Teachers are Encouraging Bullshit: A Response to Kylie Medieros

by Maxine FredaPhoto of Max Freda

Maxine Freda is a computer science major from Plympton, MA. She states that this essay—a response to Kylie Medeiros’s Undercurrents essay from last year—”was a way for me to air my grievances with the rigidly structured way the school system teaches writing in high school.” Maxine notes that this is the first essay she ever wrote where she cared so strongly about the topic. She shares that this type of writing process was “far more enjoyable and resulted in something I could be proud of.” The freedom to write about “what I want in the way that I want” was one of the main contributors to Maxine’s writing process, and she found that this freedom “completely changed my personal outlook on writing, making it something I now find personally rewarding.” Maxine credits her sister, Izzy, for being a support in this process — and in all that she does.

Bullshit has a bad rap. Chances are you’ve had a teacher in the past who has not only discouraged you from bullshitting an assignment, but also made claims to their ability to sniff it out. Whether or not these claims are actually true is irrelevant, because most of the time this tactic works and students proceed to do the assignment “the right way.” Often, students view bullshit as essential to get an assignment done in the presence of short deadlines, lack of knowledge, or simply just laziness. When done correctly bullshit is a key technique in writing an essay and will go unnoticed by your teacher. This is the case because, in reality, teachers have been actively encouraging students to use bullshit in their work.

It’s essential to understand that there are two differing perspectives on “bullshit” in the classroom. One of them from the teacher’s perspective, and the other from the students. Oftentimes when teachers talk about bullshit, they refer to the rushed, half-finished, poorly planned assignments they are handed that obviously had very little effort put into them. While this is a perfectly valid perspective of traditional bullshit from a teacher, students are more focused on proper bullshit, bullshit that is done with thought and effort behind it in order to assist in their writing, and ultimately undetectable by a teacher.

In her essay on bullshit in the academic setting, Undercurrents author Kylie Meideros describes how, “bullshit is what the author believes the audience wants to hear and the process of writing it is centered around convincing the reader to believe them”, and how it is “a type of falsification in which the author must appear to be more credible than they actually are to form an opinion about something” (Medeiros). In other words, Medeiros gives credibility to proper bullshit as a reliable writing technique, marking an important distinction from what teachers use and a word synonymous with lazy. But Medeiros didn’t come up with this process on her own, nor did any individual student. The truth is that the roots of proper bullshit can be traced back to lessons on writing taught in the classroom.

The most prevalent connection to academic techniques and proper bullshit lies between the falsification of your credibility and the concept of authorial power. English professor Anne Elrod Whitney views authorial power as being able to maintain control over your ideas in essays, even when relying on other people’s ideas to form them. This is important because when students write “they must assert themselves as more qualified, or sensitive, attentive, or otherwise authoritative readers of these texts than the reader of their paper” (186). Essentially students are expected to present themselves as experts on whatever they are writing about, regardless of their credibility. This rhetorical move, inherently in itself, is bullshit and a total lie. Given the nature of being a student, you shouldn’t be as qualified as your teachers, and through the study of experts you should always have more to learn. But by writing this way, you learn that what’s really important is making yourself sound credible. This false confidence can allow you to make your ideas sound right at home alongside ideas coming from much more qualified sources. It doesn’t matter if you actually believe in the strength of your ideas, but rather you make the reader believe in them through the confidence of your language. As long as it holds up in the writing, this use of proper bullshit should be an unnoticed strength to your essay.

The need to present yourself as an expert is addressed by Whitney when she says that “writers must first understand the swirl of existing discourse on their subject” before properly giving an opinion (186). Being able to see multiple sides to an argument and try on different perspectives is a skill that is already encouraged by teachers and is essential to giving your argument a place in the conversation. But where it gets interesting is in this idea’s entanglement in the bullshit process. Of course, the key to have proper bullshitted opinions hold up in an essay is to have it be well articulated and come from at least a basic understanding of what you’re writing about. For this to happen, even more bullshit must ensue.

