March 20


How I Teach College-Level Writing: The Diagnosis

This post describes the last step before I design an actual syllabus. It’s where I, the teacher, makes some kind of judgement about what specific writing help my students need. It’s where I make a diagnosis, however broad and general, about what I most need to teach.

(This is the third in a series on teaching Composition. Part one introduced the field and posed a rather large number of questions to would-be instructors. Part two introduced a few theories or takes on the nature of writing and learning, theories that were meant to offer a framework for how or what you might decide to teach.)

Those theories, I think, show why a diagnosis is so important. On the one hand, I claimed, skill development is more narrow in its scope than is generally thought: a student who loves reading poetry may turn out to write only average expository papers; the most interesting talker in the class may frustrate you with his awkward arguments on the page. Additionally, people tend to rely on unconscious muscle memory when they write, and they’ve built up specific ways of writing over all their previous classes. If you want to change how they write, your lessons probably have to be very focused, very detailed, and very repetitive. You don’t have as much time as it might seem, because anything you want to teach properly, you’re going to have to teach, in multiple ways, over and over again.

On the other hand, however, your class probably won’t be the last class your students take. This is simply your one semester to intervene in their on-going education for the better. Maybe there are things that are important for them to learn, but which you can leave, if you have to, to their future teachers and their own holistic growth over time. Maybe you still mention those things on the assignment sheet, but you don’t make them the focus of the semester.

Here’s a simple example of what I mean. I love teaching sentence-level mechanics. I’m a big fan of Francis Christensen’s “Cumulative Sentence,” and I think that improving students’ style and sentence-structure helps them not only sound better, but think better. Sentence-level pedagogies became popular in the US in the 1970s, and studies at the time found that, at the very least, these pedagogies accelerated students’ abilities to write ahead of peers who took a different type of Composition class (eventually, after a few years, the other students caught up, because everyone gets better at writing as they mature, but even that limited benefit still seems a pretty great reason to teach sentence-based Composition).

So I like it, and there’s evidence that it works. However, I don’t actually teach Composition that way at the University of Tennessee, and I doubt that I will teach many sentence-focused Comp classes in the future. This is purely for practical reasons: firstly, first-year college students are often resistant to it. Some find the talk of grammar and parts of speech intimidating, while others believe they already learned “how to write a sentence” in middle school. In other words, it’s a tough sell.

Secondly, it takes a lot of time: sentence-writing, at least the way I’ve taught it so far, requires a lot of in-class writing exercises and feedback. Students need time to understand the terms and techniques, then more time to become fluent, to develop an ear for their own prose. In any teaching situation where I’m not 90% free to design my own outcomes and goals, there simply isn’t time to teach the cumulative sentence and all the other worthy goals of a Composition class.

Prose style will have to come to them through some other learning experience than my Comp course, which is a pity.

That’s a easy case, however. There are much harder decisions to make.

For instance: let’s say you start teaching a remedial writing course somewhere like North Philadelphia, where many of your students speak and write in varying degrees of non-standard English (es), or, as they call it in class, “slang.” Maybe you decide to make a major part of the course a discussion of the connections and differences between 1. the kind of written English that both they and you know they will need in college and their professional life, and 2. the kind of English (es) that they arrived with.

Or maybe you decide, instead, that it’s not something you should focus on, figuring they will adjust naturally as they take more classes, finding an equilibrium on their own: so you just focus on teaching thesis statements and transitions etc. Perhaps you don’t even mark some incidents of “slang” in a paper as a mistake, because you decide there are more important things for you, the teacher, to be communicating. I don’t know which is the better option, either pedagogically or ethically.

Each student population, and maybe every individual class, needs something different.

The Five-Paragraph Essay 

Here’s my “diagnosis” for my current Composition classes, at The University of Tennessee. I use the word diagnosis cautiously. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with my students. I suppose the subject of the diagnosis is really myself, and knowing my limitations as a teacher. Nor by “diagnosis” do I mean it’s the only thing I teach. I also have to make time for lessons on academic honesty, MLA standards of citation, the ways the different collections of the library work, good research practices and so on. But that diagnosis does guide me as I design my syllabus.

My students here at UTK are some of the best I’ve ever taught. It’s not easy to get in here, and students arrive in my Comp classes with some very high test scores. Moreover, they’ve often taken advanced high school classes in the past, and they are well trained at carrying out the mechanics of studying, at keeping up with assignments and readings. They are a joy to teach in many ways. I rarely get essays that I want to fail outright for poor grammar or fatal inadequacies. I rarely have discipline issues or problems with students not listening to homework instructions (more on that issue, though, in a future post).

