Ditching the Essay

April 19, 2011

Wikileaks ComicThis past term I gave a graduate course, in collaboration with Jeff Trzeciak, on “Technologies of Communication” and tried something that feels a bit subversive: I didn’t assign any essays. Of course, I’m almost certainly not the first humanities professor to not assign essays in a graduate course (I haven’t bothered looking for other examples though one could check the syllabus finder), but it still it still goes against the grain of all my own experiences as a student and challenges what I take to be one of the most common practices of assessment in the humanities.

My reasoning was that students would probably only gain a slight incremental benefit from writing Yet Another Essay (even if we all benefit from every instance of writing and receiving feedback, no matter where we are in our careers). However, if I could formulate some assessment modules that encouraged students to express themselves with unconventional technologies – and, crucially, think about the process of formulating their ideas and arguments with the constraints and affordances of those technologies – then that experience would be much more valuable to them. Besides, I tend to like experimenting with pedagogy and don’t need much of an excuse do so.

Students had two mini-projects to complete where they were asked to use an unfamiliar technology to create a scholarly work related to Wikileaks. Each mini-project was meant to be relatively modest in scope; the primary objectives were to experiment and reflect on the process in an accompanying blog post. We considered a small range of options in class, and skimmed others, but students were encouraged to explore other options as well. Some of the students have a background in Multimedia, but most don’t.

The result was an eclectic mix of fascinating multimedia works. Here’s a sampling of some of what was done:

Audio MP3

A second assessment module in the course was a formal interview. Students were asked to apply to a hypothetical position as director of digital communications at OpenLeaks. This exercise served two important purposes. First, it provided students with an opportunity to synthesize their knowledge from the class class content; the questions we asked were plausible interview questions, but many of them were specifically designed to have students demonstrate deeper knowledge of both Wikileaks and of relevant technologies. Second, the formal interview gave students a chance to think about and describe how their entire educational experience – up to and including this course – might have prepared them for a job like this. The interview was a class activity, but it was also a step toward professionalization as students ponder their next steps (this was the last class in what most of these students consider their last degree). Essentially, the interview was an oral exam, but one that could reasonably be considered practice for what awaits them after graduation.

Finally, students maintained a blog during the term that was also assessed. No, I don’t consider a blog a simple replacement for an essay, the form and structure is completely different (if truly done as a blog). Among many other differences, maintaining a weekly blog spreads an even amount of work over the term, rather than having students desperately trying to write a major essay toward the end of term (when they have other things due at the same time). In any case, blogging has become much more common now in pedagogy, but I think there are some characteristics that are worth noting in how blogs were use in this course:

  • the blog was not a supplement to the course, it was a core component; almost everything was organized around the blog
  • many of the weekly blog posts were designed to gather data and information that served for in-class activities like the collaborative building of a timeline
  • students were asked to combine these data gathering expeditions with reflections on the process and the technologies

More than anything else, the blogs allowed me to not teach. Not teaching is difficult because it takes a lot of discipline. Also, as others like Cathy Davidson have described, not teaching is a lot of work because it requires careful planning and a judicious dose of structure. I deliberately chose to organize this course around Wikileaks because I’m not an expert in that topic, and I wanted to go through the process of researching and studying the phenomenon with students, not for students. The blogs were the students’ repository, resource and journal; they became the authority (rather than me).

I haven’t decided yet if not assigning an essay would work for any class I teach, but I’m very happy with the results in this one.

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