Beyond the College Essay

UPDATE: Rebecca Schuman has come under fierce attack for her article, including calls that she be fired. Please see this letter of support.

Rebecca Schuman has a piece in Slate which is getting a lot of attention. Titled “The End of the College Essay: An essay” she complains that “It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual ‘evidence’” especially when plagiarism is so rampant and the students who actually read comments are the ones who need them the least, etc. She is quick to add that “Of course it would be better for humanity if college in the United States actually required a semblance of adult writing competency.” But insists that she has tried everything, all to no avail. In the end, she offers up some alternatives to writing papers, such as written and oral exams. It is an intentionally provocative piece, and I’d like to make use of this provocation by making a few points drawn from my personal experience as well as some more general observations based on things I’ve read.

First I’d like to talk about the benefits of oral exams. I live and work in Taiwan where I teach in Chinese. When I first got here eight years ago (so long?!) I thought I’d be really hard-core about grading Chinese-language papers in all of my classes. Not only did I bite off more than I could chew at the time (my Chinese reading speed has somewhat improved, but I’m still very slow), but the very first semester I failed half my class for plagiarism. Failing half your class is not good for enrollment and the next semester I hardly had any students in my classes. As a result, on the advice of a colleague, I switched to oral exams for my undergraduate courses. Like Schuman, I also have taken steps to try to address the root source of the problem. I helped create a new “study skills” class where we spend two weeks teaching incoming freshman about plagiarism. But the time spent catching plagiarists in a foreign language, not to mention the inevitable need to then discipline those caught … was just too much for me. More importantly, I discovered that I really like giving oral exams.

Oral exams are tiring. With a large class I’m usually completely wiped out at the end of the day. But there are a lot of advantages which I wasn’t aware of before. As a graduate student I once conducted an interview at Educational Testing Service where they told me about new testing software that would automatically adjust the difficulty of the questions depending on how students answered earlier questions. They explained that this allowed them to get more fine-tuned results. I find the same thing with oral exams. If I ask a question and the student stares back blankly I can keep rephrasing the question until they are able to give me some answer. This way, even with students who haven’t studied or done the reading, I get some sense of what they learned from the class. And with the really bright students I can keep throwing harder questions at them to see just how well they understood the material. Over time this has provided invaluable feedback which has helped me refine my lectures and syllabus to make sure that the worst students get something out of the class and that the best students remain challenged. And when I don’t have a lot of students in the class I can even use the exam time to reinforce the message of lectures they misunderstood. Another advantage, especially at midterms, is that I can talk to students who are not performing well about the causes of their difficulty, often resulting in better performance the rest of the semester. The biggest drawback is that this method doesn’t scale very well when you have to teach large classes.

I’ve even used alternative methods at the Ph.D. level. For my survey of “cultural theory” class I found that papers didn’t work very well because of the breath of subject matter. Instead I switched to weekly online reading journals and for midterms and finals I host formal debates. Debating is hard because students have to learn to anticipate the arguments of the other side. Whereas in a paper a student might make shot work of functionalism, dismissing it as quickly as Levi-Strauss does, in a debate between structuralism and functionalism they have to take it more seriously.

The second point I’d like to make is that I think writing is something which has to be addressed on an institutional level. To really improve writing the university needs to take it seriously. When I was in college the work of training students to write better was handled by the English department. English 101 was taught in small, writing-intensive sections. Although, because of my training in high school, I came to college with better writing skills than many of my peers, these differences were largely erased after Freshman year. However, here in Taiwan the Chinese department (at least at my university) doesn’t seem to be tasked with a similar mission. I think that if one is at such a university it makes sense to do as Schuman and I have done and simply find other ways of evaluating students. There is only so much one professor can do to improve student writing if they haven’t had the basic training they should have gotten elsewhere. This is a problem that has gotten much worse in Taiwan because of recent changes. When my colleagues went to college here only the top 15% of students could attend university. Now over 97% of Taiwanese high school students attend university [the US is closer to 50%, although many students attend community or technical colleges instead]. Together with declining birth rates, the end result is that a lot of students are attending college who previously wouldn’t be there, but there has been little change in how reading and writing are taught in high school or college in order to adapt to these changes. Of course, one has to continue to fight to change these things, but in the meantime one still has to find ways to evaluate students that don’t require each professor to personally compensate for institutional failings.