However, what I get a lot of, when I read my students’ papers, are various versions of the “five-paragraph essay.” If you’re not American, you might not know what this is. And I didn’t go to school here, so I may be maligning the form without knowing it. But the five-paragraph essay is an approach to essay writing that many of my first-year students arrive with, but which I and all the colleagues I’ve spoken to believe is pretty much inadequate as a way of writing at the college-level. That’s my current diagnosis — it’s what I focus my syllabus around.

To put it really simply: the five-paragraph essay leads to a kind of “persuasive paper” (at least, this is what my students call it), in which I the writer make some kind of claim about the real world (paragraph one), then give three detailed reasons why my opinion is correct (paragraphs two to four), and then, in the fifth paragraph, repeat in summary what I’ve just said.

As many people have pointed out before me, this is a good method when writing in a hurry, and it’s a good approach in a timed exam, because it’s simple in structure and helps a writer stay on track.

But it’s not good in college for a few reasons:

  1. The five-paragraph essay isn’t so good at the primary thing that college-level writing and thinking is all about — getting involved in a conversation. The style tends to lead students to adopt an air of being the first person to ever discuss the topic. It’s as though the student is Adam in the Garden of Eden, literally the first person to raise a particular topic in debate. I make a claim, then I back it up with evidence.

Whereas, in almost all scholarly environments, the first step is assessing and acknowledging what other people have written and decided. My argument only becomes meaningful when I relate it to what has already been said. In fact, without that discussion of what has been said on the topic before, many professors cannot even make sense of an essay’s argument. What school or approach or past result is the student trying to contest?

  1. Because the essay’s three reasons, generally speaking, all stand on an equal level of significance, five-paragraph essays (or essays derived from the muscle memory of writing five-paragraph essays) tend to lack any feeling of discovery, either for the reader or the writer.

In really good expository writing, there’s usually an “aha!” moment, perhaps two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through, where multiple strands or two seemingly contradictory elements are brought together. One feels, in that moment, a sudden realisation that the confusing has been clarified, that out of the opposition of two things, a thrilling third possibility has been discovered. But that’s not really how the five-paragraph essay works. It makes its claim at the start then proceeds to “convince” the reader of that claim’s truth.

Now, in a short exam answer (or a blog post), it’s perhaps fine to omit such an “aha” moment. You just need to get something coherent typed out. But in a long assignment, five pages or more, an attempt to simply make a point and back it up with evidence tends to run out of steam around the bottom of page three. At the very moment when a great essay would be gathering to its best stage, the first-year college student’s paper is running out of things to say. If my thesis is: “Vaping is bad for your health and it should be banned in public spaces,” how many reasons can even a brilliant writer come up with? How to build to a conclusion when the whole essay was already saying the same thing?

  1. This last problem is harder to describe, but it’s something like this: five-paragraph essays tend to be very abstract, very air-y and Olympian. They are structured to present the writer’s certainty about his or her opinion, and perhaps as a result, they tend not to get deep into specifics, or to pay attention to exact language or the precise design of an image. The five-paragraph essay might be full of quotations, because those quotations are the key evidence being displayed, but the other writers’  ideas are treated only as evidence. Their role is to back up the thesis statement. So the five-paragraph leads to less than careful reading. As the authors of the amazing teaching handbook Critical Passages suggest, such essays often give the feeling that everyone the writer quotes is more or less saying the same thing. Even though an essay might be quoting Nietzsche and Florence Nightingale and G.K. Chesterton, one would get the impression that those three writers all saw the world pretty much the same.

To me, such an approach to the essay misses the whole excitement of essay-writing. There’s a whole world out there, arguing and coming up with absolutely different viewpoints, using completely distinct assumptions and approaches, believing, much of the time, in radically incompatible facts — but when that fascinating glittering world enters the sausage machine of the five-paragraph essay, it all starts to look the same. The five-paragraph essay is a poor vehicle for exploring difference.

To conclude: The five-paragraph essay and its legacy is what I have identified as my primary “enemy” when teaching college-level Composition here at UTK. That’s the best intervention I can make for the students, right now: to guide them towards a mode of essay writing that will be more suitable for college and their future challenges. And to be as clear as possible, this is only because the students are good. Only because they are so bright am I able to hone in on something that in other teaching environments would seem like a luxury. It’s only because the future demands on these students will be so high. Were I teaching elsewhere, I would likely find something else to focus on.

In my next post, I’ll describe how my own Composition 102 course, “Inquiry into Cool,” attempts, while also teaching a host of other things, to instruct my students how they might get past those three writing problems I outlined in this post.


Composition 102, five-paragraph essay, how I teach college writing

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