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Composition Forum 38, Spring 2018

Review of Nicole B. Wallack’s Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies

Sandie Friedman

Wallack, Nicole B. Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies. Utah State UP, 2017. 216 pp.

Near the beginning of the term, I often take a poll in my first-year writing course: How many people have been taught never to use “I” in academic writing? Chances are, all but one or two students raise their hands. Were you told why? I ask, and they explain that to use “I” sounds too subjective, as if they are expressing personal opinions, rather than making claims based on fact. And then I ask the outliers what they were taught, and if I am lucky, one or two will say something about how the choice of whether or not to use “I” should be based on the context and genre of the writing. One of my goals for the semester is that students will leave the class thinking more like these outliers.

Given the near universal belief in the need for “author-evacuated” academic prose (Geertz qtd. in Johns 328), combined with the emphasis on form in writing for standardized exams, it’s not surprising that students have difficulty finding a voice in college writing. If it’s first-year writing, attendance is mandatory; but how do we get a student to “show up” (19) in her writing as a thinker—a “specific, real person” (19) and not just a dutiful summarizer or thesis fabricator? We are looking, Nicole B. Wallack suggests, for presence: “individuality, investment, invention, purposeful use of form, confidence, compassion” (19). We have perhaps done a great deal as teachers to invite them to show up in their writing, but still find ourselves waiting for them to appear as individuals, with real-world concerns and passions.

Here is where the genre of essay can come in. In Crafting Presence: The Essay and the Future of Writing Studies, Wallack argues that by studying the play of authorial presence in essays, students can learn to “show up” as thinking, self-aware, critical beings in their academic writing. Whether they are “Reporters” (students who don’t dare to make claims of their own) or “Proclaimers” (students who are reluctant ever to question their own claims), essays can act as intellectual “mentors” (Wallack 205-207). Through becoming more attentive and rigorous readers of the genre, students can begin to practice some of the nuanced forms of thinking that appear in the best essays.

Wallack writes in opposition to “current national trends in curricular reform,” which “define literacy entirely in terms of skills acquisition” (3). Resisting both the focus on skills and the movement within composition towards “teaching rhetorical and discursive awareness” (13) as ends in themselves, Wallack advocates for a curriculum centered on one genre: the essay. In doing so, she stands for liberal arts values and for the idea of transforming young writers into more reflective, ethically conscious people. Further, Wallack aligns herself with Doug Hesse, Paul Heilker, Wendy Bishop, and others (13) who want to nourish connections with our literary sister disciplines: creative writing, creative nonfiction, and literary studies. We need to ask students to write essays—literature’s “fourth genre”—because this is the most demanding and fulfilling kind of writing we can ask them to do; and because, unlike Wardle’s “mutt genres,” (which mimic the genres of the academy, but in fact exist only as exercises in first-year writing) the essay is a form that flourishes beyond the university; through writing essays, students can begin to situate themselves in public conversations. In Crafting Presence, Wallack makes a timely case for an essay-centered undergraduate curriculum and provides an analysis of the genre that enables us to put such a curriculum in place.

Wallack’s focus on the essay as a foundation for an undergraduate curriculum sets her apart; however, her work also resonates with key recent developments in writing studies: the movement towards genre-based pedagogies; the rising interest in placing reading at the center of the first-year writing classroom (Salvatori and Donahue 2016, Horning et al. 2017); and especially, the renewed concern with teaching the capacity for reflection, often conceived as interchangeable with metacognition (Yancey 6). For the contributors to Kathleen Blake Yancey’s 2016 edited volume, A Rhetoric of Reflection, the capacity for reflection is vital for students learning to write in multiple contexts. In Doug Hesse’s contribution to the volume, he presents the essay as a genre essentially characterized by reflection, a point I’ll return to shortly.

Wallack invokes Hesse in the introduction to Crafting Presence, where she argues that curricular reforms, as well as trends in composition, have led to the devaluing of the essay. In the second chapter, she offers a definition of the genre as capacious and flexible, with three defining features: evidence, idea, and presence. She draws theory and examples from the well-known series Best American Essays, because, she explains, “no single source of essays provides a more varied view of how contemporary writers have crafted their presence” (33). With this array of essays in view, she lays out an explicit methodology for tracking presence: tracing the use of “I” and considering the rhetorical purpose of each appearance; examining instances of implicit and explicit reflection; and observing stylistic patterns (58). These are the signs of presence on the page; considered together, we can see how they constitute an essay’s guiding consciousness.

