I have just finished grading essays in both classes I am teaching this term. The final examination papers are next. In the breather I have given myself between the two tasks, something occurred to me about the current generation of students. The best essays are visual rather than traditional text essays.
Let me explain.
In my last year of elementary school (my semi-rural school system did not have Middle Schools), in High School and in my undergraduate degree program essays followed a familiar format. You had a point you were trying to make, a thesis which you introduced in an opening paragraph. You followed this with as many paragraphs of evidence as you needed to make your point. You finished with a concluding paragraph where you summarized your evidence and thesis. In History classes, evidence consisted of issues, events, and so on in the past and you used footnotes to give credit to the words and/or ideas of others and you had a bibliography attached to the paper. The footnotes and bibliography followed a strict format, which in those long ago days was called Humanities Style, then later Traditional Humanities Style and now is called Chicago style (or in some cases, Turabian or Oxford).
I am an historian and I wrote my first history essay using this format in Grade 12. This was in Ontario, Canada which then had a Grade 13 for students who wished to go on to university. In Grade 13 I wrote two more of these essays. Thus, when I arrived in university to take history courses, or sociology, or anthropology, this same format was used in each and already familiar to me. Part of elementary and secondary preparation for university was reading: quite a bit of reading of plays, novels, short stories, poetry, and essays. My mind and that of others was trained to think in this orderly fashion. Evidence and logical argument ruled the day.
Anything visual was frowned upon unless you took an art class and they were rare beyond the very earliest grades of elementary school, for my generation. I was in school from 1957 to 1969. Even imaginative text based work such as poetry was taught in a cold and scientific manner where you deconstructed the parts and identified metre and its uses. Iambic pentameter ruled! That is the only metre I can recall from those days.
In recent years, I have allowed students to submit visual essays. Not without text, of course, but analyses of art and architecture in relation to religion and society, formed around images. They can use Powerpoint or Keynote, or Prezi. Not too many did, but in the last year or so, more and more are availing themselves of this choice. Many wish to submit purely text essays using presentation software, but I do not allow that.
But what I am finding is that the visual essays are superior on average to the traditional essay. Students are giving quite sophisticated interpretations of the role of art or architecture in history as regards religion and society.
On the other hand, the traditional essays submitted are declining in quality. I teach at two very different, albeit connected schools. One is Toronto-based and has a student body that mostly consists of first or second generation English speakers. The other is a small town, rural based school with a student body mostly drawn from families who have been in Canada for generations. I find no significant difference in the visual vs. text based essays.
This, in a very unscientific manner, leads me to suspect we are in an age where images trump words. Or, words must trot along after images, leaving visual elements in the lead.
So far, the majority submit text based essays and a minority image based. But this blog post was prompted by my dual realization that the proportion of image based essays is growing and that the quality gap between the two is widening.
I wonder too, if a course run along similar lines but in a classroom format would find any different results? Online teaching is much more agnostic about the use of presentation software where there is no actual presentation in front of a group. I get puzzled emails from the people at Prezi who had not considered its use in this fashion. I think I might have to develop a section at the beginning of each course where I specifically talk about the use of presentation software in the online setting and where it is appropriate, or even better than the standard essay. As of now, I have a blurb in the course notes where I discuss word counts, double-spacing, thesis statements, etc. as well as a mini essay on writing essays. For my next online class beginning in January, I will need to do a Prezi on presentation software! The design bureaucracy does not allow me to change the course notes on the fly – they require two good months of preparation time.
So, I will do a Prezi and link it to the section of the course site where I speak to the class in general.