The third point I’d like to make is that I always learned best when I took writing intensive classes in which I got extensive feedback from both my professor and my peers. I remember one professor in college who would regularly provide feedback that was longer than the papers I wrote for his class. I don’t think there is any substitute for the kind of learning one gets in such a class. But the problem is that providing such feedback is simply not possible in large classes. That professor used to scare most of his students off with a 20 page long syllabus (mostly containing “recommended readings,” but most people wouldn’t read the syllabus closely enough to see that). As a result he only had a handful of students and was able to give them the kind of individual attention he felt real education required. But that is a recipe for a very elitist form of education which runs counter to the mass-market approach so common in the age of MOOCs. If I don’t keep my enrollment numbers up each semester I will find my teaching load increased as a result. (Our contract requires a certain number of credits each semester.) This is again an institutional failing. If universities were serious about learning they would hire more professors (most universities are hiring more administrators), have them teach smaller classes (class sizes are getting larger – and with online learning exponentially so), and give them more time to give students the attention they deserve (instead of saddling professors with more and more bureaucratic responsibilities). I really don’t think there is any substitute for this model. But it is largely confined to elite institutions, and even there I hear dedicated professors complaining about how hard it is to teach the way they would like.

Finally, I’d like to share something I read recently, but haven’t yet personally implemented. According to the NY Times:

Grading college students on quizzes given at the beginning of every class, rather than on midterms or a final exam, increases both attendance and overall performance, scientists reported

Most interestingly, “The grade improvements were sharpest among students from lower-income backgrounds.” Possibly because the frequent testing forces them to develop study skills they might not have picked up elsewhere. I can’t really imagine implementing this in my own classes, but I thought I’d share it since it seems relevant to the topic at hand.

Ultimately, the question is how we can have an education system that serves a much larger population but provides the same quality of education? I think we can, but it would require radically restructuring global higher education. The current approach instead is creating a class of students who are given a traditional education focused on basic reading and writing skills, along with a much larger class of students who are given “alternative” teaching methods. I have given some limited endorsement here to these alternative methods, but if we are honest with ourselves we will admit that students could be better served by more traditional methods if only the institutional support was there to train them properly.

12 thoughts on “Beyond the College Essay

  1. I liked Schuman’s Slate piece. I thought it was white hat provocative, not black hat clickbaity.

    Something that I really like about the way you use oral exams, Kerim, is that you have put a lot of thought into the why. Term papers seem to me to usually be assigned for the same reason that medical residents are assigned long shifts—because that’s the way it is done, everyone knows that. But what are the purposes of both? When those purposes are identified, are there possibly better ways to achieve them?

    I wonder how many college graduates ever need to write ten pages on any one topic ever again after they have their diploma in hand. If my suspicion that the vast majority of them do not is correct, I see no need to continue to assign papers of that length to any but a select few undergraduate students.

    I do very much believe that college students need to be able “to put together a grammatical sentence,” as well as to string together some number of related thoughts. But sentence-level mechanics are not best taught as part of lengthy assignments, and 800–1,200 words worth of strung together thoughts is no mean achievement.

  2. “When I was in college the work of training students to write better was handled by the English department. English 101 was taught in small, writing-intensive sections.”

    It’s your job too. English 101 will not teach your students how to write social science papers. It’s a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution, yes, but that solution is not “Can’t someone else do it?”

  3. It’s your job too. English 101 will not teach your students how to write social science papers. It’s a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution, yes, but that solution is not “Can’t someone else do it?”

    Yes and no. One of my high school English instructors told me years ago about the commonly held belief that the teaching of writing was the job of English teachers and no one else. But what the OP says here is not that, but that “English 101 was taught in small, writing-intensive sections” (emphasis mine). The character of the sections is the important thing there, not that they are situated in the English department.

    I worked in my university’s writing center for three years as as an undergraduate writing tutor. (I was an undergraduate. I tutored undergraduates and graduates alike.) My take-away about writing pedagogy was that it was something like getting better at playing a musical instrument or learning to dance. A very few people just seem to be naturals and a very few people just seem to be born with two left feet. But everyone can get better at it given enough time and the right kind of attention. I am not claiming that everyone can become great, but I do feel like practically everyone can become good enough. Time and the right kind of attention are the keys, and both are sadly in short supply at most colleges and universities.

  4. With the students I teach, I point out to them that whatever they want to do for a career (outside of certain manual jobs, trades and technological positions) their ‘toolbox’ will be ‘language’. So, if they fail to develop their skills in using language (whether in oral, written and/or any other forms as yet to be discovered), they will have wasted their four (or more) years at university.

    So much of the debate around MOOCs and online learning is really about engaging ‘disengaged’ students which misses the point of a university education.

    Writing, like thinking, is hard work – which a majority of students, that I have encountered, appear to want to avoid. And most professional writers ‘hate’ the work they love – because writing is difficult.

