why the long paper?

It seems to me that there is a wave of writing teachers who are placing more importance on various types of writing that may be considered more informal.  In turn, some of these writing teachers are also turning away from the traditional academic writing.  As I tell my students, the other forms of writing, including blogs, journals, response papers, and editorials, are some of the most prominent and important forms of expression in the world today.  Of course, creative writing also has a beautifully valuable place in the world of writing.

However, I teach college composition at a community college.  I am there to teach academic writing. Why?  Do I believe that all of my students will become academics in various fields?  No.  Academic writing teaches very valuable skills that can be applied to all other forms of learning and intellectual growth.  It exposes students to various types of writing (How does a Maxim magazine article seem different from a Time magazine article or from a New England Journal of Medicine article?), giving them a chance to try writing that goes beyond a text, a tweet, a wall-post, or  casually written editorial for the school newspaper.

Some teachers argue that most of our students will never write anything longer than 4-5 pages after graduating from college.  This is quite true.  These same people will then argue that therefore we should reconsider the value of essay assignments requiring more than 4-5 pages.  With this I disagree.  What such an assignment teaches is not necessarily how to write/type a long essay.  It teaches the student how to carry out an explanation/expository of a complex idea.  It asks the student to be really involved by asking them to engage in conversations with various sources.  It asks the students to practice organizing – grouping and ordering – how they will present this complex idea.  It asks the student to fully immerse themselves into a topic. 

The value of writing a 6-8 page paper is not necessarily in the skill of writing a long essay.  Rather, the value lies in the thinking and researching process the student will undergo.  This is true of many college level courses.  What was the value of my taking a geology course in college?  Will I become a geologist?  No.  What I learned is the process of scientific thinking.  The same goes for taking a high level of calculus in college.  Will most of our students ever need calculus?  No.  But calculus (and math in general) gets our brains going.  It teaches us how to think.  It teaches us logic.

Some may say that I’m being stubborn.  Some may say that I’m  ignoring where our students are coming from and where they are going.  In response, I’d just say that as someone who teaches writing as not only a product of a thought but a process of thought, we should value academic writing.  There is nothing more beautiful than a well-constructed, clearly-organized essay that conveys the passionate ideas of the student-writer.


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