On Undergraduate Writing

I am currently in the midst of grading midterms and the process, as well as a recent piece by Marc Bousquet at CHE, has gotten me thinking about undergraduate writing and the debate of its value kicked off by Rebecca Schuman’s piece, “The End of the College Essay,” in Slate back in December. I want to use my post today to lay out some thoughts I have been having about undergraduate writing in lieu of the debate these articles have occasioned.

In her essay, Rebecca Schuman, a muckraking education columnist/adjunct instructor, is primarily arguing against the kind of essays she assigns (and receives) in Lit classes. And she took no prisoners in her critique; so much so that not only did she receive virulent rebukes for her criticism, some readers even called for her to be fired from her adjunct position. In the piece, Schuman complained about both the lack of pedagogical value and the sheer time-suck for faculty in assigning and grading essays in “required courses.” In their place, she suggested a “return to old-school, hardcore exams, written and oral.” Marc Bousquets, author of How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, replied to Schuman’s piece in CHE last week by arguing that faculty should stop assigning “thoughtless writing assignments” and, instead, “construct meaningful opportunities for students to actually engage in research.” He concluded, in part, by saying, “Let’s ask them to address real research questions, and to compose in the same wide range of media actually used by scholars and professional writers.” What might that look like in history courses?

I agree with Schuman and Bousquets in the broad sense that writing for writing’s sake is not necessarily helpful for students nor is it as useful for faculty in determining a student’s mastery of the material. For example, almost every history exam I took as an undergraduate (and have proctored as a Teaching Fellow), including introductory courses, involved a section in which students identify some terms followed by a “short essay,” the topic of which students choose from two or three questions. Yet, first as a student and now as a grader, I  have found myself wondering about the value of these essays written under such strict time constraints. As an instructor, I tend to spend a good deal of time ahead of the first exam in a semester preparing students to write this type of exam essay. But, even still, I cannot help but wonder: what am I really learning about a student’s level of assimilation and engagement of the course material in an essay written in 30 minutes or less? Some students write well in an under-the-gun situation and produce coherent, relatively well-written essays. Others do not and for them it is harder to grade. Does a lack of clear structure and argument in a short timed-essay really mean that they have not learned and/or engaged with the course material?

The second most-common form of writing in a history class is a term paper. Sometimes they are extended forms of the exam essay, asking a historiographical-related question. Some others assign genuine research papers. As an instructor (and as a student) I have found this form of writing much more valuable in gauging students’ progress in the course. But like Schuman and Bousquets point out, there are many students who approach the task in such lackadaisical fashion that the pedagogical and assessment values are nullified. One method I have seen of avoiding reading a pile of 8-to-12-page papers written over a single evening is to give students deadlines throughout the semester for various tasks related to the essay. So, for example, by week 3 students must produce their paper topic; by week 6, they must produce an annotated bibliography; by week 8, sometimes after a mandatory conference with the instructor, students must produce a written thesis statement; and, finally, the paper is turned in on the last day of class.

I am not ready to abandon the college essay, even in introductory courses. How much harder would it be for students if they only started writing essays in their third year upper-level courses? Perhaps essay writing in introductory courses should similarly be viewed as an introductory experience to essay writing. I think learning to write better is one of the primary facets of a college degree in the Humanities. And I think that teaching students to be better writers is within the purview of instructors of history courses. A common argument against these ideas is, “We barely have enough time to teach the actual History let alone Composition.” But one of my undergrad history professors at City College assigned three 12-15-page papers each semester, a demanding load indeed for the average student from a small, regional, commuter college that serviced a community that was largely socioeconomically disadvantaged. Those students often came into that upper-level history course having never written a 10-page paper (something students seem to be increasingly able to avoid during the entirety of their lives as undergraduates). However, he set high expectations for students and, after the first paper was graded and returned, he gave over an entire 75-minute class meeting to deconstructing problems in students’ writing (using common problems found in essays from previous courses) and instructing them on how to write better more coherent essays.

