[Continuing our series of posts on the development of Frontinus Ltd’s professional and academic imprints]
‘Can you help our students to write essays?’
I contribute to a number of university courses, mostly at Master’s level and mostly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics or Medicine) disciplines, and this question is one that I’m asked frequently.
I tend to answer ‘yes’, because I like to think I can — and I don’t mind being paid for such work. But I tend also, sooner or later, to raise a question: ‘Why exactly do you want your students to write essays anyway?’
Responses vary, but most are unsophisticated and unconvincing — typically, along the lines of ‘Well, it’s just what we do’ or, more often, ‘It’s what we’ve always done’.
This situation seems to me absurd. Consider someone doing a master’s course in, say, engineering. After they have completed the course, they have two broad options. They can work in industry or they can seek a career in academia.
I work with a number of engineering companies. I do now know any of them that require their employees to write essays. Emails, memos, briefings, reports, specifications, presentations — yes. Essays, no.
I work with many researchers in university departments of engineering, at doctoral, postdoctoral, and faculty levels. They are not required to write essays. Theses, reports, papers, and proposals — yes. Essays, again no.
So we’re devoting resources to teaching students how to write in a form that they are unlikely to ever need to do again.
‘But what else can we do?’ I get asked. If not essays, what?
This is a good question to which there are multiple good answers. Rather than try to answer in my own words I’d like to refer readers here to an authorial team who have answered it much better than I could do.
Vikki Burns, with the assistance of a number of contributors — Gavin Brown, Robin Burrow, Kate Edwards, and Karl Nightingale — has written 53 interesting ways to assess your students, a book that we were pleased and proud to publish in 2015.*
The book does what it says on the tin: it provides 53 ideas. In each case, the idea is outlined and then guidance is provided on how to implement the idea (and how to overcome typical obstacles).
Of the 53 ideas, 3 are devoted to essays. That leaves 50 alternatives.
Yes, 50. How many options does one need before questioning the ‘It’s what we’ve always done’ defence?
*This is the third edition of a book originally written by Graham Gibbs, Sue Habeshaw, and Trevor Habeshaw for Technical and Educational Services.