Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The ... 8 paragraph essay?

After doing conferences and getting final drafts for their second essay, I am surprised by how well my comp students are doing. I think the majority of them* are now to the point where they can take a strong basic side in an argument and write a nice clear 5-paragraph style essay. If you are horrified by the fact that we are halfway through the semester to get to this point or that I consider this adequate to pass comp 101, then so be it. In spring I had students who were on round one million of 101 and still couldn't figure out how to capitalize anything or to write complete sentences. I think I lucked out and got a good batch this time of students who have some basic smarts or training** and can grasp a new writing style with some models.

Ok ... so what next? One nice thing about switching to a new comp reader and handbook (besides sample essays for them to look at) is that the handbook came with an instructor's guide, mainly of instructions for how to build a syllabus, but also with some suggested assignments, which were helpful. But one thing that irked me when I reread it today was how so many of the instructions told you to not teach the "formulaic" 5-P essay or that topic sentences didn't have to be at the beginning of a paragraph (making me feel crappy for beating structure into their heads) and then the sample paragraph or bit of writing they had for us to bring in to class was a perfectly formulaic paragraph. Humph.

It made me think about why we teach the 5-paragraph essay at all. First of all, I think it is necessary at a particular developmental stage. When I worked at that for-profit k-12 tutoring center in their writing program, I mainly fought with worked with middle-school boys who hated writing and may or may not have had ADD. Their inability to understand essay structure totally meshed with the developmental stuff the center trained us on: they were just incapable of thinking very abstractly or structurally (the kids a bit younger than them were totally unable to really understand "people" in the abstract, that there were groups of people out there in the world who the kids didn't know and who didn't think or act anything like the kids) and you needed a strong framework that you could beat into their writing. You also needed a strong checklist because the boys hated writing and sitting still and making them write was a constant battle of: "Write a sentence. No, 'I ran' is too short. Write three paragraphs of five sentences each and each sentence has to be at least 10 words. Sit down. Sit down. I will count every word! Focus back on your paper." When you get students tell you a sentence has to be this long or a paragraph has to be this many sentences, you are probably seeing the result of beating a bare minimum amount of effort into them, effort that they have then incorrectly understood the point of. (Quality, or grades, don't motivate at this age --- not if their parents eventually felt they needed to bring their kids to the tutoring center.)

And man, that was my spring class! Two sentences is the minimum! You need more than that in your paragraphs! Stop hyperventilating; yes, you can write a whole four pages! Just try!

But I think the other reason we over-rely on the 5-P essay is because it can be taught. And it can be assessed. I used to fret and worry about whether you could actually teach writing for the longest time, that whole "writing can't be taught/you just pick it up on your own," debate, not seeing any improvement in my classes, until I got good at teaching the 5-P essay. Now I can take students from unorganized crap to clearly organized simplistic thinking. But this comes at the expense of the actual content and development of their ideas, which get a little cramped and lopped-off when squished into the 5-P mold. And it is easy to grade on a checklist because you are looking for clear parts in a clear order and everything must be in a specific place for it to count. Makes grading faster, too. No wonder the SAT writing section and all sorts of essay testing services grade to that format, to say nothing of the poor overworked high school teachers. It takes a lot longer to think about whether this point that might be the thesis here in paragraph two is actually a worthwhile stylistic choice to build up slowly to the thesis --- and often takes reading the essay twice before making a single mark on it --- than to look at the end of the first paragraph and then the first sentence of each following paragraph and check it off.

And my students seem to like it (with one exception) because writing is hard and it's reassuring and fairly pleasant to follow a formula instead of the trackless desert of blank paper. After reading several models and doing a workshop on a three-point thesis and peer reviewing two separate student groups, they pretty well have a grasp on what a three-point thesis should look like. The exception, of course, is that I want four-page essays from them and the 5-P essay doesn't stretch quite that far, so they often get stuck on what they should do to add a paragraph to the structure.

So now that they have been familiarized with this structure (I'm not going to say "mastered" yet), I am stumped. How do you teach students to go beyond the 5-P essay? How do you tell them "here's a rigid and constraining formula you have to use" and then go to complete structureless freedom? How do you go from a simplistic one-size-fits-all --- ooh, Procrustean works even better there --- to, "you should let the content and purpose of your various writings determine their form." Once again I am back to "can you even teach students to write?" Sigh. 

I mentioned to my officemate that I was getting really strange penultimate paragraphs --- sometimes completely off topic, sometimes two separate conclusions, sometimes "background" that was so obvious it was clearly padding, and my officemate mentioned the point that the 5-P essay is too short to follow blindly. "I wish I had some other sort of essay structure to teach them that was, like, one level up in difficulty from the 5-P," I said. "Like what, the ... 8 paragraph essay?" she snorted. "Yes, totally! That's it!" There's a huge jump from simple structure to complete freedom in writing, and so much variety in my anthology's text they hardly work as "models." What I want is some sort of semi-flexible form my students could both copy and tweak, so that we don't have to regress to complete structurelessness when I push them to complicate their analysis and extend their papers.

