The Five Page Paper and the History Degree

Over the past week there has been a lot of hand wringing in American higher education over a recent study by the Pew Research Center, “Is College Worth It?.” The study, conducted with The Chronicle of Higher Education, makes it abundantly clear that a growing majority of American adults no longer believes that higher education in the United States is worth the cost. This finding conflicts with another finding in the study–that an overwhelming majority of American college graduates think their degree was worth what they spent on that degree.

In other words, in my case, college was worth it, but in general, it’s not.

The Chronicle story devotes a fair amount of space to the argument that higher education should not be about workforce preparation, citing critiques of a workforce focus from both college presidents and faculty. But the story, and the data from Pew, also point out that there are very discernible class differences when it comes to the question of the purpose of higher education. The wealthier an institution is, the more likely a president is to pooh-pooh any talk of better preparation for that first job after college.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m a firm believer in the value of the liberal arts over the long term and have no interest in teaching history as a purely job preparation program. But those who want to draw a line in the sand in the defense of the liberal arts (Job preparation has no, NO place in our curriculum!) make that case with zero data to support their arguments.

Where are the data to show that “critical thinking skills” are a virtual guarantee of professional success? I think such skills are very important, but I don’t know they are. In what field of scholarly endeavor do we let our students make assertions unsupported by evidence? Certainly not history.

After reading the Pew study, it seems to me that one plausible explanation of the growing restiveness among American adults when it comes to the value of a college degree is that over the past couple of decades we’ve been shifting the cost of higher education from the taxpayer to the user (student). The more a college degree becomes a private good–something a majority of the presidents surveyed supported–the more the purchaser of that private good is going to demand in terms of tangible results.

In educational systems where higher education remains a public good–much of Europe, for instance–the public is much more likely to support the idea that intellectual pursuits ought to remain the core mission of colleges and universities. When it is everyone who pays, rather than just those paying out of their own pockets, it seems to me, people will be more willing to see the cost/benefit of higher education in more abstract terms.

Which brings us go the five page paper.

Raise your hand if you can quantify, in any way, the direct benefit to your students of the five page paper (or some other length essay) you assigned this past year. Indirect benefits don’t count. I want hands only from those of you who can show tangible, direct benefits.



I’m not completely opposed to essay writing. I assign essays (although much less often than I used to). I think they have value, but I don’t know they do. In particular, I think they help my students organize their thinking about certain topics, they help me help them with their writing, and they help me see where their research and/or analytical skills need work. Note that two of these benefits are diagnostic. And yes, me being able to help them with their writing, research, and analysis helps them become more educated and, I think, over the long term, more successful in whatever they chose to do when they graduate.

I think these things.

What I know is that my students will need to get jobs when they graduate and that their future employers have every right to expect certain skills and knowledge from our graduates. As much as I’d like to wish otherwise, few of those employers are going to want their future employees to be able to explain the causes of the revolutions of 1989 in East Central Europe. Nor will they want a five page essay on nationalist movements in the Czech lands.

With each passing year I have, therefore, tried to incorporate more of what might be called “real world skills” in my classes. The work that my students now do is still very much history, but they write fewer and fewer papers. Instead, they spend more and more time on work they can point to in a job application or a graduate school application. At least some of what they learn while doing this work–archival metadata standards, a deeper understanding of the tensions between fair use and copyright, how to deal with a project team member who is a slacker–is going to be of interest to future employers.

They still learn why communist parties in East Central Europe went belly up in 1989, because I think it’s important for educated people, especially history majors, to know such things. They just write about it less than they used to.

Will my approach cure the restiveness of the American public when it comes to university educations? Not likely. But every little bit helps.

13 thoughts on “The Five Page Paper and the History Degree

  1. Zachary Schrag

    You ask, Where are the data to show that “critical thinking skills” are a virtual guarantee of professional success?

    There are no guarantees in life. But there are data.

    For example, Hart Research Associates, “Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn: A Survey Among Employers Conducted on Behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities,” 2010

    Table 7 lists the “Proportion Of Employers Who Say Colleges Should Place More Emphasis Than They Do Today On Selected Learning Outcomes.” The top pick, at 89%, is “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing.

    “Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” comes in second, at 81 percent.

