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Genre Study

Campaigners against the five-paragraph essay often suggest replacing it with a genre-based assignment. When John Warner asked Nigel Caplan and Ann Johns to provide some practical advice for teachers who had been persuaded by their critique of the form, for example, here’s what they said:

A good place to start is by choosing one “essay” assignment in your course and making it genre-based. For example, if your curriculum requires you to teach “description” so you’re currently assigning a “descriptive essay,” think about real situations in which description is useful, such as an online product review, a real-estate listing, or an entry in art exhibition catalogue. You’ll be teaching the same rhetorical mode and points of language. But your students will find the task meaningful, which will be reflected in the quality and depth of their writing.

I have been trying to argue that the academic essay offers an entirely “real situation” for students to engage with. It is important to get the students to understand that academic work is “meaningful” too, and to demand that they reflect this understanding in the quality of their writing. I think a huge opportunity is lost when teachers give students good grades for vague and shallow writing just because it meets the formal requirements of the assignments, as if that’s all we were asking them to do. Do we reward students merely for writing an English assignment in English, or for observing a word limit? Of course not. That’s just the minimum requirement. Surely, the grade should be determined on the basis of how well they do the work within the constraints they’ve been given.

One of the problems with the five-paragraph essay, then, has to do with the how the students (and apparently some of their teachers) understand success. And here Matt Johnson offers some excellent advice. In a post from last year, he described how he got students to see the purpose of the parts of the five-paragraph essay and, therefore, to see how the same goals might be achieved by other means. His idea is to subject the five-paragraph essay itself to genre study. He knows that it’s not actually a genre, of course; he’s just letting it represent the essay genre as a whole. It’s a sort of laboratory specimen we might say.

Johnson begins by leveraging a fact that Warner, Caplan and Johns are actually campaigning to make a thing of the past. “I assume,” he tells us, “that my students have all probably encountered the five-paragraph essay before.” Notice this general virtue of a canonical form, which is also a virtue of canonical content. We can endlessly debate whether Harold Bloom is right to put Hamlet at the center of the Western canon, but surely we must all grant that it’s useful to be able to assume that all your students know who Hamlet is and what he symbolizes in our culture? Likewise, a common understanding of the “classic” introduction can facilitate a discussion about the essay genre, as Johnson shows:

On the first day I put up the following question for each section of the classic five-paragraph essay:

-What is the classic explanation for how the introduction to a five-paragraph essay should go?

-Why do you think an introduction is supposed to follow that form?

-Are there other ways one could accomplish these goals?

One natural issue that arises here is about the “thesis statement”, which the students will initially say should go at the end of the introductory paragraph. I think there are lots of good reasons to do this. There are good reasons not to make it the first sentence: this is often boring (“I will argue that…”) and doesn’t feel motivated. Instead, begin with a commonplace that establishes a shared area of concern between reader and writer. There are also good reasons not to leave it to the end of the essay (in the conclusion): the reader wants to be able to assess your arguments critically along the way and therefore wants to know where you’re going before you get there.

Are there exceptions? Sure. Are there alternatives? Yes, of course. But the students are here investigating the rationale that has led to the widespread use of the general form. They can also therefore see that simply having a thesis statement in the last sentence of the introduction isn’t a guarantee that you’re writing well. You still have to accomplish the goal of an introduction: to motivate your argument and render it open to critical scrutiny.

Johnson’s exercise will naturally gets students thinking about their reader. And this is the most important thing for me in my defense of the “school essay”. It trains students to write for their peers. It’s one thing to describe a product you are reviewing for someone to be able to decide whether to buy it, it’s another to discuss it at a technical level with someone else who is also qualified to review it. Likewise, describing a house for the purpose of selling it is one sort of art; describing it for the purpose of redecorating it in collaboration with other people who live there is another matter. Helping students to write well “for academic purposes” is all about fostering awareness of the knowledge you share with your reader. That’s why I think Johnson’s exercise is an excellent way of explaining why academic is work meaningful, the specific sort of meaning that is made of academic texts. It’s not for nothing that I define the genre as knowledgeable people writing down what they know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. Students need to learn the value of this art.

A Peer-Grading Experiment Revisited

I’ve written about the use of peer grading at university before (here and here) and suggested a specific way of integrating it a course (here). After discussing it with colleagues, administrators, and even legal counsel, I’ve thought some more about it. What I want to suggest is still pretty abstract and schematic, but I think the basic idea is sound and I hope to try it out at some point in the future.

