Why We Write Essays Over the American Literature We Read

The study of literature raises many questions about who we are, what it is to be human, why we are here, and how we interact with God, nature, and society. These are the subjects of American literature. Quite naturally, the discussions of these topics tend to be deeper than normal conversational topics; they are more probing, more philosophical. Exploration into these topics requires substantial thought. The increased thought requires increased time. A probing question cannot be answered in seven seconds (the average amount of time allowed by teachers before they rephrase the question or answer it themselves). This is where essay writing becomes the tool of choice in many literature courses.

There are two fundamental reasons for writing essays over the literature we read in class:

  1. It requires all students to become involved in the literature, including those who would not involve themselves in the class discussion over the selection.
  2. It promotes better discussion because it forces students to think about the selection before the discussion is held. This means that the answers to difficult or probing questions have already been explored by the students, allowing them to more freely enter into the discussion on an informed level.

Some students quite naturally feel awkward trying to write an essay over a selection they may not fully understand. Many would much rather discuss the selection, then afterwards write the essay. The major problem with discussing first and writing second is plain to see: Students do not learn to explore and think independently. They too often try to write what they think the teacher wants to read. They merely parrot what they heard during the discussion. Writing first, then discussing proves to be more challenging for most students than simply repeating what they have heard, but I believe that it repays the effort.

A few students are apprehensive about their grades on these essays. After listening to (and hopefully participating in) the discussion, some may become aware that their essay responses are not well supported or well thought out. They are concerned that what they now see as an inferior essay (in light of a fuller understanding precipitated by the class discussion) may receive an inferior grade. This is seldom the case. Grades on these essays are assigned based only on three elements:

  1. Did the student answer the essay question assigned, limiting himself to that question only?
  2. Did the student follow the format given in class for the assigned essay?
  3. Did the student support his essay using textual references, either quotation, paraphrase, or summary?

The answer to these question become clear to the student as he participates in the class discussion. If these questions are all answered “yes,” then the student receives full credit for the essay, even if the essay is weak in other areas. Students are not required to agree with the instructor, only to support their positions and views. Some essays contain both objective and subjective components, that is, verifiable textual information and personal opinions. Students are never penalized if their personal opinions do not agree with the instructor. They are merely asked to tell what they think about the issues and why they think the way they do.

From the standpoint of grading, essays are to be considered daily, completion scores. If the essay meets the above guidelines (students will know if they do by the discussions), then the student receives full credit. If the student does not follow the format or does not give textual citation when required or does not complete the essay, then full credit cannot be expected. Essays are not scored as meticulously as if the student were enrolled in a composition course. Not only is this impractical from a logistics point of view for instructors who are also teaching composition courses, it is not needed. The purpose, after all, is to give students the opportunity to participate in a guided exploration (the essay) prior to the discussion. The essay is preparation for the discussion; it is only a tool. The discussion itself should be seen as the more important element.