Behold, my Second-Most Controversial Article Ever

This week in Slate, I make a fairly straightforward argument: Students hate writing papers. I hate grading papers. Let’s stop assigning papers in required courses, and leave the paper-writing to students who actually want to do it. This has quickly turned into the Thesis Hatement of I-Hate-Paper-Grading Essays, and for that I am grateful. And this time around, I’m not scared of anything. After Thesis Hatement, I was afraid I’d never get a job again, doing anything. After this, I might get fired from my job adjuncting…and honestly, I don’t really care. I would rather tell the truth than be “safe” in the spike-covered arms of academia, where I am a barely-recognized non-person anyway.

In no particular order, here are the largest misunderstandings around “The End of the College Essay,” so far:

1. I am anti-student. Nope, I love students. Love them. LOVE THEM. What I hate is coddling students. Making fun of their god-awful writing (THAT I MADE UP, for purposes of HUMOR) that they know full well is god-awful because they know how little time they spent on a paper is a) funny, b) deserved and c) funny. This generation of students is like a bunch of helpless little baby birds it’s so coddled. They could use some tough fucking love.

2. I am “snarky.” No. I am not. I am enraged. I am full of white-hot, burning rage. Snark diminishes me. Snark is not even one smoldering ember. I am a full-blown goddamned inferno.

3. My “tone” isn’t “helping anything.” Fuck you. (How’s that for tone?) This piece was for entertainment and venting purposes only. I don’t want to help anything, other than some over-graded professors blow off steam. I also want to point out that the vast majority of college courses that require papers are wasting everyone’s time. It’s a tough truth. Stare it in the goddamned face.

4. Elite universities still teach writing, and taking away papers in public schools will further stratify the country. You think WRITING CLASS is what makes this distinction, you fucking morons? HOW. THE FUCK. ABOUT. THE FACT. THAT RICH KIDS ARE ALREADY RICH, and that nothing they do or don’t do will change that, and they get everything, and no amount of getting-good-at-writing will help the poor in today’s rigged-ass economy? How. The fuck. About. That?

5. It’s important to know how to write well, because success. I realize that Snooki is the author of many best-selling tomes, but she paid someone to write those for her, just like many people do in college, which was my original fucking point.

That’s just the top five–I’m sure I’ll add to this later. Now I have got to get out of the house, or my husband is going to kill me. “You’re a MESS!” he says. “A MESS!” It’s so true.

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33 comments

  1. Just read the essay. It’s all true. Trying to get them to write is pointless. I’ve done it for over twenty years, and the resistance is worse each semester, plagiarism is commonplace, and in one case a student who earned a (generous ) C consulted an ATTORNEY.

  2. YES oh my goodness YES. literal thousands of people trained in the social sciences, often times teaching the social sciences, and somehow it does not occur to query why: as writing instructors they hate this task and perform self-martyrdom and student deficiency scripts about it.

    the student deficiency rhetoric trotted out to explain why papers are so bad drives me nuts. the men and women writing instructors call lazy idiots … are not idiots. like most people, when asked to perform tasks that interest them or, say, challenged to construct a bong from found materials, they all of a sudden display madame curie levels of ingenuity and bolshevik cadre levels of cooperative solidarity in getting shit done

    theyve just decided papers just aren’t worth their time.

  3. or worse have been smacked over and over by authoritative persons telling them they are bad writers, bad readers, bad thinkers HERE HAVE SOME RED INK and have become afraid to try.

  4. Chime! Most of my first generation students don’t read very much. So they are not very familiar with written English. I spent years going over essays one-on-one: surely they just need the help? No, their papers were just as bad. I sent so many students to the Dean for plagiarism. To them, the sentence in the book is the “right” way to say it and they might get it wrong if they change it. Finally, I started phasing essays out of some of my courses. Instead, they must research and show me notes and outlines. Then they must present their research orally. Presentation skills will serve them far more out in the world than essays. I did this because I decided my goal was to teach them how to find, evaluate, and present information. Essay writing, I decided, was just one giant barrier to developing those skills, a huge time suck, and a waste of their and my time. Apostasy, I know.

  5. I wish all faculty who teach and/or assign writing in their classes would read a bit more from the scholarship in composition and rhetoric and recognize that a student’s ability to write in a particular genre evolves over time and requires a lot of input/feedback from faculty.

    I work with (mostly) underprivileged and often under-prepared community college students, and they can and do learn to write for my classes (and for projects outside of class) and their thinking about the discipline improves and gets refined through discussion, presentations and, yes, written work.

