Thinking about Mike’s comment on the post below, and subsequent discussion, I’ve been mulling over a more general way of talking about why and to what extent we want to induct students into “scholarly conversation”. I’m toying with something like this: Scholarly conversation in the arts and humanities is concerned with finding, explaining, testing, discussing [etc] questions of truth, meaning, value and quality. (Roughly: What can we truthfully say about this/ is this true/ what’s really going on here? How does this fit in with everything else? What is the point of it? Is it any good? I’m not particularly attached to the list of four and only four, there are comparable lists around with more or fewer). Then: Graduate jobs are jobs in which people need to be able to think about questions of truth, meaning, value and quality – with regard to a very wide range of subjects, with different emphases on different questions, etc etc. People in different graduate jobs will not only ask these questions about different topics – they’ll end up doing very different things with the answers. (Eg for a teacher the end product of thinking about all these questions with regard to a particular subject will often be a lesson – though it might also be e.g. the formulation of educational policies, a choice of textbook or syllabus, etc). But the need to be able to think critically and constructively, together with others, about questions of truth, meaning, value & quality will still be there.
So we induct students into scholarly conversation, and make them write essays, because that’s the easiest way to “isolate” (if you like) this set of thinking processes; because in the university that kind of thinking (about questions of truth, meaning, value and quality) is the main thing we do, and we pursue it wherever it leads, and we specialise both in practising it and in reflecting on how it’s done.
It then makes sense for us to spend time (especially at level 3) working with students on different contexts in which their thinking will be needed, and the relevant different genres/methods of communication.It also makes sense for us to think about the goal of an essay-writing task as not “you will learn to write a good essay” but “you will learn all the things that are best learned through writing essays” [and as a consequence will, we trust, be a better citizen, educator, leader, manager, writer/communicator, judge, campaigner/persuader/advocate, etc etc].I am not sure how that would change how we set up the essay-writing task.
Actually I’m not sure about anything I’ve just written, but it’s worth a try.