Revisiting the Critical Essay in Writing Studies
Maria Assif, PhD
Associate Professor (Teaching Stream)
First-Year Critical Writing Coordinator
Joint B.A. in English, UTSC/Master of Teaching, OISE Faculty Advisor
English Department, University of Toronto Scarborough
Julie Prior, PhD
Assistant Professor, English Department
Oklahoma Panhandle State University
At the end of term, two students reflect on the semester. One describes “the usual [assignments] – 2 short papers and 1 longer one. Nothing fancy!” Another concedes, “You know how it goes; many papers to submit in that last week, but it is done! It feels good!”
Across the hallway, two English faculty members chat before the beginning of the final department meeting: “I gotta tell you. I am exhausted! Grading those stacks of essays eats my time every year. All my TA hours are spent on the two short projects and I am left with the final essay. Just exhausting!” A colleague admits, “I stopped assigning essays a long time ago. Couldn’t do it anymore!”
Do these conversations sound familiar? They probably do. They reflect an admittedly old but still ongoing debate among our undergraduate students and colleagues alike – questioning the relevance and the value of critical essays (which we define as papers that assess argumentation, analysis, research, and clarity of expression) and reflecting an academic fatigue vis-à-vis this genre.
In fact, if you have been a reader of online pedagogical platforms, you would have come across Zachary M. Shrag’s “5 Paragraphs in Defense of 5 Paragraphs” (2021), Martha Schulman and Gwen Hyman’s “In Defense of Essays” (2016), John Warner’s “I’m Never Assigning an Essay Again” (2016), Iriria Eremia Bragin’s “Essays that Feed the Soul” (2016), with a reference to Rebecca Schuman’s “The End of the College Essay” (2013).
And yes, we acknowledge the logistical difficulties that come with assigning and assessing critical essays (repetitive prompts, long grading hours, underfunded TA support and training, students’ complaints about arbitrary assessment practices). We also concede to the critical essay’s perceived genre elitism and its situation as an inequitable writing space—a space wherein students who have stronger educational backgrounds and who belong to majority linguistic and cultural groups—is especially disadvantageous for disfranchised student populations. Nonetheless, we believe in the power as well as the potential of the critical essay, with its varied purposes, audiences and forms. Like Schulman and Hyman, we contend that the critical essay comes with inherent learning opportunities, including “teach[ing] students to think hard” and that the essay can be an equitable space creator, opening the doors for students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend graduate school or have professional white-collar careers. We invite all of us to bring this genre back to our classrooms and to our students; they deserve it!
Where did it all start?
In the fall of 2020, we conducted a comprehensive survey and a thorough analysis of 27 syllabi across all levels in our own department – part of a curriculum review that would help with the proposal of a new English course in advanced essay writing. In this context, we found that while our first-year, mandatory writing course provides students with basic writing, analytic and argumentative skills, a significant gap in our curriculum lies in the lack of any formal writing instruction in second and third years of study. By the time our students reach their fourth year, we offer a robust, year-long, research-focused, capstone writing seminar, though only a small group of our graduating class enrolls in it.
These findings inspired us to compare our curriculum to commensurate programs in Canada. Within the same term, we requested course syllabi from 20 Canadian university English departments and 50 English colleagues. We were grateful to receive close to 30 syllabi, representing a range of first-year writing courses. While examining these documents, we realized that many courses were no longer assigning critical essays, and those that did were often opting for personal or creative essays. More broadly, the majority of universities surveyed offered first-year courses in academic writing, and a few programs provided first-year seminar courses in line with the American model. As for the writing requirements of these courses, they varied widely: some included two shorter papers; others assigned a short paper, which set the foundation for a longer final critical essay; another group took a scaffolded approach culminating in a 5-7-page critical essay; and others did not include the critical essay at all, relying instead on a series of discussion board posts or creative assignments. Where it was assigned, the critical essay involved varying amounts of research, and assessment was quite uniform (students were assessed on content, organizational structure, use of evidence, and clarity of expression). Almost all courses—whether in the critical essay or alternate writing assignments—required students to reference scholarly academic sources. This divergence was not problematic in itself, but the lack of any formal writing course for first-year students in many institutions took us by surprise. In this case, English majors were required to take literary survey courses and were expected to jump right into their essay writing, assuming an equitable high school experience that prepared them for this rigorous form of critical writing.
By the end of these curriculum mapping exercises, it became clear to us that the lack of sustained writing instruction seems to be a common denominator among many programs and institutions, and we can think of many factors explaining it. Many departments have adopted a long list of program requirements to ensure a comprehensive, historical coverage, leaving little room for foundational or advanced writing instruction. Others reflect an underlying assumption about critical writing – that it is an inherent skill that students will naturally develop, as they navigate their undergraduate years. The gap also echoes a long-standing tradition in many North American institutions, where most first-year writing courses and other writing-focused courses are taught by English graduate students, some of the most disfranchised teaching staff of academic institutions, with little or no formal training in Writing Studies and barely any funding for pedagogical innovation and research (beyond heroic individual endeavours). And it may be safe to assume that these observations are not limited to English studies but extend more broadly across the humanities.
So, what are students telling us?
