Wednesday, November 28, 2007

We Are the Stories We Tell

A new piece I wrote for WBEZ concerns some of the main topics of our first semester -- Puritans, storytelling, character, and identity. (I even mention our class by name!). The essay is about two pages long:

It turns out the stiff-collared Puritans of Salem may have understood the current college essay process better than any of us could have imagined. I made this discovery earlier this fall when I taught a college essay workshop for nervous seniors one period and taught an American Studies class the next. That’s when it hit me: the college essay process is eerily similar to the Puritan conversion experience.

In order to enter the “community of the saved” Puritans believed in the power of the "Conversion Experience", a story told before a community of elders who are already saved. To join the saved community, young supplicants were asked to tell a story about an epiphany – a time when they were made aware of their prior ignorance or depravity and how they had subsequently come to see the light. Sound familiar?

Most college essays follow the same pattern. “I never really noticed homeless people until I spent a day at a soup kitchen with my scout troop.” Or: “I never defined myself as an athlete until I lost my starting spot on varsity. Now I know see that sportsmanship matters more than playing time.”

I don’t mean to sound cynical about my students’ essays, but they do follow a predictable pattern. It’s a story type Kurt Vonnegut called “Man in Hole.” And, according to Vonnegut, it goes like this: “Somebody gets in trouble, gets out of it again” and winds up better than they were before. This is not an accident, Vonnegut says, since “this is encouraging to readers.” This formula leads hopeful students to scramble for worthy conversion experiences of their own – deep enough holes they’ve climbed out of.

Last summer in a college essay workshop I was leading, Elizabeth lamented that other students had it easy. Jun-Young had worked with AIDS orphans in Ethipoia; Tyler had picked nits out of a homeless man’s hair in downtown Managua. Marnie’s mother died last year. Though Elizabeth’s complaint sounds absurd at first, it also raises profound questions.

Without experiencing such loss and destitution first hand, how can Elizabeth demonstrate her essential goodness, her worthiness to join the collegiate ranks, our community of the saved? Can the conventions of college essay writing allow Marnie to write about her devastating loss honestly without the pretense of being better and stronger for having lost her mother? Or should she choose a less significant topic in order to satisfy the narrative trajectory a college might want to see?

Essays are just one factor in college admission. Yet, while many teenagers spend weeks or even months fretting over their college essays, admissions officers tell me they spend an average of 3 minutes reading them. Some schools, such as the University of Iowa, have eliminated personal essays altogether since the manpower required to read the essays, even briskly, is staggering. The University of Wisconsin, for example, will receive around 25,000 applications this year. So, they quickly scan each piece to “measure writing competence and to glimpse the applicant’s character.” But is a storyline – especially one mediated by an army of writing tutors – a true glimpse of character?

Elizabeth, the girl who couldn’t find a suitably heroic topic ended up writing about a surprise win in a summer camp kick ball game – not a momentous topic, but the upset win satisfies the trajectory of triumph. Marnie, on the other hand, struggled with authenticity. She rejected an early draft in which she “became stronger” as a result of her mother’s death, but she also shied away from admitting she was still a wreck. Her essay now ends with Marnie’s hope that she can “find the strength [her] mother showed.”

Will these essays -- these glimpses into students’ character -- help their bid for admission? The students I’ve coached this year will need to wait a few more months to find out whether they, too, can join the community of the saved.


Sara D said...

I think your parallel of college admissions papers all the way back to Puritan life is really interesting. It is true that being "saved" for the Puritans can reflect back in a seniors' essay. It makes the college admissions process sound so much more intense I guess you could say when you compare it to being saved. I also never knew that colleges spent so little time on reading essays, something students obviously slave hours over. However, my question is what does it mean than, according to this parallel, when you don't get accepted? According to Puritan life, what would happen?

Hannah D. said...

I also think that what you are saying is very true. I had never thought of it that way! Now that I think about it more, the "community of the saved" is something that every high school senior struggles to be a part of. Even if they do not get into the schools that they want to, or even understand the gravity of writting a well done essay for the application, every person at New Trier already has trouble finding their epiphany.

Elizabeth L said...

This reminds me of one of the topics we talked about on Friday- regarding the Constitution, something like, "does society grow off the last" and I think it does. Sometimes for the worse, especially in this case-colleges. Today in society, there is soooo much pressure to do well in school, be well-rounded, get good scores and write AMAZING ESSAYS, that all end up being the same as you said. But just like the puritans issue of being saved, in the end is it all worth the stress and drama. At the end of the day, isn't it how hard you worked?

Jace said...

Excellent point Doc OC. I find that Conversion experience and college essays are very similar. Since I agree and understand most of what you are saying, the only question i have is this: What happens if a student "fails" the conversion experience? Would that parallel a student not getting into the college they wanted, or completely get denied?

Doc OC said...

Jace and Sara both ask an interesting question: What happens those who go unsaved? In the Puritan world-view, hell. In the college "game," the consequences are of course not so dire! There is, however, among high-pressure schools (like Elizabeth points out) the false impression that the worst thing a person can do is not go to college. (J.D. Salinger and John Steinbeck dropped out of college and did just fine. Chris McCandless was one of the "saved" -- an honors student at a fancy college, yet his education could not save him from himself.