    Of course, students benefit from models that make the assumptions and conventions of the genre visible, scaffolded assignments, and a heck of a lot of formative feedback. I agree with Rebecca that one-shot final essays are not a great measure of student learning and often invite pretty shoddy work. I don’t think, though, that this necessarily means we should abandon assigning written work ‘thought we probably must rethink the kinds of assignments we give.

    Mark Richardson’s “Writing is Not Just a Basic Skill” from the November 7, 2008, Chronicle of Higher Education offers a place to start for rethinking our assumptions about “college essays.”

    Oh, and the system of employing underpaid adjuncts who have neither the time nor the energy to supply the substantive feedback students need is, in itself, criminal.

    1. Those are very interesting points, and it’s worth mentioning again that I am not talking about composition classes, but required “content” classes that can break out of the traditional essay format, and should.

  6. I wanted to add a bit to my last post, which sounds too curt and dismissive.

    Teaching under-prepared students to succeed in an academic setting is really difficult and requires a great deal of planning and expertise, and most of us (myself included) simply did not receive adequate pedagogical training in our doctoral programs. Instead, we became experts in our narrow fields of study and entered into teaching, expecting to engage with students like ourselves, students who intuitively understand the kind of critical thinking and writing demanded in a university.

    Our student body has expanded, though, and increasingly, a significant cohort of the individuals who enter higher education do not have the cultural nor educational preparation to intuit the values and expectations of their professors or the kinds of intellectual activities assigned. These students flail and often fail.

    And the overworked and under-supported group of adjunct faculty who serve these students have a choice of heroically working themselves to death (for very little money), accepting substandard work, or abandoning written assignments altogether, none of which are very attractive options.

    The system needs to change, but I’m not sure it will.

    1. Don’t know if you know about this, but with the Common Core State Standards for K-12, close reading and argument writing have now been reverse engineered all the way down into kindergarten.

      1. I am familiar with the common core (CCSS) and think that some of the aims are good–the desire to have reading and writing taught across the curriculum, the focus on students producing written work in a variety of genres–but I’m not sure the implementation will change things in any meaningful way given the paucity of comp/rhet training for folks who go into K-12 teaching (I realize there are exceptions to this rule, but in many places, K-12 ENG teachers do not get much instruction on how to help students develop rhetorical skills, and the default ENG assignment is a literary analysis masquerading as a generic “writing”).

        And, I confess that I’m suspicious of the CCSS since there’s such a huge focus on testing and data mining, which are a big $$ maker for corporations.

        In any case, the current crop of college students has not benefited from CCSS instruction, and many of them really are underprepared and need explicit instruction, models for thinking and writing, and scaffolded assignments, all of which require a huge shift in teaching for many faculty.

  7. I’m not saying you’re wrong… but this concept would have hurt me.

    I remember a professor, in an upper-level engineering class, once returned one of my lab reports with a huge red circle around a “…; however,…” I had written. His comment: “Finally! Someone who knows how to use a semicolon!”

    And my point is this: people need to learn to write SOMEwhere. (In my case, I learned at a horribly expensive private high school…. But still. Somewhere I learned it.)

    Writing is a skill. It takes practice. I write every day. I have an H-index (8! first author alone, 6!) and everything. Perhaps the best book I’ve read since Stephen King’s DARK TOWER was the book I just finished, WRITING SCIENCE (Schimel). Less writing practice in undergrad, even my highly resented humanities courses, would have been detrimental to me.

    Perhaps I’m avoiding your point, perhaps your point is that I’m the exception and catering instead to the rule would help everyone overall… But my eight hours at the lab today, six were spent in Microsoft Word.

  8. Enjoyable article on Slate. I recognize the frustration, and I like considering the idea of ditching meaningless essay assignments and the endless paper grading. In the past, I’ve picked up freshman comp sections where the students were expected to write “modes” essays. Oh my gravy, how ossified can learning and writing be?! Dicking around with pat formats for pat “controversies” or subjects, or writing classification and division essays on the kinds of customers one finds at a fast food restaurant. I’ll never forget the student who got his paper back at the end of class, went feverishly to the last page, saw a B, and promptly chucked the paper in the trash, never once looking at my sleeves rolled-up, dutiful commentary. I’ll also never forget the time I took over a section of freshman comp from an adjunct who quit mid-semester because he got a better gig to teach English for a big oil company in Mexico. His last day in class he invited me to sit in, to get a feel for things, and help with the transition. The man spent fifty minutes at the chalkboard walking through coordinating and subordinating conjunctions with the class: how and when to use them in sentences, with commas properly placed, and with lists of conjunctions, ending class with a glimpse at the Magic Mountain of correlative conjunctions. That was a demoralized class and a demoralizing place to be. As far as I could tell, most of the students were just numbly enduring it, checking their phones, doodling, joking with their neighbors. The whole time only three students were answering any of his questions to the class. Yeah, bad high school redux.

