On writing essays, in college: An open letter to Rebecca Schuman

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You say you mean well
You don’t know what you mean
You fucking oughta stay the hell
Away from things you know nothing about

-Elliott Smith

I had no idea I’d be writing two blog posts, in one day, about Rebecca Schuman. That seems vaguely ridiculous to me, and yet, there it is. It is sheer coincidence. Tomemos happened to be asking about shaming, and a while ago, somebody sent me Rebecca Schuman’s piece from Slate, “The End of the College Essay.”

Here’s what she has to say:

We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure…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…With protracted effort and a rhapsodically engaged instructor, some may learn to craft a clunky but competent essay somewhere along the way. But who cares? My fellow humanists insist valiantly that (among other more elevated reasons) writing humanities papers leads to the crafting of sharp argumentative skills, and thus a lifetime of success in a number of fields in which we have no relevant experience. But my friends who actually work in such fields assure me that most of their colleagues are borderline-illiterate. After all, Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook Friendster profile bragged “i don’t read” (sic), and look at him.

…Instead of essays, required humanities courses…should return to old-school, hardcore exams, written and oral. You cannot bullshit a line-ID. Nor can you get away with only having read one page of the book when your professor is staring you down with a serious question. And best of all, oral exams barely need grading…Paper-grading is so subjective, and paper-writing so easy to fake, that this gives the humanities their unfortunate reputation…I’d be happy if a plurality of American college students could discern even the skeletal plot of anything they were assigned. With more exams and no papers, they’ll at least have a shot at retaining, just for a short while, the basic facts of some of the greatest stories ever recorded. In that short while, they may even develop the tiniest inkling of what Martha Nussbaum calls “sympathetic imagination”—the cultivation of our own humanity, and something that unfolds when we’re touched by stories of people who are very much unlike us. And that, frankly, is more than any essay will ever do for them.

Let’s get some inaccuracies out of the way.

  1. Zuckerberg reads (in fact, he reads the Stoics, who most people find remarkably dull). The fact that he said otherwise on a social networking profile just proves that he’s Mark Zuckerberg.
  2. You can absolutely bullshit oral exams. I know this because of a friend of mine, who did that quite often. Not any particular friend, just a friend. What? No, you wouldn’t know him. Anyway, he’s not the point! The point is, it can be done.
  3. Paper grades are not subjective. They are usually inflated, but if a professor found herself with the freedom to grade objectively, it would be easy to do so. Good graders use a rubric. The range of grades, A-F, is actually quite compressed, and leaves plenty of room for marginal error.

I appreciate Schuman’s irreverence. The fact that she is wrong in many, many particulars, should not blind us to the fact that she has a point. Who, exactly, is this imaginary academic reader, to whom we are all paying homage? I know, from reading and writing academic papers, what he expects of me, but I may not know why I should bother to meet such lofty expectations. After all, formal criticism is being replaced — slowly, but inexorably — by informal criticism, most of which is published online. I was going to call such writing “not peer-reviewed,” but that’s not even true. Peers do review everything we review online. They find it “useful,” “Like” it, and so on.

Martha Nussbaum is not the answer. We do not write English papers to develop empathy. Can you imagine what it would actually be like if every paper you ever wrote had to demonstrate “sympathetic imagination”? It would be a season in Hell; reading poems and novels is not one big sacred pity party. Furthermore, it should go without saying that people who will never write any college English papers are also capable of empathy.

Schuman’s subtler complaints about grading are not, ultimately, about grading. They’re labor complaints. If teachers had the ability to work with students closely, through many paper drafts, then “grading” would be a happy afterthought. Grading becomes onerous when the papers are last-minute, Hail Mary passes (some of which will inevitably be plagiarized). It’s not impossible to avert plagiarism, grade fairly, and help students at all levels. We just don’t pay professors enough, or hire enough of them, to do it.

****

The reason college English courses have to require papers is very simple. It’s not because there’s a market for them — there isn’t. It’s not because they make students more humane — they do, but so does a lot of other college-level learning. It’s not even in a student’s professional best interest to write papers. Sure, they sharpen useful skills, but they apply those skills in unique, professionally useless ways.

No, the reasoning is this: analytical essays about works of art are good for art. They position the writer somewhere between pure evaluation — subjectively liking or disliking a piece (Hegel’s Awesome/Lame dialectic) — and pure “objectivity,” which means forcing students to defer to whatever texts happen, at a certain moment in history, to be canonical. Essays don’t let students indulge in much valuation, on the page — but no-one has ever written a good essay without wondering if doing so was a waste of time. The option of ultimately saying “Yes! That book is a torture device!” keeps the canon in a constant, productive state of evolution.

It may seem strange to assert that we should invest, at every educational institution nationwide, in the arduous process of training people to be satisfied and dissatisfied with art– both at the same time, and in well-informed ways. Can we really afford to spend billions of dollars on the humanities, just so people can argue (on impersonal grounds!) that Jonathan Franzen is…pretty good…but not…y’know…amazing?

Hahaha…

…hahahahahahahahaha… (Kugelmass continues laughing,

helplessly,

long into the night)….

I don’t care if we can afford it or not!

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