What Essays Can Be

The essay form is still the best way for students to think hard on the page, but it should involve inquiry-based learning, evidence-rich analysis and process work -- not formulae, write Gwen Hyman and Martha Schulman.

July 19, 2016

A little while back, we wrote an essay arguing against killing off the undergraduate essay. The piece generated a lot of reaction, much of it focused on the question of what an essay should be.

Some writers argued for the five-paragraph essay or other formulaic models, on the grounds that clear expectations at least give underprepared students something to work with. Others advocated replacing the essay with more “real-world” forms that would force students to think in fresh ways.

Although all of those arguments have merit, our own thinking on the subject is both more old-fashioned and more radical. We think the essay form is still the best way for students to think hard on the page -- but we are not fans of formulae. Instead, we’re in favor of inquiry-based learning, evidence-rich analysis and process work.

In other words, we believe in asking students to write the kinds of essays we write ourselves -- and in giving students the tools to do that. It’s no easy task. In fact, to do it on a large scale may require wholesale rethinking of academic structures. But since virtually everyone agrees that there is a crisis in how we teach writing, it’s clear such rethinking is desperately needed.

Essay as Process

When we talk about essays with students, we begin with the basic question of what an essay is. We describe it as a story: a narrative that looks closely at a particular moment or occurrence or phenomenon in a text, asks questions, comes up with analysis rooted in the text under consideration and takes up the implications of that analysis. (By “text” we mean a literary work, artwork, event, engineering problem -- any document or piece of art, nature or science subject to careful scrutiny and analysis.)

After looking closely at that first moment and figuring out what she thinks is going on there, and why it matters -- that is, after analyzing the phenomenon -- the student may apply what she’s learned to a second moment and ask a new question. Eventually, she extrapolates, showing how what she’s learned adds up to a new way to look at a character or issue in the text as a whole. She may even go a step farther, thinking about ways in which the new idea tells her something about the world into and out of which the text is created.

In any case, the essay ends somewhere different from where it began. The reader has learned something, precisely because the author has. Something interesting has, ideally, taken place. In sum, the student essay falls into the same genre as the essays we ourselves write.

But what we’ve just described is a final essay -- that is, a product. And essays don’t emerge, fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s head. No student (no writer, really) can create such an essay in one draft. To get there, we tell our students, they’ll need a meaningful, effective, multistep writing process.

We ask students to begin by exploring something specific in the text, rather than a big idea or generalization. That process is inquiry based and student directed -- it requires a student to look for a tension in the text, something strange or interesting that she doesn’t yet comprehend, and to ask questions about it. That means she must begin by admitting, “I don’t understand” -- a daunting and difficult prospect.

To take on this challenging task, students need processes and they need tools. For example, they need close reading methods, so they can make discoveries in the text and talk back to it. Close reading is what lets students see how to find evidence from the text rather than from common sense or general knowledge.

The process work we’re advocating here is multistaged, iterative, messy work. The student may move from the text to questions to freewriting or brainstorming to drafting, then go back to the text and so on, deepening her analysis by asking questions. She may use a range of visually rich, active-learning methods to generate ideas, get her thoughts in order and fill gaps. As she figuring out the story she’s trying to tell, her early drafts will most likely be incomplete, overwritten or hard for the reader to follow. And that means she’ll have to revise and rethink and ask more questions. She’ll come to her overall claim, introduction and conclusion from her discoveries -- not the other way around.

Risks and Challenges

Giving students the reading, writing and thinking skills required for a process like this is, to put it mildly, challenging -- for students and instructors alike. We’re asking students to give up certainties and formulae, to dive into the unknown. We’re taking away the safety of falling back on generalizations, personal experience and conventional wisdom.

As instructors, we also have to give up some control over our assignments. For a truly student-centered process to work, we can’t ask leading questions or make decisions for our students. If we do, they’ll go back to the old game of trying to figure out “what the professor wants.” If we want students to really learn through writing, what we actually want, of course, is nothing more (and nothing less) than student inquiry and convincing, evidence-based thinking and writing.

There is risk in the classroom, too: query-based learning requires us to focus on helping students learn to ask questions. This approach not only takes time away from subject matter but can also derail the most carefully planned lectures and guided discussions. And outside the classroom, there is the challenge of grading. In a query-based model, grading, too, can be challenging. Even though process writing can be hard to read, even though it pushes every grammar-correcting button we have as teachers, we need to put down the red pen when reading less-than-final drafts.

That’s because, in these early stages, we want our students to feel free to think their ideas through, to write without worrying about whether those are ideas are presented perfectly. If we correct or penalize poorly structured sentences or bad grammar too soon, students will stop trying to figure out their ideas and focus instead on fixing everything we’ve marked. To spur students to think harder, we respond instead by asking questions: What do you mean by this? How do you know? Is this the only way to read this? Evidence? That means that student papers -- and student meetings -- take up a lot of time.

All of this is particularly difficult for the instructors most likely to teach first-year writing courses: those with the least support on our campuses, graduate students, adjuncts and junior faculty. And it’s even more challenging for those who teach at high-need, low-resource institutions. But those are exactly the places this focus on process-based writing is needed most. Many elite colleges and universities already engage in intensive writing pedagogy, because the payoff for students is clear and resources are readily available. As a result, the learning gap between privileged students and everybody else is significantly exacerbated.

Institutional Commitment Required

We firmly believe that when students engage with interrogatory, analytical reading and writing, they can learn to write interesting, challenging and thoughtful essays. And we believe that’s important not just for college but also for meaningful civic engagement and professional life.

But if we want to make inquiry-based process writing a priority, we’ll need real institutional commitment -- in terms of financial resources, programmatic rethinking and public support for the teaching of analytical reading and writing to all students. And we have to be ready to take on the multifaceted work to make this happen: funding for smaller classes, changes in teacher training, professionalized writing centers and new measures of student success, among other challenges. Those changes need to happen not only at the postsecondary level -- at community colleges, small colleges and big state universities -- but also in middle schools and high schools. And we need changes at the level of government policy and funding, too.

Otherwise, of course, we have a system that reliably “works”: the five-paragraph essay. It’s familiar, students know what is being asked of them, and it’s easy for teachers to grade. But it fails when it comes to teaching students how to think analytically.


Gwen Hyman and Martha Schulman are the co-authors of Thinking on the Page: A College Student's Guide to Effective Writing (Writers' Digest, 2015). Hyman is past director of the Center for Writing at Cooper Union and founder of Workshop Teaching. Schulman is director of the Cooper Union Summer Writing Program and adjunct instructor of humanities at Cooper Union.

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