Every year, graduate students in the English department teach numerous sections of R1A, an introductory reading and composition course. At the end of the year, teachers submit their best students’ papers to be considered for an essay prize. This year’s winner was Clare Kim, whose essay, “Two Ways to Sell Children,” was written for Jesse Cordes Selbin’s course “Narratives We Live By.” Below are reflections on the essay from both Jesse and Clare.
Jesse Cordes Selbin:
“Two Ways to Sell Children” is a remarkable paper in several respects. Its punchy title illustrates one of them right off the bat: both here and throughout, pithy and provocative language makes Clare’s essay a dynamic read. Her paper finds common ground between two complex and differently unwieldy poems, offering an original argument about what we learn by reading them side-by-side—both about the poems and about their historical period. But this essay also models what to me is an often unrealizable goal of the university’s Reading and Composition courses: to encourage students to bring their own interests to the table as they learn to articulate themselves in writing. Having produced an excellent earlier paper on the economic language of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” Clare continues in this essay to exhibit an interest in the relationship between poetry and political economy. Ideally, R&C classes provide students with a forum for encountering a new archive of literature and practicing a new skill set while simultaneously allowing them to engage more deeply with an area of their own interest—a process that, one hopes, serves students well in post-college careers. Clare’s essay serves as a great example of one way students can make the most of an English class, whether they’re in the major or not.
I would like to thank everyone for this award. If nothing else, this class has taught me how difficult the writing process actually is. There is a misconception among many people that the humanities are easier than the hardcore sciences such as physics. While there is certainly a lot less math involved in the humanities, that absence does not mean that the humanities are easier. There is a very good reason why many scientists turned writers state that the writing process is more strenuous than basic science. I think the difficulty lies in the fact that writing is so open-ended. There are programs now that can successfully perform high level math calculations. However, there is no program that can write a decent story or essay. There are simply too many possibilities within the English language. The unabridged Oxford Dictionary contains over 500,000 words. A simple five-word sentence then has over 31,250,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible combinations. There is no possible way that a computer would be able to parse so many possibilities. But yet the human mind can. Viewed from that context, the human mind’s ability to manipulate and understand language is extraordinary. Because of the sheer complexity of the writing process, we are always in danger of wandering into indecipherability. That is what I find myself working against whenever I have to write an essay. I appreciate what an arduous task it actually is, and I respect anyone who writes regularly for a living. Honestly, I find that even writing a straightforward analysis of a poem is difficult for me. I have to constantly work at it, hoping for some thought or insight to strike me. It is frequently a frustrating process, but it is that very complexity and strenuousness that makes it so rewarding.