    Now, after some years of fashioning an FYC course on literacy and the purposes of education–asking reflectively in class as toughly as I could at pitched moments, “Why are we here? Why do we do this? What is its ultimate purpose? Who is responsible for us being here?”–I just experienced pedagogical bliss at the end of this semester teaching rhetorical analysis and reading, with students writing essays. Somewhere between Adrienne Rich telling students to claim rather than receive an education, David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University,” Margaret Kantz’s “Helping Students Use Textual Support Persuasively,” Keith Grant-Davie’s “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constraints,” Christina Haas and Linda Flower’s “Rhetorical Reading Strategies and the Construction of Meaning,” and Stephen Booth’s teaching statement about taking students seriously and teaching them that they can handle inconvenient truth (http://teaching.berkeley.edu/dta-recipient/stephen-booth), I had a number of freshmen this year get it, embrace it, confess it, reminding me why I do this.

  9. I’ve shown lots of support for your work on many occasions, Rebecca, but I have a really hard time with these sentences (and ones like them): “This generation of students is like a bunch of helpless little baby birds it’s so coddled. They could use some tough fucking love.” I agree with you 100% (150% if that wouldn’t create a paradox) about essays, but I just think we (as teachers) need to be much more sensitive about how we talk about students in our publications and on social media. I just don’t agree that the power relations between teacher / student have somehow been subverted by faculty evaluations. Put simply, we rise and fall together. A really useful piece by @drisis: http://isisthescientist.com/2013/08/22/overlyhonestsyllabi-and-our-duty-as-the-gatekeepers/. From her response to a comment: “It’s ok to rant, but you have to rant up. Not down.”

  10. I wonder if you think this applies in philosophy as well. I guess I don’t think of lower-level philosophy classes as merely ‘content-based’ – if you only learn enough to answer multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions about philosophers, then you’ve learned how to name drop at a really boring cocktail party. If you learn how to regurgitate the arguments from the text that I put on the board, then maybe you’ve learned a little bit (or maybe you’re just really good at remembering).

    But the only way you really get anything worthwhile out of the class is if you’re actually forced to engage with the argument. And that’s also the only way I can (imperfectly – maddeningly imperfectly) judge whether you’ve understood something is if you’re forced (either through presentations or through essays) to put the argument in your own words and consider and respond to possible objections.

    Are other lower-level humanities classes really that different? Is there any value in knowing that Shakespeare wrote “To be or not be” for a student who has no idea why someone might think “that is the question?”

  11. The Tone stuff that came up around this hit home so fuckin hard. One of wife’s comprehensive exam prof’s dropped out of her committee because she didn’t like wife’s “tone” in one of her e-mails to define the canon of a genre of lit. Completely invented reason to cover up deeper problems, but ever since, “tone” has been our code for “I don’t like you, but can’t come up with a worthy reason to disagree with the content of your argument, so I’m going to say your tone was not appropriate and walk away.”

  12. I just read your article in Slate. I love it! As someone who taught high school English for a second, I whole heartedly agree! You can fake the writing (I was lucky not to have the 12th grade AP English teacher who would just hand back papers with a loaded shovel as a grade and no other comments on those papers that were faked), but you can’t fake knowledge standing in front of someone. Written and oral tests for required courses – what a wonderful solution!

  13. I recently gave a student her third gift “D” on a paper in an upper level English class. She’s an English major because the kind and red-inkless first year program (not called “composition” but “competency” in writing is an outcome) had rewarded her with several grades of “A” without alerting her to the fact that complete sentences and spellcheck exist. I’m completely on board with removing banal essay writing from introductory content courses and replacing it with tests and even oral exams. But the current composition pedagogy that says everything except the composition is important strikes me as fraudulent.

  14. Make an argument, support it with facts, and draw a conclusion. In other words: persuade.

    Are you actually suggesting that these are not useful skills in the workplace?

    I beg to differ.

  15. I loved the original article. It’s a shame that so many people took to attacking you! I thought the arguments were pretty clear and well-supported, though so many people seemed to take it as “No one should ever write a paper for any reason,” and they totally missed the point.

    The swipe in this article about the wealthy is also well-placed.

    Stick with it! I hope your approach and perspective catches on.

    (Our mutual friend Mr. Severin directed me to you and this page. Hello!)

  16. I don’t have a problem with your tone, but I do have a problem with the argument. Should we have exams (written or oral) in lower-level classes? Absolutely. Personally, I prefer regular quizzes — I’d rather try to force my students to keep up with the readings than have them sit through weeks of lectures without a clue of what I’m talking about before cramming in the days before an exam.

