Last month in Slate, Rebecca Schuman made a modest proposal: let’s stop assigning essays in required humanities courses. Schuman, an education journalist and a professor of German, believes that students hate writing papers as much as professors hate grading them. Undergraduates, she claims, often prefer to “buy, borrow, or steal” an essay than to sit down and grind one out. “It’s time to declare unconditional defeat,” she says, and time to “return to old-school, hardcore exams”: “With more exams and no papers,” 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.”
Plenty of readers took umbrage with Schuman’s characterization of undergraduates and with her ideas about teaching and learning. On Twitter, she clarified that her Slate piece should be read as “Viennese satire,” “exaggerated but true at the same time.” Still, she stood by her basic argument: “The pedagogy of required lit courses stinks & I want it dead.” In her own courses, she uses what she calls an “un-essay essay pedagogy,” which replaces conventional papers with various “peer-to-peer, in-class, out-of-class, one-sitting, single-issue, highly focused smaller writing assignments.”
Here Schuman sounds far less like an iconoclast. For decades teachers have been expressing dissatisfaction with the standard five-paragraph essay, and have explored a multitude of alternatives. Yet many undergraduate humanities courses, especially introductory surveys and lectures, continue to be built around traditional paper assignments. So Schuman’s article is a timely intervention.
But her solution – a return to “rigorous, old-school” examinations – makes more sense as a provocation than as a practical suggestion. (Of course, given Schuman’s use of hyperbole, the “solution” she proposes might not be one she would genuinely endorse.) If we were to swap exams for papers, line IDs for close readings, we would be forced to admit that we teach content – literature itself, historical fact itself, art itself – and not modes of critical thinking. We would no longer be in the business of showing a broad population of undergraduates how to observe, analyze, and make arguments about social and cultural phenomena. We would, in other words, lose one of our best explanations for why our disciplines should continue to exist.
What we teach in general-ed courses, and how we assist 18-year-olds who struggle to write, reveals how we define our scholarly mission. For instance, when we are teaching an introductory course in literary studies, we are not, properly speaking, teaching literature; we are training students to think and talk about literature. As Gerald Graff puts it, “we are looking for curricular coherence in the wrong place when we seek it in the primary texts to be assigned rather than the culture of ideas and arguments, the intellectual forms of talk and writing students need in order to make a literate response to a text or anything else” (xvi). To participate meaningfully in the “culture of ideas and arguments,” students must write. Sometimes at length. Perhaps poorly.
But do they need to write expository essays? With introductions, bodies, and conclusions? With theses, examples, and analyses? Not really, the research tells us. Scholar after scholar has concluded that the “five-paragraph theme” (FPT) is outdated and ineffective, and one even argues that it “stunts the growth of human minds” (Wesley 57). The FPT tends to convince students that form precedes content, and that writing is an act of “slotting information into prefabricated formulas rather than a complex process of meaning-making and negotiation between a writer’s purposes and audiences’ needs” (Brannon 16). In this way, the FPT “forces premature closure on complicated interpretive issues and stifles ongoing exploration” (Wiley 61).
On one count, then, the research vindicates Rebecca Schuman: if we have the best interests of our students at heart, we need to explore alternative writing assignments in humanities courses. Instead of requiring three or four FPTs per term, we might ask our students to write, say, a review of an academic book or article. Or have them compose a “keyword” essay, modeled on the examples in Raymond Williams’s Keywords. Or engage them in a collaborative wiki project. The possibilities are manifold – and well documented.
Schuman herself appears to have generated a number of exciting alternatives. We would like to hear more about the eclectic array of “highly focused smaller writing assignments” she has developed: What are they, exactly? What kinds of directions does she give her students? How does she perform and justify her assessments? Perhaps we can convince Schuman to publish a more in-depth article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The headline offers itself: “My Un-Essay Essay Pedagogy.”
But in the meantime we would suggest that, while the five-paragraph theme deserves to be challenged, the undergraduate essay itself – the sustained exploration of a text or a topic – should not be abandoned. Yes, we need to alleviate pressure on graders, many of whom are graduate students and contingent professors. (We might consider keeping most writing assignments short – not to mention pushing for structural changes in the academic labor system.) Yes, we have to demonstrate to our students that a scholarly essay can take many forms, depending on what it seeks to accomplish. (Easier said than taught.) But at least once during a required class, undergraduates should have the opportunity to compose an extended piece, to make a complex contribution to the “culture of ideas and arguments.” To do so remains the richest way to take part in the academic humanities. What more valuable experience could an introductory course provide?
What do you think of the five-paragraph theme? Have you used (or been assigned) workable alternative forms? Do you have any strategies for saving time on grading papers without sacrificing student learning? Above all, do you think the essay should remain a staple of introductory humanities course?
Garrett Ford Morrison is a doctoral candidate in English at Northwestern University and a Graduate Teaching Fellow at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching.
He has recently begun blogging about higher education at seminartable.wordpress.com.