Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Academic Trash: Utility Versus Meaning in Writing Assignments, By Yuyang Yuan (Ethnography of the University 2021)

This blog post was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.” It was originally posted in the category “Confronting Walls and Normalizing Practices.”

Another midnight, Charon submitted his essay right before 11:59 pm, the deadline. He then posted a meme on his social media account.

In the interviews I conducted three students mentioned this meme or the idea of “academic trash”, and more raised their confusions about the value of their work. When I asked why they would think that their work is “trash” or not valuable, most of them said that they especially think about this when they rushed it for the deadlines. During the fast-paced and highly intensive schedule, students are pushed to be as productive as possible. Reasonably, one has to sacrifice quality for quantity.

But from my observations, the work became trash not simply because of the time restrictions. It’s because students once anticipated them to be excellent, not necessarily in terms of grades but personal fulfillment. Later, Charon described his heartbroken experience of doing that “trash assignment”. It was during our study group activity and everyone was quietly studying together when he suddenly put his head into his arms and cried out “I submitted my essay for xxx (a course) last night. It’s my favorite topic and I determined to write it with full energy. But I rushed it. I made another piece of trash. I’m trash.” 

Like Charon, for students who get essay topics that they are indeed concerned about, the essay is no longer an assignment, but a chance to explore their academic interests. They naturally make more effort, do more readings, brainstorm and enjoy it like a “game”. But when deadlines approach for that particular assignment and a cluster of other courses, they have to withdraw from the free flow of exploration. They break their commitment to the topic and their interests. The essay goes back to a usual assignment, a task, which one “should” do, but not necessarily “want” to do. 

Doing a usual writing assignment is useful: it helps students to deepen their understanding of course materials, to develop their writing skills, and, if possible, to get a good grade. But these assignments might not be meaningful if students have little personal interests in the topic addressed. The value of an assignment to the student comes from both its utility and meaning. For an assignment that only has utility but little meaning, students wouldn’t think it is trash. When I asked what kind of assignment he disliked the most, Julius mentioned a course in which all the writing assignments were “too boring, that I would not even be able to hate them”. But an assignment becomes trash when it was supposed to be meaningful and turned out to be not. When students rushed it before deadlines, the work even became useless, as students are just finishing the task rather than learning things from it, and the grade might not be very good. So they submitted it like throwing trash as they don’t want to see it anymore. They are disappointed about their work, and themselves. 

Some said, “That’s why when topics I’m interested in are addressed in the course, I lose my passion for them. But maybe sometime later, when I no longer explore them for coursework, I willingly take them up again.”

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