    But I frankly don’t get the case for getting rid of essays. Students don’t like to write them? Tough shit. Students cheat? Punish them — to the extent that you can identify their academic offences. Students do poorly? Help them. If they don’t put in the work, give them the grades they deserve. If they fail, fail them. I’m sure there are disciplines that don’t need the skills I associate with essay writing (thinking, assembling evidence, building a case, persuading you reader that you may have a point), but I have no idea how I could even begin to teach English without essays: they’re at the core of what we do as a discipline.

    Now, I also must confess that I don’t know what you mean by “required courses.” Breadth requirements? I.e., courses taken predominantly by students in other majors? Or courses required for the major? If it’s the former we’re talking about, I kind of — sort of — see your point. But I still find it objectionable. It’s not like an English student taking a science course as a breadth requirement could say that s/he shouldn’t be expected to use formulae, since s/he doesn’t like to write or think like that. Modes of thinking and of arguing are part and parcel of disciplinary identity, and if breadth requirements are designed to force students to engage with other disciplines’ ways of thinking, then we have a responsibility to make them do that — or fail them if they don’t. I don’t have to take an English course to do line IDs, and acquiring that ability can’t be a serious educational goal. Thinking about texts, analyzing them, making arguments about them — those are goals, and I don’t know a method that teaches students those skills better than essay writing.

    As far as I’m concerned, the answer is not fewer or no essays. It’s more essays. And smaller classes. And more instructors. Obviously.

  17. I guess one question I would have is once you “ditch the paper,” haven’t we actually ditched the job? I mean, I know, instruction is invaluable, but I’ve got a bridge to sell you if you think that matters in the current political economy. Robots can grade “content” only exams; there’s no reason to expect they won’t if we configure education so they can.

  18. I really liked your article on assigning essays, and was astonished by the negative comments. People seemed to take your comments very personally (“I’m not a good writer?! How dare she!”). I linked to it on my Facebook wall and wrote some comments:

    Rebecca Schuman says what I’ve been saying for a while. Maybe my expectations are too high, but I do feel as though I put more effort into grading my students’ papers (including commenting on drafts) *per paper* than the students put into writing them. It’s insane! I can’t begin to imagine what life must be like for those who have over a hundred students! (I just have 40.) Many of my students don’t even know how to act on my comments, and the reason why they’re flailing in the dark is that they just haven’t read enough to understand what’s involved in writing, what kind of hard work writing involves. They don’t think in complex sentences, they don’t know enough words, and their minds are scantily furnished. The subjectivity of grading papers also bothers me, as does the possibility of plagiarism. I caught two plagiarists last semester, but I’m pretty sure there were more whom I didn’t catch. Had the author concluded, cynically, that we should just give multiple choice tests, I would have balked, but I heartily agree with her call for exams, and especially oral exams. You can’t fake or cheat on those, and a teacher can tell a lot about a student’s understanding just by listening to him talk. If a student fails an exam, instead of pleading for a higher grade and telling a sob story he or she can take it again a few months later, without the requirement of re-taking the course. (That’s how it is in Italy.) (Right now I’m exasperated with the lawyerly syllabi, with rules, subrules, and exceptions, that essay-based courses seem to generate. Exams seem so much cleaner.)

    I should say, of course, that some of my students know what they’re doing, and can write a well-turned sentence. They’re not all disasters! But most of them are (or were, last semester).

    As an undergraduate, I did learn a lot from writing all those papers, and certainly writing forces one to think very closely and carefully. But it also closes off possibilities: there’s never any time to go off on a tangent, one must stay on topic and herd one’s ideas to a conclusion, even if it feels false or contrived. Finally, I thought it was ridiculous to force a twenty-year-old to reach a conclusion every few weeks, on topics I had just learned about. One’s writing, I’ve always thought, should the foam on the ocean of one’s reading. The proportions were all off. Everything I read had to be drafted into my essays; there could be no casual or serendipitous reading when one had to produce 60+ pages every semester.

    The proportions are all off: that goes for our system of assessment in general. Writing an essay can be very rewarding for a student, and is certainly a useful pedagogical tool. Essays have their place. But it’s ridiculous that essay-writing has become practically the *only* means of assessment in the humanities.

    Lastly, those defending essays seem to labor under the illusion that essay-writing has always been the principal means of evaluation in humanities departments. But in fact written exams and oral exams played a much larger role (for centuries!) until recently, and still do, in Europe. Requiring people to think on their feet is entirely the opposite of dumbing down.

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