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Should We Get Rid of the College Essay?

I can empathize with Rebecca Schuman’s frustration even if I disagree with her proposal to get rid of the essay in lower-level humanities courses:

We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students (and their parents) view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important “piece of paper.” Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utter waste of their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.

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.

Schuman admits that “it would be better for humanity if college in the United States actually required a semblance of adult writing competency, ” but she has been to hell and back to teach students to write (“I have tried everything”) and has seen little improvement. Instead she proposes we use oral exams in humanities classes:

Instead of essays, required humanities courses (which I support, for all the reasons William Cronon, Martha Nussbaum, and Paulo Freire give) 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).

I like the idea of oral exams. I used to give them in Switzerland, though only in upper-level seminars, and Schuman is right that there is nowhere to hide.

But we also need to keep the essay—or, as I will propose, some form of writing—in humanities classes because students need to learn how to write (whether they are actually learning it or not is another question) and because, rightly or wrongly, writing is the one thing of value that distinguishes humanities classes from classes in other disciplines in most people’s (particularly administrators’) minds. Get rid of writing, and it won’t be too long before humanities classes, which are already disappearing, disappear completely.

So what should be done about the terrible state of student writing at the university? The problem, of course, is linked to grade inflation both in high school and university. If failing a composition or humanities class were a real possibility, students might be more motivated to learn, but that aside (and it is admittedly a big thing to set aside), there are a couple of things that might be done to improve student writing. Here are my own humble thoughts:

First, change composition classes. Instead of giving students 6 papers to write, each for a grade, give only one paper for a grade at the end of the semester. What do students do for the rest of the semester? They practice the different aspects of the paper—the thesis statement, the paragraph, the use and citation of sources, paper format, and so forth. These should be set up as a series of ungraded steps, beginning with correct formatting, that students must master in order to move to the next step. The professor does not assign a grade for these steps, but students must complete them to his or her satisfaction before moving on to the next. Once students have completed all the steps, they can begin work on their paper for the class. If students do not master all the steps before the end of the semester, they fail the class. The one advantage of this is that it gives students a real motivation to read instructor feedback and correct their writing errors and, therefore, improve their writing. It also breaks up the elements of the essay into somewhat more manageable sizes.

And how about those argumentative essays in humanities courses like World Literature? First, shorten the writing assignments to 1200 words. That may seem short, but most sophomores, even good ones, cannot sustain an argument for more than four double-spaced pages. Second, diversify the types of writing accepted in these classes. Students should, of course, be allowed to write an argumentative essay, but they should also be allowed to write a profile of an author, or the history of the publication or performance of a particular work, or a history of the attitudes towards a particular work or even towards a genre, and so forth.

Most students will not write argumentative texts after college, but many will have to write reports or summarize and synthesize data. The argumentative essay reflects the rather recent (and narrow) view that humanities, like the sciences, are about original research. And in English classes, “original” most often means new interpretive arguments regarding the significance of a text or the application of some “theory” to it. But the unoriginal stuff of English–introducing readers to a work or an author, or providing a history of a particular work or genre–is in many ways more organic to the discipline. These kinds of writings are also similar to the types of writing students might do in other disciplines.

Of course, whatever the approach, students will still find a way to produce bad prose because it is human nature to err. Our reason is “captived,” as John Donne put it, “and proves weak or untrue.” But part of being a professor is both coming to terms with the frailty of human nature and working, Sisyphus-like, against it. If you are not willing to do this, don’t teach.

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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