  2. Frau_Mahlzahn

    I would not want to have missed out on the writing writing writing part of my studies in History — because this is the one thing that I made the most use of after getting my M.A., and is now helping me get my feet back on the working ground after having stayed home with my kids.

    In addition to wording my texts in an organized and readable manner it also includes the skills of doing research, getting my information organized and being able to differ between important and less important information — it really is what I use in everyday life.

    So here is one vote for writing writing writing…

    So long,

  3. Mills Post author

    Thanks, Zach and Corinna:

    In response to Zach, I’d say thanks for the data. It’s true that there are no guarantees in life, but one, apparently, is that whenever there is data, there is more data to contradict it. So, apparently employers want employees who have the “ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” they just don’t want to pay them very much.

    In response to Corinna, I agree with all that you say here. After all, I’m a historian, so clearly I like to write. But, I’m also increasingly convinced that we need to do more to prepare our students with that old cliche of “real world skills” over and above the ability to write, communicate orally, research, and organize the results of that research.

    To be clear, I said above that I don’t want to turn the history major into a job-preparation program. But I do think we owe it to our students to cut back a little bit on the five page papers so we can add in some more practical skills. This is especially true, it seems to me, because of the professional autonomy most of us have in our teaching. Each of us gets to decide what to assign to our students (at least that’s true here at Mason) and so it’s quite possible that every class a student might take in the history major could have the same, or almost the same, type of assignments. We don’t coordinate what we do when it comes to the way we teach, with the exception of our two required courses in the major, so there is no way to ensure that our students are getting any practical skills other than the ability to write yet another five page paper.

  4. Kim Harney

    I’ll be honest. I HATE writing essays. This semester I had to write FIVE three-six page papers in three days in order to finish early enough to study for all of my exams and presentations. It was torture. At this point I was no longer trying to absorb information. I was simply regurgitating everything I could think of and anything Wikipedia could provide that I had deemed credible.

    I am not opposed to writing essays in college-I find when reading my peers essays there are always numerous grammatical errors and poor sentence structure (I don’t doubt my essays also have these problems) BUT I don’t think constantly assigning essays while giving little to know feedback results in better job training. I don’t always think high school students entering college realize that along with the increase in coursework also comes an expectation of an increase in writing ability (few grammatical errors, strong thesis/topic sentences, substantial evidence, etc.)

    I took both Schrag and Mills classes this semester: I appreciated the feedback Schrag gave me and I appreciated not having to write ‘actual’ essays in Mills’ class. That being said, I don’t feel like any other professors really give their students essay advice that could actually improve their skill set. Writing ‘Good Essay, B+’ doesn’t help anyone.

    I already have one degree: I came to college this round to satisfy I passion I have for history. I want to leave Mason with KNOWLEDGE not just a good report card.

    So, I’m most definitely for classes with LESS essays with GOOD feedback. I have no assumptions that as a history/art history student I will ever NOT write essays, but hopefully any teachers reading this will help me out with better feedback. I would like to spend more time learning and less time worrying about if my thesis will be strong enough for an A.

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  6. Zachary Schrag

    The new data show that the only majors that result in salaries significantly higher than those earned by history majors (especially U.S. history majors) are those emphasizing quantitative analysis, such as applied mathematics, actuarial science, engineering, and oceanography. This suggests to me that, short of teaching a great deal of math, the best practical skills we can offer our history majors are analysis and writing.

    Academically Adrift did not measure the effects of specific assignments, but the authors did conclude that students who regularly took courses requiring at least 20 pages of writing in a semester (and 40 pages of reading per week) did better on tests measuring the skills employers say they want.

    What data suggest that employers are looking for graduates who know archival metadata standards, have a deeper understanding of the tensions between fair use and copyright, and know how to deal with a project team member who is a slacker?

  7. Mills Post author

    Thanks Kim for chiming in. It’s good to hear a student’s perspective.

    To Zach, I agree with what you wrote here, but am not convinced that these data mean we shouldn’t figure out ways to include more practical skills in the history curriculum. Do you think that’s a bad idea?

  8. Zachary Schrag

    Your original post posited that history instructors should use quantitative data to craft assignments that will give students the skills they need for their careers. I am telling you that the available data suggest that the best thing we can do along these lines is to assign at least twenty pages of writing for every course we teach. To the extent that teaching “more practical skills” means assigning less than twenty pages of writing in a course, it is a venture away from the data-driven pedagogy you seem to endorse.

