Martin Brown‘s profile was updated 4 months ago
COMMENTARY | As final exams are poised to sweep across America many educators, ranging from junior high school teachers to tenured professors of graduate students, are feeling an intense wave of stress. Many of these educators will be forced to grade stacks of typed papers, undergoing the exhausting process of reading and commenting on countless paragraphs discussing English and Literature and/or the Humanities. Regardless the format of the final exam, the whining, bargaining, cajoling, weeping, and even veiled threatening will soon begin in earnest as students try to get educators to add points. Slate columnist and adjunct professor Rebecca Schuman has just gone viral for suggesting how to write a rhetorical analysis paper in an op-ed that we do away with the college essay.
Why? She says they’re hard to grade, students often cheat on them, and students whine and gripe too much about them. Sadly, she is dead wrong. Frankly, it is depressing that a fellow educator is suggesting to other teachers that we just give up. And her proposal to substitute oral exams for essays is ludicrous.
First of all, teaching is hard. It is not a job for the fainthearted. Often, we must fight the good fight even when the public fights against us. Parents and legislators and administrators say they want rigorous curricula and tough standards…until someone complains and wants a higher grade. Then, suddenly, it’s all about accommodation and second chances and dumping more work on the teachers.
I teach Economics to high school seniors, with three classes of Advanced Placement Microeconomics and three classes of regular Economics per day this fall. I have exhausted myself this past week grading the heaps and reams of low-quality late work and spray-and-pray test retakes. “What’s my grade now?” the student desperately asks the next time I am seen. “What else can I do?” In the land of teenagers there is always something else that can be done.
The burden is on the teacher. The system is rigged against us K-12 teachers so we cannot fail a student unless we can prove we did everything possible to prevent the failure. Call parents, offer extra credit, allow unlimited retakes, etc. And college prof Schuman thinks she has it rough?
We K-12 teachers at the secondary level, especially high school, have to deal with the whining and griping. We have to submit every graded essay to a system of “gotcha” where students exhaustively compare each other’s graded work to look for discrepancies. “You gave Billy a 90 but I only got an 85 but our writing is pretty much the same!” a teen will wail. “Why did I get five points less?”
If the student doesn’t like your explanation you can expect a parent phone call or e-mail. Then one to the department chair. Then one to the principal.
Ending the essay and admitting defeat is a step backward. It’s letting the slackers win. It’s taking another step down the devolution of education. Admitting that writing prose is too subjective and difficult and less necessary in today’s digital economy is just plain wrong. Schuman wants us to take the easy way out and leave society to txt spk.
She, ironically, thinks that substituting written essays with oral examinations will solve things. The only thing more subjective than jumbles of entitled teens’ and twentysomethings’ sentences are jumbles of their words. Students will complain that they are not good at public speaking and would prefer to write instead. Oral exams will devolve into “wait, ask me something else!” marathons. The whining and griping and appealing will only increase.
No, we teachers must continue to fight the good fight. I will not yield my red pen.