Slate Mag’s Bold Call to Abolish the College Essay Gets an F for Creativity

As a college writing teacher, classes have started up again this week.  Faculty are always striving to improve our classes, and think outside the box.  Rebecca Schuman of Slate Magazine does a delicious job of breaking a taboo for college writing instructors:  she admits publicly that college professors hate grading essays as much as students hate writing them.  According to Schuman:  “Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utter waste of their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.”  Her call for abolition of the essay is a bold, emperor-has-no-clothes move, and as a college writing teacher, I wholeheartedly agree.  Unfortunately, her proposal for replacing college essays with hardcore exams is conservative and lacks vision.  Beyond that, it’s anti-youth, and misses the most important and creative opportunity that college writing affords.

Secondary education is deeply in need of overhaul in many areas.  According to According to Al Neuharth, founder of USA today, “Since Harvard [the first college in the US] was founded way back in 1636, it has been a haven for students from rich and/or famous, mostly Northeastern, white families.”  The GI Bill, Civil Rights legislation and Title IX have completely transformed the population of the college campus, without significantly transforming the underlying values of the institution:  the overall bias toward wealthy white males continues.

Certainly, the founding of African American, Ethnic and Gender and Women’s Studies programs have created institutions within the institutions, but the dominant dynamic remains intact.  We saw this at the community college level when white male students complained about instructor Shannon Gibney’s teaching about structural racism.  They expected that the college experience should hold their comfort at the center, and not question their privilege.  The school verified their expectations when they reprimanded the African American instructor.

We see this dynamic even more starkly in college rape cases.  As I argue in “Rape on Campus and Why Universities Fail to Invest in Consent,” a previous article on the topic:  “we see again and again how the institutions default to their original purpose, protecting the sexually entitled bright futures of their male students.”  Still, in spite of institutionalized tolerance of violence against female students, women outnumber men in colleges and universities.

In fact, students from all walks of life continue to seek a college education in spite of systematic mistreatment, because college is held up as the key factor in adult success for everyone.  As Schuman identifies in the Slate article, “The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students (and their parents) view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important ‘piece of paper.’”  Of course, in this context, the college essay on World Lit is an irrelevant non-priority.  But if we want to teach writing skills, why don’t we center content that the students care about?

In 2002, when I was an artist in residence at Stanford, I developed a spoken word class, based in the aesthetics of the popular contemporary young adult artistic movement.  Certainly, there’s been plenty of mediocre and even terrible spoken word out there.  But that’s true of any art form, and I wanted to tap into my students’ own creative interests.   A great deal of spoken word is built on identity politics, as Susan B.A. Somers-Willett writes in her book The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America.  And as anyone can see who has ever attended a spoken word event.  So my course began with an exploration of different facets of identity and personal experience—race, gender, sexuality, language, and trauma.  The course was exciting for all of us, as students began to fully engage their minds in the subject that was most captivating to them—themselves.  Some already consider college students to be self-absorbed, but identity development is a critical task of young adulthood.  As is the development of worldview.  To that end, the course then moved into “Political Poetry,” where I asked them to develop a piece about an issue or topic about which they felt passionately.  Poems that center on political persuasion are also standard fare in the spoken word scene.

Spoken word is a growing movement led by young adults.  Many of these prolific young artists write passionately and write well.  Quite a few aren’t even in college.  They get no pay, no grades, no school credit, no job prospects, but they invest fully in the art.  Many who are in college find their grades slipping because they spend so much time writing, editing, rehearsing, and critiquing each other’s work.  They don’t lack rigor or work ethic, they lack an accredited academic context.  They fill ten-thousand seat theaters with audience members of their peers who secretly wish they could express themselves as powerfully.  Why aren’t we teaching content that students feel passionate about in order to teach craft that will stretch their academic skills?

In 2006, I started teaching at UC Berkeley as the Director of Poetry for the People, founded by the late African American poet and essayist June Jordan in the early ’90s.  She crafted a set of strict and meticulous craft guidelines that we still use.  The guidelines have all the rigor of an exam, but instead of stressing right/wrong, they teach effective, intentional communication, and press students to take responsibility for their words.  In Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint, Jordan herself explains why it matters to have a focus on one’s own experience:  “at last, I had become part of an academic community where you could love school because school did not have to be something apart from, or in denial of, your own life….school could become, in fact, a place where students learned about the world and then resolved, collectively, to change it!”  In addition to teaching the courses in her program, I integrated the guidelines into a revised spoken word class, and built on my success at Stanford.

Jordan’s course did include an essay.  After a few years of teaching the course, I quietly cut it out for the reasons Schuman states.  Over the years, I’ve been developing new methods of evaluation.  My latest tool is to have students compose tweets on the writing (they don’t tweet them live on twitter). It takes a lot of critical reflection and composition skill to effectively boil a hundred pages down to 140 characters.  If you’ve done the work, it shows.  Best of all, if you are bullshitting, it doesn’t waste much of anyone’s time—especially mine.

