Why I Assign Essays

I assign essays for a number of reasons above and beyond my need to give you a grade at the end of the semester.  To a large extent, I assign essays because of my beliefs about how people learn.  These beliefs are not simple hunches but rest upon the current consensus of cognitive psychologists, based upon decades of research.  The long and the short of it is that “a mind must work to grow,” to quote Charles Eliot’s 1869 inaugural address as president of Harvard.[1]

All learners have to construct knowledge for themselves.  While it is true that you can memorize facts, building deep knowledge (what educators often call “understanding”) requires a learning process that’s much more complex than memorization.  Please know that I have not left you entirely to your own devices to “construct knowledge” by yourself.  Instead, I have tried to design a series of assignments that will allow you to learn in community with both your fellow students and me.  Writing essays plays a crucial role in that learning experience, because as you write, you are collecting and analyzing evidence, drawing conclusions, and organizing an interpretation or argument—in short, you are quite literally building knowledge.

Writing an essay, then, is not mere busy work, and I hope that you don’t approach it as such.  The process of writing should allow you to consolidate and demonstrate what you have learned.  When you articulate and support a thesis statement, you are in fact showing me that you have constructed knowledge using the raw materials of the course: the lectures, discussions, and, perhaps most importantly, the readings.

A solid essay, though, is more than a demonstration of your knowledge: it is also a demonstration of your skills.  Writing and revising an essay is a challenging process.  I am never asking you merely to recite factual data.  Instead, I ask for analysis and interpretation.  Writing an essay requires not only that you think but also that you discipline your thought by expressing and organizing your ideas clearly, by providing sufficient evidence to support your point of view, and by explaining the larger significance of your ideas.

In the end, writing an essay is not only about constructing knowledge but also about your ability to effectively share what you know.  I hope that you are well on your way to becoming a thoughtful and educated person, and I trust that you won’t keep your knowledge to yourself.  Even in this age of text messages and Facebook, writing in sentences, paragraphs, and—yes—pages, is still one of the most powerful ways to communicate about the complex problems and tasks that we face in this world.

[1] “A Turning Point in Higher Education: The Inaugural Address of Charles William Eliot as President of Harvard College, October 19, 1869” (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1869), 42.

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Writing Handbook for History & Humanities by David J. Voelker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.