English professor Joshua Cruz points out how “bullshit is deeply tied to matters of subjectivity” and notes that “Frankfurt (2005) suggests that bullshit, as it occurs in “bull sessions,” provides a way for individuals to try on different identities, to see what it feels like to express oneself in a way not necessarily congruent with how one normally views oneself” (20). In other words, when you bullshit your written views on top of your actual views, you are able to explore ideas that you wouldn’t normally come up with, free of judgment. Oftentimes, students are asked to write their own ideas or opinions on a matter, but sometimes it can be easier to write about something without having your own stake in it. When trying to put into words how you feel about something, it can be hard to find a way to perfectly describe your ideas. This is where bullshitting your perspective is an essential skill. Not only will it remove a mental barrier of feeling like you have to defend yourself, but you will also be able to express your farcical opinion under the guise of subjectivity. For example, if you have to write a self-reflection of your work, it can be easier to take a dramatized overly critical view of your work in order to write the assignment, even if you think it’s already perfect. As long as you give proper reasoning behind these arguments, you can allow it to stand as a fully formed idea, even if there’s nothing truly there.

So far, all these writing techniques have been nothing but beneficial for developing proper bullshit. Understanding the role each classroom-taught technique plays in the process of proper bullshit, has the ability to strengthen your ideas and make you a better writer. However, not all bullshit techniques learned in the classroom are helpful to students. This is especially the case in the standardized yet controversial five-paragraph essay. English professor Bruce Bowles defines the five-paragraph essay as simply an essay with one introductory paragraph outlining your point, three main paragraphs each explaining a detail of that point, and a final conclusion paragraph in order to restate what you’ve already said (220). This writing format is widely used among primary and secondary education teachers due to its application in standardized testing. Chances are, if you’re a student, you’ve written more of these essays than you can count. But whether students or teachers realize it or not, the five-paragraph essay plays a strong role in the cultivation of traditional bullshit in the classroom.

Bowles points out that, “as a result of its rigidity and the manner in which testing companies assess the FPT [Five-Paragraph Theme], it imparts a hollow, formulaic notion of writing to students that emphasizes adherence to generic features rather than focusing on quality of content, informed research practices, effective persuasive techniques, and attention to the specific contexts in which students will compose” (221). Since standardized testing plays such a significant role in the education system, teachers are essentially required to teach students how to meet the criteria laid out by testing companies. This results in teachers imparting this hollow and rigid structure of writing upon students during their formative writing years, and unknowingly encouraging passionless, unprepared writing synonymous with traditional bullshit. Students are being conditioned for years to write this way, and it comes to the point where it’s less about writing and more about filling out generic features. Simply restating what a text says over five paragraphs can hardly be called engaging writing. So, when teachers come to expect more out of their students who never had the opportunity to truly learn how, it’s now wonder that all they see is bullshit.

While Medeiros’s perspective was essential in revealing the process of proper bullshit; she also offers a generalized view of bullshit based off of her research among students, and when comparing the definition with Bowles view on the five-paragraph essay, it reveals striking similarities. Medeiros’s research finds that instructors “tend to believe that bullshit writing is work that is passionless, unrevised, and is likely done with little to no preparation or even before class” (Medeiros). This idea has many similarities to the context and process of a five-paragraph essay and casts no doubt in my mind that the two are intrinsically linked. It is, by no means, a stretch to infer that a large cause as to why students bullshit is because the education system has always been telling them that’s the way to write. So, when teachers place importance on students being able to sit down to read a text and then immediately after writing an essay on the matter, they are placing importance on being able to bullshit.

So why does all this matter? Students will always bullshit their work, and teachers are always going to discourage and try to call them out for it. Perhaps what is more important is for teachers to more blatantly encourage the proper bullshit they already teach. Better yet a more convoluted yet effective solution, would be to properly recognize both the real writing techniques that arise in proper bullshit and also the prevalence of bullshit in writing techniques. By pointing these out not only will students gain a better understanding of how writing works, but it will also improve and make unnoticeable the bullshit students inevitably insert into their work. Truly a win-win for teachers everywhere who seek to discourage bullshit while seeing their students’ work improve.

Works Cited
Bowles, Bruce. “The Five Paragraph Theme Teaches Beyond the Test.” Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe, West Virginia University Libraries Digital Publishing Institute, 2017, pp. 220-225.

Cruz, Joshua. “Understanding Undergraduate Bullshit as a Function of Language and Subject Position.” Researchgate.net, Sept. 2018.

Medeiros, Kylie. “Your Teachers Are Bullshitting You.” Undercurrents: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Composition, 2022.

Whitney, Anne Elrod. “‘I Just Turned in what I Thought’: Authority and Voice in Student Writing.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol 39, no. 2, 2011, pp.184-93.