The end of the semester and a response to “The End of the College Essay”

A lot of faculty go a little crazy at the end of the semester. Sure, everyone understands the pressures students are under, but non-academic-types might be surprised by the extent to which faculty are swamped and otherwise stressed out this time of year. Everything is due and then there’s all that grading.  I was at a department XMas function last night, and there was many a weary colleague taking a break from the final climb up Grading-Grading and More Grady-Grading Mountain.

Actually, it surprises me how much grading and work so many of my colleagues seem to leave until the bitter end of the term.

The writing classes I teach don’t have finals and I learned a long time ago to assign essays so that students get my feedback (and have a sense of their grade) long before the very end and to save finals week for revisions.  That’s pretty much what happened in my Writing for the World Wide Web class this term: I finished all the grading for that last night and they have until Tuesday to revise things if they want.

Tangent/reflection on the semester #1: Overall, the class turned out pretty good and in some interesting ways. This is the first time I’ve taught WWWW in person and not online in several years, and I have to say it’s as strange of a shift for me to go from online back to a face to face class as it was when I made the shift in this class to the online space a few years ago. That was one struggle. The other was the last couple times I’ve taught the class it was in the 7.5 week summer format. The short semester can make the whole experience feel overwhelming for students and for me, but when I took the 7.5 week class and expanded it to the regular 15 week semester, it felt positively airy and even underwhelming.

I was also a lot less of a “hard ass” in this class for some reason, and I can’t really say why. Part of it was because it was a small and chummy group, a lot of it had to do with the fact that the class was face to face. I routinely get the worse student evaluations for online teaching and I think that’s pretty common for everyone who teaches both f2f and online.

A good class, but there are a few “back to basics” moves I think I’m going to make the next time I teach it, probably this summer (or “summer 1” or really spring). Codecademy is great, but it’s not enough HTML/CSS, so I will probably be going back to one of the various big “how to make web sites” books like the Head First series so students really have to puzzle through the code a bit more; I’ll probably have a unit where we’re working specifically with a WYSIWYG app (though not Dreamweaver– too expensive and too much) to make some sites, and some more about modifying/using a CMS like WordPress (which is really the only one I sorta/kinda know). Along the way, I’ll probably keep the “Semester of Social Media” assignment because I think that’s been pretty effective, though I’ll probably retire Shirky and some of the other reading. /tangent

In grad classes that involve a lot of reading, I usually have a final to keep everyone honest.  I typically make some kind of essay/writing assignment due at the last class meeting, I distribute a take-home final at that last meeting, and while I’m waiting to collect their finals, I read/comment on/grade whatever they handed in. I collect the finals and power through them in one reading session, and I’m usually done with grading by the middle of the day after they are due.

Tangent/reflection on the semester #2: That’s what I’m doing/procrastinating about with this blog post right now, reading essays from my graduate students in the Rhetoric of Science and Technology class. An interesting group. The class started pretty much full with about 13 students in it (the cap on our graduate courses is 15) but it quickly dropped down to 8, with 7 finishing solid. I’m not entirely sure why that was the case.

In any event, it’s an online class, something that is not completely without controversy. I don’t want to spend too much time defending the merits of an online graduate course now, but I will note that the class web site has over 1500 comments on it.  If I very conservatively average those comments as being 50 words apiece, that’s about 75,000 words, or the equivalent of a decent-sized book manuscript. That’s a lot of writing about rhetoric from a small group of students to accomplish in less than 15 weeks, and if one of the marks of success of any writing class– from freshman comp to PhD seminars– is that students write a lot, then it seems to me a format that requires students to write for all interactions can be successful.

The next time I teach this, it will probably be face to face (we try to alternate that with some of these courses) and I will probably try to include for the second part of the term a book-length work. This term, I was thinking about assigning Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric, but I chickened out because a) I haven’t finished reading it myself, and b) what I have read (I’m through the lengthy intro and first chapter) is quite good but potentially too much for my MA students. I did assign the introduction though and that went over fairly well. So maybe it’d be worth spending more time with the whole book? Or another very current book on rhetoric and (even indirectly) “science/technology?” /tangent2

Anyway, this all brings me indirectly to Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman’s Slate piece “The End of the College Essay.” It’s an intentionally and intensely angry/attention seeking (and in that sense, quite successful) piece about student papers. Schuman’s (unsubstantiated) assumption is that students hate writing them and that she hates reading them (certainly a more substantiated claim). Here’s a typical paragraph:

Nobody hates writing papers as much as college instructors hate grading papers (and no, having a robot do it is not the answer). 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? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.

and this:

When I was growing up, my mother—who, like me, was a “contingent” professor—would sequester herself for days to grade, emerging Medusa-haired and demanding of sympathy. But the older I got, the more that sympathy dissipated: “If you hate grading papers so much,” I’d say, “there’s an easy solution for that.” My mother, not to be trifled with when righteously indignant (that favored state of the professoriate), would snap: “It’s an English class. I can’t not assign papers.”

Mom, friends, educators, students: We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. 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.” 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.

Read the rest of it if you want more of this kind of thing, a lot of hate on students, a lot of hate on the work, etc., etc.

