Everybody in college hates papers. Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them instead. Plagiarism is now so commonplace that if we flunked every kid who did it, we’d have a worse attrition rate than a MOOC. And on those rare occasions undergrads do deign to compose their own essays, said exegetic masterpieces usually take them all of half an hour at 4 a.m. to write, and consist accordingly of “arguments” that are at best tangentially related to the coursework, font-manipulated to meet the minimum required page-count. Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.
Nobody hates writing papers as much as collegeinstructorshategradingpapers (and no, having a robot do it is not the answer). Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.
What’s more, if your average college-goer does manage to read through her professor’s comments, she will likely view them as a grievous insult to her entire person, abject proof of how this cruel, unfeeling instructor hates her. That sliver of the student population that actually reads comments and wants to discuss them? They’re kids whose papers are good to begin with, and often obsessed with their GPAs. I guarantee you that every professor you know has given an A to a B paper just to keep a grade-grubber off her junk. (Not talking to you, current students! You’re all magnificent, and going to be president someday. Please do not email me.)
Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.
When I was growing up, my mother—who, like me, was a “contingent” professor—would sequester herself for days to grade, emerging Medusa-haired and demanding of sympathy. But the older I got, the more that sympathy dissipated: “If you hate grading papers so much,” I’d say, “there’s an easy solution for that.” My mother, not to be trifled with when righteously indignant (that favored state of the professoriate), would snap: “It’s an English class. I can’t not assign papers.”
Mom, friends, educators, students: We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students (and their parents) view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important “piece of paper.” Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utterwasteof their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.
Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together—and they leave it that way, too. With protracted effort and a rhapsodically engaged instructor, some may learn to craft a clunky but competent essay somewhere along the way. But who cares? My fellowhumanistsinsist valiantly that (among other more elevated reasons) writing humanities papers leads to the crafting of sharp argumentative skills, and thus a lifetime of success in a number of fields in which we have no relevant experience. But my friends who actually work in such fields assure me that most of their colleagues are borderline-illiterate. After all, Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook Friendster profile bragged “i don’t read” (sic),and look at him.
Of course it would be better for humanity if college in the United States actually required a semblance of adult writing competency. But I have tried everything. I held a workshop dedicated to avoiding vague introductions (“The idea and concept of the duality of sin and righteousness has been at the forefront of our understanding of important concepts since the beginning of time.”) The result was papers that started with two incoherent sentences that had nothing to do with each other. I tried removing the introduction and conclusion altogether, and asking for a three-paragraph miniessay with a specific argument—what I got read like One Direction fan fiction.
I’ve graded drafts and assigned rewrites, and that helps the good students get better, but the bad students, the ones I’m trying to help, just fail to turn in any drafts at all. Meanwhile, I come up for air and realize that with all this extra grading, I’m making 75 cents an hour.
I’m not calling for the end of all papers—just the end of papers in required courses. Some students actually like writing, and let those blessed young souls be English majors, and expound on George Eliot and Virginia Woolf to their hearts’ content, and grow up to become writers, huzzah. But for the common good, leave everyone else out of it.
Instead of essays, required humanities courses (which I support, for all the reasons William Cronon, Martha Nussbaum, and Paulo Freire give) should return to old-school, hardcore exams, written and oral. You cannot bullshit a line-ID. Nor can you get away with only having read one page of the book when your professor is staring you down with a serious question. And best of all, oral exams barely need grading: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it is immediately and readily manifest (not to mention, it’s profoundly schadenfroh when a student has to look me in the face and admit he’s done no work).
A Slate Plus Special Feature:
Students hate writing papers, and professors hate grading them. Should we stop assigning them? Listen to the debate on Slate Plus.
Plus, replacing papers with rigorous, old-school, St. John’s-style tribulations also addresses an issue humanities-haters love to belabor: Paper-grading is so subjective, and paper-writing so easy to fake, that this gives the humanities their unfortunate reputation as imprecise, feelings-centered disciplines where there are “no right answers.” So let’s start requiring some right answers.
