L’art pour l’art

Dave Cormier recently advised us to stop assigning essays because it doesn’t teach students what he wants to teach them, namely, how to do research. My immediate response to this was to say that I’m teaching students how to write sentences to put in paragraphs to make arguments to use in essays. To steal a line from T. S. Eliot, I’m teaching prose primarily as prose and not another thing.

In fact, I felt like I had pre-emptively responded to his post nine months ago with my first post of the year, reflecting on the coming (now ongoing) disruption of higher education by generative AI: “How They Must Write: Saving the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Contingencies.”

When I say I want to teach students how to “make arguments” I’m not saying that I’m teaching the essay in order to build “critical thinking” skills, although I do believe that Dave’s long list of skills that generative AI will increasingly “cover” are important and still need to be taught. I think Dave agrees with this, although I was surprised to see him say that AI means that “the student doesn’t need to be creative” any longer.

I’m not using the essay to teach information literacy. I’m literally (!) just trying to teach literacy — specifically, writing skills. Students should understand how sentences and paragraphs work. They should be able to compose them into arguments and they should be able to occupy a reader’s attention effectively for 5 or 11 or 40 minutes. Students should simply be able to write essays, not for the sake of some other skill that is required to write them, but for the sake of writing essays. Indeed, I’ll teach some of those other skills for the sake of the essays!

So I will keep assigning essays, including take-home essays. It’s just that I’ll only give grades for in-class writing. Or, rather, that is my advice to teachers.

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