I envy speedy writers, people who unfurl page upon page of eloquent prose faster than I can type out a paragraph. One thinks immediately of the iconic Pauline Kael, the famous movie critic who could allegedly whip together an entire review from her seat in the theater immediately following a film screening. If not to Kael’s degree, this kind of speed nonetheless characterizes professional writing. We live in a world of deadlines and an accelerated sense of time. To succeed in the job market, writers need to learn how to adapt to the go-go-go mentality that, for better or for worse, keeps our society moving. Writers like Kael are real inspirations because they’ve adapted and excelled, forking out review after review like machines burning through the fuels of creativity.
All that said, I doubt even Kael could crank out two essays in an hour and fifteen minutes.
And yet there I was, a mere college student, trying to accomplish this very task for a midterm. The format of this exam evoked the high school in-class essay (which I wasn’t fond of to begin with) except there were, yes, two pieces that had to be written. And these weren’t the petty prompts that you find on the SATs. They were hefty, loaded thought-provokers that effectively synthesized half a semester’s worth of material into a handful of pithy sentences; the type of questions that required you to think and plan your answers beforehand, effectively shearing five to ten minutes off the already measly amount of time you had to write both essays. Pencil in hand, desperately fumbling through my barely nascent ideas, I kept wondering how any human being could possibly complete the assignment within the allotted time, let alone do a good job at it.
The philosophy behind the in-class essay is an admirable one. It involves training students to articulate complex ideas in a brief window of time, keeping them sharp-minded and on their toes. Think of it as mental fitness. If you constantly push yourself to grapple with sophisticated concepts swiftly and intensely, you’ll soon find yourself engaging these concepts offhand, almost as a reflex, and ready to advance to loftier subjects. Moreover, the high-stress environment created by in-class essays functions as a microcosm of the workplace – both present a challenging assignment with a rapidly approaching deadline. If anything, in-class essays intensify the experience of real-world writing by providing even less time for the task to be accomplished. In this way, such essays actually help ease students into professional writing because hey, next to those in-class essays, the real world doesn’t seem so bad.
But there should be a limit to this intensification. After all, we’re still students, striving for those grades that, frankly, are just as if not more important to many employers as one’s ability to write both quickly and well. There’s a difference between honing students’ critical thinking skills and overwhelming the students to the point where the quality of their work drops drastically. One essay would have done the job; two is simply too much. I’m not trying to bash my professor – on the contrary, I believe the course material is incredibly rich, and I thoroughly enjoy attending class. But how can I tap this richness in an hour and fifteen minutes with my time split between two essays, both of which are doomed to be underdeveloped if not altogether unfinished? For the sake of students’ learning and out of respect for the material that is being taught, I urge all professors at UR to refrain from assigning two in-class essays for a single day’s class.
Jeng is a member of the class of 2016.