Let’s think about this within the framework of a one-semester course, with 10 weeks of instruction (and weekly assignments) and six weeks of independent research, culminating in a final term paper.

  • 50% of the grade comes from the term paper.
  • 35% of the grade comes from the weekly assignments.
  • 15% of the grade comes from how well a student’s peer-grading matches the teacher’s.

Here’s how it would work. Every week the students are required to write a single paragraph about that week’s reading and submit it 24 hours before coming to class.

The teacher reads and grades these paragraphs as part of class preparation. The teacher is given two minutes per paragraph and the students are told that these are the conditions under which the paragraphs are read. They are told to write in such a way that the qualities of their writing and thinking are obvious. The teacher gives the first paragraph 50 points. All the subsequent paragraphs are given points relative to the first. The students are then given a grade A, B, C, D on a normal distribution. (Fs are given only to paragraphs that receive 0 points, which is to say paragraphs that are woefully incomplete.)

Note: In a class of 60 students, needless to say, this will be a lot of work. About two hours. The idea is to count this as a substantial part of the teacher’s prep time. It should be obvious how reading a paragraph from each student about how they understand that week’s reading will be useful in planning and executing the lecture. Learning how to make use of this information may itself be an occasion for pedagogical innovation.

After class, the students are given 5 paragraphs from their fellow students to grade, ranking them from best to worst. The paragraphs are selected randomly but so that each letter grade is represented: there is an A and D in each packet, and at least one B and C. The students are told this in advance.

The students now get a grade according to how well they predicted the teacher’s grade. Getting all five in the right order earns an A. Each mistake costs one letter grade.

I imagine there are many possible objections to this approach. I want to acknowledge, first of all, that this places some pretty strong demands on the teacher, whose grading is now subjected to rather public scrutiny. The students must be told that this is sort of a game and it isn’t always entirely fair. Just as in sports, the umpire can make the wrong call sometimes. The point is that, in the absence of outright corruption, these little injustices average out over the long run. This in itself is an important lesson for students to learn. Quality in writing is not only partly subjective, it is subject to error. Get used to it.

I also want to point out that the students will be asked to assess the quality of the written work of their peers on a weekly basis. This, I want to suggest, is an invaluable experience. They will be asked to notice that it is, in fact, possible to compare written output and evaluate it. They will be asked to detect the differences that distinguish the best work (A) in a sample from the worst (D). All the work may be “good” in its way. They will be asked to decide what made one better than another. They will not be allowed to say that this is meaningless question or an impossible task. Hopefully, this will give them some insight into the teacher’s predicament as an examiner. It may even occasion some empathy.

A Familiar Yet Highly Complex Piece of Mechanism

“…the difficulty encountered by the student is that of representation by drawing of a familiar yet highly complex piece of physical mechanism…”

Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands

I suspect that one source of the animosity that some writing instructors feel towards the five-paragraph essay is a failure to appreciate the complexity and variety of individual paragraphs. But we should remember that telling students to “write a paragraph” is almost as open a task as telling them to “use their hands”. Indeed, I often compare the task of writing a paragraph about something they know to the task of looking at their own hand and drawing it. Notice I didn’t tell them what they had to know, nor did I tell them what position to hold their hand in. But what if I had? “Write a paragraph about your opinion of the Prime Minister.” “Draw a picture of your fist clenched in anger.” Even when the content is specified, the possibilities are endless. We are making some reasonable assumptions about the student’s mind and body, which may sometimes need to be modified to accommodate exceptional cases. (Not all students have a Prime Minister to opine about; not all students have a fist to clench in anger.) The student is now free to solve the problem in a manner that demonstrates the competence we are (obviously) testing.

The first thing the student must do is to specify the object. The student no doubt has many different and perhaps contradictory opinions about their head of state. Since the task is to write a single paragraph, some decisions have to be made. Will the student concentrate on the substance or the style of the leader? Will the student choose a single idea to present unequivocally or will the student declare their ambivalence? Likewise, the student’s fist can be observed from many different vantage points. Will the student represent it from their own point of view or from the point of view of an observer? Will the observer be the person toward whom the anger is directed? Will the fist be shaking in the air or pounding a table? Again, there are many different ways of solving the problem. An idea, like a hand, is a complex object.

