Why do we make our students write essays?

Recently a friend sent me a link to a website called UnemployedProfessors.com. I have written about services like this in an earlier blog post. This site is a regular paper mill, with a twist.

They mock the entire educational system. Here’s a screen shot from their “About Us” page:

In case you can’t read that, the juicy bits say that education is…

“a scam, a charade. Professors can only stay in business if they force students to write essays, within their disciplines, that will do nothing to contribute to their own education or edification… the system spit the professor out the same way it will spit out any student who cannot write his or her own paper on the symbolic significance of baboon mating within the confines of Gramsci’s theory of the sub-altern, or any other mundane matter you might be asked to write about. That’s the endgame – that’s why we’re here.”

That got me thinking, why do we have students write essays? Is it really because that’s how the system “spit us out” and now we are doing the same to our students? Well, for some instructors, there may be an element of truth there. Some academics and teachers think that things should be done the way they have always been done because that it the tradition.

But really, that’s not good enough.

To me, we don’t ask students to write papers because that’s part of the “scam” of the system, or because our students have to go through what we went through in order to be initiated into the hallowed halls of the university.

We ask students to write papers so they can learn how to write. The topic and content areas are secondary. Knowing how to write cogently and construct a written report that has elements like an introduction, a body and a conclusion is a useful skill to know. It is also useful to know how to construct sentences, form an argument and persuade a reader.

Why? Because when you leave school and get a real job, you may have to write something. A report. A letter. A policy. Whatever. You may need to convince someone that you actually know what you are talking about. You may need to show someone (your boss, for example?) you can string together ideas with some semblance of logic and coherency.

I did a post a while back on the International Adult Literacy Skills Survey that showed that 2% of Canadian-born university graduates scored at the lowest levels of prose literacy. In other words, 2% of folks who are born in this country and who make it through University can barely identify or decode words and numbers. Most seven-year olds can do that. (Check out this post on what the literacy levels of IALSS are.)

If we are focussing on having students write on a particular subject, we are missing the mark. (Pardon the pun). Not only is it more about learning to write well than it is about expounding on any given subject, it is also about learning to take pride in your own work and creation. It is about going through the entire process of creating a piece of research writing from beginning to end.

It’s also not about a grade. If the focus is just on getting a good grade and not on learning, heck, why wouldn’t students use these services?

What would happen if we said to our students, “OK, folks, your grade is based on learning, not just on production, or on completing an inane assignment. Show me what you’ve learned, how you’ve learned and it and why you think it has any relevance at all to the real world.”

How would that change what we do as teachers?

How would it change our students’ view of their assignments?

We don’t make our students write papers so they can learn about “the symbolic significance of baboon mating within the confines of Gramsci’s theory of the sub-altern”. We have students write papers so they can learn the art and craft of writing and more importantly, to “learn about learning” and to learn about themselves as students and human beings. Hopefully they grow and expand their own minds in the process.

If students’ minds aren’t expanding, we are not doing our job.

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

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2 Responses to Why do we make our students write essays?

  1. Lingo says:

    Thank you for the good information.

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