Sunday, December 15, 2013

 

The “Anyway” Argument



The academic internet has been abuzz about Rebecca Schuman’s essay against essays.  Schuman, who has made quite a splash with her “pan kisses kafka” blog, takes her usual advocacy a step farther here.  Instead of advocating for more room at the inn for prospective faculty, here she takes on what happens at the inn.  In short, she argues that students hate writing essays and therefore do half-baked jobs of it; professors hate grading essays and therefore become bitter and surly; and the outside world cares not at all about essays.  Therefore, she suggests, let’s do away with essays as general requirements, and keep them only in the specialized fields in which they actually matter.

You can decide for yourself how literally you want to take her argument.  Plenty of people seem to read it as either Swiftian satire or an exercise in cathartic venting, and there’s warrant for either.  I see it as a variation on what I’ll call the “Anyway Argument,” which has been gaining ground lately in other parts of the academy.

The Anyway Argument goes like this: requirement X is widely loathed, and causes all manner of angst among both students and faculty.  Outside of a few specialized fields, most students will never need the skills built by requirement X anyway.  So why not just drop it?

The Anyway Argument is at the core of the Statway project, for example.  In the community college world, developmental math is increasingly seen as a sort of quicksand from which few students escape.  Most developmental math sequences are built on the assumption that students move through algebra to pre-calculus and calculus.  That makes perfect sense for students who want to go on in fields that require calculus, including most STEM disciplines.  But most students don’t do that.  Most of them go into fields in which they’ll never use much advanced algebra, let alone calculus.  

The Statway project, and others like it, take as the starting point the idea that if the algebra track is a major attrition generator and largely irrelevant anyway, why keep it?  Instead, why not channel non-STEM majors into Statistics (or something similar), and streamline the remediation to cover only the stuff they need for that class?  If the rest is just frustrating and wasteful, why require it?  You may need calculus to be an engineer, and that’s fine.  But if you don’t need it to study, say, history, then why sacrifice a degree to it?

The Anyway Argument has the great virtue of recognizing efficiency as a valid goal.  If a requirement can’t justify itself in any coherent way other than tradition, and it comes at an increasingly obvious and distasteful cost, it seems fair to call it into question.  In the case of Statway (and similar projects), it’s fair to ask why a prospective commercial artist needs to be able to calculate second derivatives.  In the case of Schuman’s argument, one may well ask whether a prospective business major really needs to be able to delve into a nuanced subject for ten pages with MLA citation format.  Most businesses don’t require that; in fact, I’m always a little surprised at the unedited prose of powerful people.  Let’s just say that for many, it appears not to have been a priority.

Of course, efficiency cuts two ways.  It’s easy to imagine a soulless administrator using Schuman’s argument as a way to reduce drastically the size of an English department.  At the community college level, most of what English departments teach falls under the umbrella of either developmental reading/writing or freshman comp.  Yes, there are some literature electives, but not many, and they often run small; it wouldn’t require many faculty to cover them.  And the credits freed up by dropping the composition requirement could be used for other things, whether it’s public speaking, personal finance, more credits in the major, or even shorter paths to degrees.  Think of the savings!

The problem with the Anyway Argument, I think, is that it works best in hindsight.  If you know from the outset what you want to do, and you’re right, then it’s possible to identify requirements that seem extraneous.  (My alma mater made every student pass a swim test as a graduation requirement.  Your guess is as good as mine.)  Looking back, I can see some academic choices I made as having been blind alleys.  Had I known that at the time, I would have chosen differently.

But I didn’t know that at the time.  Realistically, I couldn’t have.  They weren’t blind alleys for everybody, and I couldn’t know which camp I’d fall into until it was too late.

Many of us can tell tales of a sort of academic serendipity.  They tend to go like this: I wandered with some vague sense of needing direction, and then something clicked in a random and unforeseeable moment in a class from which I didn’t expect much.  It’s a sort of vision quest, but usually without the self-awareness.  Weber captured it nicely by saying that you can’t decide to have an accident, exactly, but you can make yourself accident-prone.  You do that by putting yourself in situations in which lightning is likelier to strike.  

That’s the justification for unpopular, across-the-board requirements.  As a college, or as a sector, we’ve made a judgment that students just don’t know themselves, or the academic world, or both, well enough yet to rule out certain options from day one.  You can make the “conservative” version of that argument by appeal to tradition, or the “liberal” version by noting that “preferences” taken as “given” are often, in fact, artifacts of constrained circumstances.  (The strongest ethical argument I’ve heard against the Statway model is that the students likeliest to self-identify as “bad at math” will come from economically segregated schools.  If we let them cut down the future to the size of the present, we’ll miss real potential.)  Either way, though, allowing students to bypass any sort of sustained writing rules out a host of options for them, and relies on 18 year olds to self-identify accurately.  That flies in the face of what most experienced educators know.

