February 1

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Every Sentence Is a Question

Me, teaching
If you teach Composition, or a general essay-writing class, perhaps you worry that your students don’t always make clear, easy to follow arguments.

Perhaps they hand in essays that often — to put it bluntly — don’t make sense. Their papers may display some interesting ideas; the students may appear to have worked hard and done some real research. Yet when you read those papers, sentence by sentence, you have to stop and scratch your head before you understand the logic of what they are trying to say.

If this is the case, read on: this post is for you.

This is the sixth post in the series: How I Teach College-Level Writing.

The previous posts are here:

  1. The Intro
  2. The Theories
  3. The Diagnosis
  4. Why I Teach Cool
  5. The Essay, The Problem

(Thank you to everyone who has read the posts so far!)

Now, I’d like to offer a few ideas at a more detailed, lower level: how students write paragraphs, how they construct the sections of their arguments, how they link sentences together to make a logical progression of thought.

This is frequently a problem area for a writing teacher: when your students actually hand in their first full-scale essays, you may feel demoralised. Often, what they have written simply doesn’t make sense. When you read a bunch of their papers consecutively, you start to suspect you’ve developed some kind of brain problem, an inability to understand the English language.

At first, this might seem impossible. One might think that in a middle or upper tier research university, like Rutgers or the University of Tennessee, where students needed high test scores to gain admittance, basic sentence-making should not be a problem.

And, by and large, I don’t actually see that many crazy, ungrammatical sentences, at least where I teach now. By and large, my students are more than capable of composing simple, straightforward sentences. Although I worry that they have been beaten down by past instruction, and have ended up with a terse plain style because it results in fewer corrections from the teacher, the fact is, I’m usually content with their command of basic grammar.

The bigger problem is at the paragraph level, where those sentences are supposed to combine into a logical order. Frequently, the order is, at best, uneven.

If you’re a teacher, tell me if you’ve read these sorts of paragraphs before (the following examples are all my own creations):

Native Son is a great novel. Richard Wright makes the reader understand the terrible effects of racism on African Americans of that time. Should Bigger have killed her? Some say that he can’t be blamed because he was treated badly by society. But what about personal responsibility?

Jennifer Lawrence is always one step ahead of the media. They expect her to be perfect, but the truth is, people love her because she is honest. “He requires that Woman, in all her achievements, be secondary” (Vandergreen, 34). Lawrence is able to impress her fans by speaking her mind. She shows people that celebrities are just like us.

This University is a mess because they are always building new facilities. It’s impossible for us to get to classes on time when roads are blocked and whole sections of the campus are shut down. The University should do construction only during the summer break. They should pay the contractors to work 24 hours a day during the summer. Some people say that this would be very expensive, and it would force the University to raise fees and tuition to pay for it. But I believe the University should pay for it without raising fees and tuition, because it would be better for everyone.

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Maybe these students are just lazy, you think, wishing you had brewed more coffee. It’s a seemingly sensible reaction. Those paragraphs all seem to display slack thinking, a hurried lack of care. If these students merely read what they had written, or actually thought about what they were saying, or tried to proofread, they wouldn’t hand such troubled prose. Therefore, you might think, the best teaching response is to give the class a stern, unhappy lecture, exhorting them to try harder.

However, while it probably won’t hurt to give a stern lecture, I don’t think it will fix the basic problem, at least not for the majority of students. Because I don’t really think these students are being lazy: they often seem to be working as hard as they know how. If you give your students more time to work on their papers, or give them the chance to hand in multiple rewrites, they’ll often present you with a revised version that is basically as disjointed as the initial draft.

And if we look back at those three made-up examples, there are hints that something else is afoot. The first student does have an argument; the second has done some research. Both writers are, in fact, probably taking the assignment seriously. In some respects, the third student is the hardest to know how to help, because he has mistaken making a wish for making an argument (“things should just be better!”): he doesn’t realise what an essay is supposed to do. But none of them are as negligent as it might seem.

In fact, the disjointed nature of their prose may be a good sign. According to my first Composition teacher, Professor Holly Blackford, several studies into Composition and student achievement have argued that young writers simply have a fixed amount of cognitive capacity at their disposal. That’s just how we humans beings are made. As a result, if you ask your class to draft something easy, like a letter or a diary entry, they’ll seem to be quite good writers, because the framework of the assignment is so familiar to them. They already know how to do it.

