Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The emperor's old clothes

Back and already hard at work! by clemsonunivlibrary, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  clemsonunivlibrary

I've always thought that Hans Christian Andersen's story The emperor's new clothes was one of the most relevant things to read in order to understand how modern organisations work. We can all relate tales of great new trends, initiatives and projects at work that didn't quite work out but few were brave enough to criticize. It's vital to have that child who can break the spell by daring to say that the emperor is actually naked.

However we also need the ability to question traditions and realize that some of the practices we've been doing for years are not actually useful any more. Maybe the emperor's old clothes are the problem, not the new ones. This is why I enjoyed reading an article by G. Kim Blank in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Let's kill the term paper. Why do we continue to ask students to write essays that almost never say anything new or insightful and that do not lead to any real learning? The term paper/essay, like the lecture and the examination hall, are all integral parts of university tradition but it is high time we reassessed their true contribution to learning. Do we persist with them  simply because they are easy to administer?

"Could it be for the convenience of generating a mark and for reproducing a template that can be used for all kinds of courses? Could it be that this whole writing business, with the essay as its poster child, has become a self-justifying industry, fueled largely by never-changing textbooks and ever-changing adjuncts? Is there a lurking irony—could it be that these courses are in fact self-sustaining by not achieving their ostensible mandate?"

In their future careers these students are highly unlikely to ever have to carry out the tasks that are so highly valued at university. Does anyone ever need to write essays at work or carry out a task without access to information or colleagues? Admittedly essays, examinations and lectures demand self-discipline and the ability to organize and present information but they have little or no relevance for students' careers.

"... the term paper or even plain essay has no relationship to the work-world in which college grads will find themselves earning a living."

The way forward, according to Blank, lies in reading, discussing and summarising examples of good academic writing. Summarising is a vital skill in today's information society and demands a clear understanding of the text to be summarised. Before you can accurately summarise you need to analyze the text in question and by summarising you hone your own writing skills in ways that term papers do not.

So let's re-examine more of the emperor's old (and new) clothes and build a new and more meaningful wardrobe.


  1. Looks like Blank is tired of reading piles of term papers. But academically trained employees are expected to be able to write.

  2. Maybe Pieter, but maybe those term papers are not the best way to improve student writing and other tasks, like summarizing och real reports from meaningful projects, would be more relevant. What I feel is lacking is the ability to question some age-old traditions and dare to replace them if they are found to be irrelevant. Some practices should be replaced, some need updating and some are fine as they are.