Many of our current and former students, mostly in the humanities, have surprisingly expressed an appreciation for the genre of the critical essay—underlining the analytic, organizational, and argumentative skills it fosters. As you can imagine, it is a finding that should reassure the most skeptical voices among us! Nonetheless, most students articulated a deep-seated frustration with the way the critical essay is taught or the assumptions some of us (faculty) hold – that students do not need to be taught how to write critical essays because they have written too many of them! In this context, some of our current students have expressed a gap in the way the critical essay is taught across academic levels – that the lack of long essay instruction and assignments in lower-level undergraduate courses made it difficult to write the 12-page research essays required in their upper level courses. Many of our alumni also wished they had received more writing support over the course of their degrees, as they were shocked by the extent and the quality of writing expected professionally. And most of our students gravitated towards more hybrid genres and forms, such as creative non-fiction, since they not only fostered critical thinking and research skills but also highlighted their personal voices more prominently and allowed for more flexibility in writing style and format.
What are faculty sharing?
Many of our colleagues echoed the fatigue students articulated – that they were tired of assigning critical essays that only a small group excelled at no matter how clear and detailed the prompts were. Many were also concerned about the inequitable space the critical essay may create, especially among our most vulnerable student populations, and have opted for creative, critical projects that can still address, in their words, comparable skills (argumentation, analysis, and research) in a less rigid and more energizing way. Some contextualized the change as part of a global change – where many institutional traditions were revisited, subverted or excluded, with the essay being one of them. Others believed in the importance of the critical essay, shared success stories of student essays, and even believed abandoning this genre could be considered a betrayal of one of the last standing creeds in academia.
Where do we stand?
As the title of our blog suggests, and as we have articulated in the introduction, we believe in the critical essay and we make a case for continuing to teach and assign it, along with other writing genres and forms. This discussion, however, cannot be complete without addressing larger pedagogical issues some of our student and faculty reflections point to:
Many K-12 schools and higher education institutions in the western hemisphere have embraced the mission to “decolonize the curriculum” for the past decade – part of a larger movement to bring social justice to education. In James Lindsay’s words, this means to “create ‘justice,’ at least as it understands that concept internally—as ‘justice for marginalized socially constructed groups’ instead of individuals” (“Decolonizing the Curriculum”). But an overlooked implication of this honourable and urgent mission is that students, who ought to have equal opportunities to succeed, are inherently disadvantaged when they are not taught essay writing. This means that many are excluded from the mechanisms of power that critical writing provides. Martha Schulman and Gwen Hyman defend the essay, arguing that “[w]hen we assume that some students just ‘can’t’ write, we overlook inequities in resources and preparation” (“In Defense of Essays”).
What we need to do is teach the essay, among other forms of academic writing, in order to even the playing field. Yes, the critical essay has a history connected to colonization and elitism, but that does not mean we should erase the genre. Instead, we need to repurpose it—and properly teach it—so that students have equal access to higher education. In fact, we view the critical essay as integral to issues of equality and inclusion: when we teach the critical essay and allow students choices in the audiences they can address and in the topics they can select, we teach critical thinking, reading, writing, and reflection; we make students feel seen and heard; we free them from the rigid, formulaic instruction of the five-paragraph essay; we open their eyes, hearts and minds to the joys of writing; and we help them foster a sustained desire for learning and growth. All these are crucial skillsets and ways of beings they can successfully bring into the workforce or to graduate studies.
Another layer of this conversation is the desire that many students and colleagues have shared with us – the need, the importance, and the urgency to engage students in writing that interests them and that brings their voices to the forefront. This often leads away from the critical essay genre and closer to creative writing assignments, as many of us may associate these qualities with creative writing but less so with critical writing. This might go back to a long-standing but inaccurate tension between critical detachment and personal voice. Many students and faculty associate critical detachment with stylistic neutrality, both devoid of personality. Ironically, critical rigor and personal voice are not paradoxical; in fact, we believe that each can thrive in the presence of the other. Similar to the creative writer, the critical writer must engage their readers, through compelling diction, and must tell a story, a story of art, ideas, imagination, and life. As our colleague, Andrew Dubois (literary critic and poet) explains:
Some of the best creative writing comes about when the poet or novelist seems to be working through a particular problem, trying through his, her, their art to answer compelling personal questions, whether about oneself or the larger world that one inhabits. Often, the writer has thought through these matters, but for the reader the quasi-illusion that we are thinking along with them as they write can be exhilarating. The same is the case for criticism. A great essay is not usually about what the writer knows for certain; it is a record of a writer finding something out, of discovering what even constitutes knowledge about a given topic. And just as critical essays obviously are records of thought and ways of thinking, so are poems and stories and novels and plays — they just represent those ways of thinking in different forms than one usually finds in essays.
Our students will benefit tremendously from engaging with some of these conversations, unlearning some of these assumptions, and learning new ways of thinking and being through critical writing. We need to teach our students, too, that understanding the conventions of the critical essay will help them engage with their readers in a multitude of ways, re-invent their own writing voices in exciting, new ways, and perhaps question some of these conventions deliberately and responsibly.
Teaching the critical essay means accepting the tough road ahead and marching on an old path with newer boots and lenses. We hope we have made the case that it is a path that is worth taking, and that our students deserve it!
Andrew Dubois, e-mail interview, June 30, 2022.
Zachary M. Shrag, “5 Paragraphs in Defense of 5 Paragraphs” (2021)
Martha Schulman and Gwen Hyman’s “In Defense of Essays” (2016)
John Warner’s “I’m Never Assigning an Essay Again” (2016)
Iriria Eremia Bragin’s “Essays that Feed the Soul” (2016)
Rebecca Schuman’s “The End of the College Essay” (2013)