The School of Borgesian Rhetoric

Jim Esch
4 min readJun 19, 2021

A teacher reinvents first-year composition: essays are infinitely revised, never complete

The teacher sighed. After attempting (for the first and last time) to teach Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode to back-to-back Introduction to Literature sections, he could not shake the uncomfortable sensation that he was a Don Quixote in a room full of Sancho Panzas. What could I have been thinking? What blow was I sniffing? What web was I weaving?

He sat in the office grading papers, checking off rubric boxes, and sighed again. He looked at the blank wall where he wished a window would be. Then he got an idea. A new vision, a new way to teach first year composition, inspired by Borges’s library of Babel.

Elliot321, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The students would write one paper only, a five page draft, but one with infinite revisions and indeterminate total page count. Being a writing enriched course, it must meet the 25 page requirement. Surely it would do so, for over the course of the term, its endless revisions would constitute an infinity of possible essays, each essay expanding and contracting the legacy of its parent and grandparent essays.

In one revision, the student would fix the spelling of a single word, “trump” for “turmp”. In another, the introduction would be changed from first person singular to the plural point of view of the extinct Anasazi culture of New Mexico. In the following revision, definite articles would revert to indefinite. In yet another, tenses would shift from past to future pluperfect. One paper would be comprised entirely of transition sentences — transitions swiftly transforming into new transitions of transitions. Another would spend five pages introducing a topic, leaving the reader to guess the thesis.

Some revisions would consist of endings without beginnings. Others as rough translations of the dreams of rhesus monkeys. Certain students would forego language and write their revised drafts in dingbat font symbols.

Serious morphing of rhetorical purposes would surely occur: persuasive arguments turned into synopses for unwritten novels, and screenplays based on them. Eventually some student would realize they could write a research paper that cited only itself. Another would plagiarize the conjunctions and transitional adverbs from earlier versions of the…


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