Including all the years I have spent teaching as a graduate student and an adjunct, I have been teaching at the college level for nearly 17 years. In that time, I have noticed some patterns:
1. Every few years, a new form of technology will come out and many individuals will chase after it, proclaiming it to be the cure-all for education.*
2. Every few years, politicians will pay a great deal of lip service to education.**
3. Every few years, someone will pronounce higher education dead, and insist that we bury the corpse out of respect.
An example of the third has recently appeared in Slate, and has inspired a great deal of discussion and debate online.*** In my nearly 17 years of teaching, I have heard a version of this argument many times. And every time, I disagree with it. And because this is the internet and I have an opinion – and a vested interest in discussions about pedagogy and higher education – I thought I would use this space to contribute to the conversation.
When I was first teaching, as a Teaching Fellow in the graduate program in English at Boston College, faculty in various departments were demanding that the English Department change how it teaches Freshman Composition. One of their claims was that we were only training students to write “English essays,” and that the lessons learned by analyzing literature had no bearing on other fields. Much time was spent demonstrating that both parts of this charge were false: not only was there a variety of kinds of writing being done by students, but there was evidence that the skills in outlining, researching, structuring, drafting, and editing essays did have both short-term and long-term payoffs in student success. Some faculty, however, claimed – as Rebecca Schuman has done in her Slate article, that “We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure.” Their argument – like Dr. Schuman’s argument – was that “[m]ost 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?” Some departments noted that this work, even when successful, in no way prepared students for a job; who, they asked, ever writes “college essays” on the job?
The short answer is, almost nobody. But that’s the short answer. The longer answer is that a great many jobs – including many of the jobs that college students in a variety of majors are preparing for – may not want “college essays,” but they do want students who have the skills in written communication noted above. When I was a student (and later adjunct instructor) at Northeastern University, I learned first-hand that many employers in a variety of industries were interested in hiring NU graduates because they completed a rigorous college-writing program. This program consisted (at the time) of a 2-course Freshman Writing requirement as well as an upper-division writing requirement, focused on advanced writing in the disciplines.**** And while the writing program did a wonderful job of teaching writing at the various levels to a variety of students, what I learned most during my time at NU was that it’s equally important to teach students why it’s important to develop these skills.
Those who claim that such skills are not at all important in the non-academic workplace often dramatically overstate their case, as we see in Schuman’s piece when she writes “[a]fter all, Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook Friendster profile bragged “i don’t read” (sic), and look at him.” And while that’s a nice little factoid, one that suggests that reading and writing are not necessary for becoming one of the wealthiest individuals in the world, it also ignores several facts about Mark Zuckerberg, such as his study of Latin. Say what you will about Zuckerberg as a public figure and his various attempts to make Facebook a public space with ever-disappearing privacy controls, but you cannot deny that he is an intelligent, articulate individual whose education has served him well. He may not have finished his degree, but that is certainly not evidence that he has not benefitted from higher education.
My point is not that we should assign essays for the sake of assigning essays. I have no interest in keeping academic traditions alive for the sake of continuity. Rather, I have seen (in my limited experience) the value of teaching these skills. In fact, just this past semester, a former student of mine (from my days teaching at the University of Connecticut, another institution with a fantastic writing program) sent me an email to thank me for all I did to teach her writing; she noted that, while she didn’t understand how valuable the course was at the time, she now (some years later) can see just how important it was to learn how to define a research question, engage in research, structure and draft a piece of writing, and edit that piece appropriately. And I’m not alone; every writing teacher I know has had a similar experience.
I’m sympathetic to Dr. Schuman’s lament about the “bad students,” who ” fail to turn in any drafts at all.” Again, every writing teacher I know can attest to this. We all share stories of those frustrating students who simply don’t do the work, and who as a result don’t learn what we are trying to teach them. That said, dropping essay writing from “required courses”^ is not the answer. However, I do agree that students should be taking “hardcore exams,” and that these exams should be “written and oral.” However, we are not facing an either/or decision. One of the goals of a liberal arts education is variety: students should be studying in a variety of fields, engaging in a variety of projects, and exploring multiple avenues of inquiry.