But as you increase the complexity of the assignment, they need to devote more and more thinking power to merely understanding what you want, and as a result, the mechanics of their paper suffer. They aren’t necessarily being lazy: they are trying to include more elements in their papers than they really know how to manage, and so the end results are messy.

These students are desperately thinking: “I need to introduce the theme of the paper… I need a quotation… I need a topic sentence… I shouldn’t ramble… I should say why my thesis matters…”

In other words, the better a teacher you are, the worse your students may write. Their terrible writing is a sign that they understand, on some level, that you are asking a lot of them.

We fiction writers know this phenomenon from our own classes. When someone who has no experience of writing a novel hands in a first draft of an opening chapter, a lot of the time, it’s terrible. Characters are flat and trite; there’s no forward action; the dialogue is stilted. Yet the aspiring fiction writer has probably spent days polishing the submission. He has read lots of novels, and can fluently critique other people’s work. But when he steps forward to create his own piece of fiction, because he is faced with the enormous task of presenting that entire novel’s fictional structure, his brain, in order to survive, simply disables his ability to tell good dialogue from bad. Often he will come to workshop bouyant, excited. He is not able to see the problems; he is shocked when the criticism rolls in.

Your students will arrive in your classes able to write a high-school essay quite well, or a college essay quite poorly. Those are the only two choices. There is no way to overturn and transform how they conceive of a written argument and expect, at least at first, pretty results.

This is why, incidentally, I no longer design my syllabi around a process of multiple drafts. I do give my students the option to revise. Anyone who wants to write a new version of any paper can come to me for feedback, and she can have until the very last day of term to hand it in. And for a few students, this opportunity makes a real difference. They can read my comments, listen to my suggestions, and improve.

But I don’t believe that offering the chance for re-drafting is a sufficient fix. The “process” pedagogical philosophy, which revolves around having students outline, then draft, then revise seems, at least in some cases, to essentially mis-diagnose the nature of the problem: after they’ve written the first version of the paper, many students are already at their full capacity. Asking them to look at it again won’t help.

(If I tell someone to wrestle an orangutan, and all that happens is that, after a few seconds’ hesitation, the orangutan breaks his arm and knocks him unconscious, my volunteer won’t be helped much if I merely give him time to heal his arm before I send him back for a second try. The basic problem — the orangutan — remains intact.)

Revising certainly can work, but when it does, it’s usually more of a mentoring solution than a pedagogical one: it works when an individual student and I have time to really talk through their paper, in detail, over and over again. For a class of twenty-something students, I simply don’t have time to do that for every student’s every assignment. Nor do many of my students, busy, as some of them are, with other classes and jobs and family pressures and Playstation addictions.

The responsibility, therefore, is on me. If I want my students to write clearer essays, I have to come up with a solution I can actually teach, something I can teach to a whole class at once. If I want them to write better paragraphs, with a clear flow of logical progression, I need to make the training of that skill a substantial part of my syllabus.

Here’s what I do.

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Every Sentence is a Question

I start by telling my students a simple idea: every sentence you write is an implied question. Every sentence provokes a question in your reader. The next sentence answers that question.

In other words, you begin a paragraph by writing a simple sentence. That sentence provokes the reader to wonder — why? or how? or in what way? The next sentence you write tries to answer that question. But that answer provokes a new question, which the third sentence tries to answer.

When you’ve answered all the questions you think you need to answer, that’s the end of the paragraph.

To show them what I mean, I have to take examples of decent writing, and read those examples with them very slowly, sentence by sentence. I show the class how each sentence (usually) poses an implied question which the following sentence (usually) attempts to answer.

Let’s take, for an example, a paragraph that is complex, yet flows quite nicely. Imagine it comes from an essay critiquing the modern idea of ‘diversity’ for being too limited, too inadequate — “we need a better concept than ‘diversity,'” says this essay:

We often associate the early history of United States exclusively with white European colonists. In the famous paintings we remember, in the documents we revere, and the stories we tell about that time, we tend to focus on people who looked pretty much like the founding fathers. We assume that “back then,” America was a uniform society, and that racial and cultural diversity is a modern invention, an awkward addition to the country’s essential nature. However, Colin Woodard’s study of early America, American Nations, reveals a more complex picture. Not only, according to Woodard, were the early European colonies divided by radically different cultural norms and national origins, but many “minority” populations arrived in North America much earlier than we tend to think. Mexican and Spanish migrants established settlements (in what is now the American south-west) long before any British colonists arrived on the east coast, the first African slaves were brought to “New Amsterdam” in 1626, Muslims and Jews lived in the New York area in the early seventeenth century, and large numbers of Japanese immigrants arrived on the west coast soon after the civil war. There was no time, in other words, when the United States was culturally, linguistically, or racially singular. This view of history suggests we need a different way of thinking about the challenges of “diversity,” today.

