John Warner Swears Off Essays, and Students? (Yes, And So Should Everyone)

John Warner, writer and visiting instructor of first-year writing, posted yesterday the provocatively titled I’m Never Assigning an Essay Again [1]. And kept the ball rolling this morning on Twitter:

That’s right, it appears Warner is swearing off essays and students in his role as a writing instructor for first-year college students.

I immediately pounced on Warner’s post and Tweets by sharing a key article I come back to often—especially in my work at a selective liberal arts university: The Good Student Trap by Adele Scheele.

“The odd thing about life is that we’ve been taught so many life-less lessons,” Scheele laments, and then hits the key point about how school creates the “good student trap”:

We were learning the Formula.

• Find out what’s expected.
• Do it.
• Wait for a response.

And it worked. We always made the grade. Here’s what that process means: You took tests and wrote papers, got passing grades, and then were automatically promoted from one year to the next. That is not only in elementary, junior, and senior high school, but even in undergraduate and graduate school. You never had to compete for promotions, write résumés, or rehearse yourself or even know anyone for this promotion. It happened automatically. And we got used to it.

Until the formula doesn’t work, of course. “All that changes once you find that studying history or art or anthropology can be so much more than just jumping through hoops,” Scheele explains. “Your academic pursuits can lead to new experiences, contacts, and jobs. But so much disappointment has resulted from misusing college, treating it as school instead of life [emphasis added].”

And here is where my work as an educator significantly overlaps with Warner’s two assertions: (1) the need to end the template-approach to essays that exists almost exclusively in formal classroom settings, and (2) the inherent failure of training young people in student behaviors, which are like the canned essay, unlike human behaviors in the real world.

So in most of my classes, we start by having frank discussions about behaviors of students and how they appear if we step back from them. For incoming first-year students, I typically start with the need to use the restroom during class.

K-12 formal schooling has equated normal human urinary and bowel needs with something just short of a high crime. In K-12 schooling, your restroom needs must be conditioned to the school’s schedule, and when that fails, you must raise your hand and ask permission.

In college, however, you simply get up and go to the restroom.

This transition away from the K-12 dehumanizing of students to normal adult behavior helps my students begin to investigate how we (professor/students) behave in class settings, how they should view their roles in learning (doing assignments instead of “homework,” and completing the learning experiences for themselves and not the professor), and what scholarship means instead of “being a student.”

I have linked the end of the school essay and the call for my students to drop student behaviors as essential for the sort of education I believe all young people deserve, a liberatory one.

These goals merge in my writing-intensive courses in which I ask students to stop behaving as students and to begin to behave as writers (and what that entails is a long process we explore throughout the semester)—so that we can learn to write together in ways that serve their personal, academic, and career wants and needs.

I hope more educators follow Warner’s lead—although these sorts of transitions I ask of my students are painful—and that we can all soon come together by swearing off essays and students.

[1] See his post from the next day also: Kill the 5-Paragraph Essay


5 thoughts on “John Warner Swears Off Essays, and Students? (Yes, And So Should Everyone)”

  1. How about structuring the prompts for these essays so that we get deeper thinking, or teaching how to blend narrative and expository writing techniques. Students still need to write every day.

  2. As a middle school teacher, it’s interesting how much pushback I get from colleagues and supervisors for simply letting kids use the restroom as needed, and for accepting that “I need a drink of water,” might well mean, “I want to take a short break and have a walk” without making a big deal about it. On the other hand, when the twelfth kid in a row gets up to leave, I start to see the beauty of my colleague’s systems of a controlled number of hall passes per term. Then again, it’s their controlling behavior that leads to so many kids being in need of the restroom and/or a break by the time they get to my room.

    All of which is only a minor point in your article, I realize. Just thinking about how this translates to an earlier stage of school.

  3. I love this. I wish it could start earlier. One of the main things I’ve tried to impart to my daughters (currently ages 7 and 9) is that school isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about grades, report cards, etc. It should be about developing their interests in pursuit of their goals. I don’t care how well they do at “doing school” and I will never look at a letter grade report card (although I do appreciate hearing and reading narrative reports from the teacher). Currently they are in a progressive school that doesn’t give grades – everything is about emergent learning. But if and when they ever do end up in a graded school situation, I will return their report cards unopened. It’s not about behaving like a student, it’s about accomplishing what you want out of life.

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