In chapters three through five, where Wallack offers extended close readings, we get to see the concept of presence in action and to develop a sense of the varied ways essayists construct presence. Chapter three elaborates on “historical thinking” in a sub-genre Wallack terms “the haunted essay,” with examples from Kenneth McClane, Jamaica Kincaid, and Richard Rodriguez. In each case, the writer reflects on a private loss or struggle, but the central dilemma of the essay is not merely personal. In the haunted essay, writers grapple with a historical problem that is painfully difficult to represent: slavery, AIDS, prisons. In order to think through this history, the essayist deftly maneuvers among points of view, shifting time periods and perspectives—the writer’s presence is not singular, but multiple.

Chapter four focuses on the “reading essay,” where the occasion for writing is a text. Here, we might expect writerly presence to play a secondary role; yet Wallack shows how an essayist can be forcefully present even in the act of analysis. Through her examination of reading essays by Susan Sontag, Gerald Early, and Franklin Burroughs, Wallack reveals how this sub-genre creates space for the writer’s own ethical reflection. Beyond textual interpretation, the reading essay enables us to see how the writer is transformed through her engagement with the text. In fact, self-transformation is central to all three of the sub-genres Wallack describes. For students who have been taught to confine themselves to faithful summary and cautious response (205), it may be liberating to see how, even in an essay that develops a textual analysis, the evolving mind of the essayist becomes a focus for readers’ attention.

In chapter five, Wallack critiques a familiar designation, the “personal essay,” and proposes an alternative term: the “awakening essay.” Through analysis of essays by Charles Simic and Mary Gordon, Wallack articulates why she sees “personal” as misleading: “The intimacy possible in essays evidences itself not because the writer invokes personal experience, but despite it” (173). A startling claim, if we have assumed that what makes an essay personal is the revelation of private experiences and feelings. The real source of intimacy in the essay is not the exposure of the writer’s secret sorrow or shame, but the determination to grapple with a dilemma, and to wrest from this struggle a genuine idea. Wallack highlights the ways these forms demand that writers move beyond the self, engaging history, ethics, and fundamental questions about being human. In these three core chapters of close reading, Wallack proposes helpful categories, naming some of the ways in which students’ work might take up the intertwined challenges of form and content.

The emphasis in Crafting Presence is on reading the essays themselves, rather than on the implementation of an essay-centered curriculum—although chapter six, “Learning the Essay,” does offer both a “conceptual vision” (200) for writing curricula in general and specific suggestions for the essay-centered curriculum. In her conceptual propositions, Wallack asserts that students need to develop both context-specific skills and transferable ways of thinking about writing—“what the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing calls ‘habits of mind’”; they need “the opportunity to learn from experts in their fields”; and they should have meaningful occasions for writing “throughout their educational lives” (199). Wallack’s most unique proposition—the one most closely tied to the essay-centered curriculum—suggests that students should be invited to use writing not only to analyze the texts and ideas they encounter at the university, but also to reflect on their lives beyond the classroom. We show our respect for them when we ask students to write, not in artificial “mutt genres,” but in this demanding form—the essay—“that enjoys a long history as an intellectual and creative practice” (200).

More specific suggestions for the essay-centered curriculum include: teaching students the history of the essay, including its varied sub-genres; choosing a set of terms to describe the basic features of the genre (Wallack has provided “idea,” “evidence,” and “presence”); and asking students to keep a “commonplace book”: a place to gather material for future essays, which would encourage the exploratory, associative habits of mind that nourish powerful essays.

Given the current preoccupation with transfer, we might ask: is this approach too specialized to foster transfer? Will a deep knowledge of one genre—the essay—help students understand how other genres work? Rhetorical genre studies (RGS) scholars have argued that in order to address issues of transfer, students need to learn not only mastery of a particular genre, but to develop “genre awareness.”

The essay-centered curriculum could, I believe, work in tandem with an RGS approach, as Anis Bawarshi and Mary Jo Reiff outline it. In addition to learning how to analyze genres, students need to develop a “critical awareness of genres” as vehicles for “beliefs, values, and ideologies of particular communities and cultures” (197). Not only should students be able to think critically about genres, but they should also learn “how to produce alternatives” (200). RGS scholars, as Bawarshi and Reiff point out, recommend teaching genres within their contexts of use, whether academic, professional, or public. The RGS approach, with its emphasis on the social and ideological nature of genres, could complement an essay-centered curriculum, addressing concerns about transfer. For example, instructors might frame the course by asking students to read Kerry Dirk’s entertaining and lucid introduction, “Navigating Genres,” and using her concepts to analyze a genre in context; students could also practice writing in a genre distinctly different from the literary essay—a shift that could foster genre awareness.