The Anyway Argument has a certain visceral appeal, and I enjoyed Schuman’s version of it tremendously.  But any argument that relies on applying hindsight upfront strikes me as shaky.  And I’d hate to reduce what colleges do to what 18 year olds can envision.  On my better days, I like to think that expanding their vision is kind of the point in the first place.

Comments:
From where I sit, your comment that "The Statway project, and others like it, take as the starting point the idea that if the algebra track is a major attrition generator and largely irrelevant anyway, why keep it?" is seriously flawed.

College algebra is not required for an AA degree where I teach because it is not required for many majors at every state university and most other colleges that our students attend. That requirement was eliminated ages ago. There are, however, majors where statistics is either recommended or required. (Many social sciences fall in this category.) It is not necessary to know logarithms and solve cubic equations to learn statistics, and Statway provides an appropriate and successful curriculum.

Students in STEM majors are not allowed to follow the Statway path because it would increase the time to a degree for students who need logarithms, trig, and calculus.

PS: When I read lab repors, I deduce from the execrable writing (e.g., a single 2-page paragraph filled with sentence fragments) that what is learned from writing essays is not transferable to other classes or was (more likely) actively forgotten.
 
I tell my engineering students that they will probably need to use only 5% of what they learn in the major. The catch is that they can't know in advance which 5% is relevant for them, compared to the 5% that has been relevant to colleagues and alumni.
 
I hate that essay. How about this: My kids hate doing chores, and I hate nagging them to do chores, so by the logic of that essay, I should just stop making them do chores. Or, maybe, just maybe, there are things in life that we don't like to do that are good for us, so we do them. It's our job as parents to teach our kids, and it's our job as educators to teach our students. Otherwise, we teach our kids and our students that life is a magic fairy land with no drudgery. Sheesh. I know I am sounding like an old curmudgeon here, but I can't believe how many people have latched on to that essay!

Here's the thing - a good paper assignment is work, for everyone involved. But after having slogged through grading required research papers in my upper level political science classes, I can see that my students learned something in the process of doing this. Did they all write good papers? No. But they almost all improved over the course of the semester because I worked at it with them and they worked at it too.
 
How do you see first-year composition as expanding students' vision?
 
Ideas like these come from the reality that (many) students dislike writing essays -- and we respond, like Dean Dad, that they need to keep at it so that their writing will become at least serviceable. But it also comes, partly, from the presence in developmental English and Comp I classes of so, so, many students who resist writing essays AND whose writing skills are so far below par that it's not likely they will ever have serviceable writing. When that's the case, students should be able to skip essays -- as long as their career goals and degree goals are entirely technical and will not involve writing or even documenting anything.
 
Which career goals would that include? Maybe a low-end service job (d'you want fries with that?)? And even Walmart clerks and McDonalds fry cooks need to be able to convey information or make reasonably cogent arguments in writing from time to time, if not in their work lives, then in other aspects of their lives.
 
In response to Anonymous 1:58 PM (from the previous Anonymous).

I have many relatives who do not write anything resembling an essay in their (very successful) lives. Building tradespeople, commissioned sales people, small business owners, some (not all) allied health workers, etc. Their jobs require that they describe what they observe and do, but within very standard protocols (usually). I agree that everyone could benefit from being able to write "cogent arguments" in different aspects of their lives; I just realize that at present we have no way of making sure that skill is developed by every person.
 
I have taught developmental composition for 20 years. Writing essays helps students learn to organize ideas and facts into a coherent whole.

I mean essays, 5 or 6 paragraphs long with 3-4 sentences required in each paragraph, not research papers. Save the research and citations required research for AFTER the student has learned what an essay contains.

Demonstrating how to change some words and add or delete certain sentences can change the type of essay it is while maintaining the core of the ideas/tone in it. Students love to see this when it is done to their own essays.

Students hate essay writing, in my opinion, because some professors don't spend time helping the students plan and organize the essay. Some professors don't have a rubric with grade points for each requirement in the essay. The grading just seems arbitrary to the student.

Start students on 5-8 paragraph essays without research and include a list of what will be graded in the essay and students will learn how to organize and manipulate ideas into sentences. Then they will learn how to put sentences about the same subject together to make a paragraph.

Writing is a step by step process.
Real life occurrences have sequential steps to build or put together something; real life often requires taking a bunch of notes or ideas or facts and organizing them into a coherent whole.

Essay writing is good for developing analysis, evaluating and synthesis, the upper level thinking skills.

Let's keep essay writing in freshman curricula.
 
I'd second Anonymous 6:56, about real life requiring taking a bunch of notes and organizing them into a coherent whole. How about going to a doctor's visit with an aging parent and having to synthesize the diagnosis/advice into an action plan for the other parent and your siblings? How about sitting down with a client and having to translate their opinions and requirements into an end product?

I was pleasantly surprised that students in my science-class-for-non-science-majors did a bang-up job (thoughtful, coherent, some even insightful) on the final exam short essay question. Of course, they'd been answering essay questions all semester, and they can be a pain to grade, but it was absolutely worth the pain to get the "By Jove - they got it!" feeling.

I'll be assigning the writing again next semester
 
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