Considering Rebecca Schuman’s Essay on Writing

Rebecca Schuman, who teaches at UMSL and writes for Slate and the Chronicle of Higher Educationwrote 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 hereherehere, 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.”

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2 Replies to “Considering Rebecca Schuman’s Essay on Writing”

  1. The art of writing is an essential part of the construction of the critical thinking skills which are supposed to be one of the most important skills college graduates developed during their college education. We’ve had enough degradation of this important skill. It is time to end that and start constructing positive writing skills. College is not vocational training. I think too much emphasis is being placed on the vocational concept and not on the importance of the college education itself. Businesses have been saying for years that the field of the undergraduate degree itself is not as important as the overall college education.

    As a US History to 1865 instructor I require a four page term paper. I teach online as well and my students have to be able to write. I’m implementing a term paper writing guide in this next semester so that they students will construct those papers over the course of the semester. By the time they turn in the finished product my grading should be a formality. If they don’t want to do the work, then that’s their problem.

    My own experience with college at three different schools at three different levels has shown me that while I may have history degrees, my ability to write is the real foundation of that education. The school I teach at is a community college where about 75% of the students are attending prior to transferring to four year schools to earn their BA/BS degrees. One of the biggest complaints we hear from four year schools is the students cannot write well. We say the same thing about the first year students at our school. If we are just passing them along without developing their writing skills for two years, then we are not doing our jobs in helping our students develop critical thinking skills.

    1. Jimmy,

      I agree 100%. If no one takes responsibility for teaching writing, either the mechanics or the analytics, then colleges graduate illiterate or barely literate adults. I’m a firm believer that literacy is essential to a successful democratic republic.

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