Sunday, December 18, 2005

Writing Basics - what's an essay?

Well? Like most people, I went through 12 years of schooling and wrote numerous bits of abysmal stuff, and I never remember being told what an essay is. Similarly, when I ask my students what an essay is, they often don't feel comfortable giving an answer. I know because I make a point at the beginning of all my courses of asking students to tell me what an essay is.

Yes, most of the time, even students who've been through our first year writing class don't feel comfortable answering. Maybe it's first day nerves, or maybe it's real lack of knowledge, but I'm usually lucky enough that at least a few students risk setting up a definition and we can work with that to create a working definition for the purpose of the course.

In my first year writing class, I turn to the related word, "assay," to try to help them see that I want essays to test ideas, and work things out, and when we're lucky, they'll make a point, too.

I have a couple of "essays" I picked up from my instructors (Thanks B and R!) a life and a half ago that I use at the beginning of every writing course. The first has five "chunks" of writing (yes, that's the technical term), all giving some information about the writer's hometown; it's basically little more than a jumbled encyclopedic entry. But it's in five "chunks" so it looks like it's five paragraphs. The second has one larger chunk of writing reminiscing about the writer's hometown, and making the point that the writer misses the way the town used to be.

I hand these out to my students, usually on the first day of the course, and ask them to grade the pieces over night, and be prepared to explain what they thought of the pieces. When we start the next day, they write their grades on the board.

Most people give the first piece a generous grade, and grade the second piece with a lower grade. Then they get to explain what they think of the pieces, and the things they've been taught to value come out.

They've been taught to value the five paragraph essay, and so most prefer a piece of writing with five "paragraphs." That gives me the opening to ask them what a paragraph is. Not surprisingly, they don't have a good definition. They've been supposedly writing them since age six or so, but no one's bothered to tell them what a paragraph is? So we look it up, and create a working definition for the class.

They also assert that the first piece of writing is "well organized," so I ask what they mean. How many times do I write "org" or something similar on a paper? I do it all the time, to be honest. On one level, I know I shouldn't, because it's not the most meaningful or helpful comment; on the other hand, it takes a long time to explain how to organize a specific sentence, paragraph, or essay/section, especially if I have to write it out.

In the case of the first "essay" in this exercise, organized to most first year students means that it's in five chunks. There's no coherence within a chunk, no overall sense of structure or movement. But the visual power of those five chunks is strong for most of them.

A few students usually argue that the second piece of writing's actually better, and the class goes back and forth about their preferences regarding sentence length and complexity, "facts" (the first has lots of numbers, the second has anecdotal evidence of changes, a field become a bank, for example).

The exercise takes most of a class, but it gives us a chance to explore (and explode!) many of their values about texts. The point, from my point of view, is that the second piece of writing is actually an essay because it makes a point, even though it's all in one paragraph, and it doesn't have a hugely obvious thesis statement.

And the other is just five chunks of badly organized encylopedia type information that doesn't have a point. By the end of the day, we have a collective understanding of what an essay is (a piece of writing that makes a point or tries to answer a question or problem), what a paragraph is (a piece of writing that addresses one point or topic, or part of a point or topic in a larger development, usually characterized with a topic sentence and a series of sentences developing the point or idea), and what a thesis statement is (an arguable assertion).

They also learn that at least some of the rules they learned in high school aren't going to apply in college. A five paragraph essay won't suffice for most college assignments (most students actually appreciate the freedom from that prison); they can use "you" as long as they're aware of being inclusive of their audience; they can use "I" in even formal writing; they can use contractions.

Part of the rest of the course involves learning how to understand genre and context for their writing, and thinking about their audience's response to the texts they create. To be honest, I talk about these same issues in all my courses, undergrad and grad, because they're important to me, and I want my students to have some clue about my expectations. I think they often write better papers for me as a result. (And if someone already knows all about them, well, they can contribute lots that day!)

