Some remarks on this course

By design, this course takes a conversational tone. After several years of developing and editing a wide range of online courses, often written in a textbook style, I now believe that presenting material in a style closer to a one-on-one chat is a more effective pedagogic technique.

The term "e-learning" is less than 20 years old. In this short time, data about online learning has been collected, conclusions have been drawn, and methodologies have been developed and standardised. Best practices say thus-and-such, design standards dictate so-and-so.

Since I've been working in this area for a while, I've read up on things, and all I can say is this: I'm suspicious of these standards and practices. For example, we're told to write short paragraphs so that they look good on a screen -- but, they say, it turns out that's a better way to learn anyway. Use familiar terms, they say, avoiding big words -- makes for quicker project development schedules, surely. But when else will a student learn the big beautiful words that make our language so rich, if not during their education?

Ditch the obsession with looks and efficiency, I say. Learning can be -- and should be -- a long, gruelling process, and commitment to the process starts with feeling connected to the topic. In my experience, nothing compares to the connection you feel from a good old-fashioned conversation. Why not try to emulate that online? This is my attempt to do so, and so this is, in some ways, as experimental as the earliest e-learning environments were.

Nonetheless, this is an authoritative guide to essay writing. Rather than analyse particular essay forms, such as academic or persuasive essays, and try to confine ourselves to those forms, we focus on developing specific skills. Then, we use those skills to build essays from well-polished parts. We progress from words to sentences, then to paragraphs and structures. Along the way, we'll talk about a variety of familiar essay forms, but we will remained focused on developing the skills that are essential to improving your writing, regardless of the type of writing you intend to do most.

Long story short, I like words. I like the sound of words. I like learning new words. And I've composed this course to reflect those affections. You can think of each section as its own little essay, more or less, that when taken together add up to a comprehensive writing course.

* * *

A bit about me: I'm a philosopher by training. At some point in post-graduate studies, it struck me as odd that we, philosophers, hadn't been required to attend the most basic of composition courses at any point in our education. Yet, words are our vocation. Philosophers are writers, but we never really study writing as a craft.

To remedy this, I started reading style guides and composition theory textbooks. Also, I significantly broadened my literary diet. And furthermore, I realised that philosophers are more than writers: we're meant to be excellent interlocutors. So I focused myself on conversational skills, not to mention telling stories (though sometimes I ramble), singing (trust me, I'm terrible), improvisational comedy (obviously, I'm extremely funny) -- you name it. If it was a performance with words, I was giving it a go.

This course, The Essay, is a result of much of this informal work. You might say this course is a way to formalise what has been my informal, though rigorous, pursuit.

* * *

Stodgy old grammar and style guides might not seem page-turners. For me, though, there's one that keeps me at the edge of my seat: Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Seriously, I love it; it relaxes me to read.

To be honest, reactions to this book are mixed. Some writers, especially those who aim for brevity and precision, laud the simplicity of its compact and direct approach to composition and editing. However, some readers and writers, especially fiction writers, eschew the book. Fair enough. It's a jarringly terse rule book, and perhaps incompatible with a range of fiction styles; some writers might find the rules to have an overly silencing effect.

Nonetheless, certain rules should still apply: "Omit needless words" stands out. For the essayist, Strunk and White is a an excellent place to start, if only to get yourself thinking about how we assemble ideas clearly. Though it isn't stated this way in the text, a summary of Strunk and White's rules, when applied to the art of the essay, might be:

An essay is a well-organised collection of clearly written ideas.

(Note: Throughout the course, key points will appear, as above, in bold print and centred.)

Asides and remarks from my notes that inspired this course will appear in boxes like this. Most of the main content of this course developed out of these remarks, and their presentation here is an illustration of my composition technique.

Organisation is one of the most important considerations when constructing effective essays. These remarks were written well before I arranged them into this course material, which illustrates my preferred composition method: I focus on paragraphs ("Make the paragraph the unit of composition" say Strunk and White), then arrange those paragraphs appropriately to make a point in an essay -- or in this case, a series of points in a fully-developed course.

Let this be a recommendation to try this or a similar method to construct your own essays.


Within each module, you'll find links to external essays. In the description of each link, I'll prompt you with questions intended to give you some insights into why I've included the reading. I encourage you to respond to those prompted questions or raise any other ideas you have about the readings in the discussion forum at the end of each section.

With that, let's move on to our first activity, where you collect some preliminary thoughts about essays.

Last modified: Thursday, 9 August 2018, 9:24 AM