Danny Rubin, guest writing at Lifehacker, makes my point very well. I think the days of traditional academic writing are over. Maybe they have been for a long time, yet many academics seem to be blind to the fact.

I’m a displaced English professor, now teaching in what is essentially a media studies program. In my former life, I often taught first-year composition: a course that supposedly taught students the writing skills they needed for college. The main focus of the course was the college essay. Now, freshmen usually had no trouble with the form of the essay; they just struggled with the content. Grammar issues aside — these would usually work themselves out during the term — so the main focus could be composing an argument in a logical way. This fact usually separates the high-school essay from the college one: the amount of analysis devoted to an argument.

Conventional approaches to teaching more nuanced and critical inquiry usually mean emphasizing word minimums. For example, see my assignment for The Belief Essay. Notice that it asks for 1000 words. Now, I don’t emphasize this number in the assignment, but it does suggest that the essay will not be complete unless it somehow makes it to at least 1000 words. This emphasis on word minimums is a symptom of the problem, particularly in disciplines that are not English.

When my colleagues and I rewrote our curriculum, several of them insisted on making “writing-intensive” courses a focus of the degree. I agree with the premise: our program has a foundation in the liberal arts, and writing is integral to the development of thoughtful and articulate citizenry.

However, “writing intensive” is not defined anywhere in the catalog that I can see. I think we academics have a tacit understanding of what it means (especially since all the courses listed in this section are cultural studies classes): make the students write. A lot. What will they be writing intensively? Essays. Again, maybe this is still appropriate for English programs — particularly those that emphasize graduate school — but for a degree in New Media and Communications, I think we’re doing the students a disservice, especially if we pretend that our degree is, like our college’s mission statement says, preparing

students to succeed in a technology-rich, information-driven global economy while developing important life and citizenship skills through a solid foundation in the liberal arts.

One of the traits of language is that it’s alive — it changes to meet the needs of the culture. As a Ph.D. in English Literature, I appreciate all literary idioms, from Pope’s rapier-like heroic couplets, to Faulkner’s multi-page sentences. One of the lessons that I take from these masters is a rhetorical one: language must fit the circumstance. What are our students writing today in an age of convergence and multimodality? Is the essay really the best medium for the message, especially in a media studies program? (Don’t even get me started about citation methods.)

Now don’t misunderstand me. Like the novel, I don’t think the college essay is going away. In fact, it’s still a pretty darn good container for evaluating students’ understanding of complex subject matter. My exams always include essays. Yet, I have often wondered why I assign so many essays — especially when all my colleagues do: I don’t like to read them, and I know students don’t like to write them.

With this in mind, I have begun approaching writing in a different way, even in my humanities courses. Instead of word minimums, I now assign word maximums. It’s a completely different skill: communicate complex thoughts with fewer words. Students quickly learn that they cannot waste time with useless bits of information that they needed to pad their prose when writing the traditional college essay. Instead, they need to cut away the fat to get to the lean meat underneath. Many students struggle with this type of writing, but I think it serves them better today than the multi-page essay of yore.

This spring in my new media seminar, I tried this approach. Instead of essays, I had the students contribute to Big Jelly — an exercise that reflects the real world for this major. They did not turn in writing and get a grade on it; instead, they submitted their posts which were either accepted or rejected. If the latter, they could revise and submit again. Only contributions that were clear, concise, and appropriate for the medium were posted. I quickly learned that this type of writing was totally new to these seniors. Even those who had been trained to be master essayists struggled with this new approach, which I call writing for digital media. Most learned to adapt by the semester’s end. However, several did not. It was a frustrating exercise for many of them, a fact that likely tarnished my evaluations.

My conclusion: our students — those that we intend to get careers as media professionals — need to learn this type of writing well before their senior year. In fact, our program should emphasize it. Yes, keep the essay around, but begin to wean them of it so that by the time they are seniors, they are ready to write for digital media, not the college classroom.


Blog post originally published 5/12/12.