The Trouble With Essays

This year is my final year of University, my final year of eating a diet consisting solely of noodles ‘cooked’ in mugs with maltesers for dessert and my final year of watching crappy b-movies whilst growing an ironic beard. The last two probably aren’t true, but anyway – to the point.

3rd year requires areas of what are called independent study and this year I’m partaking in two independent studies. Here I want to talk about, as well as gather opinion, on one of those. Currently I am studying a course called Teaching Writing. It’s a varied course illuminating and confusing in equal measure, perhaps reflecting the grey areas of teaching. So far we’ve read people such as Ivanic (and been driven crazy by her use of the word pedagogy as if she were stabbing with a knife) and Peter Elbow with his arguments on the grading/marking systems used in Higher Education.

When asked to think up an independent study for this module in all honesty I was a bit stumped. Teaching people seemed like a nice idea and something mildly interesting and maybe even rewarding, but thinking critically about the practices of it was something I probably wasn’t ideally prepared for. It took a while of thinking and looking back through my own time at University to come up with what I’d like to look at. I hit upon the uselessness of essays.

Throughout this three year period I’ve never much liked writing essays. This isn’t because I can’t do them or am purely against them but because they are generally so uninspiring. Questions are usually dull, stodgy and tepid affairs that fail to spark any original thought. Often they feel like a venture in academic backslapping – citing someone your lecturer continually cites or is even in thrall of.

Everything is so closed. The questions often seem like open ones at first glance, but on closer inspection they’re as closed as the amount of written thought that the student will probably put into them. Let’s take a question, made up, that is likely to crop up in a Film Studies class of mine:

Look at the representation of masculinity in the film Fight Club [Fincher] with close reference to Steve Neale

Within that question the film has been dictated, the angle that the essay takes has pretty much been dictated and the central theorist has been dictated. Let’s say the word limit for this fictional question is 2,500 words – that’s very little room for original ideas. Not many students are going to stray from the essence of that question – and why should they when they could be penalised for such? – and no matter however many books are listed as required reading if lecturers think that many students are rooting through these books on a regular basis for twelve weeks then, frankly, they’re kidding themselves.

In my opinion more control needs to be exerted over the student’s essay by, ultimately, the student. It seems like such a silly and obvious statement, but one that seems to be ignored. As a student specialising in Creative Writing if I write a story, no matter how many edits it goes through, it is still my story whereas when I write an essay I feel like I’m being moulded into a writing about issues and subjects, that no matter how much I read on the subjects, I don’t really care about. Things that I care about are the more off-the-cuff topics that pop up in lectures but are still relevant, something leftfield that hasn’t been written about too often (at our institution at least) [an issue I have here is that most essays are revolved around what has been written about heavily, making essays much easier]. Most topics of interest are, sadly, rushed over in endless powerpoint presentations and are squeezed out in favour of the more careerist taster approach where an essay can eventually be written on something the student has had little time to master but has shown enough comprehension and understanding to muster an essay on it – showing they can cope with the quick pace of a working environment.

Surely, with the rise in the e-tutoring, comprehension and understanding can be shown in less than half that limit without having to raise points that have been raised before?

Apart from more awareness in critical thought and the advantage of being an easier, blanket way of marking and scoring  for lecturers I don’t see much what the essay does for the student, especially when held up against the freedom and originality that papers bring (like I’m doing now).

Maybe I’m looking at this from a writer’s perspective too much, that I feel there’s no integrity in writing something you don’t care about (personally, I write pretty much what I want and get accosted for ‘journalism’ though this tactic fares me better in exams compared to people who hammer points home in list form for an essay with little concern for coherence) is certainly something that could be levelled at me. Ultimately, though, I’m interested to hear from you – whoever you are – lecturer, student, etc and your thoughts on what the essay does or doesn’t do for you.

Feel free to comment below or @ me on twitter @spotify_tapes

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Trouble With Essays

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Trouble With Essays « Srs Bizniz -- Topsy.com

  2. I do have some sympathy with this. The basic idea of an essay is to give you the space to really get your teeth into a text and a theoretical approach – and I always write questions which leave room for texts and ideas I haven’t thought about.

    However, there are structural problems. One is that although you should have been reading around the subject for the entire module, you don’t. So there’s going to be a narrow field on which students draw. We know that students don’t do enough reading, so we try to pack too much into lectures because those ideas won’t be discovered independently.

    Essays are also useful because we have to find some way of assessing how you’re doing. Can you think of a better way to present sustained thoughts?

  3. In terms of originality – there’s no such thing at this level. It’s too early. There’s so much to learn first. You can apply theories to new texts, which is great, but you need a PhD at least before you start really pushing the boundaries of the field.

  4. I think more out of class contact with the lecturer, on say a regular basis of fortnightly, could present sustained thoughts. The first contact could be about an area of research and the continuing weeks could be a development of that (more exploration of topic, links to academic sources etc). This contact can be across the internet, for example, we could use wolf, or, heaven forbid, pebble pad for these purposes if they weren’t so shoddy.

    Originality – I’m not really asking for anyone to reinvent the wheel just to perhaps think outside the box a bit more instead of writing a final paper on something that you’ve studied for three years with all the same films you’ve looked at.

    Also, in a paper, can’t you create your own theory? Surely that’s a form of originality?

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