The next thing to consider is the reader, the viewer. What assumptions does the receiver bring to the experience of the representation? When writing, I always present this as “the difficulty” that the reader faces when confronted with your idea. Will the reader find it hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with? You may think your prime minister is an inspiring leader or mass murderer. What does your reader think? What is hard about the claim you are making? What resources does your viewer bring to your drawing of your fist? What symbolism are they capable of discerning in it? What will they make of the cufflinks you include in the drawing? What will they make of the ring on your finger? What will they make of the hair, the wrinkles, the tattoo? All of these are questions that need to be considered when solving the problem of expressing anger through the representation of a hand.

Finally, there’s the question of time. How much time to do you have to produce the drawing or the paragraph? And, given that, how many attempts will you be able to make? If this is an external constraint, the question can influence the decisions you make about the content and audience. If you are free to decide yourself how much time to put into it, you will obviously take the result of those earlier reflections into this one. I won’t pretend to know anything about drawing, but when it comes to writing I recommend working in 18- or 27-minute sessions separated by 2 or 3 minute breaks. That’s a good amount of time to get a paragraph down. You can make two or three attempts an hour that way, and if your aim is to improve your writing, it’s a good idea to practice. So if you’re trying to improve your students’ writing, I likewise encourage you to get them to write in this way. Get them to appreciate the finitude of their problem. If possible, get them to enjoy it.

A paragraph, like a hand, is a highly complex mechanism. But it’s also a very familiar one. I consider the paragraph to be the “unit of composition”; John Warner prefers to think of the “idea” as the unit. Our important point of agreement is that this focus of our attention should become familiar to the student. Writing a paragraph should be as ordinary an experience as having an idea. Writing a good paragraph should be a bit more rare, but students will also have significantly fewer good ideas than ideas in total. And this sense of quality in writing and thinking is much like our sense of quality in drawing and seeing. The good writer is better able to think something through; the good draftsman is better able to see the aspects of things. The craft of representing improves the precision of our experiences. What is really happening is that we are coming to appreciate the complexity of the “mechanism”, what Kant might call the manifold of experience through which we come to know the objects among which we live. Overcoming the difficulty of representation is a matter of becoming familiar with complexities.

A Time for Writing

Over the last two posts, I’ve been defending the very idea of the five-paragraph essay. I have been reacting mainly to Dana Ferris’s critique of an assignment I proposed for discussion: write a five-paragraph essay that explains how to find a thing or place you think your classmates would find interesting. Ferris is not convinced that this exercise is sufficiently meaningful and, more worryingly, thinks that it makes unfair assumptions about the readers awareness of interesting places and things. But her main issue is with the imposition of form. While Nigel Caplan shares Ferris’s skepticism about telling students to observe a strict five-paragraph structure, he grants that “paragraphs are important” and, most hopefully, sees some value in my suggestion to limit the task in time. “Your 27 minute advice is interesting,” he says, “but no more a rule than any other advice about writing.” That’s what I want to get into in this post.

I should begin by being upfront that I don’t consider those 27 minutes mere “advice”. I do, in fact, present it as a rule, albeit one that writers are free to appropriate in their own way in their own process. If they want to write 18-minute paragraphs and that works for them, I’m not going to tell them they are wrong. What I do tell students is that they will not regret having the ability to write down anything they know in coherent prose paragraphs 27 minutes at a time and that if they want to develop that ability they might try following my rules for a few weeks. At the end of the day, it’s going to be self-discipline that gets it done, but they are (willingly) subjecting themselves, properly speaking, to rules. Once they’re committed to the process, that is, they’re either following the rules or not, and there isn’t much ambiguity about it. Hopefully, they’ll see them like the rules of a game, i.e., a set of constraints that makes an activity interesting and even fun. And sometimes, of course, my approach affords writers the thrill of breaking rules.

The other thing I tell them is that writing paragraphs 27 minutes at a time is something I know, not only how to do, but how to help people get better at. If they are trying to produce paragraphs by some other means, I’m not certain I can help them because I’m less clear about what they’re actually doing when they are writing. The constraints that I put on the assignment gives us a clearly defined problem to think about together. The student will have decided in advance what they want to say, they will know who their reader is and, preferably, what it is about the key sentence that this reader will find difficult (so difficult that a paragraph is needed). The time constraint itself lets the conversation be about their actual real-time writing ability. If the student and I agree that the text we’re looking at was produced with a measured amount of effort, then my criticism of that text can go directly into becoming more effective under similar conditions next time. I’m not telling the student what’s wrong with their text; I’m telling them what they can do better.

