Beneath the Five-Paragraph Essay

Nigel Caplan and Ann Johns have just published a book that proposes to “debunk” the five-paragraph essay. As usual, this sort of rhetoric gets my back up. I use both the letter and the spirit of the five-paragraph essay in my own coaching and teaching, not, of course, as the end-all and be-all of writing, but as a good clear place to begin, a simple machine, like a lever or an inclined plane in physics, a scale or chord progression in music, a model or color study in art class. Whenever someone sets out to debunk it — or, worse, to “kill” it — I feel a bit defensive, perhaps protective. I want to spend a post or two outlining my reaction.

John Warner emphasizes that the five-paragraph essay is not so much a “cause” as an “avatar” of bad writing. “By itself, the five-paragraph essay isn’t necessarily a problem,” he tells us; the issues arise in the way it is used in the classroom and, especially, in assessment. Caplan and Johns are also more concerned with the use of the form than the form itself:

We want to be clear from the outset that the number of paragraphs is unimportant: What defines the five-paragraph essay is not the magical trinity of body paragraphs but rather an approach to writing that is insensitive to context, rhetorical situation, audience, or communicative purpose. Instead, the “five-paragraph essay” presents a single, prescriptive, and specific form for all student writing. (P. v)

On this point, I can of course agree. I would never defend “an approach to writing that is insensitive to context, rhetorical situation, audience, or communicative purpose”. Indeed, I use the five-paragraph essay and variations on that form to get students and scholars to think about things like context, situation, audience and purpose, as well as their own epistemic basis for saying what they want to say. What then is pitting me against Warner, Caplan and Johns? What battle have I enlisted in? What history am I on the wrong the side of? I want to get the bottom of this.

This blog is called Inframethodology, which is intended to evoke “the underlying craft of research”. Having been trained as a social epistemologist, I’ve long been interested in the social and material conditions of knowledge production. This means understanding the complex relationship between the product and the process of research. So I am very sensitive to the way a form, like the five-paragraph essay, can be institutionalized and placed in the service of darker forces than it was originally designed to serve. In fact, I am reminded of a very apposite observation that Ezra Pound made in his ABC of Reading:

It is hard to tell whether music has suffered more by being taught than has verse-writing from having no teachers. Music in the past century of shame and human degradation slumped in large quantities down into a soggy mass of tone.

In general we may say that the deliquescence of instruction in any art proceeds in this manner.

I. A master invents a gadget, or procedure to perform a particular function, or a limited set of functions.

Pupils adopt the gadget. Most of them use it less skilfully than the master. The next genius may improve it, or he may cast it aside for something more suited to his own aims.

II. Then comes the paste-headed pedagogue or theorist and proclaims the gadget a law, or rule.

III. Then a bureaucracy is endowed, and the pin-headed secretariat attacks every new genius and every form of inventiveness for not obeying the law, and for perceiving something the secretariat does not. (P. 200)

I think Warner, Caplan and Johns would grant that the essay (a composition of n paragraphs) is an apt gadget for a limited function. The invention of the paragraph and ways of arranging several paragraphs to indicate a larger argument is not, in itself, the problem here. Nor, I would imagine, is the introduction-body-conclusion form worthless in the presentation of one’s ideas. The problems arise in stage II and III, when the gadget is turned into a rule and the rule is enforced by punishing those who do things differently, without regard for how effectively they might be accomplishing their goals. Their issue is not with the gadget, but with the pedagogue and the secretariat. I am not without sympathies for their position here.

But Pound also says this:

It doesn’t matter which leg of your table you make first, so long as the table has four legs and will stand up solidly when you have finished it.

Mediocre poetry is in the long run the same in all countries. The decadence of Petrarchism in Italy and the ‘rice powder poetry’ in China arrive at about the same level of weakness despite the difference in idiom. (P. 62)

If I understand the complaint of those who would do away with the five-paragraph essay, it is twofold. First, students are not rewarded for writing essays “that stand up solidly” if they did not arrange the paragraphs in the right order. Second, students are rewarded for writing mediocre, wobbly essays so long as they do conform to the rules of the 5PE. I can only join them in their condemnation of whatever secretariat insists on this system of incentives. Indeed, when George Orwell set out his rules for writing he was right to include this one: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” It’s something I tell my students to do as well when I give them a 5 or 11 or 40 or 120 paragraph outline to work with. Following my rules can never be an excuse for writing badly. Nor should good writing be punished merely for breaking one.

And yet there is that table. It has four legs and a top. The length of the legs, both in absolute terms and in relation to each other, matters. The student must learn to turn each of them on the lathe in the same style, following the same pattern. The wood must be chosen with care. The top must be thick enough to support a load over its span and reinforced with a box apron. The corners must be rounded, the surface sanded and finished. All of this must be done with the purpose of the table and the desires of its end user in mind. The apprentice can make hundreds of tables, or legs or tops or aprons, with no purpose other than practicing the craft (or satisfying the master), learning how to turn, join and finish pieces of wood. Telling them that a table has four legs and a top and should stand up solidly under a load is not going to undermine their talent. Indeed, in academia, it represents the basic form of the craft beneath our methods.

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