Down with the college essay?

Photo credit: Flickr creative commons

Photo credit: Flickr creative commons

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

Garrett Ford Morrison

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

References: Brannon, Lil, et al. “The Five Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education.” The English Journal 98.2 (November 2008): 16-21; Campbell, Kimberly Hill and Kristi Latimer. Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2012; Graff, Gerald. Professing Literature: An Institutional History. 1987. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007; Wesley, Kimberly. “The Ill Effects of the Five Paragraph Theme.” The English Journal 90.1 (November 1999): 57-60; Wiley, Mark. “The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We Need to Resist).” The English Journal 90.1 (November 1999): 61-67.

About Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching

This is the official blog for the Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching at Northwestern University.
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3 Responses to Down with the college essay?

  1. Thanks Garrett… you’ve raised some really interesting questions. It’s always a bit strange to me when students write papers for me using this very forced 5 paragraph structure, especially when they start one paragraph by restating the last sentence in the previous paragraph. Essays still have their place though, for m. I sometimes find however, that really terrific ideas are only explored between the instructor and the student in a very private way; more students might benefit if the ideas from essays are shared.

  2. Quickly, off the top of my head. I have assigned two-paragraph responses to paintings and buildings; I have assigned “papers” with strict rules about no intro or conclusion, I have assigned two-paragraph close readings of a single passage, I have assigned mini learner-to-learner activities where students explain their reading to each other; I have assigned two-page assignments where they must apply literature to philosophy and vice versa. The key to all of my writing assignments is: I am very, very, very clear to students up front what bullshit is, how easily I can detect it, and that I will not tolerate it. I set a “time goal” for each assignment (one to three hours, one to three sittings) and expect them to time themselves and take the necessary time and care. The results are mixed. Some students just see “two paragraphs” and spend five minutes on it, and then, mercifully, it only takes me 30 seconds to grade. Other students really appreciate the challenge of having to be succinct and clear.

    The other thing I do is that I offer the chance to rewrite certain assignments for a better grade, IFF the student comes into office hours to talk to me about it, line by line, word by word. Then I only spend a protracted amount of time on the papers of students who actually want to learn and get better. I also remove the rewriting privilege if a student has clearly half-assed it in the hope that I will then tell her how to “rewrite” it for a better grade.

    I have given oral exams before (in German!) and they went amazing. It’s mostly just an informal conversation about the material in my office, except if they can’t say something substantive about it, they’re graded accordingly. I have several colleagues who have given up on papers in non-literature classes (philosophy mostly) and are delighted with the result.

    It’s interesting to me how invested in papers, especially FPTs, so many professors are, given the rampant plagiarism (most of which they don’t detect and students get away with), and general half-assedness of most intros and conclusions. I said this on Facebook in the wake of getting bullied off Twitter by rabid Comp/Rhet assholes: if the college essay is so important, then why are most of them still so fucking awful, and why do most students forget about them the second they turn them in (and, accordingly, never get any better at anything as a result of them)? Those who have argued back at me–especially Comp/Rhet types–do so using only idealized pedagogy-speak, of what students *should* be doing when they write papers (thinking, analyzing, critical development, etc). There is little, if any, discussion of what they actually *are* doing.

  3. Thanks Rebecca, for commenting! These are all great ideas. And you raise an important set of questions about the importance and (perceived) value of the essays.

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