I call this “the writing moment”. The trick is to get writers to appreciate their strong position of advantage with respect to the reader. (For those who have seen The Matrix, feel free to imagine yourself as the One, working in Bullet Time.) A paragraph takes about a minute to read and, if your prose is in good shape, about half an hour to write. Your job as a writer is to spend 27 minutes arranging a single minute of your reader’s attention. You can presume that the reader will do exactly what they’re told, namely, pass one word after another through their consciousness in the order you’ve determined. That’s the only thing the reader is letting you do to them, but the reader is, by definition, submitting fully to your instructions: this word, then this one, then this next one. It’s true that you can lose your reader or cause them so much discomfort that they have to stop, but that, too, is part of the problem the writer is addressing in the moment of writing. The ability to write a good paragraph is simply the ability to make good use of one minute of your reader’s time.

With this in mind, it also becomes easier to defend assigning exactly five paragraphs. It lets you tell your students you expect them to spend, well, exactly two and half hours actually writing the essay (and maybe another half hour copy-editing). You can tell them you don’t them want to suffer all night or the whole weekend. You just want them to make some decisions about what they want to say, and then give themselves five 27-minute writing slots to get it done. You can then look at the results and see what needs work, what skills they need to develop. More importantly, when thinking about the text as a whole, students can be asked to imagine five-minutes of their reader’s attention. Like I said to Ferris on Twitter, it’s just a way of giving the the student a concrete sense of the limits of their reader’s patience. You have to come up with a topic that is worth five minutes of the reader’s time to hear about. In the case of the assignment we’ve been discussing, it’s a question of choosing a place or a thing that’s hard enough to find (and still worth finding). The paragraph constraint, then, serves as guide for selecting your content. It cultivates a sense of the student’s materials.

While thinking about this I’ve been reading William McNeill’s The Time of Life: Heidegger and Ēthos (2006). It’s a difficult book about a difficult subject, and I probably can’t do either Heidegger or McNeill justice in my humble writing instruction. Nor do I think students have to become proper existentialists in order to write well. (Indeed, I’m not as comfortable as, say, John Warner insisting that students even be “authentic” when they write at college. But that’s for another time.) Still, I like the idea of thinking of writing as a kind of “dwelling” and of teaching students to “apportion” their “composure”, one paragraph, one moment, at a time. Writing an essay involves the composition and arrangement of paragraphs that correspond to a series of experiences in the mind of the reader. There’s an “ethics” to it, certainly an ethos. Like “being good”, writing well means “finding ourselves correctly attuned in the apportionment of the moment” (McNeill, p. 89, quoting Heidegger’s course on Aristotle’s Rhetoric). Our students need to learn how to establish a moment of composure and make deliberate use of it. The five-paragraph essay, then, when used properly, provides a great occasion on which to dwell on the essence of composition.

The Place of Form

As I noted in my last post, Dana Ferris has suggested that when I assign a five-paragraph essay to my students I am “forcing them into the content and the form.” I have already dealt with the content question, arguing that I literally let my students choose a topic they care about. (I had asked them to write about a place they know, and “topos” is Greek for “place”.) In this post I want to deal with the question of form, taking the idea of a “place” even further, to construe the essay as the ideal site of critique.

By requiring the students to write an essay, I want to argue, I am giving them a place to try out their ideas. (Here again there is an etymological connection: “essai” is French for “attempt”.) The form tells them something very useful about their reader, a specifically “academic” reader, someone they are entirely familiar with through their studies. In fact, the essay gives them a familiar place to meet this reader; it provides a conventional “here” for a scholarly conversation to happen. As I suggested in my last post, we can be quite philosophical about this. The essay lets the student exist as a “rational animal”, a “knowledgeable being”, or what Heidegger called a topos eidon, a “site of meaning” or “place of forms”. That, after all, is what human existence, Dasein, ultimately (or at least in some sense) is. Most importantly in this context, the essay is a space of freedom.

