Why we need to keep writing papers

The fall semester of my sophomore year of college, I kept track: thirty papers, more or less, for four classes. That includes everything: book reports, close textual analyses, creative writing assignments, research papers. My total word count continued to grow until I had written enough to make a small novel.

That was the year I learned to speed-write. With multiple papers due every week, as well as a medical issue that prevented me from reading for extended periods of time, I had to live on the edge. I skimmed books at the same time I wrote the book reports. Too many times to count, my wonky eyes forced me to write papers in a semi-blind state. Hardly a good time, but doable.

Most of us are fortunate enough to be able to see what we’re writing, but we’ve all written papers in dire circumstances. It’s possible to pull off fairly solid grades with last-minute papers, too. For that reason, we have to wonder: If college papers can be so easily BS-ed, how effective are they as a tool of instruction?

Slate.com education columnist Rebecca Schuman says they’re worthless. They’re too easy to fake, and because students often put little effort into them, they don’t bother to read professors’ constructive feedback in an attempt to improve. She argues that professors ought to stick with traditional written and oral exams and toss the college paper by the wayside.

I disagree. Even if many of us are prone to the last-minute paper, we still learn from them — arguably more than we would from a written examination. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think I speak for much of the student population when I admit that I forget material the minute I turn in an exam.

It’s not our fault. Thanks to the emphasis placed on exams like AP tests and the SAT, we’ve spent much of our academic career learning for the sake of the test, rather than for the sake of learning.  More than once, a high school teacher told me, “You don’t need to know this because it won’t be on the test.” While we may appreciate fewer flashcards, that’s not the way to learn.

Unfortunately, that training has carried over to college. We often study the night before an exam, fill in a few bubbles, and then forget. Even when the exam requires us to write an essay or define terms, we tend to rely on memorization: We spit back facts word-for-word, which requires zero analysis.

That’s where the paper comes in. Schuman might not agree, but even hastily drawn-up papers require a certain amount of analysis. Memorization plays little to no role. Even if we’re only jotting down facts we discussed in class, putting them in a paper forces us to connect those facts in a logical manner. Perhaps this isn’t the case for everybody, but the mere act of organization helps me retain information better than staring at a textbook does.

In order to organize, we have to get intimate with the material. We have to hunt for quotes or statistics, and even if sometimes we don’t analyze those quotes as much as professors might like, we have to engage with the book, journal article, etc. We must decide what’s relevant, rather than have a professor tell us, “This won’t be on the test.” That’s a crucial skill, and it’s required no matter when we do the papers, how fast we do them, or how good they are.

Then there’s the matter of writing. Schuman argues that it’s too late for us; if we’re not good writers by now, we never will be.  We just won’t put in the effort. I think that’s blatantly wrong, but if we aren’t encouraged to write papers, then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like most everything, writing requires practice. Not all papers will be stellar, but I firmly believe that we learn something every time we write one.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t complain.

Email Samantha Farkas at sbfarkas@email.wm.edu.


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