Friday, February 25, 2005

Essayists

Cementing my reputation further as a jack-of-all-trades, I acted this week as a judge for the essay writing competition of the Dumaguete Catholic Schools Week.

Now I don't know if I'm qualified to be one, the weekly drivel on technology that I write notwithstanding.

A lifetime ago, I was a teacher at the University of Asia and the Pacific. After a week, I quickly gave up on the idea of essay questions for my exams when I discovered how atrocious the grammar and spelling of the swaggering conio kids were. It took me ten minutes per paper to decipher what they were trying to say. Ultimately, I resorted to multiple-choice questions that I could check in ten minutes per class.

All right, so maybe I was wrong in that approach.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, to see such beautiful, comprehensible English from the contestants of the local essay writing competition. True, there were occasional lapses in grammar, but on the whole they were quite readable. Perhaps there is some truth to the claim that English skills in Dumaguete are better than those in Manila. I think we can all applaud ourselves for this.

Nevertheless, I do have two nits to bring up with regards to our young essayists.

First is the matter of voice and style. This may be purely subjective, but the tone of many of the essays were somewhat bombastic and ponderous. Many read as if they were for a speech, and thus they felt a little awkward.

This shortcoming isn't unlike that which afflicts the contestants of our overly numerous beauty pageants. For example:

Q: What do you believe is the role of women in society today?
A: (Pause, look at he audience) I Be-lieve (pause) that the Wo-Man of To-Day (pause)...

I exaggerate a bit, but you get the idea. They could just say "world peace" and be done with the matter. But I digress.

Whence comes the unnatural pomposity? Perhaps it comes from the airy speeches of politicians who always seek to impress; perhaps it comes from archaic forms taught in schools. I'll leave that to the English experts to affirm or deny.

On the other hand, those essays which swung to the opposite end -- too informal, too chatty -- weren't much better. In fact, they were much worse, in my opinion, because they used the style to mask the fact that they really didn't have too much to say.

And this is related to my second observation: many of the essays could have been more coherent in their flow of ideas. As it was, I saw several jumps from one topic to another. Perhaps this stemmed from the impromptu nature of the essay contest, but I do feel that our students need more training in developing their thoughts in logical sequence.

In this regard, I think that for many there was no clear "theme" and without this important underying message, it was easy to get lost.

With a central idea to guide them, it would have been an easier task to build up the related ideas around it, leading to essays with more impact to the reader.

This second bit is more important. Grammar can be corrected, style can be developed, but having something to say, and saying it in a way that is lucid and logical, takes more time, more training, and more work.

Again, something for the English experts to look into; I am only a dilettante, after all.

In any case, these two points can be corrected over time. It's important to start the correction process soon, because it's such a shame to waste the wonderful resources we have in these young pliable minds.

Erratum: CICT Commissioner Dondi Mapa was not from St. Paul University, as I wrote in last week's column. He was actually from Don Bosco.

Announcement: The World Bank is running an essay-writing contest on the role of youth in solving problems of the world today. Top prize is $5,000 and a trip to Netherlands to read the winning essay at a conference. For more details, contact Mrs. Danah Fortunato of The Village Bookstore.

2 comments:

  1. How old were the contestants?

    Anyhow, there are things with the younger generation regarding composing their thoughts, I think. I have been a resident assistant in the UP freshman mixed gender dorm and I have seen the way they write and interact. I noticed that they either couldn't express themselves (verbal or written) or they don't have much to say.

    In any case, it is a learning process wherein everyone in the society has to take part in. That is what I think. We have to create an environment that encourage people to think and make a stand so that they have something to say. How to say things is another matter altogether. But I do agree that people do need to learn to find their voice and express themselves :)

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  2. Various ages: college, high school, and grade school.

    Since the topic was on jubilee, I was looking for someone who captured the essence of the celebration. It came in the form of a grade schooler who wrote about gratitude. I gave that high marks.

    Finding one's opinion when one is young is really a tricky proposition. There are a gifted few who choose their stand very early on -- and I envy them -- but the rest of us have to work at it.

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