Should We Keep Teaching Writing?

This morning’s National Public Radio show included yet another story on “essay mills,” those dastardly buy-an-essay businesses that will write students’ essays for them for a fee. Of course, this is not the first such story on NPR [for example], nor is it anything like breaking news, given how much has been written about these businesses since the middle of the last decade [BBC]. They are simply a ubiquitous presence in higher education and no amount of fulminating is going to make them go away.

Given that we aren’t going to convince these businesses to shut down and some number of our students will avail themselves of the opportunity to buy a paper for $50 or $100, what should faculty members do?

First, it seems to me, we have to own up to the fact that we are complicit in the entire enterprise. There are ways to assign writing in our courses that are not easily susceptible to this kind of cheating, but those ways are frankly much more difficult (for us) than simply assigning a five page paper on Topic X, due on Date Y. A typical college student in the U.S. is taking 12-15 credits, is working 20-25 hours per week, and likely has child care or other family responsibilities. The typical student is not the over-privileged 19 year-old partying their way through college. But whichever avatar of student you prefer, the generic paper assignment–which I am just as guilty as anyone else of including in my syllabi–can come across as pointless, a waste of time, or simply too stressful.

And thus, students are tempted. How many cross the line and use one of these essay mills? The story from the BBC cited above argues that the number is very small. But a recent poll of my students–I asked them how many knew someone who had used such a service and how many knew someone who had considered using such a service–indicates that the BBC may be underestimating. About 10 percent of my students said they knew of someone who had used such a service–but primarily in high school–and closer to 20 percent said they knew someone who had considered it. These results are not scientifically generated, but they are worrying.

What then should faculty members do when one of the important learning outcomes in our programs is that our students will emerge as better writers than they were when they arrived on campus?

I would suggest that we have to re-think “writing” altogether. Once upon a time, a five-page or ten-page or two-page essay was something we understood and believed had pedagogical value. Whether such essays were/are the best way to teach writing is another matter entirely, but is the case that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of faculty assign such essays every semester. Given that essay mills are going to become more ubiquitous rather than less and the five or ten-page essay fits their business model like a glove, I propose that we need to throw in the towel and teach differently.

What would that look like? One model is what I have been doing in my research methods course. Rather than asking students to write a ten-page research essay, I have them write the first two pages of a 25 page essay over and over and over until they get it right. This kind of writing is iterative, hard, and frustrating for students, but by the end of the exercise, they have a great start for a long paper and so know how to begin such a work.

But I can’t do that! My classes have 45-65 students in them (or whatever large number that makes iterative writing/grading unworkable). I teach such a class most semesters and this semester is the last time I will include five-page essays as a required element in the course. Instead, I will be giving students options to choose during the first two weeks of the semester:

  1. A writing intensive version of the class in which they write essays, all of which require iterative writing and in-office meetings about their writing;
  2. A testing intensive version of the class in which their grade is based entirely on exams.

This way, students who simply want an introduction to the subject (more than half of my students most semesters) can punt on the writing and just take some tests. Students who want to use the class both as an introduction to the subject and an opportunity to improve their writing can choose Option 1, but know in advance that they are in for some serious engagement around their writing skills. Students in my digital humanities classes are making things, not writing essays, so I have no worries in those classes.

Will this approach be fool proof? Of course not. Will it help to reduce the potential use of essay mills? Maybe. Will I be happier because I won’t need to suspect them of buying papers? Definitely.