Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Schuman is right that we need to get rid of the "College Paper." But wrong when she blames her students for not being able to write them. The "College Paper" has always been an exercise in futility

Posted: Dec 19, 2013 09:12;
Last Modified: Aug 20, 2015 13:08

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Rebecca Schuman has recently argued in Slate that we should get rid of the College Paper. “Everybody hates college papers,” she writes. “Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them.”

Instructors, she suggests, hate them even more:

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.

If anything Schuman understates the case. The “college paper” as it is taught in North American universities really is a waste of everybody’s time. It is absolutely time that we got rid of it. Where she is wrong, however, is when she suggests that the problem with the essay is that her students are simply no longer up to writing them. The “college paper” has always been a problem, and students have never been good at them. It is an artificial form that experts and students have been trying to abolish almost from the moment it was first introduced into our universities.

A History of the American “college paper”

Before we get rid of the college paper, we should be clear on what it is we are talking about.

The kind of paper Schuman is describing—the kind of paper that students go through the motions of writing so that instructors can go through the motions of reading—is a relatively recent and very American development. It is a highly formal, template-based approach to argumentation that has its origins in “the daily theme,” a nineteenth-century writing exercise, introduced most influentially at Harvard in 1884, which led ultimately to the development of the famous “five paragraph essay.”

In fact, this form of writing was originally thought of as an introduction to essay writing rather than a form of the essay writing in its own right. In his influential 1853 textbook, A Practical Introduction to English Composition, Robert Armstrong drew a distinction between the “Essay”, “wherein in the writer is a liberty to follow his own inclination as to the arrangement of ideas,” and the “Theme”, “an exercise in which the subject is treated according to a Set of Heads methodically arranged.” The point of asking students to begin by writing the more restrictive theme, Armstrong suggested, was to prepare them for the greater work of actual essays: “It is desirable… that the pupil, before he attempts the writing of Essays, should be trained to the habits of consecutive thinking; and to this end the Theme, as experience has shown, is admirably adapted.”

Ultimately, however, the theme began to be seen as an end in and of itself. The format became increasingly rigid and the goal more and more about forcing students to think and express themselves in a highly standardized, tightly structured, way.

The clearest expression of this new attitude towards composition instruction is found in an astounding 1959 paper by Victor Pudlowski in the English Journal. Identified by Michelle Tremmel as one of the first explicit descriptions of the “five paragraph essay,” Pudlowski’s article explicitly privileges form over all other aspects of his students’ writing. He begins by discussing the “chaotic” attempts typical students produce when asked to write on common composition topics like their pets or their summer vacations. He then explains how he and his colleagues have developed an almost algorithmic template (“we call it a formula”) to force students into writing “well-organized compositions”:

1. We want the student to make one generalization (main point) concerning his composition topic.

2. Then he must reinforce his generalization with three supporting statements. All of this is done in the first (introductory) paragraph.

3. In the next three paragraphs (body), each supporting statement becomes a topic sentence. The first supporting statement is the topic sentence of the second paragraph. The second statement becomes the topic sentence of paragraph three. Supporting statement three is used as the topic sentence of the fourth paragraph.

4. Finally, topic sentences 1-4, when strung together, constitute the concluding paragraph. The generalization from the first paragraph becomes the topic sentence. The other topic sentences are used to support the generalization.

The point, as Pudlowski indicates, is to require students to organise their writing in a specific way. His method has nothing to do with improving their sense of what is interesting or important or to make them better writers in anything but an organizational sense. It does not “pretend to make unimaginative personalities interesting on pieces of paper.” And, as he freely admits, it is both “rather restrictive” and results in work that “tends to be repetitive.”

With his characteristic honesty, moreover, Pudlowski notes that his students, much like those Schuman is reporting on a half-century later, actually hate being assigned these kinds of papers.

The comments students make about the outline are revealing. Some complain: (1) ‘It ties me down too much’. (2) ‘It takes my style away’. (3) ‘I don’t like putting links in’. (4) ‘I can’t express myself’. (5) ‘I want to write my way’.”

But this, he suggests, is also partly the point:

There is, perhaps, a degree of truth to some of these remarks. Students are undoubtedly tied down when they must compose a composition consisting of a specific number of paragraphs. No longer are they able to blunder their way through an assignment by becoming verbose. They can’t shroud themselves in verbiage. This, among other things, is what a student means when he complains that his style is being destroyed. Young people simply do not like being forced to practice the techniques of the craft of writing.

