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How YouTube Changed The Essay – The Coaching Room

How YouTube Changed The Essay | Evan Puschak | TEDxLafayetteCollege

The following article is derived from the accompanying video. It is provided as an additional resource for your reading convenience. 

In this TedX Talk, Evan Puschak opens up his talk by saying, “When I say the word “essay”, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Probably, for a lot of you the word “essay” triggers a kind of Pavlovian twist in your gut, a reminder of how pointless and stressful it was to write five double-spaced pages for Mrs. Walsh on ‘The Motif Of Whiteness In Moby Dick’,”

Puschak says he thinks, for this reason, when we don’t have to write any more essays, we hang up our topic sentences and supporting paragraphs and conclusions, and never think about Moby Dick or Jane Eyre or Anna Karenina ever again. He says the English paper doesn’t represent what’s best about the essay, or what’s most exciting about it, from his point of view.

“As Paul Graham, the famous programmer and essayist, detailed in a wonderful essay about essays called “The Age of the Essay”, the English paper as we know today is sort of historical accident, a result of the way English departments formed, and how much medieval universities focused on law. When we think about that, that actually makes a lot of sense. Topic sentences, supporting paragraphs, conclusions -I’ve watched enough “Law & Order” to know how much this resembles opening statements, prosecuting the case with witnesses and evidence, and, of course, concluding remarks to which is just a forceful re-phrasing of the opening statement.” Puschak tells his audience.


“It’s actually kind of weird that English classes, the place where we ended up learning both English literature and composition, how to write, – you don’t really think about that, but because stuff like this totally fascinates me, I dug into Graham’s footnotes and found a fantastic article from 1967 called “Where Do English Departments Come From?” by William Parker”, Puschak says.

“In it Parker traces the incredibly short history of teaching English in schools. Actually, the first chair of an English department anywhere in the country was Francis March, who was appointed in 1857 to Lafayette College. And that was my favourite slide to me. English literature had a hard enough time overtaking Latin literature, eventually it did do that, but writing had always been under the province of another subject called rhetoric”, Puschak explains.

Puschak continues by saying, “Basically what happened was this, as I understand it: as public speaking became less and less popular, and the number of colleges doubled at the end of the eighteen hundreds, because we were encouraging more and more people to go to school, academic departments rose to power, and they decided what was going to be in the curriculum. So, it was basically like an arms race. English got really greedy and gobbled up literature, linguistics, journalism, theatre, and of course composition.”


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“So, if English departments had to teach both literature and writing, it’s no surprise that we had to write so much about literature. I admit that’s a bit of a digression, something that is totally frowned upon in English papers, but in the wider world of essays things really aren’t so strict. You don’t have to follow the model of a court case. You don’t have to rigorously defend your thesis point by point”, Puschak states.

Puschak then says “We have other forms of writing for that. In an essay you are perfectly allowed to follow a train of thought. In fact, essays sort of are trains of thought. I want to get back to that point at the end, but for right now what you need to know is that essay should be short, interesting, and it should get to the truth. And that’s actually a good three-word definition for what essays are: short, interesting, truth. Michel de Montaigne, the father of the modern essay, wrote about everything from sadness to drunkenness, to friendship, to cannibals.”


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“Ralph Waldo Emerson, my favourite essayist, wrote things that changed the course of my life. And it wasn’t so much what he wrote about, but how he wrote about those things, the way he phrased and positioned facts and insights, so that something that was needling you, that you couldn’t quite put into words, suddenly became as clear as glass. And that kind of writing… It opens up doors in your mind. It shows you that you are allowed to think a certain way. It invites you in for investigations of your own.”

“So, what is a video essay?”, Puschak asks. “Well, it’s about as hard to define as a written essay. It’s like written essays blend into articles, reportage, pamphlets and short stories,  video essays blend into films, documentaries, TV journalism, photojournalism, and the lines there are always going to be blurry. But there is a history here too. Not nearly as long as the written essay, but going all the way back to 1940.”

Puschak tell the audience that “Hans Richter wrote in the film essay, a new form of documentary film: “In this effort to give body to the invisible world of imagination, thought and ideas, the essay film can employ an incomparably greater reservoir of expressive means than can the pure documentary film. Freed from recording external phenomena in simple sequence the film essay must collect its material from everywhere; its space and time must be conditioned only by the need to explain and show the idea.”

“That excerpt is 80 years old, but it hits the nail on a head in so many ways, namely, in this greater reservoir of expressive means. What do I mean by that? Following from 1940 the essay film evolved in a number of different ways” Puschak says.


Puschak explains, “It seems to me, that video essays take their cues more from academia and journalism, and from their online predecessors, the educational explainer YouTube channels, that objectively present fascinating information, channels like “ASAP Science”, “Crash Course”, “In a Nutshell”, “Minute Physics”. Their massive success has proven that there is a real thirst for knowledge online. More than that, there is a thirst for curated knowledge by people who are willing to put in the work and do the research and show you the world, maybe something you, guys, never got the chance to study at school, in an engaging way.”

Puschak ends his talk by saying, “For all its differences the video essay still retains the spirit of Montaigne, that meditative spirit on all things within the field of human life. I said at the beginning that essays are sort of like a train of thought. Well, I kind of think that writing is thought. I have believed for a long time that we learn by saying. So, when you are watching the video that I make, what you are really watching is me learning, that’s what you are watching right now, as I give this talk at Lafayette College. And I encourage everybody to try that out for themselves. Because only by articulating in words, in video, or in both, do we really find our point of view. Thank you very much!”


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Evan Puschak is the creator of The Nerdwriter, a web series of weekly video essays about culture and art.


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