Saturday, December 21, 2013

Calm down, everybody: no one says you can't teach essay writing

Wow. Ignore the interwebs for a week or so and they blow up with a new issue.  Who'd have thought it?

Recently, Rebecca Schuman (you know, she of the declaration that tenured academics have "blood on their hands") wrote a piece for Slate  that said if students hate writing essays and teachers hate reading them, why don't we stop assigning them?  Readers were shocked, shocked! to hear this and inundated poor Professor Schuman with hate mail and her superiors with demands that she be fired.

Profhacker published an open letter defending the Slate piece as an issue of "academic freedom," which  may be a bit of a stretch, and condemning the uncivil tone of the attackers, which is a very real problem and no stretch at all.

But let's review:

First of all, internets: get a grip.

Come on. It's Slate, where all headlines end in a question mark and "We are clickbait. Snark is good." is on the masthead.  Slate lives to be provocative, not informative.  That's why it exists.  Why are you surprised that a provocative piece appears there?

Facts aren't important over at Slate, any more than they are on other entertainment sites (on one of which I read something about "Alexander Hamilton and his daughter Theodosia," never mind that the writer meant Aaron Burr, because hey, it was a long time ago and there was a duel and they're both dead, right?). So Professor Schuman judged the audience and wrote a snarky essay that would gain a lot of notoriety.  That is Slate success, so why pick on her for judging the audience correctly?

Second, so what if she stirs up the conversation by being provocative, at Slate, ChronicleVitae, and pankisseskafka, her blog? Does that mean the conversation isn't worth having?  The fact that talking about writing essays gets started by real (or satirically expressed) outrage doesn't make it invalid. And again: Slate. You notice that Slate didn't publish her carefully reasoned explanation of what she actually does, and why? No click bait here, so let's move along.

Third, the "no essay" idea isn't even new.  Cathy Davidson has been pioneering this approach for a long time, and so have a lot of other people. We can argue about ways of writing until the cows come home, and maybe learn something from the discussion, even if what we learn is the inspired lunacy of some approaches. No one's forcing you to adopt The One Best Way (yet). That's the time to begin the more reasoned conversation.

So let's take a break from the outrage and realize that this is what passes for literate entertainment and discourse on the interwebs--and that the best way not to get upset by it is not to engage it if it upsets you.


Contingent Cassandra said...

And now I have a very nice list of links to fill in the gaps in my own intermittent internet reading this week (which will be relevant, since I'm teaching a no-essay -- but other DH-type assignments -- gen ed lit class this spring). Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Meh. Rebecca Schuman makes her money stirring up controversy (and probably not much money, though possibly more than adjuncting brings in). I'm surprised you engaged! None of our other regular blog readings have said a word about this latest brouhaha, so we wouldn't have known about it had you not mentioned it. I would say they have a grip, but I suspect they're grading or busy with holidays.

undine said...

Contingent Cassandra--thanks! I'm glad I could help. Nicoleandmaggie's links are more interesting and varied, but I couldn't believe the amount of play this has gotten at the Chronicle and elsewhere.

nicoleandmaggie--When I first saw it, I thought it was just lobbing grenades like her other posts, but everyone got so outraged about it (Profhacker, etc.) that I figured a little perspective was in order.

undine said...

Not to hijack my own thread, but it's not as though people don't say outrageous things on the internet every day to get attention. Somebody writes an outrageous post, then it goes through Facebook and Twitter with escalating levels of outrage and protest and retweeting and likes, and then a day or a week later it's done, overtaken by the next new thing. It's like CNN without pictures.

Anonymous said...

Usually we read more about Rebecca Schuman's latest sally on more blogs... Dean Dad has picked her up in the past, maybe Bardiac, I dunno. We must not read ProfHacker (or the etc). So either our regulars (present company excluded) have Schuman fatigue or they're too busy to engage. I'm guessing the latter, but one never knows.

Historiann said...

Thanks for this post, Undine. I saw that essay by Schuman last week and chose NOT to engage it for all of the reasons you list here. Duh! Defending the value of assigned written work is like defending the wetness of water, or the coldness of winter in most of North America. Don't bother!

Not using writing assignments is about as realistic as pronouncements that MOOCs are transformative and will end the "higher ed bubble" for good. Neither deserve to be taken seriously. You'd think that a bunch of Ph.D.s would have the brains to figure that out, but maybe not.

Anonymous said...

Man, you covered the wrong story! TWO of our regulars have covered her newest piece. It must not be Schuman-fatigue (except, of course, Historiann). She's the next Sandra Tsing Loh. Maybe she'll get her own radio show.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie--I don't think I would have seen the Profhacker post except for Twitter, where there was a huge uproar, or what in my cynical moments I call business as usual there. After you posted that second comment, I went and read TR's post. You're exactly right: the next Sandra Tsing Loh indeed.

Historiann--I know, right? Water's wet and all that--duh. "Pronouncements" is exactly the right word here, too. There's no evidence, no reasoning, no data, just some amusingly expressed rage, so why is everyone getting so worked up?

To engage them all would be to say the following: "No, I don't have a duty to die because you don't have a job.

"No, not all untenured t-t faculty are oppressed (though adjuncts are). In fact, they are paid many, many thousands of dollars more a year than I am.

"No, I do not have a full ride to MLA. I pay my way to MLA to be on those hiring committees and make it better for those we hire, at least."

Unless I want to engage the "tenured faculty are all cruel oppressors" narrative, which is unwinnable despite Tenured Radical's gallant attempt, I need to mostly ignore those posts.

Historiann said...

Undine, you are so right. I *did* feel the need to point out that TR is not the author of all academic evil, and that her blog has overwhelmingly been about solidarity and solid advice/comiseration for & with grad students, grad students, and colleagues.

Happy holiday/s and enjoy a restful winter break.

undine said...

Historiann, happy holidays to you and to all here, and a peaceful, relaxing winter break.

sophylou said...

I'm doing my best to stay out of Schuman territory. However, this particular story got posted to my library's internal blog by a library administrator who wants librarians to offer to counsel faculty on "how to create better assignments." Don't think administrator had any other context on Schuman's writing.