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Monday, 20 February 2006
Death of the essay (continued)

I remember, many years ago, my university tutor holding up my first essay and that of a fellow student. "I was impressed..." he said, and I inwardly breathed a sigh of relief, " neither of these essays." He then dropped the essays, which drifted to the floor, along with my confidence. (We didn't have self-esteem in those days.) What a bastard. It did me no harm, though, as I "got my act together" as people used to say at the time.

Following on from my post about the death of the essay in schools, I wondered what the position is in universities. Do students still write essays, as we did? And do tutors rip them to shreds, sometimes literally?

I googled "Death of the Essay". I was alive to the possibility that this wording might turn up only one side of the argument, unless, of course, my search returned articles entitled "Rumours of the death of the essay are exaggerated", or "Death of the essay? As if!". In fact, not much came up, apart from this article from 2001, by Professor David Punter of the Department of English at the University of Bristol. That's Bristol, England, in case there's one in the US. I was surprised and not best pleased to read that "radical changes in the structures of information and authority make the essay, and its conventional place in assessment, anachronistic":

We live at a time characterised by, among other things, the death of the signature and its replacement by pin numbers and similar techno-authorisations; and a consequence of this is that what we have all been living with for some time, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, is a furthering of uncertainty about where our students’ words (or even our own) are coming from...

My concern with the sustainability of the student essay itself within systems that have moved consistently away from exams and towards coursework, continuous assessment, periodic assessment, and all the other permutations of assessment that we now practice and encourage. The notion of the student essay is itself, of course, open to a variety of interpretations. We may say that it encourages the construction of a reasoned and coherent argument, and thus allows for the demonstration of identifiable transferable skills. We may locate it centrally in the procedures of assessment. We may regard the marking of and commentary on—whether in person or not— such essays as an essential, or in some cases the essential, component in the development of student learning....

I wonder whether in attaching this value to the essay we are now not merely living in the past, but refusing to admit to the ‘presenting’ of the future. Processes of information retrieval and deployment have changed radically over the last twenty years, changed perhaps to a point of unrecognisability...

I think that the days when we could approach student essays looking with a refined eye for originality of thought, penalising over-reliance on sources, speculating on the quality of mind shining through the odd unfortunate phrase, and all the rest of the panoply of distinction on which our grading and classification systems appear to continue to rest, are decisively over.

Bristol is a very good university, and not, as far as I know, one plagued by faddish teaching methods. So are essays dying throughout our universities? If so, I think it is a pity. I believe that they stretch the mind and encourage clarity of thought, if not originality. Of course other assessment methods may do this too, but that is no reason to jettison a tried and tested method of bringing out the best in a student. 

Posted on 02/20/2006 8:18 AM by Mary Jackson
16 Mar 2010
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