Papers Be Gone?

Papers Be Gone? December 17, 2013

Rebecca Schuman, at Slate, proposes an end to mandatory papers in mandatory classes:

Everybody in college hates papers. Students hate writing them so much that they buyborrow, or steal them instead. Plagiarism is now so commonplace that if we flunked every kid who did it, we’d have a worse attrition rate than a MOOC. And on those rare occasions undergrads do deign to compose their own essays, said exegetic masterpieces usually take them all of half an hour at 4 a.m. to write, and consist accordingly of “arguments” that are at besttangentially related to the coursework, font-manipulated to meet the minimum required page-count. Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know….

Mom, friends, educators, students: We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. The baccalaureateis the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students (and their parents) view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important “piece of paper.” Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utter waste of their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.

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  • This is sad. But i’m sure it’s close to the reality. It raises a question about the fate of long form writing, and it’s death because of social media, texting and the quick consumption of all things media.

  • Phil Miller

    As an engineering graduate, I completely agree!

  • Matt Miles

    I’m standing by what I said when I shared this story last week. The problem is students aren’t being taught/held to writing standards in grade school or high school, so how should we expect them to magically improve once they turn 18? And why instead of working on the problem (improving from the ground up) should we just admit defeat?

  • Josiah Black

    This perspective seems to suggest that higher education should just roll over in the face of a shift in cultural perspective on the value/place of education. I’m not certain I can get on board that particular train of thought. Institutional culture, as much as societal pressure, has allowed this lower view of the baccalaureate to become common place. Institutions have comprimised the integrity of their degree offerings in order to attract more students, grow their endowments, and take advantage of the unprecedented amounts of student loan monies avialable to students. I feel compelled to resist the idea that one more layer of the academic experience should be discarded due to defeat. If we create more effective padagogy, then by all means lets ditch the papers, but to just throw in the towel is shameful.

    On the subject of student response to paper prompts: Students are cheating? Hold them accountable. Students don’t “like” papers? Make them do them anyway. Students are turning in substandard work? Give them a substandard grade. Unfortunately, educators are being barred from these steps by administrators who need to demonstrate succesful numbers in order to hold on to their funding.

  • I think it is time to fail students rather than admit defeat.

    True, I hate reading the papers that students submit, although a few are marvelous and thought-provoking. I hate failing a paper for plagiarism. But despite all the hatred directed at papers, it is important for a student to gain the skill of organizing their thoughts and writing them down in a clear and concise manner.

    My students have to submit digital copies of their papers. This insures that there is no margin/font size manipulation with the added benefit of easy plagiarism detection. The screen tells me how many words there are.

    The skill of writing is as important as the skill of math. Just because every student can’t do it doesn’t mean that we toss teaching the skill out. It should just be a clarion call that we need to improve our educational system.

  • I am now sad.

  • Phil Miller

    My previous snarky comment aside, I do think it is sad that so many students have no writing ability by the time they get to college. Heck, my wife will tell you that many in graduate school aren’t much better (she has helped to advise quite a few Master’s candidates). It really comes down to much more than writing, I think, though. What I noticed is that it seems much less emphasis is placed on helping student to work through a thought process in whatever discipline they’re studying. I noticed this when I worked with undergrads. It always amazed me that so many of them seemed to lack very basic time and task management skills. If I gave them something to do without giving them explicit step-by-step instruction, they were often lost.

    I hope I don’t sound like an old, “kids these days!” guy ranting. I really think that they’ve not had all the opportunities that generations before them have had. You can’t really blame them for something that was totally outside of their control.

  • I admit that grading papers is a pain. I used to assign one per semester for Business Law as an adjunct, then I made papers optional extra credit, and before I quit the position, I didn’t assign papers at all. BUT, if being a prof had been my day job rather than a second job, I would have kept assigning papers. IMO, the fact that students are not good at doing them is all the more reason to assign them. I’m not saying I would assign papers if I was teaching corporate tax, but there are many courses in which a paper is an appropriate way to get students to dig into a given subject matter and organize and apply ideas.