We can begin to see this place by considering a little thought experiment I often suggest to my students. Imagine you have one minute to explain one thing you know to one other person. Imagine that you already have their full attention and that they, too, are knowledgeable about the subject (imagine an intellectual peer). Finally, imagine that after the minute is over they will consider the matter carefully. If you have unlimited resources (time and materials) to prepare, I now ask my students, what would the ideal medium for this act of communication be? After they suggest face-to-face communication and, sometimes, a one-minute video presentation, I give them the right and obvious answer: writing. Under the conditions I’ve set up, the ideal solution is to give the other person a text of around 150 words and a minute to read it. This puts you in complete control of what happens in the mind of your receiver. If your aim is to communicate knowledge in one minute to an attentive peer, there is no better way than a carefully constructed paragraph of prose that says what you mean as well as you can. The job of an academic writing instructor is to help students develop that ability.

When we assign a five-paragraph essay, then, we are giving our students an opportunity to experience their limits with respect to a particular and very useful competence, and the first step to improving your ability is to acknowledge your limitations, to appreciate your finitude. A five-paragraph academic essay is five minutes of another knowledgeable person’s careful attention, and the competent writer is able to make effective use of it. Students should be imagining a reader at their own level, usually the most serious and capable student in their class. They should be imagining someone who understands the material as well as they do, perhaps a little better, but not out of their league (think: college, a colleague). What brings the reader and writer together is their shared qualification to be in this very classroom, the relevant “prerequisites” or “entrance requirements”. This relationship to an ever more “qualified” reader will develop throughout their studies and, if they choose, their subsequent academic careers as scholars. It’s what we are ultimately referring to when we talk about an academic “discipline”.

In this sense, discipline is not something we impose on students, but something we remind them of. We remind them where they are and who they are talking to. It’s not discipline in a sense that evokes punishment but in a sense that evokes regularity, familiarity. “Think of your reader,” as we all tell our students. The introduction is the first minute of your reader’s attention. What are you going to do with it; what are you going to subject your equally disciplined reader to? Why not tell the reader what ground you will cover during the next three minutes; what are the next three things you’ll tell them? Then cover that ground, carefully and deliberately laying out your ideas so your reader can get a good clear look at them. When you’ve gotten to the end, how will you conclude things? Where will you leave the reader just before they put down your text and begin to consider what you’ve said?

A “school” essay, then, is an attempt to be with others. But not just anyone. And not just anyhow. It’s an attempt to be with other knowledgeable people in writing. Heidegger helped us to see existence as a “clearing”, a space that “opens” us to experience. He famously said that we are “thrown into” it; but we must not imagine this as like being thrown into a prison cell. It is more like something we step into, and this often involves the altogether “existential” act of “stepping into character”, of becoming who you always already are. Ferris suggested that it was too much to ask my students to write about a place they “care about”. The very idea of such a place, she said, is “loaded with privilege”. But, “care” (Sorge) is also a fundamental component of Heidegger’s thinking and he would say that, not only can everyone care, our care, the care we take in our work, is what shapes our existence, our agency, in a word, our freedom. As William Carlos Williams put it, “discipline is implied.”

What then, as Heidegger might ask, is the specific kind of “care” that is associated with academic work? What sort of care must be applied in our academic writing and what kind of care can we expect of our students in theirs? What is academic existence — and, indeed, academic freedom — all about? Why are our students at university? My answer is straightforward: the business of scholarship is to expose ideas to criticism. “To have liberty one must first be a man,” said Williams (meaning a hu-man being, of course) “cultured by circumstance to maintain oneself under adverse weather conditions as still part of the whole.” The “adverse weather” of the academic “condition” is simply the constant possibility of critique, which is here the price of freedom. It’s the criticism I sought from those who oppose the use of the five-paragraph essay in the college composition classroom, and it’s the criticism that I am subjecting their ideas to. To be an academic is to live with your ideas out in the open, to stand in the clearing, in the light of everything that is known (by others). Indeed, “the open” is another way Heidegger describes the clearing of our existence, the site of meaning, the place of form. The form of the essay equips us to try out ideas we might otherwise be hesitant to express. Within the protective “garden” of academia, what we are “open” to is the possibility that we are wrong.

That sort of exposure, that sort of adversity, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Sometimes, there’s a tempest in it. It demands a certain kind of temperament, I suppose, and this temperament is shaped by discipline, which, finally, constitutes the prose of the world. It’s not a discipline that we are forced into, as Ferris suggests, but something we pick up ourselves through training. As composition teachers, we develop it in our students one careful paragraph at a time.