Sure, this quashes the shallow pretense of expecting undergraduates to engage in thoughtful analysis, but they have already proven that they will go to any lengths to avoid doing this. Call me a defeatist, but honestly I’d be happy if a plurality of American college students could discern even the skeletal plot of anything they were assigned. With more exams and no papers, they’ll at least have a shot at retaining, just for a short while, the basic facts of some of the greatest stories ever recorded. In that short while, they may even develop the tiniest inkling of what Martha Nussbaum calls “sympathetic imagination”—the cultivation of our own humanity, and something that unfolds when we’re touched by stories of people who are very much unlike us. And that, frankly, is more than any essay will ever do for them.
Hate is easy:
If one thrives on hatred, should they set their mind to it, one could live perhaps the most content life of all. There is so much hate in the world, and it is so available that one could just reach out, as if into thin air, and grasp a bundle of hate and eat it. There is a lot of love as well, sure, but most of the time, it’s not so easy to just reach out and grab – and for that reason people tend to lean towards hate. They tend not to stretch their tired arm so far, not to rise from their comfortable seated position, not even to think twice about it. They just settle for hate. To get to love, one must pass hate. Most people, in their weak and sedated state, just stop at hate. It’s closer.
Hate is comfortable:
Hate can be comfortable for the hater but painful for the hated. Love can be painful for the lover and comfortable for the loved. It’s our charge as selfish humans to enjoy hate and ignore love. To focus on our comfort and other’s pain. Our own discomfort is far worse a thing then someone else’s pain simply because of who owns what. Perception is reality especially in hate. Love can scare us. It can rock our thoughts and rattle our emotions. Hate gives us the illusion of control because we think we understand it. Love confuses us, though it’s one of nature’s base values. There was love before there was hate. But hate has reigned longer than love.
Hate is what we know:
As our world’s history is so riddled with hateful people and hateful acts we seem used to it, and when those hateful people act out against other hateful people, and all the hate starts to fly back and forth, it feels as if it is right, as if it is normal. Hate is our status quo. Hate is harvested. Hate is given away for free. Love is cherished and often kept close to one’s chest. Love is something we are told we have to work hard to find and work harder to keep. History books are filled with hateful battles, quarrels, arguments, fits and spats instigated and fought by hateful kings, soldiers, warriors, conquerors, armies and militias. We are taught hate as kids. We are given the option to find love as adults. Love requires compassion. Hate requires only ego. We are born with ego, but we must learn compassion.
Hate grows, love shrinks:
The world is getting worse. Hateful people breed hateful people. Loving people breed loving people and hateful people. Love grows within the lover but shrinks within the world. Hate grows within the hater and grows within the world. Modern man is controlled by the masses. Modern man is comforted by large groups who think the same as him. Love is more powerful than hate. But love is outnumbered by hate. When the masses hate, the masses grow. Love is born in the universe and grows into the man. Hate is born in the man and grows out into the universe.
Hate doesn’t stand a chance:
Haters are more passive than active. Lovers are more active than passive. Love is worth dying for. Hate is not. The small armies of love will march longer and further than the massive armies of hate. The world’s lovers are aware of the world’s haters. The world’s haters are unaware of the world’s lovers. Lovers spread love. Haters spread hate. But, lovers spread actively while haters spread passively. Love is right. Hate is wrong. Basic principles in this world are upheld by physics. Yes, the dusk of hate is dark and long, but the dawn of love is brighter and longer. A hater’s hate is no match for a lover’s love. For even in death a lover’s love lives on when the hater’s hate turns to ash.
Postscript on love:
I wouldn’t dare voice an opinion on something that wasn’t entirely subjective. Love knows no rules, has no authorities, protectors or enforcers. Therefore I am free to write and speak all I wish about Love and no one can really say I am wrong about it. You can however say I am wrong about hate, but chances are, you are an optimist.
image – bahoolala