I very much believe that students should be writing essays. They should also be taking exams, both written and oral. (In my classes, I assign a mix of such projects, so that students are not evaluated on the same kind of assignment at all points throughout the semester.) But we should not stop there. Students should also be working in social media. And engaged in lab work. And the arts. They should be learning new languages (Latin, Russian, Python, etc.). And a little community service never hurt anybody, either.
It would appear that Dr. Schuman and I have different goals, and I can respect that. Unlike her, I have no interest in making sure that students will “at least have a shot at retaining, just for a short while, the basic facts of some of the greatest stories ever recorded.” For starters, Im not interested in imparting to students anything for the short-term. This is why I don’t give out reading quizzes, or ask for reading journals, etc. I honestly don’t care if students forget the details of some of the works they are reading, whether they forget them now or shortly after the end of the semester. More importantly, I’m also not interested in making sure they know the “basic facts.” I could certainly design a course that would ensure that students could recite back to me the names of the major characters in Moby-Dick, for instance, but to echo Dr. Schuman, “who cares?” What, in other words, is the point of such short-term assessment? When I studied Russian, many years ago, I spent much time studying vocabulary. And of course it was a valuable pursuit. But as a pursuit in an of itself, it was almost worthless. That is to say, to goal of learning vocabulary was to help me learn to speak the language. The study of vocabulary was a means to an end, and not the end itself. Learning lists of vocabulary words was part of a larger project: learning how to read, write, and speak another language. I feel the same way about the “basic facts”: those facts are learned as part of a larger project of understanding and engagement. Like Dr. Schuman, I am interested in “the cultivation of our own humanity, and something that unfolds when we’re touched by stories of people who are very much unlike us.” However, I disagree with her in that the learning of “basic facts” may be sufficient in that project. Writing essays, on the other hand, just may. But only if we show students how. The “college essay” is not a failure. It’s an opportunity. But only if it’s taught correctly. Bad teaching will always lead to failure. But this is a reason for us to improve what we teach, and to keep asking ourselves why we assign what we do, and what its value is.^^
And if the “college essay” no longer works for you, and you have developed other projects to fit other needs, that’s excellent. But that is not proof that the “college essay” is a failure. As I have posted elsewhere, I suck at assigning group work. It has always failed in my classes. However, the failure is mine, and I would never call for the “death of group work” because it does not suit my pedagogical goals and my skills as an instructor.
*Online courses are back in vogue, for a variety of reasons. I may post about this more in the future, but for now I’d like to say that I was first approached to teach an online course (an online-only section of Freshman Composition) 15 years ago. But there are also gadgets and other pieces of pretty that come and go. Does everyone remember when the iClicker was going to change classroom management? Me too. I wonder what’s next.
**These can be easily predicted by following how often someone has to run for office.
***I link to her Twitter and blog as easy resources to follow some of that discussion, not as an endorsement of her article.
****I remember when this was called “the middler-year writing requirement,” and there were only two options (one for business and technical writing and one for the humanities). It’s encouraging to see how this requirement has developed over time.
^Dr. Schuman is not exactly clear what she means by this, but I take it to mean “non-English courses,” as she does suggest that those who love writing could study English. But even here, I have to disagree with her. Students who enjoy writing should not be encouraged to be English majors just because they enjoy writing. We should encourage students in their love of writing, but not by limiting them to one degree. Writing is not a skill limited to one field of study. We should be encouraging all students to write, not forcing all writers to become English majors.
^^I make sure to explain to my students why they are asked to complete the assignments I assign. I explain their value both in terms of the immediate (course-related) goals as well as their long-term educational development. I also encourage them to ask their other faculty members why they are assigned what they are in their other classes. None of this should be a secret, and when students know why they are asked to complete certain assignments, they are more likely (though there is no guarantee) to complete those assignments. “Because I said so” should never be a pedagogical explanation, in my opinion.