I assign lots of writing in my first-year writing course, but I’ve gotten out of the essay business almost entirely.
Because of this, I am pleased to see the utility of the college “essay” up for debate. Everything we do as instructors should be up for debate.
On one pole we have Slate’s Rebecca Schuman, who argues that something students hate to write and instructors hate to read, should be replaced with “hardcore exams, written and oral.”
Writing last week in Inside Higher Ed, Martha Schulman and Gwen Hyman believe that despite that fact that, “student essays, in general, aren’t very good,” and these not very good essays may result in instructor, “soul shriveling,” we should seek to renew our commitment to essays, primarily by committing additional resources that will eliminate “bad” assignments and “ill-trained and underpaid” teachers.
I agree with all sides. I also agree with neither side. Yes, instructors and students often treat essays as pro forma exercises that inspire neither side of the equation, but no, we should not abandon writing of the essay type as a tool of assessment and student development.
And as much as I’d love to see a broad commitment to writing instruction – and have advocated for as much consistently over the years – we cannot wait for this particular Godot to arrive.
I believe that much of what ails higher education results from “disconnections,” where different parties to the issues simply see things differently.
I’ve written previously about the disconnections of education. There is a disconnection between the writing most students do in high school and what they’ll be expected to do in college.
There is a disconnection between first-year writing instruction and the writing that happens in other college courses.
There is even a fundamental disconnection between school and learning.
I believe the “essay” is another area of disconnection, one that’s reflective of all of the above disconnections.
When college instructors say, “Write an essay,” (of the academic type) we usually envision something with an argument at the center supported by relevant and compelling evidence drawn from authoritative sources that adheres to the specific conventions of our field. Ideally, students are able to synthesize and even build upon an array of sources to create an original piece of knowledge.
When students hear essay they think: Five paragraphs, written to impress teacher, mostly to show that the student has been paying attention in class and/or doing the reading. Make sure to cite sources because: plagiarism. Also, use block quotes because that looks good. Don’t forget the conclusion that summarizes everything staring with, “In conclusion.” Never use “I.” Contractions…bad.
This is why most essays are unpleasant for students to write, and boring for instructors to read. They are treated not as an occasion to discover something previously unknown – to the author above all – but a performance for an audience of one, the teacher. One hoop among many to be jumped through as part of the college grind.
Because of the disconnect, instructors often have a different hoop in mind, and so when students jump through the hoop they know, but it’s not the hoop the instructor was envisioning we get…a debate about whether or not we should even assign essays.
Instead of assigning essays, in my course, I now feature “writing-related problems.”
Rather than allowing students to see their task as familiar – entirely too familiar – I want them to start each writing-related problem assignment from scratch.
If the problem is unfamiliar, we cannot thoughtlessly employ the old ways, but must instead invent the new.
The boundaries of the problem are defined by the rhetorical situation: audience, purpose, message, and for each writing-related problem we work a process that asks students to make choices in each of these dimensions.
The first assignment of the semester is for them to solve the problem of having to tell an audience whether or not a particular movie/album/TV show/app/etc… is worth the audience’s time and money.
Students quickly realize that I’m asking them to write a “review,” which means they should now analyze a bunch of examples of reviews in order to understand how reviews work. They need to know what sorts of information belongs in reviews, how reviews are structured, techniques for discussing music, or food, or cinema.
They must decide if using “I” is appropriate, or if perhaps “you,” is a better alternative.
Each step of the way, above all, students must make choices. How do I start? How do I end? What does the audience need? They are thinking as writers do, solving a writing-related problem.
It is the same process I employ every time I write for this space. Each week I write an essay or two, but every time out, if I wish to discover something in the writing, I must reinvent the form from scratch.
Next assignment, I tell them that there’s an audience who has heard of an interesting article about how colleges shouldn’t assign essays anymore, but they don’t have time to read it. Could the student tell them what the author of that article is arguing and then whether or not they should agree or disagree with it?
You are recognizing this as a pretty standard academic essay of the summary and response variety, and you are wondering why I don’t just tell my students to write a summary and response?
I don’t tell them this because my students don’t know what that is, or rather, they think I’m asking them to write an “essay”: five paragraphs, written to impress teacher, etc…
By insisting that each assignment be unfamiliar, I hope to short-circuit any impulse to follow previously employed templates. I deny them rubrics and instead substitute values rooted in audience needs. For example, a review must grab attention, deliver a verdict, and include sufficient information and evidence for the audience to assess that verdict (among many other things). They need to uncover these values so they address them in their writing.
Over the course of the semester, as we tackle different assignments, students recognize overlaps and see how techniques – or moves, as I prefer to call them – manifest themselves in different writing-related problems.
Improving their abilities to recognize and respond to different genres is probably the most important takeaway from the course, and is the thing that will serve them best going forward.
Sometimes I still slip and call what they’re doing “essays.” When they start correcting me, I know we’ve won at least part of the battle.
 I know this because before I started framing the assignment as a writing-related problem, this is exactly what they did. Even with the new framing, many students struggle with transition because the previous patterns are so thoroughly ingrained.