Can somebody please invent this?

* I have quite a few that didn't bring drafts to peer review or have had "troubles" getting in the final draft and who are never paying attention during class. If they're not mentally there I'm not counting them as part of my class.

** I have a couple who took honors English but haven't been asked to write an essay for two years. And another who said he went to a bad school: "man, I cut class almost every day and still I got Bs. I didn't even show up!" But I have a lot who were very familiar with the whole concept map-outline-draft-revision thing.


Tonya Krouse said...

I might have actually invented an assignment that does this. The first essay I teach in any comp course is an "analysis" essay that is basically a five paragraph-er. Introduction, three main points (though I do allow them to add a point if necessary) that correspond to three paragraphs, and a conclusion. 3-5 pages. The second essay is a "comparative analysis essay" in which I have them compare two films. Now, with the "comparative analysis" essay, it's not just comparison/contrast: these things are similar, these things are different. Instead, I have them make an argument about the two texts in relation to one another. So, the thesis statement is something along the lines of: By reading Fight Club alongside Black Swan, readers see the ways that disciplining the body is connected to the construction of normative gender roles. And then you have to pick things in each of the films that illustrate that thesis, usually thematic things. So your three things might be something like, 1. rules for how to dress, 2. the ability to withstand physical pain, and 3. the necessity to "win." Once you've chosen those, you then need to find specific examples in each film to illustrate each common theme, and it's through your analysis of those examples that you would then discuss the differences between the films, between the different gender norms in play. So you have three similar "points," but then you complicate those through your comparative analysis. I provide students with a handout that gives two sample structures for the essay, and both structures would end up with an 8 paragraph essay. If you want, I'm happy to share my assignment as well as the handout. Just shoot me an email or drop me a Fb note and I'll send them to you tomorrow.

Vellum said...

I think Tonya's on the right track with this. Another thing you can do is start in on rhetorical devices, like antithesis -- make them write a 7-paragraph essay that goes (intro)(argument1) (argument 2) (argument 3) (argument against their arguments) (argument that shows they're right after all) (conclusion). It's a useful rhetorical skill! :)

Tree of Knowledge said...

Do a Classical argument--very structured, includes counterargument.

Contingent Cassandra said...

A little further along, a variation on the social science/science report format can work: introduction (including references to earlier scholars' ideas, either in the first paragraph or in a separate background paragraph), sample/methods (probably one paragraph at this level; how they gathered new evidence relevant to the research question named in the intro), results/discussion (which will probably have 2-4 subsections of a paragraph or more long, each of which discuss the novel evidence the student has gathered through observation, analysis of a novel text, image, etc., or something along those lines, and which may include some comparison back to the work of earlier scholars), conclusion (another place that may include comparisons back to earlier work). That's 5-8 paragraphs, in a format that closely resembles the native academic format for many of their disciplines (humanities are, of course the exception, which is one of the problems with having comp, freshman or otherwise, overwhelmingly taught by humanities types -- including myself, so I'm not throwing any stones here).

I'm generally among the 5-paragraph-essay-haters, though I do take your points about the utility of the format (the problem, of course, is that you often get three semi-coherent paragraphs and a thesis that reads along the lines of "x, y, and z are all related to q." I teach my students (mostly in junior-level writing-in-the-disciplines classes) some related but more flexible ideas: the human brain holds about two to four ideas at once easily, so it works best to have 2 to four subpoints (with additional subpoints under those if necessary), and, yes, you should at least start by putting ideas where readers in your discipline expect to find them: thesis or research question at the end of the introduction, if there is just one paragraph, or the introductory section, if there is more than one; transitions at the beginnings of major sections; overall argument/findings at the beginning of the conclusion (and sometimes also at the beginning of results/discussion). It sometimes helps to ask them to think about the parts they read when they skim a reading (intro, beginnings of major sections, conclusion), and tell them to make sure that they, as writers, put their main ideas in those places (it also blows their minds to think that skimming is okay in some circumstances -- but of course it is).

As I've said before, I'm not overly fond of the thesis/antithesis/synthesis structure, or of persuasive essays in general, because students really aren't going to be writing much in that vein professionally or in upper-level courses (analysis with an underlying persuasive agenda, yes; straight persuasion, no), and because I've rarely met a thesis-antithesis-synthesis structure in the (contemporary) wild. Also, it's really hard to un-train students who, after some ears of writing solely persuasive arguments, think a persuasive/policy argument is the only true argument, and they get very, very frustrated when I insist on, and seek to explain, analytical arguments.