First off, this is what I mean about how a lot of faculty go a little crazy at the end of the semester. Having read some of pan kisses kafka, I think this is generally Schuman’s writing voice/shtick, and I hope it is an affectation and she isn’t really this “on the edge.” But when the end is here/near and people like Schuman (especially part-timers teaching too many classes at too many different places) are staring at a big stack of papers that represent all they have and haven’t accomplished as a teacher this semester and that stack is all that is between them and their meager holiday vacation, well, sometimes people lose their shit and throw open the window and shout at the world “fuck all of this!!!” And by the way, if you don’t want to read Schuman’s essay, “fuck all of this!!!” is a pretty accurate summary of it, in my opinion.

So in that sense, I feel her pain but it is just part of the job. I can only offer these previous thoughts and advice on grading. I’d especially recommend the timer because if you’re spending 15 hours reading final projects, you’re spending too much time, unless you have 120 students, in which case you have too many students.

Second, congratulations to Schuman for “discovering” what I think has been the conventional wisdom among composition and rhetoric scholars for decades: writing is a process and assigning “research papers” with no discussion of audience or purpose, no discussion or support for process, and no opportunity for feedback from readers is a waste of time. It’s lazy teaching that invites lazy student responses.

And personally, I hate the word “paper.” Besides the fact that I haven’t collected the physical, pulp-based substance called paper from students in at least a decade, to me the word “paper” in this context has the connotation of bureaucracy (as in “doing paperwork”) or policing (as in “show me your papers”). I much prefer the term “essay” because of its connotations of “try,” or the term “project” because there is hopefully not just one single document but rather a series of assignments and steps along the way that lead to some final presentation or essay.

Anyway, her blog post “My Un-Essay Essay Pedagogy” (which should be “My Un-Paper Pedagogy” but she, like most, clumsily assume that “paper” and “essay” mean the same thing) crudely sums up the conventional wisdom that I have learned and practiced as a teacher and a comp/rhet specialist for the past 25 years:  assignments with clear audiences and purposes, focused class peer review workshops, one-on-one conferences to talk about drafts in process, etc., etc. Better late than never, I guess.

And third, Schuman really seems to hate her students. That’s bad for them, but it’s also really bad for her. She ought to stop that.

Okay, on to finish my semester and that pesky MOOC book….

11 thoughts on “The end of the semester and a response to “The End of the College Essay””

  1. Happened to see on Twitter that Schuman is trying to disassociate her argument from FYC. With that in mind, the subtext–if we can take her seriously–is that University of Missouri-St. Louis badly needs a WAC program, or, if it has a WAC program, badly needs to alert UMSL literature and philosophy faculty to some of the more sustaining pedagogical principles WAC stands by.

    In the discussion of Schuman’s article on the WPA-l listserv (which I assume is lightly affiliated with CWPA) I’m above all surprised nobody has mentioned Doug Brent’s recent article in WPA Journal, “The Research Paper and Why We Should Still Care.” It answers to the steady stream of Schuman-like complaints as smartly as anything I’ve seen, asserting, basically, that research papers put disparate materials into relation (connecting them, a la networks, with references) and they therefore stand (almost singularly?) as an orchestration of relations that should remain a vital part of university education (granted similar orchestrations cab be performed with other genres; my point is that he makes a strong case for the research paper).

    1. I’ve been making the same point about WAC and Schuman’s essay in other spaces. Thanks for pointing to the Brent essay. I’ll have to check that out as I’ve been down on the research paper recently.

      And Steve, I don’t think she hates her students. That is just part of her shtick, as you point out. She’s had students praising and defending her on Twitter and her blog, so I’m sure there’s a lot more love there than the Slate piece would lead us to believe. Should she even joke about hating students in a public forum? Probably not, but that’s a different issue. Thanks for the post, and I hate the term “paper” too.

  2. Thanks for this, Steve – I take very much the same approach so that there is NOT a crazy-making grading crunch, and I had actually written about that a couple weeks ago:
    Pacing the Semester
    More than any semester before, I was really struck by the number of people I saw groaning – even bitterly – about end of semester grading, in which case I have to ask: why don’t they just NOT arrange their classes that way?
    As for Rebecca’s piece, I think it partly reflects the bad planning (or lack of planning) that affects so many classes, but also some real problems with the limited range of types of writing that students are asked to do in college, an artificial limitation which does not serve them well in college OR afterwards either. I am very happy with my own creative storytelling solution to that problem (which is perfectly suited to my classes in folklore and mythology – far better than an essay approach!) … and just as with pacing the semester, I wish faculty who are unhappy with the writing experience in their classes would just be bold enough to change it. It’s not written in stone. Thank goodness. Or else, just as you say, a lazy and/or uninventive approach to teaching is going to result in lazy and/or uninventive student work. Sigh!

  3. Yes! My thoughts–and feelings–about the Slate article, exactly. Rebecca Schuman seems to be what I call an “ad hominem weasel,” or someone who goes on the attack, and then cries “foul” when people take offense at the tone, instead of focusing on idea. I teach composition at a community college, and understand what she’s saying, but it’s a bit late for her to start acting like a victims after calling students lazy, stupid, and dishonest.

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