College writing: do we still need the essay?

With apologies to the writers of this essay, I think they’re on the wrong track.  Take a minute to read their full article.

We hate grading them; they hate writing them. But if we really value meaningful student learning, it’s time for academe to put more energy and resources into the project of better writing instruction, argue Martha Schulman and Gwen Hyman.

Source: Colleges should invest more in teaching students how to write (essay)

The problem is this:

You can’t fix weak, disorganized, thoughtless writing without addressing the thinking that underlies it.  It’s the discipline of understanding ideas, organizing ideas, entering into dialogue with a much bigger conversation around your essay that’s the hard part.

I’ve taught writing for a long time now, to students ranging in age from 11 to 22. It’s hard work, but it isn’t inscrutable: shoddy thinking underlies shoddy writing.

Yes, students can and do pile on grammatical mistakes, bad syntax, and weak writing style. But if your focus as a writing instructor (or professor in any course) is merely to fix the surface-level mechanics of the English language, you’re missing the point.

In fact, pushing students to continue producing examples of a relatively outdated and irrelevant academic format of writing probably hurts them more than it helps them. Sure, the students headed into grad school will not escape the academic essay for a few more years, but only the tiny percentage of career academics and nonfiction essay writers benefit from repeated drilling of the essay format.

Am I arguing that writing is unimportant? Absolutely not.

I’m arguing that good thinking is important, and alongside it, strong communication skills: a simple, clear, crisp writing style and a grasp of fundamental grammatical usage.

But the communication skills break down when the underlying ideas do.

Points to consider:

  • The bulk of college students will not spend their lives in academic careers. Higher ed tenure track positions are becoming a thing of the past. At some point, the adjunctification of higher ed will be complete, and the few slots remaining for paid scholarship will be full for a long time. We don’t do students a service by assuming that educating them in history or English or whatever means teaching them to write like an academic expert in that discipline. Students should learn to model disciplinary thinking and understand the jargon, but multiple options for communicating ideas would prepare students better for the world they will work in.
  • Cognitive habits and abilities must be taught and practiced like any other skill set. Unless teachers in K-12 and higher education are proactively, intentionally, and directly teaching students to ask better questions, organize thinking, draw models of processes, and labor until their understanding is clear, students will not become “better writers” because we spend X amount of time on “writing instruction.”
  • New forms of literacy – and “multiliteracies” – have moved to the forefront. Have you watched YouTube lately? Participated in a discussion over on Medium? Picked up a textbook printed in the past 5 years? The way we process text+image+layout has changed the way we understand ideas, and that’s not a bad thing. [For more on multiliteracies, I recommend this research article by Cope & Kalantzis]
  • Writing instruction as a discipline needs to move forward into new approaches. Process writing at least gave us a start, but even that pedagogical basic seems lacking from most undergraduate writing assignment guidelines. Below I will mention a new DT approach I find intriguing.
  • We act as if college assignments exist to teach students to become professional writers. That’s not their purpose – not unless the student is aiming to make a living through writing. And even then, professional writers and journalists work with editors and collaborators to help them write the best possible novel/essay/article.  Only in the classroom do we expect students to handle the whole process by themselves, achieving mastery of each individual component. No one works that way.  Few are that skilled – nor should we expect that.

So what could make college-level writing better? Perhaps….

  1. Reframe writing assignments as wicked problems to be solved using creative methods and Design Thinking approaches. I got this idea from Carrie Leverenz and I think it’s absolutely fantastic. Here’s her article, “Design Thinking and the Wicked Problem of Teaching Writing” (link opens PDF)
  2. Place students more in the center of the college classroom, offering them genuine responsibility to shape assignment structure, questions, and content. This idea scares many professors; I do understand the fear (remember, I’ve taught middle schoolers!). But without agency, students are merely cogs in a machine over which they have no control and thus no investment. Everything about our assessment-drunk educational system right now produces compliant, thoughtless students – not rigorous, challenging thinkers. As long as students feel like they’re playing a high-stakes game of pleasing the professor in order to earn a decent grade, they aren’t going to learn to write. And that’s our fault more than theirs. (We’re in charge of the grades.)
  3. Acknowledge 21st century communication shifts by requiring a variety of products for assessment. Want to assign an essay? Fine. But use other forms of communication and tools along the way — a sticky note “tree” to work out logical arrangement of ideas; a process map; a Prezi organizer for research; an oral presentation to the whole class of the core argument with opportunity for critique and feedback. Make your assignment – as a whole – multimodal and multigenre.
  4. Explain to students what you’re asking them to do, why the skills are important, and how the assignment fits into the overall structure of the course. Dr. Mary-Ann Winkles at UNLV is doing some amazing things with her Transparency in Teaching and Learning initiative. A very simple rubric asking faculty to clarify assignment purpose, goals, and assessment standards for any course assignment has made a huge difference at UNLV.
  5. Focus your instructional and grading attention on the underlying ideas from a student, less on grammar and style. Before a student has ironed out her ideas, it doesn’t really matter how many comma splices you find. Because the broken ideas are a worse problem than the bad grammar.  Students can get help pretty easily with grammar – the college writing lab should be staffed with people who can help. But really, the only person who can help a student fix her broken ideas is YOU, the professor. It’s your class, your subject area. Help students realize what they need to learn, point them to good sources, and hold the expectation that you won’t accept papers constructed with shoddy ideas.  And that means loosening your class structure so that you’ve got enough time to both assess where students are in their ideas and adjust your large-group instruction (modeling, lectures, discussions) to address the problems you’re seeing in this particular class.

Honestly, if students never wrote another academic essay, I wouldn’t care. But I would be sad if collectively the college classroom experience continued to polish the brass knobs on student writing while ignoring the catastrophic inability of students to understand and organize ideas.