    I would, in general, be loathe to admit defeat and not give any writing requirements to college students. If college is the new “high school” then all the more reason to hold the line. Writing matters. If writing a paper is beyond a given person’s ability, then college may not be a good fit.

  • Make ’em right! Write?

  • macd50

    Having talked to my son’s teachers when he was in middle school they openly said his spelling, grammar, and the like was not as important as “the idea” he presented. Really? Even now he uses words phonetically, runs huge sentences together, and uses very little punctuation. Our grand kids are the same way and their parents don’t seem too concerned about it although both of them are taking college classes now. I agree kids should know how to organize their thoughts, but perhaps they should learn to do that verbally before attempting to commit such things to writing.

  • RJS4DQ

    This is interesting.

    Not too long ago I was at a fundraising, celebration dinner, sitting at a table with two successful businessmen. Both of these men agreed that the ability to organize thoughts and analyze ideas in a coherent written argument was about the most important thing they learned as undergraduates. When they hire a new college graduate into all but the most specialized jobs they look for skill in synthesizing and writing a coherent argument. They don’t really care about the field of the major – any major can do because if a person can do it in one field, they can do it in another.

  • Ryan G

    I agree that writing is an invaluable skill, but a baccalaureate is “abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos”? Unless she (and the linked article) is including the trades and technical diplomas, both of which can lead one to many more-than-decent jobs, under the banner of “baccalaureate,” then I have to heartily disagree. Post-secondary may be necessary, but that need not be a baccalaureate.

  • josenmiami

    I think there is still some value in the attempt to help students become literate … at the same time, professors need to be realistic.

  • josenmiami

    I agree.

  • josenmiami


  • josenmiami


  • josenmiami

    me too 🙁

  • I don’t hate papers. I find I get a more accurate idea of what my students are thinking. (And because I make ’em write a few of their essays in class, I know it’s actually them. It’s not impossible to plagiarize with your desk cleared, but it’s not easy.)

  • Lise

    Lord, I sincerely hope not. We must not throw in the towel and admit defeat. Too much is at stake. Miles to go before we sleep.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Having had excellent English teachers from middle through high school and having been forced to write what seemed like an infinite number of papers in college has been INVALUABLE to my professional life. It’s one of the most important skills there is in the world of work, across practically any profession..

  • Writing is one of the best evidences of intelligent human communication. It shows the ability to synthesize thoughts (sentences/paragraphs) from selected details (chosen vocabulary words) within a conventional structure (syntax rules). It is a basic skill. That being said, it is interesting that this post comes soon after a previous one about how Christian publishers look for authors with “platform,” which is a predictor of sales and, therefore, revenue. A submitted manuscript that makes a genuine contribution to knowledge, but written by an unknown author, will have a more difficult time getting published than will a superficial rehash invited from a publicly known megachurch preacher who has many “friends in low places” who will buy books because of his face. So, how well are good writing skills rewarded even in the publishing industry? That particular post and comments plus this one are even more discouraging about the direction of what a society values and rewards.

  • tearfang

    Who did they hire and for what? What are these mythical jobs that won’t take someone off the street but will take someone with an unknown degree from an unknown school. Would you want such a person to be your surgeon, architect, civil engineer, computer programmer, defense lawyer, pilot, psychologist, paramedic, mechanic, white water rafter river guide… prior training matters. I hear all the time that people only care if you have a degree but not which one or where it was from. I call BS. New hires enter a competitive market. Joe blow from no-name school with unrelated major will never even make it to an interview, let alone get hired.

  • Jeremy B.

    Funny. That’s exactly what I did about 18 months ago. A little creative connect-the-dots and a dose of experience can get you in doors that will normally remain shut. That’s not to say it’s not a LOT harder than it used to be, but it’s not mythical. Also, small businesses tend to be far less picky than major corporations (though I got hired on by a 3,500 employee organization).

