In Defense of the Ordinary

Back in November I wrote a defense of the five-paragraph essay. This morning I want to say a little more about the value of conventional classroom assignments and structured exercises. One of the lines I want to push this year is that conventional writing instruction often better expresses the underlying values of scholarly work in general than more “progressive” attempts to “stimulate” the students. The classroom, I want to argue, can be a microcosm of the research community that maintains the knowledge that teachers impart. But in order to realize this potential we have to be less embarrassed about the ordinariness of much of what we know and less bashful about our orderliness.

Consider the simple case of giving students two texts to read that exemplify a “classic” disagreement within your discipline. They may engage on what is a standing dispute in your discipline, or over a question that has since been settled and on which most scholars now agree. The two texts you assign will of course clarify the point at issue and offer arguments for and against both sides. The authors may make direct reference to each other, challenging, perhaps, not just each other’s claims but their readings of each other’s arguments. The students can be asked to read these papers and to try make up their own minds — to take a position on the disputed question. They can be asked to discuss their views in small groups, not necessarily persuading each other, but at least generating a list of arguments and counter-arguments. They will get a sense of what the readings say by hearing what their fellow students make of them.

The important thing, of course, is not just to have this list of arguments. The important thing is for the students to form an opinion of their own, well aware that it is a temporary resolution based on the information they happen to have before them. The amount of information can be fixed, or at least indicated, by time constraints. The readings may be assigned with only a few days given to get them read. After that, they may have a week to make up their minds and write a short paper about it. This will limit the amount of reading they can reasonably do beyond the assigned readings, but students should be told of the value of tracking down some of the sources that the texts themselves make use of. What they find there might be of use to them.

Once they have done some work, alone and in groups, to develop a position on what is to you (the teacher, the scholar) a familiar issue, give them a simple declarative sentence that states a plausible, recognizable stance. Tell them they have to write a five-paragraph essay that either asserts or critiques this position. By convention, you are asking them to motivate the need to take a position (§1) and then to come up with three reasons to either adopt it or reject it (§§2-4). In their conclusion (§5), they must wrap things up by indicating the broader consequences of the view they have defended. Or you can suggest alternative ways of writing five paragraphs. The point is that you are asking them to read two papers, discuss them among themselves, and then write five coherent paragraphs on the basis of this experience.

In my next few posts, I’m going to look at the five paragraphs in turn. I want to show that this sort of conventional, “ordinary” writing displays skills that are essential to maintaining our academic literacy. By the same token, it displays the lack of these skills where they are absent. The question that teachers do well to ask themselves is this: At what level should this sort of exercise be “easy”–an ordinary exercise of the student’s competence in the relevant discipline. I’m not here just thinking about mastery of the essay form but also of the content that is specified by the assigned readings, invoking particular methods and theories. I think we are too quick to believe that straightforward exercises like this, which can be assigned and graded in correspondingly straightforward ways, are too “artificial” to impart learning to the students. I want to begin the year by showing that our boredom with the ordinariness of what we know well is the unnecessary source of disorder in our classrooms and, ultimately, our disciplines.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *