the college essay – and dyslexia

I think I must have been waiting for an excuse to write about dyslexia, and I’ve finally found one.

Perhaps you saw Rebecca Schuman’s piece in Slate, The End of the College Essay. Schuman argues that the college essay in general education classes has run it’s course. Students hate to write them, professors hate to grade them. If you saw the article, you may have also seen the 800+ responses, many vitriolic.

I was disappointed not to see a more useful conversation evolve.

The question to be discussed is not whether Rebecca Schuman hates her students (of course she doesn’t) or whether we should ban writing from the college classroom (of course we shouldn’t). The piece opens discussion about the college essay as an effective means of student instruction and evaluation in the gen-ed classroom only.

Why can’t we talk about that?

I come to this conversation from a very specific place: as a tutor and advocate for dyslexic learners. I admit, despite my personal infatuation with essay writing, the idea of evaluating student progress through means other than the college essay makes my little dyslexia-advocate’s heart leap.

Dyslexia is a language processing disability that affects 20% of the population. Dyslexic learners struggle with language based skills such as reading, spelling, speech development and word retrieval. They also find grammar and organization challenging.

Are you thinking perhaps a student like that doesn’t belong in your college-level class? You couldn’t be more wrong. The most important thing to know about dyslexia is that it does not correlate directly to intelligence. Stated more simply: very smart people can and do have dyslexia.

Furthermore, by definition, dyslexia comes with gifts such as creativity, imagination, diplomacy, entrepreneurial skills, and athleticism (ever wonder where the “dumb jock” stereotype comes from?). Many dyslexic learners also have gifts for math and science which can make them talented physicists, engineers and inventors (just the kind of person who shows up in a 200 level literature class and states: “I hate reading” on the first day).

In a society (and especially in a classroom) where written language dominates modes of communication and evaluation, dyslexic learners are less able to demonstrate their intelligence. They can be misunderstood as “dumb” or “simple” when quite the opposite is true.

Dyslexics have brought us the light bulb, the telephone, the theory of relativity, the art on the Sistine Chapel, and the governance that helped lead the Allied Powers through WWII. Check out these famous people with dyslexia. I wonder how many of them could put together a five paragraph essay?

For dyslexics, organizing an essay, a paragraph, or even a sentence can be very difficult. This is because people with dyslexia often think in pictures. Of course, language is linear. When an idea appears in your mind as a three-dimensional image, how do you flatten that out and line it up in a row? And is a linear format the better way to convey a three-dimensional idea? A picture tells a thousand words, after all.

What does all this mean for the dyslexic in your gen-ed classroom? For many, response papers, term papers and written exams are the worst ways to demonstrate knowledge.

My 16-year-old son has dyslexia. He reads fluently on grade level, remembers and comprehends vivid details from the text, and has excellent analytic skills. Despite his dyslexia, I think his gifts are literary. I love talking about books with him. During his English class discussions, he’s the star. But when asked to write papers or give written responses to questions, he dumbs down his vocabulary to avoid spelling unfamiliar words; he leaves out pertinent details to shorten the labor of composing, and he simplifies his ideas and insights to avoid struggles with organization.

I think my son should continue to practice his writing skills. Just because it’s a relative weakness for him doesn’t mean he should avoid it altogether. While he will continue to hone this skill, however, it will always be the less accurate way of evaluating his knowledge of a subject.

The college essay is just one form of communication. The idea that we might consider additional ways of communicating in the gen-ed classroom does not sound that radical to me. Several years ago, I heard dyslexic author Jonathan Mooney speak at a special-ed conference in my area. He argued that visual literacies are replacing reading and writing as primary modes of communication in our society. Consequently, he said, we should not force our symbolic code on picture-thinking dyslexics at all. He feels that by doing so, we are limiting them. Stunting their creativity. Crushing their esteem.

No reading or writing instruction for twenty percent of the population? That is a radical idea, and it’s just the kind of ahead-of-his-time, out-of-the-box thing I would expect a dyslexic learner to say.

We don’t have to go as far as Mooney right now, but given that modes of communication have changed so dramatically, and given that we have known for a decade that dyslexia and its gifts affect one fifth of the population, why not consider Schuman’s question: Is the college essay still appropriate for the gen-ed classroom? In other words, should essay writing be a gateway skill?

What would it look like if, in addition to the oral evaluations Schuman calls for, students created power points, infographics, websites, even twitter streams? Perhaps they could develop one of these things in conjunction with an essay as an exercise in compare/contrast?

Like the essay, these other modes of communication require students to gather, comprehend and synthesize information. They ask students to present their arguments in a coherent and persuasive way. They all have creative and professional applications.

Together, a variety of assignments could enable all students to better demonstrate their knowledge while allowing them to show off the skills that come easily and to practice the ones that don’t.

I know Schuman’s piece was not at all about learning disabilities, but I think they play a part in the discussion. This is just my piece of the pie. The point is simply to continue the conversation Schuman started rather than to see it drowned out in a flood of reactionary comments.

If you’re interested in reading more about dyslexia:

I highly recommend the book Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.

For a nice anecdotal overview of dyslexia in the business community see Coudl This Be teh Secret to Sussecc?

For news on dyslexia in higher-ed: Colleges Step Up to Meet Dyslexia Challenge

For research on dyslexics in higher ed, see this cognitive profile.

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3 thoughts on “the college essay – and dyslexia

  1. I hopped over to your site from another, where I read your insider account of the graduate school track. I too walked that path, which was a lonely, harrowing ordeal, with an adjunct job at the end of it!

    On a broader scope, the challenges you relate above with regard to dyslexia are but one strand of recently acknowledged “neurodiversity.”
    Given the reality of a neurologically diverse learner population, and like-wired general public, eventually the academic institutions that ultimately define the Humanities will have to evolve. Chances are that tremendous contributions in art, music and literature are already being recognized as culturally relevant and academia will reshape after the fact. After all, authenticity and a unique perspective are indeed (at least in theory) the basis for valued contribution in all Humanities disciplines! 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment. I do see the universities slowly acknowledging neurodiversity–esp. smaller private colleges (that are tough to afford, unfortunately). I’m so interested to ask these questions from the consumer end when I begin touring colleges with my son later this year–and then later, to see what his experience is as a dyslexic learner in college. I’m hoping for flexibility and open-mindedness, but we shall see.

  2. As the Mom of a daughter with Dyslexia I LOVE this post!
    My daughter is passionate about cosmetology. It’s the only thing she could ever imagine herself doing long term. She’ll be attending a community college to attain this (it will be an associates degree), but to think it could be something like writing that derails this dream causes MUCH anxiety for us!!

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