There may be many reasons why this paragraph seems to “flow” better than the ones I invented above. But what I tell my students to focus on this: how each sentence, most of the time, seems to act as an answer to the question implied by the previous sentence.

The famous map from *American Nations*

Let’s look at the paragraph piece by piece:

We often associate the early history of United States exclusively with white European colonists.

Really? Do we? What your evidence for that claim?

In the famous paintings we remember, in the documents we revere, and the stories we tell about that time, we tend to focus on people who looked pretty much like the founding fathers.

Okay. Fair enough. But why is that important? What’s your point, here?

We assume that “back then,” America was a uniform society, and that racial and cultural diversity is a modern invention, an awkward addition to the country’s essential nature.

Are we wrong to assume that?

However, Colin Woodard’s study of early America, American Nations, reveals a more complex picture.

Complex in what ways?

Not only, according to Woodard, were the early European colonies divided by radically different cultural norms and national origins, but many “minority” populations arrived in North America much earlier than we tend to think.

Which ones? Give me an example.

Mexican and Spanish migrants established settlements (in what is now the American south-west) long before any British colonists arrived on the east coast, the first African slaves were brought to “New Amsterdam” in 1626, Muslims and Jews lived in New York in the early seventeenth century, and large numbers of Japanese immigrants arrived on the west coast soon after the civil war.

And so on.

Applying this idea in the classroom

As I suggested in a previous part of this series, anything you want to teach your students, you have to teach multiple times — and in multiple ways. You can’t just announce something and expect your students to change their behaviour. For anything important you introduce into the course, you likely have to plan to teach and re-teach it over multiple lesson-ets, multiple mini-sessions.

Here is a sequence you might deploy in your own class. Most of these sessions are meant to take 15 – 20 mins each, forming one of the two or three things you teach that day.

These sessions tend to be relatively mentally taxing for students — they are forms of deliberate practice — and so it’s best to keep them short.

1. Introduce the idea.

This is delivered in a lecture: I tell the students to take notes as I speak. I first give a short explanation of the problem (“How do you write papers that flow well?”) and then explain the idea. One goal is to motivate the students, by explaining how many student papers fall down, and the expectations of readers (“readers want to read your work without work or effort”). I also offer them a reason to pay attention: if you can do this, I say, professors and employers will really admire your writing. They will be so happy to, at last, read a well-written paper.

2. First example.

In the same session, I show the students a particular article from the Economist magazine, about tattoos in Japan. I explain that this article shows how the technique works. You don’t have to care about tattoos, I say. But look at the sentences.

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First we read the opening of the article aloud.

IT IS easy for outsiders to admire those in Japan who sport tattoos. First, think of the pain. The body art known as irezumi is inflicted on a wearer’s torso with wooden needles and charcoal ink. During up to 50 sessions, the irezumi master brooks no tardiness, insobriety or whingeing.

Then there is the lifetime of pariah status that follows. Bathhouses and onsen (hot springs) usually forbid entry to tattoo wearers. So do swimming pools. Men may believe their swirling, ornate body engravings reflect a roguish masculinity. But the worst of it is that many Japanese women disagree. And so body-art narcissism takes place mainly among other tattooed men. Such groups of even innocent men immediately take on the air of gangsters, for yakuza and irezumi are inseparable.

I narrate the first two paragraphs, sentence by sentence, showing students each sentence’s implied question.

IT IS easy for outsiders to admire those in Japan who sport tattoos.

Why is it easy?

First, think of the pain.

It’s painful?

The body art known as irezumi is inflicted on a wearer’s torso with wooden needles and charcoal ink.

How bad is that?

During up to 50 sessions, the irezumi master brooks no tardiness, insobriety or whingeing.

Okay. That sounds pretty bad. You’ve convinced me. What about the other bad thing you implied, though, when you said, “First, think of…”?

