The End of the Essay

by Rebecca Schuman, Slate, 12/13/13

[Michael’s Note: Though this commentary deals with college essays, Schuman’s arguments can be provocative discussion starters for secondary teachers. If you can’t fire up a department meeting with this, good luck with anything else.]

Everybody in college hates papers. Students hate writing them so much that they buyborrow, 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….

Nobody hates writing papers as much as college instructors hate grading papers (and no, having a robot do it is not the answer). Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.

What’s more, if your average college-goer does manage to read through her professor’s comments, she will likely view them as a grievous insult to her entire person, abject proof of how this cruel, unfeeling instructor hates her. That sliver of the student population that actually reads comments and wants to discuss them? They’re kids whose papers are good to begin with, and often obsessed with their GPAs. I guarantee you that every professor you know has given an A to a B paper just to keep a grade-grubber off her junk. (Not talking to you, current students! You’re all magnificent, and going to be president someday. Please do not email me.)…

We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the college essay is a failure….

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 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.

Of course it would be better for humanity if college in the United States actually required a semblance of adult writing competency. But I have tried everything. I held a workshop dedicated to avoiding vague introductions…. The result was papers that started with two incoherent sentences that had nothing to do with each other. I tried removing the introduction and conclusion altogether, and asking for a three-paragraph miniessay with a specific argument—what I got read like One Direction fan fiction.

I’ve graded drafts and assigned rewrites, and that helps the good students get better, but the bad students, the ones I’m trying to help, just fail to turn in any drafts at all. Meanwhile, I come up for air and realize that with all this extra grading, I’m making 75 cents an hour.

I’m not calling for the end of all papers—just the end of papers in required courses. Some students actually like writing, and let those blessed young souls be English majors, and expound on George Eliot and Virginia Woolf to their hearts’ content, and grow up to become writers, huzzah. But for the common good, leave everyone else out of it.

Instead of essays, required humanities courses should return to old-school, hardcore exams, written and oral. You cannot bullshit a line-ID. Nor can you get away with only having read one page of the book when your professor is staring you down with a serious question. And best of all, oral exams barely need grading: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it is immediately and readily manifest (not to mention, it’s profoundly schadenfroh when a student has to look me in the face and admit he’s done no work).

Plus, replacing papers with rigorous, old-school, St. John’s-style tribulations also addresses an issue humanities-haters love to belabor: Paper-grading is so subjective, and paper-writing so easy to fake, that this gives the humanities their unfortunate reputation as imprecise, feelings-centered disciplines where there are “no right answers.” So let’s start requiring some right answers.

Sure, this quashes the shallow pretense of expecting undergraduates to engage in thoughtful analysis, but they have already proven that they will go to any lengths to avoid doing this. Call me a defeatist, but honestly I’d be happy if a plurality of American college students could discern even the skeletal plot of anything they were assigned. With more exams and no papers, they’ll at least have a shot at retaining, just for a short while, the basic facts of some of the greatest stories ever recorded. In that short while, they may even develop the tiniest inkling of “sympathetic imagination”—the cultivation of our own humanity, and something that unfolds when we’re touched by stories of people who are very much unlike us. And that, frankly, is more than any essay will ever do for them.

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

See also in ClassWise: “Response to ‘The End of the Essay'”

Wisdom worth sharing...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Share on TumblrEmail this to someonePrint this page

Comments are closed.