What’s Wrong With Writing Essays

A few days ago I mentioned that as a professor invested in critical thinking — that is, in difficult thinking — I have become increasingly disillusioned with the traditional student paper. Just as the only thing a standardized test measures is how well you can take a standardized test, the only thing a student essay measures is how well a student can conform to the rigid thesis/defense model that (surprise!) eliminates complexity, ambiguity, and most traces of critical thinking.

I don’t believe that my mission as a professor is to turn my students into miniature versions of myself or of any other professor.  Yet that is the only function that the traditional student essay serves. And even if I did want to churn out little professors, the essay fails exceedingly well at this. Somehow the student essay has come to stand in for all the research, dialogue, revision, and work that professional scholars engage in.

It doesn’t.

The student essay is a twitch in a void. A compressed outpouring of energy (if we’re lucky) that means nothing to no one. My friend and occasional collaborator Randy Bass has said that nowhere but school would we ask somebody to write something that nobody will ever read.

This is the primary reason I’ve integrated more and more public writing into my classes. I strive to instill in my students the sense that what they think and what they say and what they write matters — to me, to them, to their classmates, and through open access blogs and wikis, to the world.

In addition to making student writing public, I’ve also begun taking the words out of writing. Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects? The word text, after all, derives from the Latin textus, meaning that which is woven, strands of different material intertwined together. Let the warp be words and the weft be something else entirely.

With this in mind, I am moving away from asking students to write toward asking them to weave. To build, to fabricate, to design. I don’t want my students to become miniature scholars. I want them to be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials, developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product.

Sid Meier's Pirates Mapped in 3D
Sid Meier’s Pirates Mapped in 3D (Click image for a larger version)

In my next post I’ll describe in more detail some “writing” assignments that have very little to do with traditional writing. I’ll include some sample student work then, but I’ll conclude today’s post by highlighting one project here.

I asked students to design an abstract visualization of an NES videogame, a kind of model that would capture some of the game’s complexity and reveal underlying patterns to the way actions, space, and time unfold in the game. One student “mapped” Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1991) onto a piece of driftwood (larger image). This “captain’s log,” covered with screenshots and overlayed with axes measuring time and action, evokes the static nature of the game more than words ever can. Like Meier’s Civilization, much of Pirates! is given over to configurations, selecting from menus, and other non-diegetic actions. Pitched battles on the high seas, what would seem to be the highlight of any game about pirates, are rare, and though a flat photograph of the log doesn’t do justice to the actual object in all its physicality, you can see some of that absence of action here, where the top of the log is full of blank wood.

I will talk more about about this assignment and others — and where the critical thinking comes into play — in my next post.

12 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Writing Essays”

  1. Perfesser,
    Nice to hear from you, and most interesting. But I wonder if the public/private issue shouldn’t be separated from the essay/”woven mediatext” issue. After all, the driftwood is as private and hermetic as an essay submitted to a class (or, to be a bit fairer, a gallery installation at best), and a traditional essays are published as blogs all the time. I’m with you that our pedagogy should emphasize a “writing process” that culminates in publication: the best pedagogy does this even at the grade-school level, even though most college pedagogy is, as you say, all too private. But the plain ol’ essay has proven its enormous flexibility over five centuries and, it seems to me, still has a lot of value as a teaching tool, insofar as it forces one to think carefully about audience, organization, evidence, and the like. Sure: it’s simple and linear in ways that multimedia texts are complex and digressive. But the form is capable of almost infinite experiment/extension and considerable multi-media “weaving” as well.

    Awright: back to grading. Oh the irony.

  2. I’ll be honest in saying that all of the writing done for essays and what-not, are not only dull in reading but dulls the students’ minds into pencil stumps. Recalling back to certain classes (which I’m not going to name), where I had to write certain essays about subjects I don’t really even care about, I find all of it to not only be completely irrelevant but also completely unhelpful to the state of my mind and creative soul.
    And now that I’m about to graduate, and I’m in classes that force me to not adhere to the typical “scholarly writing” I find it difficult to articulate my thoughts and words. It’s like I’m now conditioned to write a certain way, that I’ve become a drone, mindlessly on auto-pilot. It sickens me. I find it difficult to write creatively when it used to come to me so freely when I first started college.
    But even the whole educational system doesn’t care about how creative you are, just how well you can follow the rules, thus I find myself tied to system of GPAs and grades so much so that I’m almost fearful of stepping out of the cliched “box.” I state it as something I’m almost feared of, because sometimes I get a professor that is willing to let me speak my own mind and be passionate about what I write and less on how really how I write it. That brings to question on what’s really more important, proof that I’m thinking and responding to the world around me or or fitting a ridiculous outline on a subject that neither I nor my professor really cares about.
    Furthermore, the weaving of multiple mediums is really a beautiful concept but I would say difficult to bring out in students. Not saying that it can’t be done (obviously by your own example) but it’s come to a point (and I’ve also been a victim to this) where students have become trains. We’re merged into a one-tracked way of thinking, always going forwards or backwards on our tracks but never off of them. We want to do the most little work to get us the grade that we possibly can and sometimes even less knowing that we can get by with that. Granted, there are some who don’t think that way and become cars, willing to go in whatever direction, but there aren’t too many of them out there. It’s because of the conditioning of the education system. We’re told all our life to be a train (proof, the Little Engine that Could), to fit into this track and be warned to never get off because we can’t run if we become derailed. That’s what most parents want from their kids, and most kids want to please their parents.

    Sorry if I went off on a tangent a bit Prof. Sample. I really enjoyed your class though, and tell everyone I know that can to try and take it. (I actually tried to take the Intro to Game Design class, and to be honest, I had to drop it because I learned in your class all about the background of games and the structure and psychological influence of games.)

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