Rethinking the college essay

Rebecca Schuman, Slates’ educational columnist, just published a piece titled, The end of the college essay. It’s an indictment against required essays and those who write them. It is a surprising view, coming from someone who most likely acquired and sharpen her writing skills thanks to college essays.

She sets the blame squarely on the students in her opening paragraph:

Everybody in college hates papers. Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them instead. Plagiarism is now so commonplace that if we flunked every kid who did it, we’d have a worse attrition rate than a MOOC. And on those rare occasions undergrads do deign to compose their own essays, said exegetic masterpieces usually take them all of half an hour at 4 a.m. to write, and consist accordingly of “arguments” that are at best tangentially related to the coursework, font-manipulated to meet the minimum required page-count.

I don’t know about you, but I know burnout when I see it. Schuman may want to reconsider her chosen profession. Did she really mean to make such a generalized statement or is she just loath to read one more of her student’s papers? Can you imagine the pressure her students must feel after reading these words? I graduated summa cum laude, and yet, I’d be shaking and sweating, knowing my work would be judged this harshly. I’d pick up a bottle of merlot for her and tape the paper to it. It couldn’t hurt, right?

She goes on to rant, say:

Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together—and they leave it that way, too. With protracted effort and a rhapsodically engaged instructor, some may learn to craft a clunky but competent essay somewhere along the way.

Here I have to agree with Schuman. Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together, never mind a well thought out essay. It was a nightmare when we students were asked to read and then “grade” our fellow classmate’s work. I remember one student, a senior in college, changed tense mid-sentence. Sadly, many of these same skill sets can be found in first time writers. As an editor I have on many occasion, found myself banging my head against the wall, once again being asked by a publishing house to “clean up a novel”. Burn it maybe, but clean it up? Impossible.

I’ll never forget this passage:

Wilson offered Smith a cup of water. Smith refused it………………. Wilson gave Smith his second cup of water. Wait, what? Whose second cup? Wilson’s or Smith’s? How could Smith have a second cup of water if he refused the first? Obviously (?) the writer meant Wilson offered Smith a second cup, but to this day I have to wonder if Wilson drank the first cup and then offered another to Wilson.

But yet, unlike Schuman, I don’t blame students as much as I blame the college professors who allow poor sentence structure and grammar skills to go unchecked. I don’t know many professors who take the time to articulate and impress upon their students the importance of the well-written word. I have an idea Professor Schuman, how about making Writing 101 a required course? Make it the first course.

When I went back to school, I was one of those students the good professor seems to detest. I was well aware of my lack of writing skills and assumed my first course, “How to do research,” would help improve them. Sadly, this was not to be. It was incumbent upon me to learn how to write something worth reading. This I did by reading articles not unlike Schuaman’s. Starting a blog was a good way for me to strengthen my skills. I look back at some of those first posts with horror and embarrassment. Yet, I can count on one hand, how many professors corrected my work.

Schuman argues that college essay writing should be replaced with tests and oral exams, for this would be the only way to ensure students do not cheat for pay for essays. Maybe this will ensure the first class doesn’t cheat, but I guarantee you, the next class will know what’s on the test and what they will be expected to say. I know, because high school students engage in type of cheating. I remember my high school economics teacher was amazed by our ability to pick out which stocks were doing well that morning. He didn’t know, but as we went in, the exiting class passed on this valuable information.

Schuman suggests that good writing skills are no longer important for today’s job seekers. This may be true for those who aspire to work full time in low paying jobs, but for everyone else writing matters. My day job involves writing contracts and e-mails to those who don’t understand legal jargon. If I couldn’t express myself in legal and layman’s terms, I’d be out of a job.

Yes, students hate writing essays, but this has more to do with the type of essays they are asked to churn out. Maybe, instead of asking for a 10-page paper on the history of Christianity, (yes, this happened and by page six I knew I was in trouble, since I was still on the 3rd century) how about focusing on one aspect of the history? I would’ve given anything to write a 10 paper on the Medieval Christian world. At the time that was my passion and why I enrolled in the course. I had no idea I would be asked to condense a 4-inch book into 10 pages. How is that even possible? What professor would do that to themselves? No wonder Schuman appears to be on a ledge.

I was once instructed to write a 1600 word essay including 5 scholarly quotes. The subject was Faust. I enjoyed the subject, but found myself writing an essay based on the scholarly quotes I found on JSTOR. I had a lot to say about Goethe and mental illness, but yet felt most of what ended up on the essay was more about what scholars thought of his state of mind. I tried to balance my thoughts with theirs but my hard work didn’t pay off. I ended up with a B because I wrote 1605 words and used the same source twice. Never mind that this source was relevant to the topic.

Students are asked to write in the style of scholars. For the average student this is an exercise in futility as no one bothers to teach them how. Not all students aspire to be scholars, so why demand this of them?

In one of my earliest science classes we were told to write in our own voice. Our professor offered us the chance to write in the style we found most comfortable. He too complained about reading essays (but in a more jovial manner) and wanted us to focus on the subject, rather than the writing. I took a chance with one of my Power Point presentations. I knew Marc was a big fan of Monty Python. He would quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail whenever he could. We had talked about the opening credits so I knew this was something he liked. As part of my Power Point narrative, I used the pythonesque gag of inserting something silly, and then apologizing for it. I knew I was taking an academic risk, but seriously, how many Power Point presentations about the Amazon River can one professor read without wanting to drown himself?

My jokes paid off. Not only did Marc like it, he called me at home to tell me so. He laughed so hard he had to stop grading for a while. Looking back, I feel a little bad for the remaining presentations. Sorry guys, I’m the reason why you probably disappointed him.

