My Un-Essay Essay Pedagogy

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.

19 thoughts on “My Un-Essay Essay Pedagogy

  1. Rebecca — students only learn to write by practicing writing, which is why we need to assign writing in freshman classes and in every class after that. As a writing instructor you know this is true, otherwise you wouldn’t have such wonderfully structured assignments as you describe above. I don’t need to offer you any “abject” proof. You provided the proof yourself.


      • Actually, I would argue they are literate–just not where we see it. I’ve been conducting a research project on “the essay” over the last couple of years (interestingly, the exercise we are beginning to recommend is known as “the Unessay” see and our initial conclusions are that the problem genre, not literacy. That is to say that students don’t write first year compositions well (or, increasingly, second, third, or fourth year compositions well), but not that they can’t write.

        We’ve found that when asked simply to write about their subject matter and not worry about format, pretty much all their writing problems go away (now, our subject pool is students at a mid-level Canadian school in a province with relatively high K-12 PISA scores; we don’t know if the same thing would translate to students with poorer training–though I think it might).

        What this suggests to me is that the problem is the genre of the essay, not student writing. And if you look at what we, generally, teach in Universities (and high schools, frankly), you can see why: it is not a real-world genre. Nobody actually writes in real life the way we demand our students write for us as undergraduates. Or at least nobody writes well that way.

        One of the students working on the project did a review of the history of the 5 paragraph essay; a short summary might be that it is the result of an industrialisation of rhetoric. It is a format that is easy to teach and mark (“easy to teach” in the sense of “able to be reduced to a clear set of instructions,” not “something that produces good results in the students you teach it to”). It is easy to mark because it insists on such a strong adherence to form: this makes divergence from the norm easy to identify. What is not good at is training students to develop their own ideas and express them in a way that is of benefit to others.

        In short: the problem with “the essay” is that it isn’t “an essay.” The essay as a genre is historically the most flexible and expressive form of non-fiction writing there is. What we ask our students to do is the antithesis of this: it is rigid, formulaic, and, essentially, defensive. The problem isn’t our students. It is our assignment.


  2. See, this is what your Slate article should have contained; relevant content serves for better analysis. I imagine you’ll slam a retort my way regardless because you confuse contention with conversation. Petty


  3. I loved your slate essay. Just this semester I started using in-class essays. My students panicked a little when they realized they would actually have to read. Now I only assign papers I want to read.
    I understand that “thesis hatement” dripped with irony so misunderstandings abounded, but this one is very clear and the criticism of it lies in emotional misreadings. Of course, I loved writing papers as an undergrad (not a surprise I ended up a prof) but my (non-lit major) students don’t love it so I have to work with them in other ways for them to process literature without dumbing it down. Wow–people learn in different ways — what a shock. We keep giving As to people who write well and a cycle of privilege perpetuates itself as the “natural” and “fair” way to assess students.


  4. Ms. Schuman,
    how finely you write. It is of a par with your thought. So very of the now. Kudos. Please keep it up. I want to read more. I (gone back to school after 38 years) find a lot of the students shy. I try to draw them out.
    Some respond. Others don’t. I love them all. They are most beautiful. They spin this world forward. You are superb, in your mind and your writing. Tears in my eyes.Thank you,Wolf Campbell,UNM


  5. I have been defending you all day in a Facebook thread. I’m getting tired and probably making enemies, but I’m trying to use your Slate essay as a moment to start some real discussion about the role of writing in the humanities. You’ve definitely hit a nerve, which is what it’s all about, right? Carry on. We need people willing to make radical arguments in order to get us to rethink our pedagogies.


    • I’m so sorry, Carrie. I don’t think this was a terribly good use of your time–haters gonna hate. If people don’t understand that the essay assignment as it currently stands is a colossal failure in most American universities, largely because of the consumer-education mentality, and that I am trying to shock people into action by doing a reductio ad absurdum with a disturbing amount of truth hidden in it…well, then, their rhetoric isn’t as good as they think it is ;). At any rate, thanks again. I’ve put the total kibosh on reading anything about this piece right now. People need to calm their hormones and then we can converse like adults. YOU KEEP ON.


  6. Waaaaaait, I’m confused. This is exactly what I do when I assign an essay. Invest my time in the draft so that I have a cushion before grades start becoming part of the picture and freaking everyone out, and then use a rubric to quickly but thoroughly grade revisions. This is just sound pedagogy. People think you are someone who is being wrong on the internet… for this?

    In my most recent adjunct gig I kept one essay in the course so that I wouldn’t completely freak out my department, but everything else was blogging, multimedia production, and in-class stuff. My students learned some serious shit, but the fact that we were tackling it using so many different methods made them more capable, not less. Those willing to take my class seriously left with skills AND confidence. I don’t see how that isn’t anything but a win.


    • No, people think I’m wrong on the internet for tongue-in-cheekily wanting to give up on the traditional essay altogether. In my piece I tongue-in-cheekily (though half-seriously) called for one-on-one oral exams instead (though not of the regurgitative variety, of the conversational one), but that’s b/c the Slate audience could give zero fucks about writing pedagogy. The nerd version is that I am all for multimodal/alternative writing assignments, and give them often.


  7. Ironically, I assign your Slate article as an option for my freshman comp Summary & Response paper. Oh, what fun! Mary Sherry’s “In Praise of the F Word” (“fail”, not the other one), too. Subliminal message heard early on in the semester, “Yes, failure is an option. But only because I love you.”


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