Sunday, May 04, 2014

We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure

Every once in a while, I give students in my classes an option to skip out of the required final paper for the class.  No, it is not that they get a freebie.  Instead of the final paper, the option they get to earn the grade is that good old viva voce--oral exam.  A ten to fifteen minutes with me quizzing them in my office.  That's all.

If you ever wanted a demonstration of "faster than a speeding bullet," well, that is how rapidly students negate that offer.  Not even one student is tempted by that offer, it seems.  Ten to fifteen minutes versus a few hours of work and they turn down that offer before I even fully describe it!

Over the years, I have become convinced that the college term paper is an abject failure. Perhaps it works at the Ivies, but I--and the overwhelming majority of us--ain't at one of 'em.  But, of course, the system would easily chuck me out, and there are plenty of colleagues waiting in line to witness that happening, if I were to abandon the requirement of papers when I make abundantly clear that the alternative is even worse, if that is even possible!

I require a lot of writing in the classes that I teach.  No wonder, therefore, that a student has posted this comment at
How this class is not a writing intensive class is beyond me. Expect to write 2 pages a week all term with a midterm and final totaling about 7 pages a piece. I received As in every writing class/ Writing intensive class but some how managed only a C+
Thus, there is nothing for me to disagree with the author, Rebecca Schuman, of this essay--from where I borrowed the line for the subject for this post.  Why the preference for the viva voce?
You cannot bullshit a line-ID. Nor can you get away with only having read one page of the book when your professor is staring you down with a serious question. And best of all, oral exams barely need grading: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it is immediately and readily manifest (not to mention, it’s profoundly schadenfroh when a student has to look me in the face and admit he’s done no work).
At the viva voce, we stare at the reality.  The reality that either one knows or does not.

While Schuman notes that in the context of the required college writing course, the argument is equally applicable to most courses in which we require papers at the end:
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.
The entire paper-writing is an effing waste of time and effort.  Especially when faculty do not seem to care about giving feedback.

Meanwhile, there is the lure of automatons reading and grading essays.  Fortunately, for people like me, there are a few experts like "Les Perelman, a former director of undergraduate writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology," who rage against the machine:
Mr. Perelman’s fundamental problem with essay-grading automatons, he explains, is that they "are not measuring any of the real constructs that have to do with writing." They cannot read meaning, and they cannot check facts. More to the point, they cannot tell gibberish from lucid writing.
With every passing day, the higher education system seems to be more of a failure than it was the previous day.  Yet, all we do is continue to spin the same wheels.  Uninterested students, self-serving faculty and staff, apathetic public who only care about dollars and cents, together make for a horrible combination.  Perhaps it was always like this and I lived in my own bubble.

"Everybody does not get excited with whatever excites you, Dr. Khé" remarked a student in class.  That truthful vocal comment gets a full score in the viva voce!


Ramesh said...

Know very little about term papers - its a long long time since I wrote one and therefore can't comment sensibly.

What struck me was your statement that automatons were used to grade essays (what is an automaton ?). Unbelievable. Is such a thing even possible ?

By the way, when I was a student, if a Prof had offered me a viva voce, I would have run as well. Of course I did not do much work - you see at that age hormones are working in a different direction !!!

But the student who made the last comment was dead wrong. Show me a human being who does not get excited over a readhead ..... :)

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, the age of robots has begun. Get ready to serve our computer overlords!

Surely you are exaggerating when you write that you did not do much work as an undergrad. Especially when there was no redhead, at least naturals, in Chennai for your teenage hormones to have distracted you ;)

Anonymous said...

If ever given a serious chance at this in any of your classes, I would immediately take the opportunity. Through twelve credits taken with you I have yet to hear this opportunity of which you speak.

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