  5. As someone who was trained as a teacher before converting to anthropology, I like oral exams a lot. Too often “creative” attempts at getting students to write actually just bulk up the burden of the assignment… they are being asked to master content and form. I am thinking here of a time a friend was confused about why her students did poorly at writing OpEds which she thought were easier than “real” essays. First, lots of 18 years olds don’t read OpEds and next over half of our students have a first language other than English and work very hard to master the academic essay. This just throws them a new hurdle and isn’t relevant to checking how much they took away from Malinowski. Of course, oral exams have their own demands, but the ability to adjust on the spot is really nice.

    The other piece I do is I assign mini ethnographic interventions that build piece by piece over the course of the semester. I have written about that here:

    This strategy allows for lots of levels of engagement and at a minimum they start to see how anthropological questions get raised and answered. Scale is of course an issue, but I have done it with 100 students and two TAs.

  6. Matthew: you write “I wonder how many college graduates ever need to write ten pages on any one topic ever again after they have their diploma in hand.”

    My 10 page writing assignments are an opportunity for students to formulate an argument, pull together evidence in support of it, and present all of this clearly and persuasively. The 10 page paper is a way of showing me that they can do this. They may never have to write another 10 page paper, but they should become proficient at argument and evidence, and a paper is not a bad way to demonstrate their level of proficiency.

    Most of my students will never have to take a 14 week course again, but that doesn’t mean that we should eliminate 14 week courses in favor of apprenticeships that more closely model what students will do after college.

    On the other hand, we did use a version of your argument to drop the “exam” format for our graduate comprehensive exams, and shift to an essay format, which we felt was closer to what those graduate students would ultimately do as professionals. But this is a part of the professionalization of graduate students, a little different, I think, than the undergraduate experience.

    It reminds me of a story I heard a number of years ago — perhaps an urban legend — about an anthropologist who taught for a term at a new university in New Guinea, following his fieldwork. His students kept ‘helping’ each other on exams and other assignments, cheating in his view, until one of the students pointed out that they always, throughout their entire lives, could rely on their village members, clan members, community consociates for help with any task. Why should an exam be any different? There are a lot of Western assumptions about individuals that get built into testing regimes that may not be as relevant to the rest of the world….

  7. One thing to remember about all of this is that English instructors teaching these 101 courses often have teaching goals that include counts of how many pages students should be writing in certain courses. For instance, in a graduate level English course, students should be writing 20 to 30 pages, or so says our university. In 101 classes, instructors have prescribed learning outcomes and 10 pages to write. We also use a portfolio system, are required to do so, in which our students revise essays from their semester as their final exam. I’m sure other universities have other, slightly different requirements, but there are generally guidelines.

    So even if I wanted to convert to oral exams (and I’m not sure that I would want to completely, but I think you make a compelling case for at least some oral exams), that would be impossible. But really, students need to know how to write. It’s just a question of how best to teach them and when. My sense is that, because we’re still teaching grammar and mechanics at a college level, we need to do restructuring before we get to that level. If we cannot do that, we need to seriously reconsider and restructure the way we teach 101 courses.

    Right now, our university has implemented a 101 course that spans 2 semesters for those students who are considered at-risk by their ACT scores. It’s not a perfect system, using ACT testing, but it’s one of the only ways we have of making these kinds of decisions. Anyway, students get an elective credit and a traditional 101 credit for spending 2 semesters rather than 1 semester in their 101 course. And these students are leaving 101, going through 102, and having higher grades in their 102 courses than students who made higher ACT scores but had one semester of 101. We still have low retention for these students, but it’s higher than before we instituted expanded 101.

    I was an English instructor at a community college, teaching remedial English classes before being work on my PhD a few years ago. As a PhD student, I’ve worked in the writing center at our university (a mid-size university in the American South) for 5 years; I’ve taught there for 3 years. The writing is important, as they’ll not only use it in their careers, but as the instructors in their disciplines will expect them to be able to write a research paper in their field using proper format and citation. If I’ve noticed one intriguing thing, it’s that the English department is more forgiving of error than other departments when it comes to grammatical errors. I’m still deciding whether I think that’s a problem.

  8. There’s no form of assessment that poor teaching and instrumental students can’t sink. Teachers have to want to teach, students have to want to learn, and universities and societies have to care about the public good that is education. The solution to this problem is to give schools the resources and passion necessary to make any assignment — oral or written — mean something. Exploiting contingent faculty will never result in student learning, no matter what sorts of assignments we use. Keeping our eyes on that ball — the social justice ball — is key here, in my opinion.

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