Then there is the lifetime of pariah status that follows.

How do you mean, “pariah”?

Bathhouses and onsen (hot springs) usually forbid entry to tattoo wearers.

Is that all?

So do swimming pools.

Is it only a problem in those places?

Men may believe their swirling, ornate body engravings reflect a roguish masculinity.

I’m guessing you think they are wrong.

But the worst of it is that many Japanese women disagree.

And so on. Usually it’s possible to work through the first three paragraphs in one class session.

3. Spot the Problem

In a later class session, I remind students of the basic premise. I repeat the key points of the original lecture. Then I ask them to pair up, and have them examine a paragraph with a problem in it. I’ll assign them something similar to one of the bad paragraphs I shared above. I’ll ask them to note which sentences seem the product of a question implied by the previous sentence, and which do not.

Native Son is a great novel. Richard Wright makes the reader understand the terrible effects of racism on African Americans of that time. Should Bigger have killed her? Some say that he can’t be blamed because he was treated badly by society. But what about personal responsibility?

Here, I’m hoping students will agree that the third sentence is where the problems start, because it has a very opaque relationship with the second. I’ll ask them for suggestions for how the paragraph could be improved. The goal is to work toward an understanding of the question being implied by the second sentence (“How does he make the reader understand?” or “Why were those effects so terrible?”) — and then to invent sentences that would start to answer it.

4. Model Paragraphs

This is an easy activity which you can add into any lesson. It can even become a fun starter activity to start the day off — even though it’s simple for you to do, students seem to really appreciate it. Don’t be surprised if some of them start taking photographs of the whiteboard.

I begin by simply writing a declarative sentence on the board: “Don Delillo’s White Noise is a great novel.”

I wait, and sooner or later, a student will ask, “Why?”

I then invent a sentence to answer that question, and add it to my first sentence.

“Don Delillo’s White Noise is a great novel. It captures how it feels to live in a flood of constantly shifting, unverifiable information.”

Perhaps then, a student will ask, “How does it capture that?” or “Why is that important?” Whatever they ask, I take the paragraph in that direction.

The first time we do this activity, I’m listening for someone to suggest, around sentence three or four, that we need an example, a quotation. As soon as someone says this, I exclaim, “You guys are brilliant! Wow! Yes, the next question could be, “What’s an example of this?”” I explain that most essay assignments in college require specific evidence, and it’s important to back up your claims, in English class specifically, with quotations.

I then add: in a college paper, when you give a quotation, the next sentence always answers this specific question: “How does this quotation support your argument?” Every single time you quote, I tell them, the reader wants to know how the quotation helps to prove your point.

(This little lesson about quotations enables me to then assign that “problem” paragraph about Jennifer Lawrence (shown above), in a pair assignment. Now students have a rubric for figuring out what work that quotation was supposed to be doing.)

Every time I want to repeat this “model paragraphs” activity, I just need to write a simple sentence on the board: “Peanut butter is overrated” or “The novel is dead.” Students prompt me with questions until the paragraph is complete. They see, through my model paragraphs, the kind of writing I expect from them.

5. Students practice the method themselves.

This is the tricky part. You could have them work in pairs, exchanging sheets of paper, with each student taking turns to write a sentence then read their partner’s sentence, suggesting a question to prompt their partner’s next sentence. You could, if your students are bold enough, invite one of them to stand by the whiteboard and construct a paragraph with the class’s help. “I want to say,” the student announces, “that Bigger is a terrible character.” Slowly, with questions from the class, the student is able to write a good paragraph. “How is he terrible?” “Do you mean he’s a bad person?” This activity allows students to come to the board with vague, semi-formed ideas, and with the class’s help, they can transform those ideas, sentence by sentence, into coherent, well-developed arguments.

I’m sure you can imagine more, and probably better, methods to teach the techniques. If you have suggestions, feel free to post them in the comments.

To conclude: the other nice thing about this little method is that it massively improves one-to-one conferences. It’s so much easier, after these lessons, to show students individual sentences in their essays where the logic breaks down and the reader gets lost. Once you’ve both agreed on the problem sentence in a passage, you can ask them what question that sentence is trying to answer.

The goal is to build up the students’ ability to see their own work. At the start of the semester, they may not be able to do so without help: this is one way to teach them how.


Tags

composition, how I teach college writing, prose style, teaching


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