The Essay Is Not Dead, It Just Became a Blog

The Essay Is Not Dead, It Just Became a Blog

Kurt Cagle 15/04/2024
The Essay Is Not Dead, It Just Became a Blog

While traditional essays may have lost some ground, they've found new life in blogging.

I am an essayist. I write short to medium works of prose intended to explain, question, entertain, and occasionally as a call to action. I've written (and published) enough essays over the years that ChatGPT can do a so-so job of emulating me when told to "Write like Kurt Cagle". It also makes for some fun (and embarrassing) reading, as I see many of my worst writing traits exaggerated, like a caricature of myself.

ChatGPT is a B-/C+ writer because there are many writers on the web, and any LLM will write based on a composite average of writers, which is about a B-/C+. The more you firm up the persona you are asking GPT to take, the better the quality of writing, which is where prompt engineering comes in. At some point, of course, you get to a stage where you'd be better off just writing the damned essay yourself because you still have to get the GPT to get your intent across.

College essays as components of entrance exams are silly. Evaluating an essay is very subjective. I suspect that essays on standardized tests are probably OCR'd, scanned, and run through an AI anyway for scoring because, as any teacher can tell you, grading essays has to be one of the most laborious processes ever, especially when the student has less than thirty minutes to talk about a topic about which they have neither knowledge nor interest. Any proto-essayist today will almost inevitably use a grammar checker (an AI), which is usually what gets caught in an essay by a human reader anyway.

Here's a suggestion, however. "Essays", in today's parlance, are what you write when you're being graded, and they are useless. Jonathan Swift, Henry David Thoreau, Jane Austen, James Joyce, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Isaac Asimov and many others did not write academic essays; they wrote letters. They wrote what they thought, then at some point, they pulled these together, did some editing, handed them to an editor to clean up, and published them (and in some cases, what became very famous essays were never meant for publication by the author but were published posthumously).

A good essay can take days or weeks to write, not because the act of writing itself is hard, but because you are trying to figure out how best to express what you want to say, you are doing research, or because life intervenes. As I write this "essay", I'm, in effect, talking to you as a writer, as if I were writing a letter. Ironically, the art of letter-writing, for the most part, has died out with the art of penmanship, but most blog posts fulfil the same purpose though intended for a much wider audience.

Here's a recommendation to teachers: give a student a blog account. Tell them they can write on any topic that the students want but that the teacher has the right (as an editor) to publish or not publish any given post, which is how the real world works. You have to write at least one post a week, and the quality and quantity of posts will go towards your final grade. Your students can use AI for research and grammar-checking; they can even write the post itself, but these posts will be live.

Some students will inevitably use ChatGPT to write the first couple of posts, but they can also see what others are writing (and get feedback from them, some of it fairly hostile). Others will likely use ChatGPT to help them write. Some will eschew it entirely. Teens and young adults, in particular, have a love/hate relationship with AI that I think is relatively healthy, and I have been surprised more than once at the level of vehemence that many younger people have about using a machine to write for them.

To the teacher (at all levels): give up on the single essay or research paper. Too many university students (and graduates) have learned to write research papers so that they are as cryptic and dense as possible, to the point where they are unreadable to all but a tiny minority of people. In the real world, those same people will be at a disadvantage because they have not been taught to communicate but rather to sound academic and authoritative, and it usually ends badly for all concerned.

Writing is an experience done in the moment, and once you hit the SEND button, that moment is past. AI is a peripheral discussion that we have every few years when we innovate something in the realm of publishing. Not surprisingly, we are using AI to write bulls**t content - press releases, marketing copy, infotainment, reports, school essays, etc. These are things that even their writers will acknowledge that people will scan (maybe), but that won't change the world. Blogs are our time's essays, our honest thoughts and expressions, and they are far more indicative of what we (and not just students) think about things.

It may be time for us to bury the academic essay and embrace the blog.

Copyright 2024 Kurt Cagle/The Cagle Report

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Kurt Cagle

Tech Expert

Kurt is the founder and CEO of Semantical, LLC, a consulting company focusing on enterprise data hubs, metadata management, semantics, and NoSQL systems. He has developed large scale information and data governance strategies for Fortune 500 companies in the health care/insurance sector, media and entertainment, publishing, financial services and logistics arenas, as well as for government agencies in the defense and insurance sector (including the Affordable Care Act). Kurt holds a Bachelor of Science in Physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. 

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