When, a few days ago, I posted the details of my radically subversive new writing assignment, I got a number of replies from my friends on Twitter. They fell into three categories:
- This sounds great!
- Um … let me know how it goes.
- I’d feel better about something like this if my students were skilled at writing conventional thesis essays.
Here I want to address that third response.
Some of my students are quite skilled at writing “conventional thesis essays” — the kind that have an introductory paragraph announcing the thesis to be supported, followed by evidence for that thesis taken from the primary source under consideration plus relevant secondary sources, and a conclusion that wraps things up nicely. Some of my students are not so skilled at working in that genre. By eschewing it I am definitely passing up the opportunity to give my students detailed instruction in how to write that kind of text.
Which leads me to a series of questions: How much does that matter? How important is it that my students get better at writing thesis essays? After all, the thesis essay is just one of many genres of writing: how did it become so utterly dominant in the academic study of the humanities? Does it deserve such dominance? Presumably we assign thesis essays not because we think that genre uniquely valuable in itself, but because we think it inculcates certain valuable skills (how to research and sift one’s research, how to defend an arguable position, etc.) — but what if those skills can be taught through assigning different kinds of writing? What if there are other equally valuable skills that can’t readily be taught through the assigning of thesis essays?
Yes, students who are going on to graduate school in the humanities will need to become quite skilled at writing thesis essays — but why should we craft our assignments in order to meet the needs of a small percentage of our students? Moreover, especially if those students get practice writing thesis essays in other classes, why shouldn’t I use my class to teach them some skills and intellectual virtues that could later set them apart from peers?
Questions like those.
One of the primary things I’m hoping to achieve through this assignment is to bring reading and writing into closer and more constructively interanimating relation. In the traditional model, students read and discuss a text and then, at some point later in the term, write about it. Reading is generally done on an almost daily basis, while writing (serious, in-depth writing anyway) is done infrequently and in intense bursts of activity, probably over little more than 48 hours.
I want to see what happens if students have to write, and write seriously, in more-or-less the same rhythm as they read: read a section of a text, write about it, read some more, see what others (scholars and classmates) have said about it, revisit your earlier thoughts to extend or correct them, etc. I feel quite confident that this will make students more incisive and reflective readers; what it will do for their writing skills I am not certain. But it’s worth an experiment.
(P.S. The assignment is neither radical nor subversive, but I thought that might be a cool thing to say.)