We could frame an essay-centered course, following RGS approaches, with texts and practices that encourage an awareness of genre and an ability to critique genres in their social contexts. The essence of such a course, though, would be a deep study of the essay, and for this, Wallack’s close readings could offer students aspirational examples. One way to use the book in the classroom (a suggestion from my colleague Pam Presser) would be to assign the close reading chapters of Crafting Presence (three to five), alongside the essays themselves, so students could analyze and discuss Wallack’s methods of reading: her systematic attention to the genre’s key elements of idea, evidence, and of course, presence. More broadly, they could witness analysis of a genre at its most nuanced and meticulous. With some “bridging” (explicit, conscious work on applying knowledge in a new context), students could begin to transfer practices of genre analysis, observed in Crafting Presence, to other contexts (Perkins and Salomon 7).

We may want to read great essays—as all great literary works—as timeless or universal; yet they are contextually bound. Wallack’s preference for essays from the late 1990s and early 2000s may have to do with her interest in explicit reflection, which she sees as one of the key ways essayists create presence. In the context of Yancey’s volume on reflection, Hesse introduces the essay as the reflective genre par excellence: “More than other genres, the essay embraces reflection, using it generatively in a way essential to its method and character” (288). Through analysis of recent essays and classic examples from Virginia Woolf and E. B. White, Hesse illustrates the central role of reflection in the genre; sadly, he also sees a shift: “the convention of explicit reflection is dwindling,” he observes, with the rise of the short, lyrical essay and the “segmented essay.” In these distilled or elliptical forms, there seems to be “no room” for reflection (297). Whether disrupted forms are the result of digital reading practices, or as Joan Didion argues, a consequence of our own postmodern fragmentation, Hesse doesn’t presume to judge; but he does suggest we have lost something with the movement away from explicit reflection (298).

Yancey’s volume on reflection was published three months before Trump was elected; Hesse presciently mused that “we might need essayistic reflection as much now as ever” (298). As readers of the essay, we might benefit from “more authorial presence, albeit measured and self-critical” (298). I agree that we need writers like Elif Batuman, Kristin Dombek, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and Leslie Jamieson—as well as the older generation of essayists Wallack analyzes—to model for us how to think with nuance, complexity, and, often, humor. In a polarized and combative era, students need to practice a genre that can help them “show up” as writers and become more “thoughtful, compassionate, and observant people” (Wallack 59). We need to train the next generation of essayist-thinkers now; Crafting Presence offers guidance to help us meet this urgent need.


Works Cited

Bawarshi, Anis and Mary Jo Reiff. Rhetorical Genre Studies Approaches to Teaching Writing. Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy, Parlor Press and the WAC Clearinghouse, 2010, pp. 189-209, Accessed 13 Oct. 2017.

Dirk, Kerry. Navigating Genres. Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, edited by Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky, Parlor Press and the WAC Clearinghouse, Vol. 1, pp.249-262, Accessed 13 Oct. 2017.

Hesse, Doug. Reflection and the Essay. A Rhetoric of Reflection, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey, Utah State UP, 2016, pp. 288-299.

Horning, Alice S., Deborah-Lee Gollnitz, and Cynthia R. Haller, editors. What Is College Reading? The WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado, 2017, Accessed 13 Oct. 2017.

Johns, Anne M. Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict, and Diversity. Writing About Writing: A College Reader, edited by Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs, 3rd ed., Bedford St. Martins, 2017, pp. 319-342.

Pedagogy. Special Issue: Reading, edited by Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori and Patricia Donahue, vol. 16, no. 1, January 2016. Accessed 13 Oct. 2017.

Perkins, David N. and Gavriel Salomon, The Science and Art of Transfer. If Minds Matter: A Forward to the Future, edited by Arthur Costa, James Bellanca, and Robin Fogarty, Skylight Publishing, 1992, 201-209.

A Rhetoric of Reflection, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey, Utah State UP, 2016.

Wardle, Elizabeth. ‘Mutt Genres’ and the Goal of FYC: Can We Help Students Write the Genres of the University? College Composition and Communication, vol. 60, no. 4, 2009, pp. 765-789.

Return to Composition Forum 38 table of contents.