  • tearfang

    What type of job and how much prior experience, experience doing what? Not sure what you mean by creative connect the dots…

    My comment was about new grads- they just graduated, so- no experience. Advising ppl, experience helps, doesn’t help them get their 1st job. Sure there are some amazingly industrious and talented ppl w/o relevant degrees or who even drop out, who manage to somehow get into specialized fields. My father and apparently you 🙂 are among them. Some are extremely successful, like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg and others, but it is still BS to advise: any degree is all that matters. Most ppl who take that advise get screwed.

  • patriciamc

    Their future employers are going to be concerned about grammar and punctuation. Those who follow the rules of proper communication have a real advantage when it comes to being promoted in the business world.

  • patriciamc


  • Amanda B.

    I think rather than give up on papers, we need to get better at doing two things:

    1) Actually teaching the students how to write well, being sure to provide the “why” behind the “what”. Students don’t magically know how to write a good paper beginning in middle school, and they’re not going to care at all unless we give them a reason to. We’ve ramped up this emphasis at our Bible college, and not only has the students’ quality of writing improved, but they are more deeply and productively engaged in the course material.

    2) Ensuring that the assigned topics are truly relevant to the class and require a bit of critical thinking to formulate. If you just want regurgitated right answers, give a quiz. If you want the student to go deeper with the material than simple memorization, assign a paper.

  • Definitely keep papers in. If one can’t organize a clear and supported statement or argument about a given point or topic in writing, it’s highly doubtful they can do it in speaking either, which can be important also. If one can do it in speech first more easily, then minor instruction in converting that to writing will normally enable at least decent paper-writing.

  • Tom F.

    I taught my first undergrad course as an adjunct this quarter; an upper division course in the social sciences. My students were all English language learners. I assigned a BIG paper. Why- because the ability to write a big paper is probably more important than them understanding the content in my class. (How much content information do you really remember from your college classes? For me, its not none, but let’s be real.)

    The trick I found that seemed to work well was simply to break down the assignment for them. I made them turn in a proposal, a research log, an outline, and took optional rough drafts as well (I did quick reads, for sure). By the time of the week before it was due, all of them had at least half of the paper written. And this was a class that was fairly far behind in writing and English ability. Looking at the papers now…there is a real range of quality, and the paper quality basically matches up to that person’s other grades/involvement in the class. I was pleasantly surprised. Also, no plagiarism or font manipulation.

    I think undergrad teachers, especially lower-division adjunct teachers, should basically treat their courses like one-part English 102. Its not the MOST basic level of essay instruction, but it is still pretty basic. If you aren’t willing to do some basic teaching on how to write an essay or walk students through the process, than do as this author suggests and don’t assign an essay.

  • Tom F.

    Yeah, but who REALLY failed when its this many students? Secondary Education…no?

    EDIT: I am sure secondary ed teachers try really hard with what they are given, my critique is directed at the secondary ed SYSTEM, not the people who work hard in it.

  • lakewood

    If it weren’t for writing papers, I might not have graduated from university. It is true that many incoming freshmen can’t write a decent and readable sentence; the university I graduated from took at risk students and I have seen some of the pathetic attempts to communicate through the written word a few of these students presented. But because I am ADD I tended not to test well, and yet could write very well. This got me through a couple of needed classes I would have surely failed. There are some types of courses that do not lend themselves to presenting or writing papers and I understand that. But I don’t think we should give up on trying to teach college and university students to express themselves in print, how to do research, how to distill information, and do it at least competently and clearly.
    John Mark; aka Lakewood

  • I totally agree with your opinion. Not every student has a talent and skills to write papers and that’s why he/she has to buy college term paper instead. As for me it would be much better if the education system was more flexible and could let the student to choose whether to write some paper or to pass an exam. I would definitely choose the last one option ;))

  • Kim Hampton

    I completely support your opinion. Not everyone is eligible for writing essays on any academic topic. The majority of students prefer ordering them istead of developing their writing skills. Nowadays, a tendency of ordering a CV or resume also becomes more and more popular. Fresh graduates do not want to waste their precious time on doing such a dull stuff.

  • janey

    thanks for your share. It’s nice . worldvaping