Death to the Five-Page Essay!

This semester, instead of submitting the usual, five-page final reflection essay I ask for at the end of the term, one of my students emailed me a link to a Prezi.  This was very surprising, as I had used Prezi once in the class to accompany a discussion on Jacob Lawrence’s magnificent “Migration Series.”  The act of creating and sharing a Prezi instead of producing the usual five-page essay implied a bunch of very provocative assumptions about me, about teachers and teaching, about learning, and about representation.  The Prezi was great and more about this particular student’s audacity later . . .

Finding the link to a multimedia representation of student learning in my gmail got me thinking.

The standard medium for evaluating student learning in my discipline is the five-page essay – – usually assigned at the mid-term, at the end of the semester, and often at arbitrary points along the way.  (It’s true – – sometimes lit. professors flay their students with midterm and final exams.  And, often, I bump into students studying for  “multiple choice” final exams in a literature class – – proving that teachers have been practicing “culturomics,” e.g. treating “culture as data,” long before Google scanned 500 billion words).

If you’ve got a college degree, you know the five-page essay: late nights fueled by coffee, tea, cigarettes, or other stimulants of choice; the frantic re-reading and re-annotating of poems or novels; the desperate search for an argument or topic; the adrenaline rush of writing-as-you-think; the existential crisis of the concluding paragraph; and, by dawn’s early light, the frenetic scramble to make the printer work.

The educational test here was not writing five pages of analytical prose; the real ordeal was writing five pages of coherent prose under extreme conditions of panic, sleep deprivation, and various forms of material scarcity (from running out of cigarettes at 3 a.m. to the empty printer cartridge at 6 a.m.).  Still, unlike many rites of passage, the five-page ordeal was ultimately benign: after turning in your five stapled pages (if you had managed to rustle up a stapler on the way to class!), you could forget all about Keats’ “Ode to Autumn,” or Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” or any other pearls on the syllabus.  Game over, back to bed to catch up on your sleep!

Even though the five-page essay is the dominant genre for representing student learning, based on my experience (as a student, a recovering assigner of midterm essays, and a brutally scarred reader of these efforts), the five-page essay is a limited, flawed, and potentially deceptive medium to evaluate student learning.  What the five-page essay actually evaluates is something altogether different: how well do students handle stress?  In other words, when students write their five-page essays, what they are really representing is their ability to manage fairly complex tasks within extremely challenging environments.  Sadly, this may in fact be excellent training for the flexible, precarious, and increasingly anxious workplace.  Sadder still, it is certainly not an authentic representation of student learning.

I.e. the five-page essay may demonstrate a limited range of student skills and abilities, including the ability to generate grammatical sentences. However, in terms of evaluating student learning, the five-page essay most frequently mis-represents how well students understand, engage with, and relate to texts and ideas.

So why does this artificial exercise in mis-representation persist as our dominant genre of evaluation?

Probably because it reflects and shapes some very important important assumptions about teaching, learning, and the institutions designated for these activities.

First, in terms of academic labor, the five-page essay appears to be more efficient: in classes of 25 or more students, the five-page essay segregates and reduces evaluation work-time into discrete, repetitive routines.  In the conventional arrangement, the five-page essay allows us to spend most of our time “teaching” – – that is, downloading our knowledge and wisdom to more or, more frequently, less receptive students.  Corollary: the five-page essay can also help to maintain very traditional and hierarchal relations in the classroom – – teacher as reservoir and ultimate adjudicator of knowledge, student as receptacle and parodist of knowledge.

Second, the five-page essay is highly portable: representations of student learning can be simplified and formalized so that english, history, philosophy, and most other writing-based disciplines – – despite their wide variety in ways-of-making and representing knowledge – – can share the same medium of evaluation.  Corollary: the commonality of the form generates a real but “bad faith” image of academic community. English, history, anthropology, business, etc. professors mistake a conversation about the conventions of a very particular genre, the five-page essay, for a conversation about student learning.  Typically, students’ refusal or inability to master these conventions lubricates a sense of collegiality with perversely satisfying squirts of ressentiment.

Third, the five-page essay shrouds the “black box” of learning.  “We” provide the inputs (readings, lectures, assignments), and “they” (students) produce the output (the five-page essay); whatever messy, complicated business happens in-between is no concern of ours and no part of our already over-taxed work lives.  In other words, the five-page essay nurtures a particular “occupational psychosis” which, as Kenneth Burke described it, is a “way of seeing [that] is also a way of not seeing.”  Making learning less visible makes teaching less complicated.

Finally, from a student perspective, the typical deployment of the five-page essay underwrites a bulimic model of schooling. Long periods of lecturing and some discussion are periodically interrupted by short, often existentially turbulent periods of disgorgement, expulsion, and regurgitation – – e.g. the creation of the five-page essay within a high-stress environment.  For students, this isn’t always a bad thing.  There’s pleasure in kicking back and letting the professor do his thing; and, sometimes, there’s a necessity – – as work, social life, political activism, recreation, and other demands take center stage.  After the purge, things can get back to normal.

For these reasons and more, the five-page essay must die.  The first step in that glorious regicide is to rethink the temporality of teaching and learning.  More about these assassin’s techniques and the surprising Prezi in another post . . .

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