Those of us in academe who believe strongly in helping students learn to write better understand that clear and effective written communication is a life skill on par with the need for strong oral communication. So the question then becomes, what sort of writing should professors assign that will best accomplish sharpening this crucial life skill? And over the years, what has become increasingly clear to me is that it’s anything but the traditional term or research paper.
As unpopular as that view may be, when I hear colleagues lamenting and raging about the general lack of quality in student writing and how term papers and citing style are so important, it seems to me that they are more ego driven than anything else. Their views seem propelled by the false assumption that most of our students will need to know all this later in life because we professors have to know it. (And this is from someone who still values the process of having written a 93-page undergraduate senior thesis.)
Although term papers tend to be common across institutions, here are two things I unapologetically don't do: 1) assign term papers and research papers 2) care all that much about which citation style students use or count off for it. And here’s what I do insist they do: use the word “I.”
For me, these issues are interconnected. Once I got rid of the term paper/research paper, for instance, the details of citing became less important. I require my students to make attributions correctly, but I do not obsess over the particulars of citing style.
Ultimately, I let go of those pieces because I recognized that something much larger was at stake. For me, at least, the more I taught about topics that cut to the core of my students’ experiences (like intimacy and violence, sociology of the body, gender and sexuality, and race relations and identity), the more it became obvious what was truly on the line, and that was the issue of voice.
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with term papers and research papers, and there’s nothing bad about knowing APA and MLA style backward and forward. But I would much prefer that students develop their own voice and connect ideas in and through my classes than memorize items from a stylistic manual. Most students show me that they have not yet cultivated a sense of voice, mainly because they have not been given the space and assignments to do so, and they also haven’t figured out how to connect abstract and seemingly disconnected ideas. Given that, the nature of the term paper and accompanying citing styles starts to feel like minutiae or a luxury not worth so much of professors’ energy and anguish. It’s the icing on the cake when what we really still need is good batter.
What seems more crucial is if students can actually articulate their ideas. I want to see students make meaningful connections between seemingly disparate materials like themes and concepts from class lectures, discussions, readings, films and guest speakers. Students need to read more and talk about ideas and then write shorter stuff more often.
And I want students to see writing for what it is: a gift to themselves. To be able to do that, they have to get in touch with the moments when writing does not just inform but also connects, transforms and even heals. And then they can sense for themselves how writing has an intrinsic, almost magical, power. I don’t think any of this can be accomplished through term papers.
At a frenetic pace, today’s students simultaneously consume and share an overwhelming amount of communication on a daily basis in the form of texts, tweets, emails, Snapchats and the exchange of videos, photos, and articles. This is a generation that doesn’t need to amass more information, devour it and recirculate it. It is a generation that needs more opportunities to appreciate essence, nuance, and depth, to distill and focus on important points without convenient guides to translate all the ideas for them.
It is all the more urgent and pressing for young people to receive assignments in which they are asked to untether, to slow down, to pare down and reflect; to write as a way to think and come to know what they know and feel what they feel. I try to help students see that this is a process of writing born out of the clarity of silence, stillness, and solitude; that it is a way of forging a sense of voice and style in writing; that they have to meditate on what they have read and on what they think; that this requires careful and thoughtful attention; and that they have to sit with the discomfort of writing and rewriting, of deleting and writing anew.
We see more and more students with real difficulty writing. Even at more highly selective institutions where I have taught, including an Ivy League university, that is the case. Many students say they hate to write or do not feel confident about it. Asking students to write 10- to 20-page term papers simply gives a professor up to 20 pages of potentially terrible writing to grade. That is not how I choose to spend my life.
I also believe we faculty members can give more detailed and helpful feedback on shorter papers. Professors anguish and disagree about what will constitute effective feedback. Would it be better to carefully edit and comment on the entire draft, doing a line-by-line analysis? Would it be better to just make short summary comments at the end since most students will not go through the feedback that methodically anyway, and more than likely trash the paper after seeing the grade? If it is the very end of the semester, would it be better to only give feedback to students who provide a self-addressed, stamped envelope so as to not be burdened with stacks of papers with extensive comments that never get picked up?
Would it be better to mark up only the first page, on paper or via online submission, since the errors and issues that appear on that page likely are reproduced on subsequent pages and there is no use repeating our feedback on every page? But then, if we do that, how will students recognize that they have, indeed, repeated the same mistake, since no comments often translate to students as good news?
In lieu of term papers, I have turned to other assignments such as interview projects. For example, in my sociology of the body class, students gain the perspective of meeting with another person and learning how they go about living in their body and/or making the body a part of their work. This is significant in a day and age when students often prefer to text one another. Students write proposals about whom they want to interview, create a set of questions, schedule a meeting, conduct the interview, record and transcribe it, and then draw on it as primary data they have generated, ultimately connecting analytically with classroom sources.
The process gives students the opportunity to engage in project and time management, as well as to build a staged project. They can sit down with people who are much different than they are, with vastly divergent life experiences and trajectories, and even in that short time, create community. Students have also had the opportunity to interview people with similar circumstances or conditions with which they struggle and that typically helps students expand their own inner emotional resources and coping mechanisms.
I have also permitted students to interview themselves, and sometimes those are the most groundbreaking papers. Often, those are the students who worry most about writing and uttering the truth. In fact, students have told me that such projects have been life-altering; helping them to network and find jobs, and in many other instances, connecting them to family members, peers, and back to themselves in crucial ways.
Other assignments I rely on include near-weekly analyses of observations and events in the community and short write-ups of phenomena that we are investigating in class. I also have students write during class time, and I find it remarkable that the work that is generated then often has the strongest pulse, even when it emerges from exercises that last only 10 or 15 minutes. Students are often surprised, as well, and they then come to see the value in the visceral connection of hand to pen to paper and enjoy hearing what their peers dream up in those short bursts of time.
To do this, I sometimes have students write anonymously and then read aloud others’ work. In that way, every voice in the room becomes audible, and it is a powerful thing to hear the voice in our writing read aloud in and through someone else’s voice. I find that the solitude of writing, yet in the context and cradle of a communal spirit, helps to build a more curious and trustworthy learning community in the classroom, something that could not be accomplished easily and in quite the same way with extremely long research papers.
So, yes, let’s worry about, and attend to, the quality of student writing. And, let’s strategize about ways to help improve this. But I, for one, yearn to see a much larger array of dazzling two- to five-page papers, and if and when that happens, maybe we can talk about that term paper.
Note: a version of this article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed, December 12, 2017.