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Op-Ed: Teaching Formal Essay Composition to Everyone…Why?

by Bonnie Ip

Within the academic/professor role is the junction between the craft of research and the aims of teaching. How much does that really overlap? For many young instructors, we begin teaching undergraduate courses with very little formal pedagogical preparation. We are simply thrown into the classroom to teach others what we’ve recently mastered. In my case, it’s social science. But graduate school, especially a doctoral program, is not merely a continuation of undergraduate education. It is vocational training. We choose our career path; we choose our apprenticeship, and we choose to specialize. In one of my first graduate school classes, my professor warned: this program will prepare you to be a sociologist, and not much else. Just as a surgeon learns to hold her scalpel, scholars learn how to wield the “pen” (keyboard). But by the time we are ready to sit on the other side of the desk and profess, we have already written countless term papers, maybe even an article or two; the craft of writing essays has become second nature. We no longer feel that academic writing is a unique and bizarre form of communication, because to get to where we are now, it means we’ve been successfully indoctrinated in the ways of the ivory tower.

But we should never forget what the research paper is for, who it is for. Its industry standards do not apply to real life scenarios in the real world of regular muggles. The way academics communicate with each other is stylized, elite, and strange. And essay composition, at least in the way social scientists teach it, is the precursor to peer-reviewed, academic journal articles (and who actually reads those?).

Research papers are not intended for everyday use. So why do we teach everyone to write like this?

The virtues of inculcating capitalist workers with formal essay writing knowledge is rarely questioned aloud–among faculty (I’m sure many students question this). This work is simply what we do in universities. Every semester, hundreds of us are entrusted to teach the nitty gritties of this kind of technical “w” course writing to our students; to Queens College students. But why do they need to know how to construct an analytical essay with twelve-point font, one-inch margins, and impeccable citations? Is it because universities are self-replicating institutions that churn out scholar-subjects to reproduce more scholar-subjects? Why do we teach this skill to the general public? to working people? Why do we need to teach formal writing to Queens college students, most of whom are not interested in academic careers and will never write a formal paper again upon graduation?

If you think I’m about to provide a menu of reasons why essay writing is crucial for the everyday citizen to know how to do, I am not; because to do that would circle back on the original problem of a universal good. The answer(s) should reflect the myriad value-judgements of personal politics. So I am merely pausing to ask, because I think it’s a fair question. If we are demanding our students to put in the work, the least we can do is reflect on why we are asking them to do it. Is it enough to say we teach it because we are paid to do so? Because it’s always been done? You were forced to learn it, now they must too? Does it boost our own egos when it’s culturally codified that all our educated citizenry needs to learn the basics of our chosen craft? How much longer can we rely on authoritarian traditions to justify our work in the classroom? Have you ever wondered whether your students actually value what you are teaching them as relevant to their lives and goals?

The very first college class I taught was sociology 101 at a community college. It was one of those mandatory classes where you have a mix of students from different disciplines who’ve signed up to get the course fulfillment out of the way. During the ice breaker exercise, I learned that the students’ career aspirations included nurses, teachers, entrepreneurs, police officers…not many sociologist-wanna-be’s. Maybe because I was still fresh to professing, but I was struck by an overwhelming desire to explain why I was teaching them what was in my syllabus. I wanted them to believe that what the social sciences and liberal arts could offer was worth their genuine attention and hard work. I wanted to convince them that our work together over the next fifteen weeks was going to be meaningful for them, not just an outdated ritualistic obstacle to the diploma they need to stay afloat in our brutal, capitalistic job market.

To explain the worth of academic work for someone who does not want to be an academic starts with a moment of reflection. Yes, we are cogs in the university system wheel; yes, we are justifying a task we are required to do; yes, we want that paycheck. But it’s not even that much money. We, the next generation of professors, are coming up in a different era than our mentors did. Academia is a scrappy, scary place now. In the social sciences, the arts and humanities, the very relevance of our work is in question by society at large. We need to be more clear, strong, and transparent about our “why’s?” This is not an attack on writing composition; this is a reflection on our responsibility as educators. –To tread carefully on the line between disseminating useful knowledge that empowers citizens and unthinkingly replicating conventions that uphold power structures. So whether a seasoned professor or early-career adjunct, I invite you to ask yourself why you think we should teach essay writing to non-academics? And I dare you to try to explain your rationale to your students on the first day of spring semester. Let’s respect our students by not wasting their time and efforts on “busy work;” let’s teach them something that they want to learn.

 

References:

Elbow, Peter. 1998. Writing With Power:Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. New York: Oxford University Press

Hoffman, Andrew J. 2016. “Why Academics Are Losing Relevance in Society – And How to Stop It.” The Conversation. Retrieved November 6, 2020 (https://theconversation.com/why-academics-are-losing-relevance-in-society-and-how-to-stop-it-64579).

Wan, Amy J. 2014. Producing Good Citizens: Literacy Training in Anxious Times. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Weber, Max. 1958. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Date: November 19, 2020

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