What Do You Value?

Hey, check this out: according to this article, we shouldn’t be forcing students to write essay in “required” humanities courses because, you know. Students are bad writers, and profs hate reading bad writing. And, anyway, students’ll just plagiarize anyway. And the ones that like writing will write anyway, so. It’s totally fine.

Now I know I’m just a grad student with a mere four years of teaching experience, and I’m not saying that I know what the hell I’m doing, but look. This is bullshit.

Any universalist argument gets my goat up because a) they’re easy to make and b) they’re impossible to implement. Which the writer knows. Which makes it an easy argument to make because hey, nobody’s gonna do it anyway, so what the fuck?

But the one in this piece, Rebecca Schuman’s “The End of the College Essay,” really sticks in my craw–despite the fact that Schuman is trying to be a bit more careful than the headline suggests.

As she puts it:

I’m not calling for the end of all papers—just the end of papers in required courses.

Yeah, ok, fine. Still crap, but whatever. But then she immediately follows that moment of apparent rationality with this:

Some students actually like writing, and let those blessed young souls be English majors, and expound on George Eliot and Virginia Woolf to their hearts’ content, and grow up to become writers, huzzah. But for the common good, leave everyone else out of it.

Pardon me while I wheeze into a paper bag for a moment.

Ahem. Ok.

Ma’am, I don’t know you, nor do I know anything about your teaching experience, or the student populations that you’ve worked with, or what the kinds of courses you’ve taught. I can say only that, in my experience, many of my students DON’T KNOW THAT THEY LIKE WRITING until they’re given a chance to write something interesting, something outside of the fracking five-paragraph essay bullshit that so many of them come out of high school wielding like a blunt and half-broken sword.

If you don’t give students opportunities to write–in many different classes, I’d argue and hell, in many different genres outside of the required course essay that Schuman so disdains–then some who might become writers, be it for themselves or as part of their profession will be lost. Setting aside the author’s assumption that students who like writing = students of literature, which seriously?–

—this is a ridiculous way of excusing the humanities from teaching writing within the core.

Now Schuman’s quite right that many humanities profs hate grading writing, and many students in required humanities courses hate doing the damn writing itself. But you know what? Tough shit. One solution might be to teach humanities profs how to teach writing–not how to incorporate grammar lessons in a history course, no, but how to RESPOND to student writing in ways that are meaningful and effective. Oh, and how to create writing assignments–yes, gasp, even essay prompts–that encourage the students to engage with the material in ways that are both pedagogically valuable and—dare I say it—useful to the students themselves.

Rest assured, fair readers: it can be done.

Yes, students do plagiarize. Yes, students do write a lot of bullshit. But you know what? As professors who assign this stuff, we can create assignments that discourage those behaviors, or make them less attractive. It may mean deviating from the traditional end-of-term essay as a genre. Fine. I can get behind that. It might also mean integrating midterms and finals into core humanities courses–something some profs also regard as an unpleasant prospect for a variety of reasons: class size, pedagogical resistance to testing, whatever. I have no interest in calling for a universal approach.

Rather, the key, I think, is for us as profs to consider WHY we ask students to complete certain kinds of assignments within a given class. What is it we want the students to take from the course? How will the essay we ask them to write–or not–contribute to our pedagogical aims? Based on what we’re seeing in the classroom, what do the students need from their next assignment? How can we as teachers fashion a task that will be both useful (and even engaging) to the students and that will help us to assess how well the students are grappling with the material that we are (ostensibly) teaching them?

I recognize that it’s easy for me to say these things because I’m fortunate enough as a grad student to be teaching only one course at a time. In addition, my students this semester were awesome: smart, unafraid to ask questions about the (often really weird) novels I asked them to read, and always willing to listen to, if not agree with, their colleagues during our class discussions. So there’s that: I’m a bit of a Polyanna about teaching at the moment. Plus, I’m a teacher of writing at my core; so even in a literature class like the one I taught this term, we did a lot of writing.

Ok, ok.

Still. I’ve been teaching long enough to know that arguments like Schuman’s boil down to a question that one of my teaching mentors asked me, lo many years ago. “You have to decide,” she said, “what do you value?” When you’re creating an assignment, or grading a paper, or marking up an exam, the questions remains the same: what do you value, as a teacher, and how do your practices–the prompts you write, the points you assign, the policies you create–embody those values?

For me, I value risk-taking. Creativity. Engagement. I want my classroom to be a place where my students can take risks, be it in their writing or in our class discussions, without fear of being penalized or feeling foolish. That said, my lit students will be taking their final exam on Monday; and, just as on their midterm, they’ll face both objective assessment–identifying what text a particular quote is drawn from–and subjective in the form of short essay questions. They wrote two papers this term. They took surprise reading quizzes, much to their chagrin. They wrote eulogies and low-stakes responses and made lit-related playlists. They read and they wrote, even though for many this was the first English class they’ve had in college. All these things, together, reflect that which I value.

If what one values is a steady income, a reliable and always eager audience, and a world in which the supposed brilliance of one’s work is always reflected in the texts that one’s students produce, then teaching is not, I think, the right gig.

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7 thoughts on “What Do You Value?

  1. “… a steady income, a reliable and always eager audience, and a world in which the supposed brilliance of one’s work is always reflected in the texts that one’s students produce…”

    This reminds me of the truism in project management that you can have two, but never three, of the following: Fast, High-Quality, Cheap.

  2. Janel

    Thanks for this response to Schuman’s piece. I just finished my intro to teaching composition class as an MA student and will teach my first class in the spring. I agree with many of your points, especially the importance of thinking specifically about objectives and designing prompts that help set students up to be able to write and engage with the material of the class. Great post.

  3. Pingback: Who Has the Right to Talk About (Teaching) Writing? | cute girl discount

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