The End of the College Essay? Or Just the Beginning?

As the New Year approaches, one of my main resolutions will be to blog more. This first post of the almost-new-year is about writing, in fact. I know. How meta. 

Around the time that I was submitting my students’ final grades, Rebecca Schuman posted her controversial essay “The End of the College Essay.” (Very worth a read.) In her piece, she argues that the college essay format does not actually teach students to write better so it should be thrown out and replaced with more objective examinations. I was shocked to read that Schuman has been harassed and her job has been threatened. It means, I’m guessing, that she has hit a nerve and maybe one that needed to be hit.

Don’t get me wrong: Schuman is off the mark. But  not entirely. She is what I’m calling “productively misguided,” as it opens up the conversation that maybe needs having…

As David McCullough writes: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly.” He is not the first to come up with this idea, but boy does he write it clearly. If writing is thinking, then teaching writing is teaching how to think. It is not just that writing is a dying art that needs to be preserved or that writing is an undervalued transferrable skill, though both statements are true. Teaching our students how to write is teaching them how to communicate their ideas so that the ideas say something, do something. If I didn’t think writing produces knowledge and effects change, I wouldn’t want to be a teacher or a scholar.

That said, I have understand Schuman’s argument that the college essay is “broken.” This is not because some students plagiarize or because grade inflation is a rampant problem in higher education. The issue, in my view, is that the mechanisms of feedback are not sufficiently robust. My written comments, particularly for final papers, primarily serve to justify the letter grade more, and I wish that they could do more (or that I could do more). 

Papers don’t teach students. Teachers teach students. 

Maybe I’m a cock-eyed optimist to believe writing can be taught. Or maybe it comes to me genetically, as my grandmother wrote the writing textbook “Twenty Questions for the Writer” (now on its sixth edition!). 

My preliminary suggestions, then, would be as follows:

  1. Professors should test out new kinds of writing assignments beyond the modified (read: extended) five-paragraph essay. I TA’ed a film course in which the students were assigned movie reviews, and I was pleased to see how many of my students had clever, witty writerly voices that the traditional academic paper could not accommodate. What about conducting a debate in writing? Assigning a memo? Let’s open our imaginations to new ways of writing, because it might open the imaginations of our students.
  2. We should assign either more writing or less. If we assign more shorter writing assignments, students will have the opportunity to incorporate our feedback, experiment out new strategies and styles, and test out new subjects in writing. If we assign fewer assignments, it opens up the possibility for more drafts, even peer-led workshopping, and the chance for students to write work of which they are proud.

If writing is thinking, then let’s take the step of making all courses writing-intensive. The final aim might be that students will become as persuasive and incendiary writers as the possibly-unfairly-maligned Rebecca Schuman.


Here’s hoping my blogging habit helps me to become a better writer and thinker, with the help (of course) of all of your lovely feedback!  

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