Ditch the college essay?

Rebecca  Shuman, an adjunct professor at University of Missouri-St. Louis, has a provocative essay at Slate, in which she calls for an end to college papers in required courses. In “The End of the College Essay” she writes:

Everybody in college hates papers. Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them instead. Plagiarism is now so commonplace that if we flunked every kid who did it, we’d have a worse attrition rate than a MOOC. And on those rare occasions undergrads do deign to compose their own essays, said exegetic masterpieces usually take them all of half an hour at 4 a.m. to write, and consist accordingly of “arguments” that are at best tangentially related to the coursework, font-manipulated to meet the minimum required page-count. Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.

* * *

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.

To me this article seemed (at first) like an abdication of professional responsibility. As an editor, when I see poor writing, the problems always come down to some form of sloppy thinking. Grammar and spelling are easy to fix; bad writing fails on a deeper level. These students’ main problem is that they haven’t learned how to think… isn’t it the role of a university to teach them? Or at least to flunk them and send them to remedial classes if they aren’t ready for college?

But I imagine the author can’t do that if she wants to keep her job. Universities have a financial interest in enrolling as many students as possible. This erodes academic standards and lowers the value (but not the cost!) of a degree. At the same time, more and more students are enrolling so they’ll qualify for entry-level jobs that didn’t use to require a degree, and a lot of these kids have neither the skills nor the desire to earn a traditional university education. They’re just trying to avoid flipping burgers for the rest of their lives, and I don’t blame them. I don’t know how to fix this, but I think the further lowering of academic standards is not a solution.

What do you think?


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