Kill the essay! (or Debating the Goals of the Literature Classroom)

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Rebecca Schuman recently wrote an article in Slate that suggests the difficulties of grading students’ writing at the college level, particularly attacking the inefficiency of the “college essay.” I’ve seen this article circulating over the past few days, and I’m just more baffled the more I think about it, so this post trends a little more towards discussions of teaching than of athletics, feminism, or academia more generally.

I understand where Schuman is coming from: the “college essay” is a flawed genre in a number of ways that frustrate students and make them less enthusiastic about writing generally. When poorly written, contextualized or sequenced, assignment prompts do little to encourage students to think creatively or to engage with ideas in a significant way. When students fail to become invested in their writing, they are more likely to produce poor, sometimes plagiarized, work, because, as Schuman suggests, they just want to get through the course with a decent grade. Schuman is obviously frustrated with a system of teaching she sees to be failing students and instructors. As a writing instructor, I’ve sometimes experienced the same frustrations as I watch students write about ideas that don’t relate to their interests or who see writing research essay as a last priority in the face of their looming exams in other subjects.

Beyond her treatment of students (which I think widely misses the mark of students of this generation, who I find engaged, resourceful but often overstretched and stressed), I take issue with Schuman’s article. Where I think Schuman strays is in her assumption that the flaws of this particular brand of essay suggest that writing in “content courses” should be eliminated. What I don’t agree with is Schuman’s idea that classes in “content areas” should substitute oral exams for a research essay in the literature classroom particularly.* I can’t really speak to other so-called “content courses,” since I don’t have much experience outside of my own field, but I know a thing or two about literature courses, so I have some thoughts about her recommendations.

The issue that arises in getting students engaged with the content, I suspect, results from differing sets of expectations of different student populations: majors and non-majors. The question that arises for me is what the administration of an oral exam over a research paper suggests about the goals of the literature classroom, particularly in a class that might serve as a “area study” for non-majors.** Is the goal of a gen ed course in literature really only to convey content knowledge? To make sure our students know that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy wind up together at the end of Pride and Prejudice? To make sure students can orally explain the criticisms of vivisection inherent in The Island of Doctor Moreau? Although these seem to be important aims in a survey course, as literary scholars, I suspect that we have larger concerns and learning objectives for our students besides the regurgitation of plot points and general themes, whether they are majors or non-majors. First, giving students the option of an oral exam seems reasonable until you think about the skills an oral exam would fail to capture — research, written argument, critical engagement, written engagement with outside sources — all of which are important for non-majors as well as majors. Second, in my experience as both an English student and an instructor, one of the goals of literary studies for majors is to get students to engage with existing research and for them to think about these texts outside of classroom discussions; literature students should begin thinking of themselves as nascent literary scholars with something unique to say about a given text. The risks of an oral exam, then, are obvious in terms of training students for the broader goals of literary study: it fails to bring students into that role by depriving them of a chance of playing in the genre in which all literary scholars engage.

The solution to dealing with the issues of the “college essay”, then, are likely not a wholesale abolition of writing in the literature classroom. Rather, the changes need to be on the assignment level, although none of these changes are a panacea: an assignment tailored to the class to help prevent plagiarism, sequenced assignments so that students are forced to do work on the assignment early on to prevent them writing their papers the night before they’re due, allowing students some freedom in topic selection to keep them engaged, adding some sort of presentation component to help those who are better speakers than writers, etc. It requires some work on the front end to make such changes, but the results will likely be more student engagement (even if it’s grudging engagement) and, one hopes, happier students.

*The “content area” vs. “rhet/comp” idea that Schuman buys into here is frustrating. Rhet/comp is a content area, which is an assumption that those of us in rhet/comp have to deal with frequently.

**Also, if you think students fail to be invested in writing about a research topic they specifically select, how invested do you think they’ll be in having to take an oral final? Even as someone with an MA working on her PhD in literature and rhetoric, the idea of being forced to take an oral final gives me hives. As an undergrad who was firmly invested in literary studies, oral exams would have been paralyzing, even though I usually knew the content backwards and forwards.

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