We have always hated them

Almost all North American college students have been taught to write using some version of Pudlowski’s method (the same method is taught outside North America, but far less universally). Not every student is instructed that an essay must have five paragraphs (though experience in the classroom suggests that most students have been told this at some point) and very few seem to be taught his particularly rigid approach to linking the introduction, main body, and conclusion together. All, however, have been drilled on its core elements: an introduction that makes “one generalization (main point),” a main body that is focussed on providing supporting statements for this generalization, and a conclusion that repeats the generalization and supporting statements from the introduction.

The emphasis on this model in composition classes is so strong, indeed, that many students come to see it as being synonymous with writing itself. I have been asked by reporters for the campus newspaper where the thesis has to go in their news articles. And a common question among higher level students who’ve been asked to write longer papers is how many paragraphs of evidence they should include to fill up the extra pages. What was once seen as a training exercise for the more expressive genre of the essay is now usually taught as an end in itself.

Student complaints about the tediousness and irrelevance of theme-based essay writing could be dismissed perhaps if there was any evidence that the method improved their writing. But instructors too have been aware of the problems with this approach to essay writing for almost as long as they have been assigning such papers. In a lecture on [“The Teaching of English Composition: Its Present Status,”] read before the English Department of the Maine Teachers Association in October 1916, William Hawley Davis of Bowdoin College mentions some examples of similar negative student comment about theme-based instruction before going to examine “the very moderate effectiveness of what we are doing in English composition:

Few branches of educative work are attacked more frequently or more bitterly on the score of inefficiency. As a teacher of secondary school English I was always painfully conscious of its shortcomings; I fancy that all conscientious secondary-school teachers are quite as conscious of them as I was. I have observed that my associates in college teaching discharge quite effectively from year to year whatever responsibility rests upon them to be your mentors in this connection. I also observe, however, that the results of English composition work in colleges are likewise far from satisfactory. Only the totally uninitiated any longer suppose that the conversation and the personal or business correspondence of college students is either precise or elegant. At Harvard College, where, I believe, courses in English composition were first instituted and where able teachers have all along been organizing and conducting work in composition, a committee of the faculty is operating under a vote of the Board of Overseers, a vote which states that students “fail to write correct, coherent, and idiomatic English” and demands the formulation of some plan “for bettering the written and spoken English of Harvard students.” If other institutions in Maine and elsewhere are not confessing to themselves a similar condition, who shall say that it is not because they are in that respect far in the rear of Harvard ?

Indeed, the list of problems Davis saw in the writing of the college students of his day closely reflect those seen by Schuman in ours. Reading an advertisement for a composition textbook that was supported by endorsements from professors and students, Davis remarked with sadness on the obviously poor quality of the students’ contributions:

What pierced me through as a co-worker of the instructors of these enthusiastic youths was the crudity of their expression, their appalling awkwardness in using this tool of expression which no student can avoid practice in using and which each has such strong reasons for wanting to use well. Presumably these students had every intention of writing their best in these letters to the editors; presumably each had consciously or unconsciously used the paper as a model-and the paper itself was above reproach. But, you say, they were only students. How expressive that comment! We cannot take pride or even comfort in our position as teachers of a subject recognized everywhere as indispensable until our students write “correct, coherent, and idiomatic English.”

Fixing the college essay

The students Davis is writing about in 1916 belonged to the generation that fought World War I. Few if any are alive today. When modern professors complain about declining educational standards, the golden age they are comparing the current situation to, presumably, is the one Davis and his students inhabited.

But if his students were also making a hash of things then the problem may not lie with the students but the exercise. Indeed, since the 1960s, it has been difficult to find few if any professional educational researchers who are prepared to defend the “college theme” as an adequate approach to teaching composition. In a 2011 review of research since 1907 across thirty academic journals, Michelle Tremmel found three times as many articles arguing against the value of the theme as an exercise as those making the case for its utility.

Indeed, as Pudlowski’s students tried to tell him when he first codifed the five paragraph format back in 1959, this formulaic approach to teaching writing is completely counterproductive. The point of writing essays is to research, discover, and communicate to others the things that interest us most about culture, history, and philosophy. Focussing on how students write rather than what and why they are writing is a terrible way of training to students to engage in the kind of “thoughtful analysis” Schuman wishes saw more of. By breaking their style and forcing them to fit their ideas into a standardized template, what we are really doing is asking students to produce exactly the kind of turgid muck Schuman laments in her essay: “‘arguments’ that are at best tangentially related to the coursework… flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law.”