    The question is not whether teaching other skills is desirable; it is whether the time devoted to those skills crowds out necessary instruction in the skills students most need not only for their professional lives, but for their personal and civic lives as well.

    Kim is quite right that students deserve feedback on their writing, and I am grateful to Mason’s Writing Across the Curriculum faculty for teaching me feedback strategies. I know I still have much to learn, and I encourage Kim and her fellow students to give feedback on the feedback they receive.

  9. Mills Post author

    Thanks Zach, for the engagement on this. Using the same report you cited above, I note that those same employers who want liberal arts outcomes, also want “The ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings through internships or other hands-on experiences” and that the proportion of those employers wanting their future employees to have these kinds of experiences was 79%, only fractionally lower than those wanting “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” (81%). Further, a similarly large percentage (75%) wanted their employees to have “the ability to connect choices and actions to ethical decisions” which would, in my view, include wrestling with things like copyright and fair use. And almost as many (71%) want future employees to learn “teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group
    settings,” which goes to what I said about working in groups. So, it seems, the data supports both of our views on this issue.

    Given that, I’m willing to take a risk that crowding out a few five page papers in favor of some of these other outcomes is worth it.

  10. Yoni Appelbaum

    I read this just after reviewing my student evaluations for the semester. At least a dozen students, of their own accord, singled out one particular assignment that I had given them for its practical value. (Several claimed it was the most useful writing assignment they had ever had.) I’d assigned a 500-word analytic essay. And then, when I turned it back, I told them to resubmit it, shortened to 250 words.

    And I didn’t just assign it. I sold it. I explained to them that, for the rest of their lives, they were quite likely to face situations in which they would have no more than 250 words to persuade their audience of a point. That cover letters, e-mails, memos, and abstracts place a premium on clear, concise writing – and by extension, clear, concise thought.

    I wasn’t surprised when the revised drafts were substantially better than the longer originals. But I was taken aback by the number of students who told me it was a uniquely challenging assignment. For the first time, they said, they had internalized the process of editing and revision. They couldn’t simply incorporate the corrections of faculty and peers, or even read through it to catch egregious mistakes. They had to sit down, rethink what they had set out to say, and find a more efficient way to say it. Or, in many cases, revise the argument itself.

    No assignment is perfect, or sufficient in itself. But this one persuaded me of two things. First, the value of salesmanship. Students work well when we establish high expectations, reward good performance, and encourage them to take risks. But they work even better when they’re persuaded that a given assignment has practical utility in their lives. Like many of your other respondents, I think the skills we teach are invaluable. I also think I generally do a lousy job of making that clear, and I suspect I’m not alone. Second, it persuaded me that detailed feedback alone is insufficient. No number of writing conferences, line-edits, or peer workshops generated the enthusiastic response – or the quality results – of this simple assignment. As much as I’d preached, I’d never really persuaded students to weight the value of every word. But when they had to cut half of them, they gained a whole new insight into the craft of analytic thinking and writing.

    I offer this example by way of response to the challenge you pose. I don’t know if it gave my students marketable skills; I do know that they’re persuaded that it did. There are surely other such assignments that are out there. Finding them – and then selling them – would go a long way to shoring up the profession.

  11. Mike Cosgrave

    The 5 page essay is not the great terminal skill of liberals arts that so many academics treat it as; it is a convenient legacy that many fall into using without critically taking apart the components – reading, research, planning, argument and good basic professional writing – that make it up.

    I wish my first year students came into college able to write a decent 5 page essay, but the sad reality is that many do not. I also strongly believe that a 5 page essay should represent no more than 8 hours work for any undergraduate, because if it takes you more than a day to knock out 1,500 words, then you have a problem somewhere in your writing process – it may be reading, it may be writing, it may be facebook but it needs fixing.

    So I think we need to make sure that no student gets past first year in college until they can produce a properly researched and presented 5 pager – then we can move them on in three ways. One, obviously, is towards longer pieces of work, one is work which engages more deeply with historiography, because that light bulb often doesn’t go one till third year, and the third is research based learning and developing their personal learning skills.

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