Against onanistic essays

1 minute read

Claire Potter at the Chronicle’s “Tenured Radical” blog, has an interesting essay pondering why we assign students essays that nobody wants to read: “Grading in the age of mechanical reproduction”.

If we dont want to read the papers we assign, why would our students have any interest in writing them?
Then I came to yet another question:
Do the students not sense this lack of interest in their writing by many of their teachers, and might this not have something to do with the indifference they themselves sometimes display to the quality of their own work?

Emphasis in original. I put this philosophy into practice this some time ago. I would take Potter’s argument even further: Assignments that students complete only for their instructor’s consumption don’t work. Students who do well on an assignment only for their instructor’s benefit would be motivated to do well anyway. And students who perform poorly on such assignments duck responsibility for their performance, attributing poor grades to what they imagine as their instructor’s ill will.

I found the article via Steven Krause, who has his own reactions (“Assigned interest”).

Case in point: I decided to not to assign a long (15-20 page) researched seminar paper in 516. It might be the standard deliverable for English department graduate courses everywhere, but students too often come up short in these papers (and I dont blame them for this), they are probably not fun to write, and they are frequently not much fun to read. So instead, Im assigning a number of shorter essays, blog posts, and a shorter seminar paper, something of a length that might (hypothetically) be good for a journal like Present Tense.

I generally follow similar strategies. Additionally, I rely on peer feedback, explicitly assigning points to performance on feedback. In some courses I require video production, also with peer feedback in addition to the grading rubric. If the goal of assignments is to develop communication skills, writing is very important but no longer sufficient. Video is a great way to get students to edit, edit, edit.

Somewhat different from Krause, I do retain long researched papers in some courses. But I build up to them by requiring many shorter writing assignments and explicitly allowing students to compile these shorter exercises into their longer paper. I think this is important to developing their ability to carry out a scholarly writing project.