also an organic function, unbeknownst to us as the billions of connections in our brains. Art of any sort, and the consumption of it, is not a rigid academic curriculum of themes and main ideas and plot points. They are pieces of the people — an extension of their mind, if you will. They are full of emotions and opinions and passive voice and wordiness. Not clean, not organized, not neat. There is nothing wrong with that. After all, our minds are no neat place. 

Dalia Maeroff writes primarily about issues of psychology, education, culture and environmentalism. Write to her at [email protected].