Monthly Archives: May 2019

A Time for Writing

Giorgio de Chirico, The Enigma of Arrival and the Afternoon, 1911-12.
Source: WikiArt.

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 reader’s 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 want them 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 — to appreciate our finitude.

The Place of Form

Paul Gauguin, Clearing, 1873

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.

A Place to Care About

Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835.
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

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 to 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 to 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.

Where to Find It (an exercise)

C. W. Eckersberg, Vesta Temple in Rome, 1814-1816, Source: Nivaagaard Collection

Think of a place you know well or a thing you know exactly where to find. Make it an interesting place or thing, and make it one you’d like others to be able to find. I’m not thinking of your special place, or secret stash; I’m thinking of a place or thing that other people will be grateful you told them about and helped them locate. There must be lots of them to choose from, and I want you to just pick one of them — one, like I say, that you know well. You not only know how to find it but why someone would want to. When imagining the “someone”, the “other people”, just think of your fellow students in a class, or your peers in your scholarly discipline.

Your assignment will be to write a five paragraph essay that explains where this thing or place is — how to find it. It will take roughly five minutes to read. I want you to think seriously about how to begin, which also means imagining that your reader begins somewhere, in some location (some distance from the destination) or in some state of deprivation (in need of the thing you know how to find). Choose a common location, one that will be familiar to most readers or, at least, one that they will be more easily able to find than the thing or place you’re going to be guiding them towards. I also want you to think seriously about where they’re going to end up. Just before they find it, what will they be experiencing? What puzzle may be confronting them? Should they turn right or left? When you say, “open the drawer,” will there be any doubt as to which drawer you’re talking about? What’s the last thing they will see before they see the thing you want them to find or arrive at their destination? And how, finally, will they know they succeeded?

In between, you have to write three paragraphs. That means at least 18 sentences and at most 600 words. Be strategic about this. Choose a problem that can be solved within that space. And make sure it can be divided meaningfully into three sets of instructions. Don’t make it so far away or so difficult to find that you’ll need thousands of words to make it clear. But also don’t make it so easy that the reader feels like you’re just wasting their time and that they would have been there by now if you had just gotten to the point. Pick a place or thing to find, and a place or state to begin with, that puts meaningful bounds on the problem. Understand the deep connection here between your problem as a writer and your reader’s problem as a seeker. You’re trying to help them find something.

Give yourself three hours to write the essay. That gives you time to spend 27 minutes on each paragraph, taking a three-minute break between them. You’ll also have a bit of time (say, 15 minutes) at the beginning to think about what you’re going to write about and at the end to read it through and fix minor things. Since you get to choose where to begin and what to find based on your own knowledge, and since your reader is just a fellow student in your class, the “knowledge” that is needed here is entirely yours to decide. You will presume your reader lacks some knowledge, but also that they have some other knowledge (or they wouldn’t know what you mean at all). Make these assumptions wisely. Finally, remember that you have more than 30 times longer to write this thing than the reader has to read it. Remember to enjoy this advantage.

Please keep this concrete. Don’t guide your reader towards some abstraction. Don’t tell them how to find love or their dream job. That’s another assignment for another day. Next time, perhaps, you can explain to the reader how to do something you know how to do well. Another time, you can write about how to observe a particular fact of nature, or how to comply with a particular cultural norm. You can explain how to build a physical structure or how to solve a social problem. The variations are infinite. But, for this one, just tell your reader how to find the Phillips screwdriver in your shed or the best bench in your favorite park.

Ian Bruce on the Accommodationist/Critical Binary

In Academic Writing and Genre (2008), Ian Bruce reflects on the debate between those who adopt an “accommodationist” pedagogy in their writing instruction and those who adopt a “critical” pedagogy. The goal of the first is to help students “master the conventions and values of academic writing”, while the second “encourages the questioning and challenging of such norms and values”. Actually, he draws the distinction a bit more categorically. Those in the first group, he tells us,

proceed on the basis of an accommodationist (sometimes referred to as assimilative or pragmatic) pedagogy, which assists students to master the conventions and values of academic writing in an uncritical way. (p. 10)

Thus, the opposition to the “critical” approach is essentially there by definition. I agree with him that such a “simple binary” is not the best way to frame a constructive debate. But I’m not sure that merely adopting both approaches is the best way forward either. I will quote his proposal at length and then offer my alternative.

The view taken in this book is that effective writing pedagogy that uses a genre-based approach (as a means for developing novice writers’ discourse competence) has to be both accommodationist and critical at the same time. Accommodationist here is taken to mean exercising a discourse competence by being able to understand and appropriately draw on the various types of systemic knowledge necessary for producing discoursal outputs. Critical here is taken to mean a novice writer being able to exercise an authorial voice by individuated and innovative use of the various aspects of discourse knowledge at his/her disposal. (p. 10)

The problem with this approach, to my mind, is that it requires us to adopt a dual perspective, letting both sides win, but leaving the barrier between them in place. We might say it fails to fully transcend the binary that Bruce is rightly dissatisfied with. The most effective way to deconstruct the binary, in my opinion, is to recognize that you can’t “accommodate” the norms and values of academic writing in an “uncritical” way. Indeed, criticism is one of the central values of academic writing. I go so far as to say that it’s the core “business” of scholarship. Likewise, you cannot exercise “discursive competence” in an academic context without also exercising an “authorial voice”; you can’t draw on disciplinary knowledge “appropriately” without making “individuated and innovative use” of it.

My feeling is that the “critical” pushback against “conventional” academic writing too often challenges a caricature of what it means to be “academic”: boring, formal, reserved, dispassionate. What we really need is a single, unified understanding of the use of academic language that maintains the essential tension between philosophical clarity and poetic intensity, which is the hallmark of good writing in any genre. Students and teachers can of course focus on one or the other, but they are not thereby choosing between accommodating and criticizing academic norms. They are accommodating the critical norms of academic work.