I recently read an article in Gold’s Debates in the Digital Humanities in which the author argued that undergraduate essays were an outmoded waste of time.  No-where else, he argued, were people evaluated on things they wrote that no-one else read.  Instead he used class assignments that involved postings online (like this) and other approaches that tried to get the students’ work out and give them a feeling that their work was more than just grist for a professor’s mill.

I must disagree.  University, particularly the first few years, are practice.  The point is to teach how to write, the underlying assumption being that they’re not doing it correctly or they wouldn’t be in school.  While indulging students’ creative faculties may be empowering for the student, and they may enjoy the feeling of importance attached to seeing their work available for the world to see, I have to think that at the end of the day this is both a disservice to society and a disservice to the student.

It is a disservice to society because it is rewarding without reason the egotistical tendency of people in general and this segment in particular.  Society, web-users, have that much more questionable material to wade through in their search for useful information.  Instead, post only the best material online – perhaps all “A” papers; it could be a reward for the exceptional student’s hard work and intellectual ability.

It is a disservice to the student for two reasons: 1) it tells the student that life will conform a format that fits their whims and talents, which is rarely true, and 2) it fails to teach essay-writing.  The ability to structure thought in a thesis-defense format, I can attest from my experience as a Fulbrighter in the Balkans, is centrally connected to an individual’s ability to form a coherent, internally consistent argument for or against an idea.

Is the undergrad essay an anomaly?  Yes, but that does not make it worthless.  Essays teach a method of thought and articulation that will serve a student later in life; are there other assignments that are valuable?  Certainly, but throwing out essays because they are hard and student’s don’t like them, or they seem un-creative, or they don’t have a direct parallel in the “real world” misses the point.