“What’s in a name?”: Rethinking the “Essay” in the contemporary college classroom

I have a dirty little secret: I have not assigned an essay in any of my English writing or literature courses for the past two terms.

I used to assign three essays in each course I taught, of between 3-5 and 5-8 pages in length. These might range from essays on student-chosen and developed topics in my Writing I classes, to character or thematic analyses in my literature courses, but they all shared one common trait: they were laborious to grade, because the students found them laborious to write.

In contemporary American education, the essay has become a monster, an undertaking so seemingly difficult and distasteful that many students procrastinate on it until the ninth hour, sometimes missing class to get it finished, frantically turning out page after page of tortured, circuitous, occasionally illegible prose in an effort to meet page requirements. Even the students who are good writers often acknowledge that they don’t like essays because they never know what to write about, they never know what the teacher really wants, they never think they have enough to say, or for a variety of other reasons not the slightest to do with the actual essay assignment, itself. This is partially to do with the fact that in most public schools, the essay is used as a benchmark for standardized testing, relegated to the 5-paragraph model that I genuinely wish would go the way of public floggings and other useless torturous implements.

I am going to argue here–perhaps, controversially–that the average poor performance on an essay at the college level has nothing to do with a student’s actual ability to complete such an assignment, and everything to do with the student’s misconception of what an “essay” is. While there are certainly “lazy students” who cannot be bothered to do the work, I find that the vast majority of mine are not lazy in the slightest; rather, they’re afraid of letting me down (and of getting a bad grade).

For many of my students, an essay seems to be a terrifying object, a measure of the many ways in which the student fails to live up to the instructor’s standards. Its assessment seems arbitrary and subjective, at the whim of the professor despite the stated “how this essay will be graded” rubric. It seems not to measure what the student actually knows, but whether or not the student has mastered the ability to “make it flow,” “make it sound good,” and write in “correct grammar and spelling” for five paragraphs. Then, when they get to the college level and the instructor (in this case, me) urges them to “make an original argument” they freeze: what does that mean? And three to five pages? How do you do that in a 5-paragraph essay? The result is inevitably a convoluted document with paragraphs of up to a page in length each, none of which actually winds up making the stated point. Everybody walks away disgruntled–the student, who put so much effort into trying to meet the “assignment requirements” (page length, structure, grammar, spelling) without ever actually meeting the assignment requirements (original argument supported by textual examples and analysis); the instructor, who then grades the essays and finds that few actually accomplish the stated requirements; and everyone who comes into contact with the student and professor, equally disillusioned with the product of their efforts.

For many of our students, it doesn’t matter how carefully you explain what you want from them. It doesn’t matter how explicitly you state what you are grading for. It doesn’t matter if you give them examples and offer to read over their roughdrafts (which I never do). They already have it fixed in their head that “the essay” is what they think the essay is, and you are only rarely going to overturn that assumption. There is a serious mental block that occurs when you simply use the term “essay” that ensures that the students will over-analyze, over-think, and ultimately fall short of the mark on these assignments. They don’t know what to focus on, and in focusing on everything they’ve been taught to focus on–careful structure of each paragraph, using Standard American Edited English, and meeting the length requirement–they inevitably lose sight of the actual purpose of the essay: to convey an original argument and explain how they arrived at their point.

So, after fifteen years of teaching high school literature and almost four years now at the university level, I’ve given up on the essay. It’s not worth the stress it causes my students, and it’s not worth the amount of time and effort it takes to grade their atrociously scrambled sentences, their inconclusive, generalized summations, their deep and sincere effort to “give me what they think I want.” Nobody wins the essay game, except the rare student who has managed to transcend the fear and realize what the teachers are actually looking for. The essay no longer serves as a good measure of what I’m looking for. Enter the critical examination.

Some who are reading this are probably shaking your heads and muttering to yourselves: and she calls herself an English teacher. Yes, I do, and as an English teacher I am deeply aware of the power words have to shape our thinking. Our students have been conditioned to find the essay a hard document to produce. Well, then, let’s not assign essays! Rather, let’s assign what we are actually asking them to do–a critical examination of a subject, figure, or topic. It can be exactly the same kind of work, and exactly the same page requirements. Just call it what it is–a “critical examination,” which implies both description and analysis of the subject in question. You might not think this would make much of a difference, but in my experience, it has utterly transformed my students’ performance on these documents. I have taken the exact essay assignment sheet I used in a class with an average grade of 71% on the assignment, changed the heading to “Assignment Sheet: Critical Examination,” and seen the grades soar to an average of 83%. AVERAGE of 83%.

Nothing else changed–not the assignment requirements, nor the way I approached grading the assignment (I am notorious as a tough grader). The only thing that shifted was the way the students saw what I was asking them to do. Because this could have been a fluke, I have repeated that same exercise in the past three courses I have taught. My average “Critical Examination” grade is still in the low to middle B range, up from, in some courses, a low D on the “essay” counterpart, and this is true regardless of the number of students in the class. More importantly, since I first altered what I was calling the assignment, only one or two students, rather than 5-6 or more, have earned a “0” for not completing the assignment, and I have only had one instance of plagiarism in the past three terms. The shift in thinking that is clearly present in my students’writing has been enough to convince me to replace “essay” with “critical examination” going forward on all such assignments.

Why does this work so well? I can’t really say. Maybe it has to do with the STEM emphasis on critical thinking and reasoning skills, in comparison to the steady devaluing of humanities approaches to writing. Maybe it’s mainly to do with the fact that the “essay” has become such a monstrous thing in secondary educational models in this country. All I know is that most of my students are turning in beautifully-crafted critical examinations that are, by and large, a joy to read. So, if your students seem to be struggling with the essay, consider employing this terminology shift and see what happens. I’d love to hear from you on how well it works for you.

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About Melissa Ridley Elmes

I am a medievalist, wife and mother of two who spends her days researching, writing, teaching, painting, singing, dancing, acting and trying to find more hours in a day.
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