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.

[Update: Caplan has a series of posts on his blog about “genre makeovers”, which offer more suggestions for how to rethink traditional five-paragraph assignments.]

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 to students why academic work is meaningful; it helps them to appreciate 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.

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