Schuman’s suggestion that we should go back to exams, because they can be objectively evaluated, is a big mistake for today’s students.  The workforce doesn’t need young people to look for the right answer so their boss will give them an A.  The world needs critical thinkers, problem solvers, risk-takers, and innovators.

Beyond that, Schuman shows her disdain for students with this method.  The presumption is that college students are slackers who need to be caught and punished.  The depth of her contempt is laid bare in the following:  “Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion?”  The older generation generally portrays younger people as lazy and not up to standards.  But as teachers, we can’t expect to use the same uninspiring standard curriculum that we slogged through, and then complain that the next generation is sub-par.  Perhaps they’re unwilling to sacrifice time on things they actually care about, because this new generation simply has less pretense than we did.

As a colleague of mine pointed out, Schuman’s contempt is particularly disturbing because she’s using an essay to demand the end of the essay for the next generation, and to replace it with exams that negate any self-expression.  Students’ struggle should be a signal to us that universities need to resource teachers to refine and expand our toolkit for fostering student writing.  I cut the essay out of my course because I thought it was unfair to spend the entire course teaching poetry—painstakingly building their skill in poetic craft, and then expecting them to excel in expository writing at the end of the course.  It seemed like too much of a bait and switch.  Let me be clear, as a writer, I love the essay, but I don’t think it should be forced on young adults in college as the exclusive and dominant language through which to express all ideas.  This is particularly true when it has clearly not been taught effectively to today’s students at the high school level.  Colleges should still offer expository writing as an elective to those who want it, one tool among many that can support the development of all students via the written word.

When colleges were populated by wealthy white men, and they read the histories of wealthy white men, college students got what they needed:  an opportunity to see their people reflected (albeit distortedly).  The institution generated a narrative of their future and their past, and had a coherent vision for them to understand how they would fit into the adult world.  At first, when women, people of color, and the non-rich came to the university, we kept our mouths shut and nodded along.  But post Civil Rights and Title IX, there are now a million different stories and no single identity narrative to teach.  Therefore, the students themselves need to develop the collective narrative.  Teachers need to begin by believing that students have something to say.  From there, we can support them in figuring out their authentic stories, and give them craft tools to tell them well.

In many ways, this collective narrative approach is most difficult for the white men of economic privilege.  The existence of multiple stories undermines the distorted and dominant myths of their superiority and centrality.  When pushed to find a narrative behind the myth, they are often disconnected from their authentic personal and family histories.  This is true of other populations, as well.  At first, having students tell their own stories is nearly as painful as the essays.  Many have little insight and have done limited critical self-exploration.  However, with a pedagogy of self-reflection and risk-taking, insight develops.  Also, I have them listen to weekly storytelling podcasts from The Moth. I enjoy having a part of my syllabus that unfolds during the semester, and they learn narrative craft and story arc.  As a result, their authentic stories are brilliant and moving.  Often, the male students’ transformations are the most impressive, because they have to fight hardest against gender conditioning to reveal their vulnerabilities.

Meanwhile, the women, the people of color, the immigrants, the queer students, and the ones who were raised working class or poor have much to say, from the beginning.  They are finding the stories that have not yet been told.  Having been fed a steady diet of shut up, many of them are eager to find voice, and willing to do the work to master the craft of communicating well.  Recently, a student whose parents immigrated from India in an arranged marriage told her family story utilizing a shipwreck metaphor.  The piece is stunning, and recently won a competition.  Instead of analyzing the metaphor in Moby Dick, she creates an epic oceanic metaphor for her own family story.  And I would argue that she’s learning key writing skills, from structure to word choice to the most important one, purpose.

How can we expect students to write essays when it’s clear that there is no meaningful purpose?  “I’m writing this because my teacher assigned it about a book I didn’t like, so I can tell her a bunch of stuff she doesn’t really want to know?  And she has to assign it, because that’s the tradition that has limited relevance in today’s world, and certainly none for my life.”  But if you ask students to develop the craft to write powerfully about the hidden stories of their lives and their historical lineages, you strike gold.

I’m all in favor of abolishing the essay.  It bores us as teachers because it’s all been said before.  But the one thing that has not been said is each student’s individual journey.  The truly bold move is to assign creativity and self-exploration.  The young adults are already doing it, and doing well, with or without us.  If we are curious about their stories instead of presumptuous and contemptuous, and can offer tools to support the development of their voices, the experience will be rich and rewarding for both teachers and students.


One Comment on “Slate Mag’s Bold Call to Abolish the College Essay Gets an F for Creativity”

  1. This is a really wonderful blog post :)
    What I enjoy most about teaching writing is setting creative, reflective, or personal narrative type tasks as I feel like I can truly connect with the students, and mark them based on true ability. The parents and the school, however, value academic essays above all else. It’s a fine line to walk as expository essays and the like do have value, but other writing does too.
    Your class sounds amazing! I’m sure I would enjoy it so much.


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