Individual sitting at desk surrounded by books, writing

But What About Open-ended Essays?

In the grind of student life, I often forget that I chose to be in grad school because I wanted to learn something interesting. How many papers have I churned out? A hundred? Maybe more? I tailor my writing to the professor so that I can pass the class, like a hoop to jump on my way to graduation. I appreciate a well-defined assignment because it contains the suggestion of an outline and the paper seems to write itself. Hoop jumped. Like an advanced version of second grade writing worksheets. But what about open-ended essays?

I needed to write a “term paper on a relevant topic of choice.” I had no idea what the professor wanted and I could see it going horribly wrong. However, I took a chance and chose a relevant topic that deeply interested me and I learned a great deal. In that sense, I knew the paper was a success. And yet, I felt apprehensive when I submitted it because I could not predict how the professor would grade it. Writing the paper facilitated substantial personal growth, but was it enough? Would the professor allow me to sail through the hoop unsinged or would it be a fiery crash?

As a student, I am not the sole author of my academic career: professors have the power to fail a student and idiosyncratic understanding of what is “good” writing. But if I let that prevent me from exploring what led me to grad school, I am cheating myself. It felt wonderful to produce that paper on my own terms and when I wrote about what interested me the professor considered it “outstanding!” Now when I get those open-ended assignments, I relish the opportunity to adapt my education to myself and a sense of freedom replaces the trepidation.

photo of Teresa Hoffman

Teresa Hoffman
Virtual Writing Center Staff
Antioch University