Saturday, December 14, 2013

Required-course college essays

If you care about this kind of thing at all you've probably already read Rebecca Schuman's anti-essay essay. It's all over the place (where "the place" is Facebook). So maybe you haven't seen it. In a nutshell, what she argues is that student essays in required courses are a waste of time:
Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together—and they leave it that way, too. With protracted effort and a rhapsodically engaged instructor, some may learn to craft a clunky but competent essay somewhere along the way. But who cares? My fellow humanists insist valiantly that (among other more elevated reasons) writing humanities papers leads to the crafting of sharp argumentative skills, and thus a lifetime of success in a number of fields in which we have no relevant experience. But my friends who actually work in such fields assure me that most of their colleagues are borderline-illiterate. After all, Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook Friendster profile bragged “i don’t read” (sic), and look at him.
For this she has been pilloried. Quoting only from some of my Facebook friends:
  • Wow. She's bitter. She's selfish. And she seems to miss entirely the point of what college is all about. Or, rather, what it should be all about. Methinks she's part of the problem, rather than an enlightened bearer of an A-ha solution.
    16 hours ago · Like · 2
  • Yeah, I have to say I think it's pretty crap. She generalizes, she simplifies, she claims she's tried everything when she hasn't tried much and her approaches aren't in any way shape or form informed by that reading thing she claims her students never do.
It struck me that the author of the first of these comments, and both the people who liked it, are very well paid, tenured professors, and that the author teaches at a school with unusually good students. Part of Schuman's point is that she isn't paid enough to do the hard work of teaching mediocre students how to write. So there's that. But let me get out of the way the criticisms that seem accurate and then move on to what Schuman gets right, or at least is right to bring up for discussion.

Of course she's bitter. See here, for instance, if you want to know more about that. Selfish? I don't see evidence for (or against) that here. I think he means lazy, but there is reason to believe that's not true. See here, for instance (worth looking at anyway, as it's a response to some of the misguided pillorying (and for another response to that see here)). Does she seem to miss the point of what college should be about? I don't think so. One of her points is that college is not what it should be. More on that below. She does generalize, of course, and simplify, and she has not tried literally everything. But she has tried more than you might think from just reading that one essay (see the last two links above in this paragraph).

So what is she right about? She's right that a surprising number of students manage to get into college despite being more or less illiterate. In graduate school, when I was at a very highly regarded "public Ivy" university, I taught students who apparently could not write a single sentence without a grammatical mistake in it. I'm told by a colleague that we have students here (in a college that has produced two Rhodes scholars in the last fifteen years) who cannot comprehend a newspaper editorial. That is, given an editorial in the Wall Street Journal they were unable to read it with enough comprehension to answer even the most basic questions about it (like: what is it about?, which side of the debate does it support?, etc.). At less prestigious schools these problems must be even worse. If it were one or two special cases that would be one thing, but it isn't. There are a lot of these people. The obvious response would be to admit fewer illiterate students, to help those who can be helped as much as possible if they are admitted, and to flunk those who are admitted but don't respond well to the help available.

This doesn't happen. If colleges and universities did not admit illiterate students then they might not have enough students to stay in business. They certainly wouldn't be able to field competitive sports teams or to keep alumni with illiterate children happy. Once the academically weak students are in they cannot be flunked out because attrition is bad for a school's US News & World Report ranking. And professors who give Fs and Ds aren't popular. Unpopular teachers don't get tenure at teaching schools. And unpopular majors have their departments shut down. Unpopular adjuncts, of course, just get fired. Everyone must be kept happy, but there is no incentive for anyone to help students learn how to read and write. Or almost no incentive.

Here's what we do at my school. Every student takes two semesters of composition and then two more writing-intensive courses. There's a Writing Center to help students with problems, but the people there don't proofread student papers, they only give general advice and instruction. Any other writing that students have to do is up to individual professors, as long as their department heads approve of what they are doing, and as long as what they do is deemed good enough to get tenure. Teaching people how to write is not something most of us have been trained to do, it isn't in our job description, it takes time away from teaching our subjects and doing research, and it isn't what students want. There is no incentive to do it, in other words. And writing-intensive courses require a lot of writing, but they are not courses in composition. Papers need not be graded on anything so mundane as grammar or spelling, and these courses are not taught by people with any training in the teaching of composition. I mention all this because I suspect it is pretty typical, not to take a dig at my school. In short, the only courses that students have to take that are aimed at improving their writing are those two first-year composition courses, and as far as I can tell it isn't possible to teach students how to write in that time.

Schuman's suggestion is that professors teaching required (but, presumably, non-composition) courses should not assign traditional essays in their courses because it will just be an exercise in frustration. I think she has a point. The conclusion I draw is not that those professors should not assign essays, but that everyone else should assign them too. And we should be prepared to give Fs to the students she describes who simply don't turn major assignments in. That means not caring so much about popularity and rankings. Which means caring about education, not money. Which means it isn't going to happen. But if the schools we work for don't care about education, why should some professors work hard to educate when many of their colleagues don't bother with the more onerous parts of the job, and when they aren't being compensated by their employers for doing it? Shit is fucked up and bullshit, to coin a phrase. And that, I take it, is Schuman's point.      


