In Defense of Essays

We hate grading them; they hate writing them. But if we really value meaningful student learning, it's time for academe to put more energy and resources into the project of better writing instruction, argue Martha Schulman and Gwen Hyman.

February 19, 2016

Let’s face it: no one likes grading student essays, because student essays, in general, aren’t very good. When you’re halfway through a pile of essays that seem rote and devoid of thought, it’s easy to feel your soul shriveling. Students don’t usually enjoy the experience, either -- for them it’s hard, time-consuming and anxiety producing. And, as several writers have recently pointed out, academic essays don’t play much of a role outside academe.

But does that mean we should stop seeing essays as the baseline work college students do? A rash of articles in recent years have suggested exactly that.

Canadian teacher Jon David Groff, for instance, writes that essays don’t prepare students for the real-world work. They are, he says, “a highly inauthentic form of writing.” Rebecca Schuman, in an article that got a fair bit of attention in Slate, also claims that writing essays isn’t worth the time and trouble. Schuman focuses on three issues: “bad” essays, the careless students who produce them and the labor involved in teaching and grading essays. Schuman concludes by saying that essays should be reserved for advanced humanities majors and that everyone else should just take exams. After all, she says, “you cannot bullshit a line-ID.”

It’s true that the prevalent essay form -- the five-paragraph essay -- is usually awful to read and boring to write. Karen Harris’s recent piece for Times Higher Education focuses, quite reasonably, on how formulaic that kind of essay is. (A typical five-paragraph essay starts with a big, overarching thesis statement, backs it up with three interchangeable examples, then restates the thesis). Harris blames fusty academics wed to an out-of-date and restrictive form for the essay’s failures. She would prefer that students have more options: perhaps, she suggests, a student might create “a dialogue, a series of letters, an animation or a documentary.”

Options aren’t a bad thing, of course, but while animations and documentaries may feel more contemporary, they don’t actually offer students the learning opportunities inherent in essay writing. If our goal is to teach students to think hard, then the essay remains a crucial feature of a college education and trashing it is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Teaching writing may be difficult, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort. And though it’s tempting to imagine a world without lousy papers to grade, the let’s-get-rid-of-the-essay movement has many problems.

First, it’s mistaken in its understanding of what we’re setting out to teach students. If our goal is to instruct them in who Renoir or Freud was and what they did or said, then a line-ID or animation works fine. But if our goal is to teach students to read critically, ask questions, perform meaningful analysis, marshal arguments, draw conclusions and communicate complex ideas -- the most “real-world” skills of all -- then there’s no replacing the essay. You may not be able to “bullshit a line-ID,” but you also can’t fake the skills essay writing requires. Those habits of mind are hard to learn and hard to teach -- but they’re the most important approaches that students acquire in college.

A second, related problem is the old story of academic labor and the question of what academe values. When student papers are terrible, we tend, in our frustration, to blame the students. But students who are “bad writers” are actually the victims of a system rigged against them. As anyone who has taught a composition course knows, the profession tends to view the teaching of writing as a “service” or “skills” activity. It’s scut work, and it’s usually foisted on the least powerful and most overworked people in the system: adjuncts, contract instructors and pretenure instructors. Some unfortunates have to teach writing -- and spend countless hours grading papers, at very low pay -- while others can focus on teaching the exciting big ideas they went to grad school to study. Unsurprisingly, given this system, writing pedagogy receives short shrift in graduate programs and professional development -- so most professors never learn how to teach writing. We’ve met plenty of eager, dedicated teachers doing their best with virtually no training in the work they’ve been asked to do.

As a result of this lack of preparation and downplaying of writing pedagogy as a meaningful activity, professors tend to see writing as a more or less “natural” activity, one that some people are born to do and others are not. But that is a confusion of student preparation and student ability. When we assume that some students just “can’t” write, we overlook inequities in resources and preparation. It’s easy to laud those who “can” write while overlooking the fact that they tend to be privileged graduates of elite public and private schools, clustered in colleges and universities that value the liberal arts. And when professors suggest that some students aren’t served by the essay, they’re signing off on a tiered class system where some students get the good stuff while others are spared the task of having to think hard.

The third, related issue that affects students’ writing and learning is affinity. Students who resemble their professors -- who think in narrative, have read widely, understand writing as a persuasive act -- are rewarded and valued. Those who don’t think like their instructors are not. But often students who “can’t write” can write quite well if they’re taught in ways that make sense to them. At the Cooper Union, where we’ve done most of our teaching, our students are art, engineering and architecture students. And they often tell us that they don’t think in narrative but in numbers and equations, or in 3-D, or in images. They don’t necessarily learn by listening to a lecture on writing. They learn by doing, and they learn better -- and produce better work -- when they understand the point of essay writing. That means understanding essay writing as an analytical act that involves starting with something in a text that they don’t already understand or know, taking apart the text to try to figure out what’s going on, coming to some conclusions, and then sharing their discoveries with readers.

Teaching students who aren’t “instinctive” (or privileged or well-prepared) writers isn’t easy, because it requires us as teachers to approach writing in new ways. But as we’ve learned over the years, the payoff is considerable: when writing makes sense to students, they produce work they care about and find interesting and challenging -- as well as work that is much more engaging for their instructors.

If we really value meaningful student learning, it’s time for all of us -- not just the small world of composition and rhetoric studies, but academe as a whole -- to put time and resources into the project of better writing instruction. “Bad” writers aren’t the problem; bad assignments and ill-trained and underpaid teachers are. And this means that the essay isn’t the problem and that throwing it out won’t fix anything. Instead, what’s needed is a reassessment of how the essay is defined and taught. And that isn’t our students’ responsibility: it’s ours.


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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