In “The End of the College Essay,” Rebecca Schuman, education columnist for Slate, advocates abolishing papers in required humanities courses and replacing them with written and oral exams. Schuman denounces the required-course essay for three reasons: first, because of rampant plagiarism; second, because the few students who actually write their own essays do so hastily—often at 4 a.m.—and third, because professors who teach writing-intensive courses often labor for hours over detailed comments that students merely skim or, worse, don’t read at all.
When I initially re-read Schuman’s reasons, it occurred to me that each one could serve as the topic of a body paragraph in an essay questioning her argument point by point. Add an introduction and a conclusion, and—voilà!—a five-paragraph essay of the very sort that she proposes we end. But I’m not an advocate of the five-paragraph essay per se, and I do understand and share Schuman’s frustration. Still, I don’t think that the solution to the college-essay problem is to end it altogether.
While it’s true that eliminating all essays in required humanities courses rids us of the ones pulled from fraternity files and downloaded from online paper mills, such a solution only seems viable if we ignore the moral component of education. The process of analyzing another writer’s ideas and placing them in conversation with our own, rather than falsely presenting them as our own, not only hones our critical thinking and writing skills but also develops our moral and ethical sensibilities.
Instead of eliminating the essay as an antidote to plagiarism, we can require our students to write some of their papers in class. Timed writing has its drawbacks—students cannot edit and revise to the extent that they can outside of the classroom—but many students don’t edit and revise anyway. And those of us who require our students to compose essays longhand in the classroom are granting time and space for the sustained focus that writing needs, undivided attention that more and more students are unable or unwilling to give themselves in the age of digital distraction.
Schuman laments the hours she has labored writing detailed comments that students look at only briefly, if at all. In the cost-benefit analysis, those hours spent writing comments in the margins don’t make much sense. So why not offer alternate forms of feedback? Scheduling some class meetings as a series of individual one-on-one conferences gives professors an opportunity to convey as much to students in few minutes of conversation as they can in a paragraph of prose. And by offering students a variety of feedback—oral comments along with minor notes penciled in the margin and general notes (for all students) typed, photocopied, and stapled to drafts—professors can accommodate students with a variety of learning styles.
Schuman might say that offering multiple forms of feedback is still a waste of time when students exert so little effort writing papers, but she provides no evidence that she has tried to develop assignments that students will care more about. If students simply write essays for their professors alone to read and evaluate, it’s no wonder that many students don’t care. Class workshops can go a long way in giving students more of a stake in their writing. If they know that all of their classmates will be reading and discussing their work, they are far more likely to produce writing that their peers will want to read—and they will strive to write essays that are as strong as their classmates.’ Simply put, when our work has a life in the classroom, we don’t want to fall short.
Giving students’ work a life outside of the classroom provides another way of encouraging personal investment in their writing. Requiring students to post their writing assignments to blogs offers them practice both in writing for an online audience and maintaining a website that they can continue long after the class has ended.
Schuman doesn’t mention blogs or peer workshops in her essay-to-end-essays, though she claims she’s “tried everything.” Everything? Really? Since she mentions only two remedies (a clinic addressing vague introductions and a mini-essay assignment that eliminates introductions and conclusions altogether), I’m doubtful that she’s tried anything close to everything. But I am grateful for what’s she’s written. Though I don’t believe that we should eliminate the required college essay, I do believe that we need to rethink it.
As I read and re-read Schuman’s words, I reflected on my own writing assignments and came up with ideas for some new ones. One is a photo essay—not one composed solely of images but rather a narrative composed of a combination of photographs and paragraphs that could serve as an introductory post or stand-alone page on students’ blogs. Another idea came to me when I was re-reading Schuman’s essay and was reminded of the graphic narrative “Kamikaze” by illustrator Nora Krug, a story that I taught in a sophomore literature course a year or so ago. In the introductory note to the story, Krug observes that drawing is a form of research for her:
[W]ith every new story I create, I try to find out something about an issue I am interested in. It’s not only the historic, textual research that inspires me. I see the act of drawing itself as a research tool. (qtd. in Charters)
Just as Krug sees the act of drawing as a research tool, we can see drawing and photography as tools for composition in the re-imagined college essay.
Of course, we could instead “return to old-school, hardcore exams, written and oral,” as Schuman recommends, but a false dichotomy underlies her assumption. According to her either/or fallacy, we should replace essays with exams because we can’t offer students practice in both. But in reality we can, and Schuman’s essay has enabled me to see new ways of doing that. By turning her ideas over in my mind and placing myself in conversation with them on the page, I’ve developed some new ideas of my own. And that in itself is evidence of the college essay’s enduring value.
Biographical Note on Nora Krug. The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Ann Charters. Compact 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. 532.
Schuman, Rebecca. “The End of the College Essay.” Salon. Salon, 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.