A Place to Care About

I had an illuminating exchange on Twitter with Dana Ferris the other day. It was about my last post, which suggested a simple writing exercise: write a five-paragraph essay that explains how to find some interesting thing or place you know the location of. I had tweeted that I thought it might be a good way to start a college-level writing class, and challenged critics of the five-paragraph essay to, well, critique it. After all, if they are right then there’s something wrong with the exercise I suggested.

A discussion would be useful since the exercise is actually very similar in content to some of the tasks that John Warner suggests in his widely praised Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Warner suggests students explain in writing how make a peanut butter sandwich and then move on (as I also suggest for future assignments) to explain how to do something they are expert at. We agree about the value of giving students simple, well-defined tasks that they have the content knowledge they need to complete, allowing them to focus on the choices they have to make as writers. What we disagree about is whether to place formal constraints on the tasks as well. I think this is a very good idea, while Warner and others think it’s a very bad idea. Indeed, they think it is harmful to the students’ ability to write and even, at times, to their health. I was curious to hear how my exercise might be harmful or, at least, useless.

“I don’t need five paragraphs to address that topic,” Ferris tweeted in response. “I can do it in two words: ‘Ask Siri.'” Now, it’s important to keep in mind that Dana Ferris is a professor of writing and linguistics at UC Davis, and the director of the Writing Center there. She’s also a contributor to Nigel Caplan and Ann John’s new edited volume devoted to “moving beyond the five-paragraph essay.” (Caplan had cited her chapter in his own response to my tweet and tagged her in.) That is, Ferris is an accomplished scholar in my discipline, a leading theorist of my practice. As in law, medicine and engineering, our credibility depends in part on communication between professionals and professors, and in this case the communication was rather terse; my exercise was summarily dismissed. I suppose my professional vanity was stung a little.

“I know she’s joking,” I said, retweeting Ferris, “but one of the saddest things I know is a professor of writing suggesting that writing has been made obsolete by technology, that there is ‘no need’ for it. Perhaps not, but there’s the simple pleasure of it. A good instruction book is like a poem sometimes.” (Regular readers of this blog know how fond I am of instruction books, from How to Draw Hands to Rational Grazing.) She was kind enough to respond:

I was being flip, but my point was that your assignment that you “challenged” people … to critique is that it lacks purpose–or, as you implied, its purpose is to teach a form that students could use later. As a teacher of writing, and teacher of writing teachers, I have always believed that purpose and content determine form. Your assignment forces students into a topic they may not care about in a form that will not serve them. So that’s my critique, since you asked for one.

I did indeed ask for a critique, and this was more along the lines I had hoped. After all, “Ask Siri” would be an appropriate (if, yes, flip) response to almost any knowledge-based assignment, including Warner’s peanut butter sandwich exercise. By specifying a five-paragraph essay, I am requiring the students to actually do some prose writing. (In the first iteration, Warner’s students apparently often give him a numbered list of steps.) But I found Ferris’s critique a bit off the mark, since I had deliberately tried to make the task more purposeful than Warner’s. A peanut butter sandwich is arbitrary, and I understand the value of insisting that they just play along with him for a moment (I do similar things in my teaching and coaching), but I had in fact asked them pick a place they themselves thought would be of interest to their fellow students. I pointed this out in my response:

You didn’t read the assignment carefully enough. The students are to choose a place they care about and want to share with others. They’ve misunderstood the assignment if they don’t see a purpose. And the form simply specifies the patience of the reader (5 minutes).

Ferris’s response to this surprised me.

But it’s YOUR purpose. What if students don’t have “a place they care about”? That’s a concept loaded w/privilege: What if you moved around a lot, didn’t take vacations? What do you write about for five paragraphs? You’re forcing them into the content AND the form.

If you look back at her earlier critique, you’ll see why I hadn’t expected this response. “Your assignment forces students into a topic they may not care about,” she had said. But when I now suggested that it explicitly lets them choose a place they care about, she objects to my requiring them to care about anyplace at all — indeed, anything, since I also let them write about some object they knew the location of.

But “care” was her requirement, not mine. Indeed, there is an important etymological connection, one that I hadn’t even noticed when I designed the assignment, between my “place they care about” and Ferris’s “topic they may not care about”: topos is Greek for place. I’ll return to that at the end, but do note that I didn’t tell the students they had to care. I told Ferris that I had, in fact, given them an opportunity to care. I merely assumed that students could think of a place, or just a thing, that other people would be grateful for hearing about. Also, please note that I specifically ruled out places they care so much about they don’t want to share. (I don’t like forcing them into personal writing.) To use the concept of “privilege” to censure those sorts of very mild assumptions about our students borders, at least to me, on self-parody. We are no longer to expect students to care about anything? Caring is something only elites do? Like I say, the response surprised me.

Of course, I still imagine that Ferris hadn’t thought it all the way through, that she hadn’t really taken my exercise seriously, nor felt it worthy of a real, detailed critique. Like Caplan and Johns, and Warner, she thinks five-paragraph essays lack purpose by definition, and no amount task-specification can resolve this. They seem to think that once you’ve told college students (who are presumably fully indoctrinated by their high school experience) to write a “five paragraph essay” (and they’ll interpret “essay” simply to say that) they assume they can’t do anything meaningful. Students, so the theory goes, will now think that they can only try to please their teachers. And once you’ve given them formal constraints, they’ll imagine that conforming is the only standard against which they’ll be judged. The students would presumably be shocked to learn that their 750-word five-paragraph essay, complete with introduction, body and conclusion, wasn’t very good. Perhaps they’ll be puzzled even to learn that it could be improved? They would be outraged, I guess, to be told that it was boring. “Of course, it’s boring,” the student would balk. “I did exactly what you told me to do!” What saddens me is that academic writing instructors, indeed, professors of academic writing instruction, seem willing to validate this response. I don’t. I tell them to write a good five-paragraph essay. I tell them to face the difficulty of writing, and I help to do this effectively.

In my next post, I’ll continue this theme by going back to an insight I had many years ago, which will also address Ferris’s other point of critique, viz., that I am “forcing” a form on them. The academic essay, I want to argue, offers a way to engage meaningfully with our peers because it occasions what Heidegger, following Aristotle, called the topos eidon, “the place of forms”. It’s a place I care deeply about and I know, if I may be so bold, where it is. I try to show students how to get there. You could ask Siri, but I don’t think that’s going to help you find it.

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