The real solution, as Davis argued almost a century ago, is to ask students to write in a context that provides both audience and motivation.

I believe that we do not adopt means ready to hand for making the study seem valuable and important to students. In ordinary composition work, theme writing, I am convinced that the cart is before the horse, or rather the cart is supposed to propel itself. “Write,” we tell the student, and we succeed but poorly in placing any impelling motive behind the effort. If we could first make sure of his desire to communicate something, and should then get him to communicate it appropriately in written composition, much of the labor and drudgery of composing would be unconsciously drawn by the tractor-desire to communicate. The preparation of assembly programs, news as to school and current events, school and community festivals and celebrations, especially those which are historically significant, social events, school notices and advertisements-all of these, skilfully made use of by teachers of English composition, would provide natural, concentrated, and highly effective training in writing. Debating has for some time made use of a powerful artificial incentive to industry and care in composition work; but the field of debating is narrow and by no means free from the perils attaching to intensive cultivation. A very efficient course in composition in Dartmouth College, I am informed, makes use of the journalistic motive throughout its work: the members of the course produce and offer for sale a monthly magazine. On a smaller scale but with, I believe, a satisfactory degree of success I am making use of a similar device at Bowdoin. Now the variety of opportunities for practical motivation of composition work is not so great in college as it is in the secondary school. Surely opportunities are available there in abundance for supplanting the vague motive of learning to avoid errors and to write effectively, with the very real motive of instructing or entertaining others on a given occasion. We cannot wisely neglect these opportunities.

The “college paper,” as it is traditionally taught in North American universities, simply does not provide this type of motivation or opportunity. Students write for a single, private, reader (their instructor) and they do so for a reward (grades) that they fear but do not respect. Far better is to ask students to write for real audiences on things they actually care about. To work on correcting and improving their real writing and argumentation rather than to force them to adopt an artificial style they will only ever use in the college classroom.

Davis, who seems to have been something of a Edwardian nerd, thought that technology might provide opportunities for promoting a suitable kind of publicly engaged writing. In his essay, he asks why Physicists get better equipped classrooms than English professors and suggests that composition instructors should not be afraid to ask for such cutting-edge equipment as “a practical duplicator, with supplies; stereoptican equipment, with projectoscope attachment for throwing on the screen a page of theme writing, etc.; a victorola and educational records… and a printing outfit.” The duplicating machine in particular, he considered essential to the task of letting students see what it is like to write for real audiences:

The uses of a duplicating machine are mainly two: first, to bring typical errors and defects-drawn, not from some strange and remote list in a textbook where they are necessarily mingled with much that is not typical, but from the pulsating product of a known fellow-student-to bring these errors or defects vividly before the entire class; and, secondly, to place good composition work where it will secure the only real reward ever given to good composition work-that of being read.

Davis’s technology may be a little dated, but his approach is as the contemporary as the “flipped” classroom: in his proposal, students learn to write meaningful work by sharing with and reacting to each others’ contributions. With modern technology, we are in a much better position than he ever was to address the kind of deficiencies he (and Schuman) point to in the traditional “paper.” Learning Management Systems allow us to create virtual textual communities in which students can publish and share their analysis and insight—learning, in the process, about why one writes as much as how. Blogging and microblogging applications allow students to participate in global conversations about the subjects they are studying, and, potentially, influence debate far more than was possible with even Davis’s largest and most elaborate printing press.

Not all students will be equally interested in (or capable of) participating in such larger discussions in ever class they take. Preliminary results from research we have been conducting on the use of blogging and other student-centred approaches to teaching composition, however, suggest that a majority do find composition instruction helpful when it begins by focuses on the students’ own interests and ideas and then helps them develop their explication in reaction to the responses to real audiences.

So in the end, Schuman is right about getting rid of the college “paper.” It really is hated by everybody. And students, on the whole, really do tend to produce some godawful examples.

But she is wrong when she argues that this is the students’ fault or that the solution is to give up on asking them to discuss their thinking in written form. The problem with the “paper” is not the students but the exercise itself. The traditional college paper is an artificial project whose flaws have been apparent from almost the moment it was first introduced into American higher education. We have long known what we need to do to get rid of it. The question is how long it will take before we all “finally admit defeat” and start replacing it with more meaningful assignments.

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