Professors Hate Essays

A few months ago, I called for the end of the traditional undergraduate essay. It’s a tired format, I argued, that often results in cheating and half-assed, rushed arguments. By insisting that students churn out paper after paper, from which said students often learn little other than the delicate art of margin manipulation, today’s professors accomplish little other than the perpetuation of their own grading martyrdom.

Rebecca Schuman

The response was swift and severe. I was excoriated, called a terrible teacher and a useless click-baiter, sent screaming from Twitter (probably, in hindsight, a good thing) and hate-mailed around the clock. Deans at the college where I am a part-time adjunct were encouraged to fire me. (Their reaction: “Who?”)

Most of this, of course, came not from students in zealous defense of the essays they so adore, but from the professoriate. It turns out that the academics of America have a manic, violent reverence for the traditional essay, one so fierce that the mere suggestion that it does not produce a generation of pensive, erudite philosopher-kings is enough to ignite an Internet-wide temper tantrum.

Why do professors cleave onto their crown of grading-thorns so? Is it out of terror that if they lose their red-pen stigmata, they’ll simply vanish from the Earth? It’s a mystery.

Or at least it was. But now I understand: A halt to the college essay might also mean the abrupt stoppage of the gravy train for many of these righteously offended compositionists. UnemployedProfessors.com is a paper mill based out of Montreal—but it’s not just any paper mill. If you’re going to pay $200 for someone else to write your essay for that professor who insists essay-writing is the most important part of college, then at least have that essay be written byanother professor who believes that essay-writing is the most important part of college.

Yes, Unemployed Professors purports to hire exclusivelycasualties of today’s academic job marketto write all the essays, so that students can spend their valuable time attending racist frat parties. Well, actually, they claim to hire both current and former academics, but, as the URL suggests, the emphasis is on the latter.

And you have to admit, there is a certain aesthetic perfection to a 100-percent professor feedback loop: professors producing papers for professors, who then simultaneously bemoan the grading of those professor-written papers to other professors and hate-mail other professors about said professor-penned treatises’ immortal worth in the curriculum.

And yet! You also have to wonder about the ethics of the whole operation—and out of Canada, no less. (First Dave Foley and Will Sasso break bad on Justified, and now this?) The company claims indemnification from legal issues by placing the onus for turning in original work squarely on the student—and indeed, if the unemployed professor just can’t resist using Foucault and Heidegger to explicate The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the employed professor rightly sniffs out a ringer showing off, it’s the student who gets punished.

The company justifies its existence by pointing out that the current academic labor climate is hardly a paragon of laudable behavior. This might be true, but the logic doesn’t compute: Universities don’t have enough tenure lines … ergo, students are excused from having to complete and submit their own work? That’s as perplexing as the defense of the essay in the first place, and I can only hope the unemployed ethics professors Unemployed Professors employs employ slightly better reasoning in the ethics papers they unethically write for others.

Oh, and I almost forgot: For all you unemployed Ph.D.s out there, here’s how to submit an application.

This post is written by NCTE member Kim Zarins. 

[Disclaimer: I don’t have a PhD in composition studies. My PhD is in English with a focus on medieval literature. Besides teaching college literature courses, I write creatively, and my debut young adult novel comes out in September. I am joining the debate on the five-paragraph essay in response to Kathleen Rowlands’ smart “Slay the Monster” journal article, because I think high school and college teachers can work together and set up our students for success—and the five-paragraph essay is setting them up for a really tough time in college. Students don’t find their voices this way and come to college hating how they sound in writing, particularly in the essay form.

As a high-school survivor of this form and now a teacher occasionally receiving it from students trying their best, I have to say I hate this abomination. I hate it so much, I decided to be naughty and condemn the five-paragraph essay in a five-paragraph essay. Here you go. Enjoy. Or not.]

From the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of the modern high school, the five-paragraph essay has been utilized in high school classrooms. Despite this long tradition, the five-paragraph essay is fatally flawed. It cheapens a student’s thesis, essay flow and structure, and voice.

First, the five-paragraph essay constricts an argument beyond usefulness or interest. In principle it reminds one of a three-partitioned dinner plate. The primary virtue of such dinner plates is that they are conveniently discarded after only one use, much like the essays themselves. The secondary virtue is to keep different foods from touching each other, like the three-body paragraphs. However, when eating from a partitioned plate, a diner might have a bite of burger, then a spoonful of baked beans, then back to the burger, and then the macaroni salad. The palate satisfies its complex needs for texture, taste, choice, and proportion. Not so for the consumers of the five-paragraph essay, who must move through Point 1, then Point 2, and then Point 3. No exceptions. It is arbitrary force-feeding to the point of indigestion. After the body paragraphs, and if readers have not already expired, they may read the Conclusion, which is actually a summary of the Introduction. There is no sense of building one’s argument or of proportion.

Second, critical thinking skills and the organization of the essay’s flow are impaired when a form must be plugged and filled with rows of stunted seeds that will never germinate. If we return to the partitioned-plate analogy, foods are separated, but in food, there is a play in blending flavors, pairing them so that the sum is greater than the individual parts. Also, there is typically dessert. Most people like dessert and anticipate it eagerly. In the five-paragraph essay there is no anticipation, only homogeneity, tedium, and death. Each bite is not food for thought but another dose of the same. It is like Miss Trunchbull in the Roald Dahl novel,  forcing the little boy to eat chocolate cake until he bursts—with the exception that no one on this planet would mistake the five-paragraph essay for chocolate cake. I only reference the scene’s reluctant, miserable consumption past all joy or desire.

Third, the five-paragraph form flattens a writer’s voice more than a bully’s fist flattens an otherwise perky, loveable face. Even the most gifted writer cannot sound witty in a five-paragraph essay, which makes one wonder why experts assign novice writers this task. High school students suffer to learn this form, only to be sternly reprimanded by college professors who insist that writers actually say something. Confidence is shattered, and students can’t articulate a position, having only the training of the five-paragraph essay dulling their critical reasoning skills. Moreover, unlike Midas whose touch turns everything to gold, everything the five-paragraph essay touches turns to lead. A five-paragraph essay is like a string of beads with no differentiation, such as a factory, rather than an individual, might produce.  No matter how wondrous the material, the writer of a five-paragraph essay will sound reductive, dry, and unimaginative. Reading over their own work, these writers will wonder why they ever bothered with the written word to begin with, when they sound so inhuman. A human’s voice is not slotted into bins of seven to eleven sentences apiece. A human voice meanders—but meaning guides the meandering. Voice leans and wends and backtracks. It does not scoop blobs of foodstuff in endless rows. If Oliver Twist were confronted with such blobs of written porridge, he would not ask for more.

In conclusion, the five-paragraph essay is an effective way to remove all color and joy from this earth. It would be better to eat a flavorless dinner from a partitioned plate than to read or write a five-paragraph essay. It would be better to cut one’s toenails, because at least the repetitive task of clipping toenails results in feet more comfortably suited to sneakers, allowing for greater movement in this world. The five-paragraph essay, by contrast, cuts all mirth and merit and motion from ideas until there is nothing to stand upon at all, leaving reader and writer alike flat on their faces. Such an essay form is the very three-partitioned tombstone of human reason and imagination.

Kim Zarins is a medievalist and an Associate Professor of English at the California State University at Sacramento. Her debut young adult novel, Sometimes We Tell the Truth (Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, pub date Sept 6), retells Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with modern American teens traveling to Washington D.C. Find her on Twitter @KimZarins.

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