In case you are curious, here is how I approach writing in “content” humanities courses (i.e. not composition).
If I have any control whatsoever, I do not assign traditional essays. I assign all manner of peer-to-peer, in-class, out-of-class, one-sitting, single-issue, highly focused smaller writing assignments, and I allow students to rewrite some of them for a better grade, which incentivizes actually learning something.
If I don’t have any control over my syllabus (like now), here’s what I do:
I hold focused workshops in class about exactly what each essay entails, labor-wise, structure-wise, skills-wise. We talk about it A LOT (amirite, students?)
I then hold intense, one-on-one conferences over drafts. I read drafts more carefully than I read the final product. I give the drafts a no-holds-barred, tough-love approach, and straight-up attack their biggest issues. Students are nervous, but they end up relieved, because I have caught and highlighted their papers’ problems BEFORE they’re graded. I tell them exactly what they need to do to “take it to the next level,” which is my kind way of saying “make this stop sucking.”
When I get the final papers, I grade them according to a rubric, and then I hand them back with no line comments. I say: “If you want line comments, please come to my office and we will work through them together.” Some students do this, most don’t.
This approach has allowed me to circumvent many of the issues I talk about in my Slate Essay Essay, and if you must assign essays (or refuse not to), I’d recommend doing it like this.
In the meantime, I can’t wait for all of my righteously indignant detractors to point me to some abject proof that assigning essays in first-year required Humanities courses has resulted in anything other than a huge spike in means and opportunities for plagiarism. I’m waiting.