At this very moment, thousands of college composition courses will demand that tens of thousands of freshmen write hundreds of thousands of papers.
The practice, hustled from its German origins early in the 20th century, began earnestly enough: It was one way for students to demonstrate that they could absorb what they had read, in a form fairly close to what we now call a research paper. The practice exploded in the second half of the century, and it continues today, having also devolved into variations of the now ubiquitous five-paragraph essay.
But here is where the misadventure begins: While the research or term paper and its spinoffs had the good intention to show that a student had assimilated material—that is, that the student could think, not to mention read—today its function revolves around whether the student can write.
The persistence and expansion of this practice suggests that it does its job—except, as mentioned, that job has shifted. Yet despite the resources that have been and continue to be spent on that thing called the college composition course, plenty of evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, suggests that student writing is worse than ever. And while an untidy pile of cultural and historical reasons has grown to explain why this is the case, the fact remains: These courses, with that paper standing as its cornerstone, might not be delivering much educational bang for the buck.
We all know what is asked of these students. They will write opening paragraphs that end in the greatly revered thesis sentence; they will then write paragraphs (the “body”) that, with evidence and arguments—not to mention strange citational protocols they often get wrong—support the thesis sentence; and they will write concluding paragraphs that begin by restating the thesis sentence, and that also offer some expansive ideas that will of course never be expanded upon.
Boring. Boring. Boring. Or, to belabor the rhetoric: Useless. Useless. Useless.
It would be nice to go back further and to blame Aristotle for this structure, but those were the good old days, before the odd belief in the necessity of a college education, which in turn gave rise to things like university writing requirements and program prerequisites. He really had something else in mind when he promoted beginnings, middles, and endings. At least he had some sense of the imaginative—and of plot—as a goal; and despite postmodernism’s yammerings, we still prefer the satisfaction that results from this dramatic pattern.
But college papers hardly push for the genuinely imaginative. And the only drama in these papers is, unfortunately, usually unintentional.
So what is it about this “composition” idea that makes us persist in imposing its banality upon students, many of whom, it often seems, would rather be texting, tweeting, or posting to their networked “friends”—with utterances that seldom approximate a well-crafted (never mind grammatical) thought, lol :>)?
Could it be for the convenience of generating a mark and for reproducing a template that can be used for all kinds of courses? Could it be that this whole writing business, with the essay as its poster child, has become a self-justifying industry, fueled largely by never-changing textbooks and ever-changing adjuncts? Is there a lurking irony—could it be that these courses are in fact self-sustaining by not achieving their ostensible mandate?
So what are some of the problems with this form of, ahem, discourse?
First, the term paper or even plain essay has no relationship to the work-world in which college grads will find themselves earning a living: “Welcome, Emily, to your job here at [insert employer name here]. The first thing we would like you to do is write a couple of essays. And don’t forget to format your works cited properly. Use MLA, not APA, thanks!” And what minuscule percentage of undergrads end up as humanities professors, where something like the term paper remains part of the professional output, otherwise known as the thing that wards off perishing?
Second, term papers do not in themselves teach anyone to write well. What teaches people to write well is reading lots, writing lots, and, if you are lucky, getting lots of decent feedback. The truth be known, markers of papers are often perfectly happy if students can write in complete sentences and use commas correctly, which of course a good number cannot. Forget trying to figure out what exactly went wrong with the connections between sentences, or where exactly the reasoning or argument went astray, and what might be done. What marker has time to sort out those problems? Either you’d have to rewrite all the sentences to show the student how to do it, or you would have to craft paragraphs that carefully explain the problem. Or you could write “awk” and leave it at that. Low-level copy editing is often about as much as can be asked.
Third, term papers do not teach anyone to do that thing so highly touted yet so falsely attainable: thinking critically. What teaches people to think critically is, again, reading, and in particular reading lots of well-written and wide-ranging material where writers express interesting things in ways that engage your own thinking. Requiring students to reflect upon such material—by both writing and talking about it—might help to create some of those highly coveted neural pathways, but if you think a term paper does that, then take a long, hard look at the face of someone handing one in—or better yet, at the face of someone marking one. The scam, then, is the belief that critical thinking can be taught in a one-term writing course, though the bigger scam may be that you can teach critical thinking at all. How many great writers or thinkers had their careers changed by satisfying some college writing requirement where critical thinking was hyped?
The pattern and elements of the term paper are so stale and confining that they generally lead to the mediocre, to the predictable, and, increasingly, to the plagiarized. Today’s information highway—that is, the Internet—is basically a term paper drive-thru: “I’ll have one term paper on polar bears and global warming, please.” “Would you like that supersized?” “No thanks. It only needs to be 1,000 words long.” Is there really any topic that does not have a ready-waiting, Google-worthy paper? (Check out, for example, midterm.us, freeessays123.com, or the audacious unemployedprofessors.com.)
Cynicism aside, when not the result of the ever-tempting cut-and-paste (or the more sophisticated cut-and-paraphrase recently attempted by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria), good students can’t usually shine with this form, and bad students can’t fail with it. In short, the term-paper recipe leads to a big, bland, tasteless nothing.
Is there anything else that might be tried? Are there other forms of writing that might be privileged, forms that might have some actual value and that do not have ready-made product?
Here are a couple of alternatives that might be more useful than the paper. An obvious form is the report, where at least there is a chance of some real-world applicability. But let us be even less ambitious. Why not practice, over and over, the ability to summarize? When you summarize, you have to examine something carefully; you have to figure out the ideas. Summary demands that you read with attention; moreover, it is the precursor activity for what researchers claim is missing in today’s student skills: the ability to analyze. When you can genuinely summarize something, it means you “own” it, which then means you can do something with it. It is, then, a building block for much writing. What would happen in a course that required students to write nothing but lots of summaries rather than focusing on producing some kind of one-off paper with artificial parts, lightweight results, and marginal utility?
So let us rethink the purpose and value of the term paper and its spawn in these composition courses, and perhaps get our heads around the idea that, like that other modernist object of uncertainty, it may be dead.
G. Kim Blank is writing adviser and a professor of English literature at the University of Victoria.