My point here is that I don’t think that we should trash the essay just because students aren’t performing up to our standards. Rather, we continue to expect more from them. And we have to realize that, like the students, we will get out of it (in terms of assessment) what we put in (in terms of actual writing instruction). Do you assign exam essays? How useful have you found them in assessing students’ performance in the course as a whole? Do you assign term papers? Historiographical or research papers? And, perhaps most importantly, what can we do to improve the value of this form of undergraduate writing both for the students’ academic development and for our own purposes of assessment as instructors?

11 responses

  1. The first thing to do is delineate expectations for introductory/survey history courses and upper-level courses for history majors. Expecting a first-year biology major to write a 15-pg. history research paper without having taken a historical methods course would be problematic.

    Something else to take into consideration is the type of college/university at which one is teaching. I teach at an SLAC, so I can manage the grading work in a way that someone who is teaching 50 upper-level majors and/or 150 first-years may not be able to.

    • Thank you for your comment, Mark, especially your first point. I tried to go back and be a little bit clearer about the distinction. I also I think you’re right about the type of institution. Ted Burrows’s comment below also touches on this question regarding public colleges with large numbers of international students and recent immigrants among its student body.

  2. Last time I checked, coal miners and truck drivers generally don’t like their jobs, but they still do them, because it’s their job. So, assign demanding essays and then suck it up and grade them. Yes, it sucks to read 100 frosh essays. Heck, it sucks to read 5 1st-year MA student research seminar essays. Just yesterday, on an airplane ride, I read a MA thesis in which I wish someone had educated the writer, if not in the 8th grade then perhaps as a sophomore in college, on how to use a hyphen and semicolon. Darn near every time he tried to use one, he got it wrong. This went on for well over 100 pages. If the TAs and adjunct profs who are responsible for holding the line abdicate their duties and try to find “new and creative” ways to essentially get out of doing stuff they don’t like, all in the name of “bettering education,” they don’t deserve to be profs.

  3. I tend to prefer assigning lots of short, somewhat artificial & highly constrained writing exercises that actually require students to think, rather than or at least in addition to the standard 1 or 2 big papers that try to get them to produce mini-history journal articles (except in research seminars designed for that purpose, primarily for majors or students with a reason to be interested in original research). Preferably with very strict and seemingly too-short word counts to force real editing. For instance I’ve had good luck with having students write 250 words each class on the most important sentence in one primary source reading & why it’s the most important, or 750 words analyzing one primary source or answering a discrete question about a secondary source (eg what evidence does it use, or how does primary source A fit or not fit into argument of secondary source B, etc). The logic here is something like a sonnet or any other highly formalized writing form – the constraints liberate you from having to worry about form etc. & you can just think, & students actually wind up writing something pretty interesting along the way.

    I’ve found these types of responses tend to be easier (& more fun) to grade as you can actually see students manipulating and applying ideas rather than regurgitating or modeling what they think a “history paper” is supposed to be. It also therefore gives less of an advantage to students with experience with scholarly texts who are better at aping the form but not necessarily engaging any more thoughtfully with the sources.

    Yet oddly, I think there’s sometimes a perception among teachers & sometimes students that such structured writing exercises are less scholarly or busy work bc they aren’t what “real historians” do. I think it’s certainly true that ill conceived or ahistorical assignments of this type such as you often see in high school classes are silly and could go awry. But well crafted, they can work well & both provoke and demonstrate actual original thought, actually far more so than a lot of more standard essay type questions that ask students to answer impossibly giant or complex questions. By way of comparison, a concert pianist doesn’t perform scales and etudes but they definitely needed to play a lot of scales along the way to become a concert pianist. So I guess I analogize these types of structured writing to scales; they are preparatory or practice for playing a full sonata. It’s odd that we often expect students to play the sonata right away and then are disappointed they can’t.

    • I love the idea of assigning 250-word “essays” in every class session. In my teaching, I require every student to be actively engaged in the learning process in every class. The most challenging writing assignments in my experience were from my 11th grade English teacher who asked us to write “essays” on substantial themes, on 5×7 index cards. Try writing your well-considered thoughts about “Patriotism” on an index card. It sharpens your thinking….
      My blogs:
      Barley Literate
      History: Bottom Lines

  4. Mark Cheathem is correct about expectations. I tease my seniors by reminding them of their freshpeople days…when writing a 5 page paper was sooooo haaaaard. They don’t blink when assigned a 5 pager now.

    In the upper-division courses, I vary my assignments to give students experience with different types of writing. In some classes I have them write “backgrounders” and “policy briefs”, the sort of thing they might expect to do in an entry level job in government or a non-profit. I still believe that there is value in the “traditional” research paper, so I assign them in some of my courses, too.

    Just an FYI… Rebecca Schuman’s Ph.D. is in German, not English, literature.

    • Thank you for pointing out my mischaracterization of her being an adjunct English instructor, which I’ve corrected (but I didn’t say she had a PhD in English Lit). Also, I think your alternative forms of writing are exactly the kind of thing Bousquets was talking about. I’d be interested in your perceptions of how students perform in those writing tasks compared to the traditional essay/research paper format.

      • I think the real difference in the types of assignments is the emphasis on conciseness and “to the point” in backgrounders/policy briefs.

        In a longer research assignment, students have the luxury of fully expanding their thoughts and explaining their assessment of the source. I still use these assignments because I think there is a value in exploring a subject in depth and engaging with both primary data and the secondary literature. An aside, for those longer assignments, my standard language is “There is no page limit, although it should take you about X pages to do a good job.” When students ask what that means, I say “your paper should be as long as you need to do the job properly.” My instructions take out some of the angst about filling pages and cuts down on the filler, playing with margins, etc.

        Backgrounders and policy briefs are similar to traditional research papers in that they require students to evaluate the sources of their information. On occasion, they also have to deal with not having data from a particular actor/perspective. The main difference is that I DO limit page length (4 pages for a backgrounder, 2 for a policy brief). I explain that this is a style of professional writing so students have to conform to the format. I set up scenarios so that students know the audience for their brief/backgrounder.

        Students report that researching a backgrounder/policy brief isn’t very different from a traditional paper, but writing is very different. The very tight page limit forces them to distill what they have learned into a very small package. They have to make severe editorial choices about what to include and what not to include. The writing has to be tight. In short, they work harder on the writing for these assignments than for the traditional paper.

        So, here is a challenge to historians…. why not have students write policy briefs in historical context? The exercise works well in role-playing scenarios, but might also help students understand the factors and context for actors making decisions.

        Disclosure: I teach at a regional public liberal arts college. We are small enough that students are likely to have more than one class with me. Most of my students (and they include political science, intl. studies, history and language majors mostly) are not going on to academic careers. My job, then is to prepare students for a variety of possible careers. Altering the assignments enhances different skill sets that they may possibly need in the future.

  5. Michael, two comments. First, you hint at a problem that is especially acute at institutions (like CUNY) with large numbers of students whose first language is not English. They may have learned a good deal about what we know of the past and how we know it, but their inability to mobilize their knowledge in articulate sentences and paragraphs puts them at a real disadvantage. Ultimately, basing their grade on essay-writing is deeply unfair—not only to them, but to the faculty, who have to wonder whether we have taught them anything. Second, the real problem here isn’t writing as such. It’s reading. I would argue that writing is highly imitative, but—even at Yale (gasp!)—too many students have never even read the kind of essay we expect them to write. No wonder they write poorly and often resort to plagiarism when words fail them. Just saying.

  6. Pingback: Whither the College Essay? | To Breathe Your Free Air

  7. Pingback: On Assigning Undergraduate Reading « The Junto


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