Saturday, December 14, 2013
The End of the College Essay. From Slate.
by Rebecca Schuman
Everybody in college hates papers. Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them instead. Plagiarism is now so commonplace that if we flunked every kid who did it, we’d have a worse attrition rate than a MOOC. And on those rare occasions undergrads do deign to compose their own essays, said exegetic masterpieces usually take them all of half an hour at 4 a.m. to write, and consist accordingly of “arguments” that are at best tangentially related to the coursework, font-manipulated to meet the minimum required page-count. Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.
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I'm sure Ms. Schuman had fun writing that romping rant, but her argument, such as it is, is full of logical flaws and sweeping generalizations. It's a typical Slate piece ("Grading Papers: You're doing it Wrong!"), all attitude and sass, but no substance.ReplyDelete
I understand Ms. Schuman's frustration, but I can't get on her nihilistic bandwagon. The problem she's struggling with isn't that writing doesn't matter. It's that on our adjunct-dominated, consumer-oriented campuses, we don't have the leverage or time to do much good for students entering college with sub-par academic preparation.
The problem with poor writing in college is really a problem of poor writing in K-12 education. College professors should be helping students become sharper, more sophisticated, deeper thinkers, not teaching them what a fucking topic sentence is. I don't know how we got here, and I know the solution is probably beyond us all, but that doesn't mean that sound writing and clear thinking don't matter.
This. Thank you.Delete
Indeed, and we can add to this the fact that surrender along the lines suggested in the article would be a disservice to those students who are engaged and need to further hone their skills before heading into higher-level courses.Delete
On the other hand, I do kind of like the suggestion for oral exams. I had a professor who did orals in undergrad and it was devilishly successful in rooting out abject failure to do course work.
...but that doesn't mean that sound writing and clear thinking don't matter.Delete
But the Slate author never said that they don't matter. In fact, I think that her article suggests that she thinks they matter a great deal. But she's right that, no matter how much we think they matter, we can't necessarily convince our students of that fact, and a considerable proportion of our students will continue to make almost no effort whatsoever to improve their writing or their thinking.
The question then becomes what to do about it. As a history teacher, I have resolutely resisted the temptation to abandon essays in my intro classes (which are required for most students at my institution), and my assessment consists of short papers, a slightly longer essay, and two exams that require proper paragraph-length and essay-length answers. But doing this is both time-sucking and soul-destroying, as paper after paper comes in with the shittiest writing imaginable, some of which reflects a complete lack of understanding about how the English language works, and some of which reflects simple bone-idle laziness.
How many times should I tell students that they need to learn how to use apostrophes, that they need to learn the difference between "affect" and "effect," and that they need to understand subject/verb agreement, and have them ignore me, before deciding that it's not worth beating my head against a brick wall? And this is all in the papers that they do at home, when they have time to check over their work. You should see some of the linguistic monstrosities that appear in their exam books, when they're under time constraints.
Of course, the problem is that Schuman's solutions won't really work either, because it simply shifts the site of evaluation from one place to another, and doesn't deal with the underlying problem, which is that too many of our students aren't ready for college, and too many professors (and I include myself in this number) are unwilling to give the students what they really, truly deserve when it comes to grading their work.
I have a reputation among my students for being a hard grader. My in-class evaluations, and my reviews on The Site That Shall Not Be Named, complain about how much work I require, about how harsh I am on writing, and about how my expectations are unreasonable for entry-level courses. But I know that I've let students slide through with C's and D's who, in a world of higher education with proper standards, should have been given F's and told to go back to high school.
I've actually contemplated running an explicit two-tier system in my compulsory intro classes, offering students a course where some write essays and sit proper written-answer exams, and some don't, with grades in the latter case determined by quizzes, multiple-choice and short-answer exams, and other busywork.
The condition for such a course would be that only students who write the essays and sit the proper exams could get an A for the course, while students who took the easy option would max out at a B. I'm not sure whether this would be a good idea pedagogically, and I'm pretty sure that there would be considerable opposition to it among the higher-ups, but it does strike me as an option that would allow us to teach the students who really want to learn, and push through those who just want a piece of paper.
Indeed. And some of us are going to have to keep trying to teach writing to people who didn't learn what they needed to in K-12 (I could write a decent paragraph, with a topic sentence, by 4th grade, and could string several of them together by 5th. Even assuming I went to a better-than-average school, and was a bit precocious, something has changed). It is, after all, our jobs.Delete
At the same time, putting on my literature hat, I agree with her that English/literature departments may need to step back from making core courses writing-intensive, or even from assigning substantial out-of-class writing (she does allow for in-class writing/exams) in all courses. Well, either that, or we need a renewed, real commitment to writing across the curriculum in all such courses. I'd actually prefer the latter, but as a literature scholar, and member of an English Department, I'll vote for self-preservation first. We can't be the only ones still trying to shoulder a responsibility that colleagues in other departments have decided (with some reason, given deteriorating preparation and rising class sizes) they won't. We have a discipline, too, and it is no more or less inextricable from writing than any other humanities discipline. At least sometimes, we should get to talk about the ideas of our discipline without worrying too much about the vehicle in which those ideas are discussed.
I'd chalk it up to as much a failure to read enough K-12 as failure to write enough in K-12...ReplyDelete
True; true. And those of us who teach comp just can't reverse the effects of that in 14 weeks. In fact, we have to start by teaching them to read. The thing is, they should be learning both to write and to read increasingly complex texts all the way through K-12. Each feeds the other, and it's very, very hard to catch them up on both in college.Delete
So instead of failing essays, they'd be failing their oral exams? I don't think shifting to an oral exam will fix the problem of students being ignorant.ReplyDelete
It won't fix that problem, but it would make plagiarism/bullshitting/other tactics less of a problem. I would expect that an oral exam would yield a higher fail rate because it would unmask those who have become skilled at bluffing through essays. It might also scare students into better preparation, since I suspect they would also figure out in short order that their old strategies were no longer available.Delete
Heck, I have trouble getting my graduate students to write decent papers. As much as I can, I avoid assigning them in undergraduate courses. I still have essay questions on exams, but the grief one gets from students over those (they all declare they are unable to learn and synthesize the material so they can develop a factually-supported argument in an exam) always has be on the verge of giving them up, too.ReplyDelete
I think you guys are taking this all way too seriously. The Slate piece read like a good CM post, and I enjoyed it. Putting forth a ridiculous (or Modest) proposal is a valid form of commentary.ReplyDelete
Anyone want to start in on the proposal that Santa should be a penguin? You'd have lots of company.
You may be right. This is, after all, the same woman who offered a prize to anyone who could prove that they included a scan of their butt (clothed or un-) among their "evidence of teaching excellence" in a job application.Delete
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