I have been wanting to write this post for a while, but I had the sense that I needed to do a bit more by way of research in order to write it well, and have thus been putting it off. I always seem to have too many other Things To Do, like write my PhD draft. Which is, itself, like a very long essay. It has an introduction, it is developing an argument using research, data and other kinds of evidence and my own critical thinking about that evidence and my own argument, and it will finish with a conclusion that will (hopefully) pull it all together. Granted, it is about 78000 words longer than the average undergraduate student’s essay, but the basic idea behind the structure, and I would argue, the intent, is the same. The point is to teach me, as the student, to produce a well-research, sustained and academic piece of writing and thinking that will enable me to move forward in my own ability to think critically and to do research that contributes to knowledge in my field. It will also enable me to more confidently join, and also contribute to and extend relevant conversations and debates in my field. I am learning how to think outside of my own narrower conceptions of the world and even my field, and I am learning to think in ways that allow me to more ably join what Wheelahan (2010) calls ‘society’s conversation about itself’.
This is, ideally, what the university essay is aiming to teach undergraduate students. In many of the essay writing guides I could find online, the first paragraph was an introduction to why students are asked to write essays at university. They mention things like ‘learning to think critically'; ‘producing a sustained piece of thinking and writing’ on a particular topic; learning to write in the forms required of the discipline, and so on. Undergraduate essays generally focus on getting students to read a range of sources on a particular topic, and respond to a question that asks them to take a stance and make an argument, using those sources to support the claims they make. They are responding to the specific, but learning to move to the general to explain it. They are learning to think about, read about, and join conversations that take them beyond their own narrow ways of thinking about the world, and help them to see, appreciate and also challenge other world views, as well as defend their own. These are useful skills to have in the world of work. All work requires workers to be able to apply knowledge and skills in a range of ways to different situations. We can’t always predict what these situations will be. Thus, we need to learn how to navigate between what we know and think now and what is yet to be thought, to borrow from Basil Bernstein (2000). We need a bridge between the specific contexts in which we are working and the general or abstract world of theory and knowledge that we know and also that we don’t yet know, and in the complex process that goes into producing academic essays we can learn how to do this, and in different ways as we become more proficient and confident readers, writers and thinkers.
While there are many other forms of written work that are useful for students to be writing, like reports, portfolios and narratives, and while changes to the way we find, use and think about knowledge and learning may have led some in and outside of universities to wonder whether students should still be writing essays over other more ‘relevant’ kinds of writing, I think the university essay will endure. Not because of what students write about in these pieces of work, but because of what these extended exercises in reading, thinking and writing are training students to do in terms of developing their capacity to join and contribute to, and also to extend, society’s conversations about itself.