Every semester during this exercise, students ask me why five paragraph essays are bad, and if they're bad, why did their high school teachers teach and even insist on the form. It's not that five paragraphs per se are automatically bad. But the five paragraph essay as it's taught in high schools is highly formulaic, rigid, and allows little room for exploration, creativity, development, or complex thought. College writing should demand exactly what the five paragraph essay restricts.

So why do high school teachers insist on the five paragraph essay? It's a mystery to me.

My guess is that most starting high school students will do minimal work, and the five paragraph essay is a minimum a teacher can actually enforce. Teaching it is better than letting students think that four sentences constitutes an essay. Teaching the five paragraph essay also allows high school teachers to give students a sense of structure: the thesis introduces points a, b, and c, and the body paragraphs talk about points a, b, and c in that order. All in all, it's probably about what most students are ready for, at least when they start high school.

The five paragraph essay, precisely because it's so rigid and formulaic, has the blessed advantage of being teachable, too. It's much harder to teach students to write in response to complex rhetorical conditions, to think about how their audience will read, how their writing creates a persona. Rigid rules don't work so well in adult writing.

What strategies do you folks use for teaching students what an essay is?

How do you get them to consciously break free from the five paragraph essay?


  1. Anonymous8:57 AM

    What a great post! I have to confess, I don't explicitly teach my students what an essay is (but I don't explicitly teach writing, either). It sounds like a great exercise, though. My corollary - which I haven't actually done, but am going to do in my seminar next semester - is to assign an encyclopedia article and a scholarly article on the same subject, and ask them to ID similarities/differences. I have very good students, and many of them do grasp the idea of a thesis, but especially in research papers, they revert right back to encyclopedia entries.

  2. Until I started teaching at a large state university, I had never even heard of the five-paragraph essay, and I started having students turning in 6 or 7 page papers, with page and a half paragraphs. Then I started counting--oh, five paragraphs. I scoffed sagely.

    Here's a sad truth...I too ridiculed the five paragraph essay. But when I started teaching at a community college, I suddenly understood why high school teachers use it...and when I have taught freshman comp (NOTE: I am not a good freshman comp teacher), I also have found myself resorting to this ungainly horror. Why? Because many of these students need rules to restrict some of their choices while allowing them enough room to structure and develop their ideas. It's somewhat like writing a sonnet--the form actually can be liberating. If I don't do so, I get randomness--the kind of chaos you are describing in the chunks (NOTE: chunking actually is a technical term, and it usually does mean to group by likeness, so you might want to come up with another metaphor, such as "piles"). This should be the first step on the way to liberation from a brutal and totalizing form.

    Ironically, it's because high school teachers HAVEN'T done this groundwork in many cases that we have to lay it in on a rehab basis to allow something more complicated later.

  3. This is fantastic! I wish you'd been MY teacher! (I had to learn this stuff from books on my own, and I'm still filling in the gaps.)

  4. Alright, I suppose I can use my Ex-High School teacher knowledge to help a bit on this one.

    Your guesses regarding the reason for the 5 paragraph essay are right. The kids will absolutely write you a five sentence 'essay' if you don't make it very clear that they need to write more.
    There's also comfort in rigid forms, as Axis of Peter said. The five paragraph essay is a form they can understand, and feel secure in. It's a sort of checklist for them to know when they've done the assignment. (Ok, I have a thesis, topic sentences, transitional sentences, and a conclusion. Yay, me.)

    On the less altruistic side of the equation, you have standardized testing. In my state, students also have state-wide Regents exams that must, by law, be graded by someone other than their teacher. Students generally take these exams in the second half of 11th grade, and they are exit requirements. Teaching your kids the five paragraph essay is a sort of guarantee they will jump through that hoop unscathed. Especially when a teacher you don't know, and who doesn't know your kids, is grading about 120 essays a day and looking for that checklist.

  5. Livia Queiroz11:09 PM

    Great. We are so visual. We see a big essay and conclude already that this one is better than a smaller one. And we actually don't stop to read the content. We just judge. Lucky and fortunately I had a teacher in 7th grade that gave me a bad grade for putting a lot of words in a paper and giving the excuse that it was a good essay. I learned my lesson... in a harsh way.