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?