  1. IT SURE IS.

    one semester i made a slight change to a low-credit daily homework assignment i had used before that involved about a paragraph of writing—i made usage errors, typos, etc. quite costly so that there would be a strong incentive not to just dash off whatever and turn it in to me.

    some of the students got so upset at 'being graded on spelling and grammar' that the dean was called in. (he was a scholar of literature. he had no problems.) at the end of the semester they colluded to tank my evaluations.

    i'm quite attracted to schuman's solution (more exams, less essaying), but it goes against the whole way of teaching i've been trying to commit to. in philosophy it often seemed to me like part of the reason student papers were so often terrible is that students were essentially given regurgitative assignments with extremely narrow parameters ('state the argument, criticize the argument, offer an improvement'; or 'state the problem, state the view about it, criticize the view') and then almost literally being faulted for not doing what they were told. that level of -imitatio- is not unheard of in humanities educations, but it's kind of awkward to own up to in a discipline that trumpets the value of independent thought so proudly. i've found, a little, that some loosening up of my essay prompts, and a LOT of backing off on writing-coaching (so e.g. i never go into a whole big thing about 'THIS IS HOW YOU WRITE AN INTRODUCTION') resulted in some much more readable, and more personal, work from students.

    but it hasn't helped with the basic problem of the ones who can barely write; i get 'better' work like the above even despite its mechanical and stylistic faults. the ones with less ability are just more hobbled by that, and can only do so much. (i had a student once for whom this was a painfully acute problem, and it seemed the only way we could solve it was just to force him never to write a sentence longer than a line or so, because if he did he lost all grammatical control of it.)

    i sat a lot of in-class exams as a philosophy major. way more than i administered, or saw administered, to undergraduates when i was in grad school.

    i read constantly when i was a kid. i would check out so many library books that i hit their limit—they wouldn't lend me any more until the loan period expired. i don't know how we're supposed to replace something like that, for students whose inability to write is probably (i think) awfully connected to their lack of exposure to examples of writing.

    1. Yes, I'm sure a lot of bad writing comes from a lack of reading,and no single course can make up for that. Kids still read, but few of the ones I end up teaching read much for pleasure.

      Exams seem particularly ill-suited to philosophy, which ought to involve much more careful thought than there's time for in an exam, it seems to me. I still give them (I pretty much have to, and I do think they have some value), but I don't give students questions they haven't had a chance to think about before. I know people (not philosophers) who give only exams and no papers precisely because it saves them time. Given the incentive structure in place I don't blame them at all, but I don't think it's great for the students. At least, if you're giving exams instead of essays you would ideally have a nobler motive than this. But nobility is not rewarded.

      I coach my students on how to write an introduction, etc, much more than I used to, but then I never used to coach them at all. I sort of assumed they would know those things. If they do the assigned reading they might pick up how to do it, but that's hoping for a lot. Depends on the students, I guess. It surprises me how many times I have to say the same things, but the message seems to get through eventually.

    2. the exam format i experienced was often to be given a list of questions a week, weekend, or few days before the exam, with the exam consisting of a selection of those questions. in theory, if you had been working all the while, you could study up and prepare answers which were writable in the allotted time; and if not, you could at least take some calculated risks.

    3. That's roughly what I do.

      Your evaluations story is a nightmare, but probably not uncommon. The ways assessment is done and used can be very damaging. Talk about incentives covers that up. It's not just that certain desirable practices are discouraged. They can be fatal for someone's career.

    4. i could have prepared my students for the adjustment a bit better - i was honestly surprised that their response was so hostile, and probably didn't sell it gently enough.

      i'd like to have the kind of support from my employers (basically not to have the ground constantly shifting under me) so that i could afford to just be tougher as a teacher. or try things out. it's ridiculous that i have to hope for tenure, or even for tenure-track placement, to feel safe doing my job as a teacher.

    5. Yes, it is a ridiculous situation. There seems to be little to no trust in teachers, at pretty much any level. No support for risk-taking or maintaining high standards (other than lip-service, of course). Lots of pressure to dumb things down and make everyone's life easier. Schuman's proposal is, roughly, to give in to that pressure. If that's as immoral as her critics suggest then the system is immoral and should be changed. But it's people who run and/or benefit from the system who seem to be most vocally outraged.

  2. Thanks for the links. As I've experimented with various presentation projects in different classes, I'm learning that many students who struggle with writing papers shine when giving presentations, and some of these classes are upper division applied ethics courses for (mainly) non-philosophy majors. I've always liked writing, but some people hate it (or find it scary, etc.). And so it's helpful for me to see other ideas about how to get the students working and thinking (well) without putting all the focus on the "college essay." I don't think I'll abandon it in upper level courses, but add other things, so that formal writing is only one part of the pie. Really, that's already what I do. (And I don't do formal papers in intro courses, though I keep myself and the students busy--hopefully not JUST busy--with smaller reflective assignments.

    1. I've had some really good student presentations this semester, possibly because they are doing more of them in other courses. I also assign 'college essays' and know that some students dread them. But I let them re-write endlessly and give them lots of coaching. It means I have to do a lot of grading, but their work improves significantly, and they seem to learn more. It helps, of course, that I teach small classes.