EDITORIAL BOARD: The essay is not the punishment, Pomona

Multiple dictionaries, notebooks, and pens are stacked outside.
Assigning an essay as punishment for failing to meet Pomona College COVID-19 testing requirements is an illogical and unjustified response, writes TSL’s editorial board. (Ethan Diaz • The Student Life)

OK, so you forgot to test after returning to Claremont following break. We’ve all been there, or at least experienced some similar sort of slip-up in our back-to-campus frenzy. You had your upcoming finals on your mind and by the time you stepped out of the library to test, it was well past the 5 p.m. Friday deadline. Without last year’s regular testing schedule in place this semester, you forgot the time before too … so, now what? 

Whatever the reason, missing a test happens. It’s great that the colleges — for the most part — seem to keep track and alert students when they’ve missed one of the post-break testing cycles that several of the 5Cs have put in place. It’s a considerate mandate aimed at keeping our communities as safe and conducive to learning and good health as possible. 

What’s not great, however, is how Pomona College deals with students who have missed two tests: by assigning a mandatory essay. 

For those whose plans to test go awry, Pomona mandates a meeting with a class dean followed by a “5-page (excluding bibliography) research paper … in Times New Roman size 12.”

We attend institutions where interdisciplinary learning is supposed to be put on a pedestal — where the arts are meant to carry the same weight as the sciences — so why is punishment handed down in the form of an essay? This is the question that Pomona’s COVID-19 Planning and Response Group needs to answer. A pedagogically friendlier alternative is an imperative. 

Sure, having some collateral at stake is oftentimes a necessary incentive to get students to comply with testing mandates. But, why an essay and not a biology test? Whether intentional or not, the use of an essay blatantly pits writing against other academic disciplines and unfairly positions the written word as a punishment. 

Even then — biology test or not — any form of educational-practices-turned-punishments are not the way to go.

Making a punishment out of writing is antithetical to the very essence of the liberal arts experience. Liberal arts grads are supposed to pride themselves in the stronger writing skills they purportedly walk away with after graduation. By making a punishment out of writing, however, Pomona sets itself up to squander the core elements that make up the well-rounded liberal arts curricula for which we chose to attend the 5Cs. 

Pomona, take a page out of Roy Peter Clark’s book. The highly esteemed writing lecturer — a journalist himself at heart — knows all too well what little good comes out of the essay in the form of a punishment. 

Clark’s 1987 essay “I Won’t use Writing as Punishment. I Won’t…” still rings true today, thirty five years after the Poynter Institute’s lead scholar first wrote it.

To cite Clark, writing neurosis, which forms after coming to view writing as a punishment, is hard to rewire once established.

At the 5Cs we should be developing the skills to relish in a good book or a well-written research paper. Instead, Pomona’s sending mixed signals. Making a punishment out of writing only seeks to spur resentment. 

If Pomona finds that a punitive response is the only way to enforce the testing mandate, the best they can do is to stick with the mandatory meeting with the dean — that sends the message clearly enough to students. What they can cut, however, is the essay. 

TSL’s editorial board is comprised of its editor-in-chief and two managing editors and does not necessarily represent the views of other TSL staff members.

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