Are Essay Assignments Irredeemable? A Response to Rebecca Schuman

“Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate” and an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Dr. Schuman received her Ph.D. from UC-Irvine in 2010. She’s also a master of click-bait topics (and headlines too, though I don’t know if she writes her own). Her most recent article in Slate caught my attention because of its headline (“The End of the College Essay“); its provocative claims prompted this blog post.

In sum, here’s Dr. Schuman’s argument:
“Everybody in college hates papers. Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them instead. […] Nobody hates writing papers as much as college instructors hate grading papers […]. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure.”

Such dramatic claims! Dr. Schuman should teach PR and personal branding 101, as she has figured out very well that hyperbole (even that masked with reason) is the way to get attention; her web presence is a fine example of rampant self-promotion. I sought evidence that she carries over this attention-seeking style into her academic writing, but with current projects like a book titled “Kafka and Wittgenstein: The Case for an Analytic Modernism,” I don’t think she’s mastered click-bait writing in all her work. In any case, let’s deconstruct and critique Dr. Schuman’s argument against assigning papers in college.

The first question we must ask is whether the practice and improvement of writing is part of the curriculum for a course, major, school, college, or university. For almost all schools, the answer is a resounding yes. (Perhaps, however, UM-SL doesn’t care to teach its students about writing.) If writing has been deemed an important subject to learn, then surely, at some point in time, a student must be required to write an essay; this is not optional. Does that mean that all students, in all courses, should be doing nothing but writing essays? Of course not, but Dr. Schuman cannot seriously call for an “end of the college essay” if writing is to be taught in college.

The second question we must then ask is how writing should be taught under Dr. Schuman’s proposed plan. Surely, if she is calling for all essays to be abolished, she must have a plan to teach writing in some new, innovative way. Perhaps Dr. Schuman believes that college students are already decent writers. Not so! “Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together—and they leave it that way, too.” As a solution to this issue, she offers absolutely nothing to remedy it, other than to state that the couple of things she has tried didn’t work.

Dr. Schuman does not see papers as a means to improve writing; instead she sees them as a means of assessment. How should they be replaced for this purpose? Dr. Schuman offers two suggestions, both of which seem reasonable: written and oral exams. But she does not offer evidence that colleges and universities have moved away from such assessment. As an English major not long ago, I took plenty of written exams; for larger classes, what other option was there? A professor, lecturing to 400 students, must use the most economical way to assess their knowledge. 10 page papers won’t work nearly as well as essay exams. In my own classes today, while students do write short papers, my primary means of assessment are exams that include a variety of question types. I do not depend on long essays that Dr. Schuman seems to think are such a staple of college classes today.

Oral exams are another interesting way to assess student knowledge. While I have never taken nor administered an oral exam, I do require students to give presentations. If oral exams are the solution, then what is the time difference for grading between an essay and an oral exam? Let’s say the oral exam involves a 20 minute interaction between instructor and student. After that, let’s say the instructor spends 10 minutes grading the oral exam and writing up feedback for the student. If 30 minutes per oral exam is quicker than grading a paper, then I think Dr. Schuman needs to structure her assignments better. Using a point-by-point rubric, I grade a 3-page paper and provide written comments to the student in less than 10 minutes. Oral exams, while an interesting and effective way to assess student knowledge, may not free up any of the instructor’s time. Indeed, as an English major, I was never assigned a paper longer than 10 pages.

If time was the only issue, then perhaps Dr. Schuman wouldn’t be so critical of papers. She has more complaints, however. “Paper-grading is so subjective, and paper-writing so easy to fake, that this gives the humanities their unfortunate reputation as imprecise, feelings-centered disciplines where there are ‘no right answers.'” Does this mean that Dr. Schuman’s advice only relates to the humanities? She isn’t clear on this subject. And has Dr. Schuman not learned how to grade papers in a non-subjective way? If this is the case, then she must stop assigning papers because of her own inability to use them either as a teaching tool or as a means of instruction.

If instructors see papers as Dr. Schuman does, then an old adage may apply to them: Only a poor carpenter blames his tools. Essays are vital tools because they must be used, at least in some part, to teach writing and because they can be successfully and efficiently deployed to assess student learning. Frustration with the essay as a form can be remedied in a few simple ways:
1. Make it just one part of writing instruction. Students should engage in practice sentence and paragraph construction in addition to longer-form writing; they should also do a lot of peer-editing.
2. Use multiple forms of student assessment. If written and oral exams have value (and I believe they do), then use them in addition to writing assignments. If essays are less prominent in the course, then the problems Dr. Schuman identifies may be reduced.
3. If paper grading feels subjective, then put together a point-by-point rubric. There is no excuse for subjectivity in grading; neither professors nor students should tolerate it.
4. If the instructor is being driven mad by paper grading, then DO SOMETHING ELSE. Such feelings, however, should not be taken as evidence that essays themselves are a failed means of assessment.

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