After that he insisted I include at least one gag in each of my papers. Our running joke was that I would place at least one outrages “fact” in my paper (including cite, it was college after all) and he would have to spot it.

It may make some of my professor friends cringe, but this paid of. I enjoyed writing science papers and in turn, fell in love with science. Not that the jokes got me off the hook mind you. I was judged by how well I communicated what I had learned. Marc had no problem kicking back poor writing and offering opinions on how I could do better.

Instead of bitching about students and their essays, how about finding a way to make the job more enjoyable for both? We should do away with 1600 word essays that do little but illustrate the ability to organize research. May I suggest, shorter, focused essays? Essays that allow students to write in their own voice, and explore what a given subject means to them. Trust me, the students who want to learn how to write well crafted essays will find a way. But this doesn’t mean professors should allow poor writing to go unchecked. Writing matters, whether it is in joke form or a well-crafted scholarly argument. Students and editors alike will thank you for it.

Saying goodbye to books

My culled collection
My culled collection

For a moment I was elated. I felt the rush of a mountain climber reaching the summit of Mount Everest. I sat back on my heels looking at my now empty bookshelf with a sense of accomplishment. After culling through my Intending to Read pile, I’d managed to restack both my fiction and nonfiction reads into one shelf! I had a whole shelf sitting empty! I sighed and leaned back, basking in the glow of self-satisfaction; a momentary triumph over my book hoarding. But seconds later it was gone. I’d hit something as I leaned away and turned to see what it was. Damn it! I had forgotten that I started piling the keepers up to my left. Somehow, as I moved about, the pile was to my back. Oh well, it was a nice feeling while it lasted.

Today I finished book sorting. I started with my text and reference books and ended with my personal Grendel, the foe I never thought I would defeat, the dreaded Intending to read shelves. Over the course of a few hours I learned a few things about myself and book collections.

Textbooks – One piece of paper will do

I know, I know, most normal people sell their used textbooks back to the university bookstore after each semester. I’ve kept all of mine. It became a habit. The year I decided to go back to school the university tried an experiment. Instead of buying expensive rarely opened tomes, the university decided that most text would be offered as downloads or as PDFs to be read on computer screens. This was supposed to save students money. Personally, I think the school was at war with the bookstore and we students were the collateral damage. Because of all the color pictures, charts and graphs found on almost every page, it ended up costing us almost as much in paper, ink and binders as it was to buy them! I actually burned out a small printer by the end of the spring semester.

At the end of each semester instead of tossing the multiple binders I amassed, I instead shelved them high in my office closet. So, after switching back to textbooks, it was a habit to keep my books. A few times I found myself pulling out an older text when doing research on a paper. Once my son was in high school, my old text came handy for his research. My habit of keeping texts was cemented by their usefulness.

This morning I pulled out every textbook I owned and scattered them on the floor in front of me. I thumbed through each with one question in mind, “am I really ever going to use this again? “Out went sociology, psychology, gender studies, math (for someone who hates math, I own a lot of math books) and an old history book that I’ve kept since 1983. I’m keeping my German language and literature books, philosophy, art, science, (well okay, I got rid of two. Who needs three natural science textbooks?), western literature and post-modern humanism. The one’s I’ve kept are ones that I have and still use as reference books. All the others sat as a testament to my academic endeavors. I found I no longer needed to remind myself that I finished college. Isn’t that what the piece of paper hanging on my wall is for?

Eastern Philosophy- the heavy boat

Culling through my textbooks was easier than I had imaged. Maybe because I went at it with a single minded approach or maybe because it was a chore to be done. Either way, the ease at which the task was accomplished gave me the courage to plop myself down in front of my Eastern Religion bookshelf. Coming face to face with these books I wondered if I could do it. Could I even pull one book from this sacred space?

As I sat staring at the books, an old Buddhist story came to mind. A student was eager to learn more and more about Buddhism. He wanted to be a great Buddhist master. His teacher told him that ,Buddhism was like a boat. The boat can only get you across a river. After that, you have a choice; you can either tie up the boat and continue on foot, or you can drag the boat with you everywhere you go. At some point your education must come to and end. At some point the Buddhist principles are a part of you. There is no more reason to try to grasp at Buddhism as you travel through life. The same holds true for the books I had in front of me. They served their purpose. Back when I was in California living a completely different life, these books helped me become a better person. They taught me compassion, patience, and self- acceptance. As a collection they’ve been an important part of my life. I took them with me on two big moves. But now, pulling them out and examining them, I realized it was time to moor the boat. It was time to pass them on to someone else who might need to cross the river.

Intending to Read- when is someday?

Feeling a little empty and a little relived, I moved on to the last set of shelves; the physical manifestation of my reading habit delusions. The dreaded, Intending to Read shelves!

I pulled them all off the shelves, then after dusting the whole bookshelf, I picked each one up and asked myself a question, “If I had time, would I sit down and read this right now?” If the answer was “no” (and in this I had to be brutally honest) the book went in one pile, all “yes” went into another. Here is the weird thing; it only took me about 10 minutes to go through these because of these two questions. I now have a nice small collection of books I’m looking forward to reading soon.

I’m not sure how I feel about these boxes of books I now have in my office. I wish I could tell you I feel a huge burden has been taken off my shoulders, or a sense of relief, knowing I was able to let go. But I can’t. I feel a little numb. I don’t know if I feel as if I’ve lost a limb and am in shock or if I’ve had a tumor removed and the anesthesia hasn’t yet worn off. Only time will tell.

Next chore up- one hell of a garage sale!