Is this the death of the essay?

In The End of the College Essay, Rebecca Schuman writes about the dubious pleasure of reading papers written by undergraduates, of spending hours trying to decipher their writing and then provide feedback. Compounding the difficulty is the sense that all that work is for naught, as most students see little value in the whole endeavor. 

[As an aside, the post was so controversial that the Chronicle had to publish an open letter in support of her right to share her opinion without losing her job. Which just is absolutely so shocking. No matter what position she’s arguing – and, it’s Slate, so it’s bound to be at least a little edgy – it has no bearing on her ability to do her job. Which ability, incidentally, those of us out here in internetland have absolutely no basis of judging, given that we are not her students or colleagues.] 

The crazy responses aside, her post outlines some of the major problems with undergraduates writing essays – plagiarism, vague argumentation, and an unwillingness to do the work of revision chief among them –  and proposes doing away with essay writing (almost) entirely:

Instead of essays, required humanities courses…should return to old-school, hardcore exams, written and oral.

I teach advanced reading and writing courses for students studying English as a Second Language. So, trust me when I say that I know plagiarism. I know vague argumentation. I know sweeping 5 page papers attempting to demonstrate that abortion is killing innocent life, that marijuana should be legalized, and that diabetes comes in two major types. (Always fun reads.)

But – and here I’ll admit my ignorance, and enter a plea for better ideas – what else should we do? If my purpose is to prepare non-native English speaking students for college-level academic work, that is, reading and writing in college-level courses in wide variety of disciplines, what do my students need to know and to be able to do? If a 5-page research paper isn’t useful for all you History 101 and Biology 101 professors, what is?

Another Chronicle regular contributor, Marc Bousquet, proposes in Keep the ‘Research,’ Ditch the ‘Paper’ that students:

…address real research questions, and to compose in the same wide range of media actually used by scholars and professional writers. Millions of pieces of research writing that aren’t essays usefully circulate in the profession through any number of sharing technologies, including presentations and posters; grant and experiment proposals; curated, arranged, translated, or visualized data; knowledgeable dialogue in online media with working professionals; independent journalism, arts reviews, and Wikipedia entries; documentary pitches, scripts and storyboards; and informative websites.

God love him, but what? We should ask students to write grant proposals? How is that useful or helpful to 99% of college students? Me, yes, I would love to take a class in grant-writing. I’m an academic. But students who are currently nannying and envision themselves as physician’s assistants? Students stocking shelves at a drug store who are working their way up to manager? We should ask them to participate in “knowledgeable dialogue in online media with working professionals”? I love the openness to forms outside the canon; I just wonder at the relevance and value of these forms over, say, the 5-paragraph essay.

Asking students to step outside of the 5-paragraph essay or the 5-page research papers requires that two things be true: (1) that the students have a real need for that other form of writing, both in achieving their immediate academic goals and in their longer-term career goals, and (2) that faculty are able to guide students in producing these alternative works. I can only speak to my local situation, but I strongly question whether #1 is true. (And I wouldn’t bet on #2 being true in many cases, either.)

I am absolutely open to experimentation. I have my student write weekly mini-arguments of no more than 500 words. We work together to select essay topics that are of interest to them. Rather than a death-by-powerpoint presentation of their research paper, they prepare posters to share with classmates. I’ve had them write blogs, and I’ve had entire classes based around themes (social justice/injustice, and reading art work/visual texts). I’m not the most cutting-edge professor out there, but I am eager to think about how to incorporate more varied forms of writing into my classes, and would love to get more feedback from other faculty on what we ESL instructors should be preparing our students to be able to do.

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2 thoughts on “Is this the death of the essay?

  1. Reblogged this on English and Technology and commented:
    I many aspects i like your ideas, teaching undergraduate to write is not an easy task. I was pretty good at writing when i was a student but I am the one who asks students to write them and they have a really hard time when doing this.

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