Rebecca Schuman, who teaches at UMSL and writes for Slate and the Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote a controversial piece last week against the assignment of essays in required introductory university courses. She also wrote several blog posts about the topic after receiving feedback, most of which appears to have been negative (see here, here, here, and here).
I’ll be honest: I disagree with Schuman, but I understand her sentiments. She identified three issues in particular that mitigate against assigning essays in intro-level courses, all three of which I see on a regular basis:
Plagiarism. I’ve had students of all kinds plagiarize in my courses: 1st-semester semester freshmen and last-semester seniors, men and women, domestic and international students, adult learners, student-athletes, etc., etc. I explain my academic integrity policy in great detail in my syllabus and course documents and enforce it as outlined 100%. I still have plagiarism issues on occasion, but as Don McCabe, the International Center for Academic Integrity, and others have demonstrated, a substantial number of college students will commit plagiarism no matter what guidelines or penalties are in place.
Rushed arguments. One of college students’ major problems is time management. I offer to read students’ drafts weeks ahead of time, but only a handful take me up on the offer, at least for the first essay. On subsequent essays, more students seek help, but it’s never the majority. We have a large number of students who work at least one job, and a majority of our students are also student-athletes. Many of those students find it difficult to manage their time effectively and often turn in first drafts written at the last minute, with poor results.
Higher education as vocational training. Many of my university’s students are first-generation students who see a college degree as the “golden ticket” to a successful career; therefore, they pursue majors that are tied to a vocation. There is nothing inherently wrong with that pursuit, but it often manifests itself in the history survey courses, which seem to be viewed as an obstacle to the “real” coursework that will help students make money. Interestingly, while drawing from a dramatically different demographic, the students at my previous institution had the same mindset.
Ultimately, what Schuman offers as reasons to eliminate essays in introductory courses are universal problems that pervade much of higher education, not just introductory courses. Honestly, I think her solutions (oral and written exams) fail to offer anything substantially better, and I remain unconvinced that requiring students in my history survey courses to write is a waste of time. Eliminating essays only serves to lessen what I believe is one of the core components of higher education, and I’m naive enough to believe that making a difference, even if it is just with a few students, is worth the time it takes to design and grade essay assignments.*
As others have pointed out, Schuman’s essay highlights other concerns, especially the adjunctification of higher education and the institutional control over curriculum. Those are the real takeaways for me.
* In case anyone is wondering, for the past 15.5 years, I have taught introductory courses that have usually been capped at 35-45 students, I have assigned multiple essays per course, and I have graded every essay without anyone else’s assistance. I also currently teach at a tuition-dependent institution that does not have a tenure system. I point this out so that readers know I’m not one of the academic elites who never mingles with the “masses.”