Friday, April 04, 2008

The value of formulas

At the Chronicle, Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff have an opinion piece that is right in so many ways that you should just go read it.

Their point, although they make it much more elegantly, is one I've made before: a formula, even a 5-paragraph essay, can be liberating and not restrictive. Instructors were so busy not hampering my creativity, for example, that I was in graduate school before I ever heard of a thesis statement or the five-paragraph essay. Of course, my general cluelessness and inattention was probably a big part of it, but--here's a thought--aren't students just maybe as clueless and inattentive as I was?

Here's some of what they say. I can immediately see how this would translate into some good class conversation during writing days:
A far more engaged writing formula can be found in the work of the composition theorist David Bartholomae, who recalls a professor of his suggesting that, when stuck in his writing, he use the following "machine":

While most readers of ____ have said ____, a close and careful reading shows that ____.

Similarly, the composition specialist Irene Clark, drawing on the work of John Swales, Joseph Williams, Gregory Colomb, and others, asks graduate thesis and dissertation writers to fill in these blanks:

My thesis will address the following question: ____.

It will fill the following gap in the literature: ____.

Formulas like those help students make arguments without abstracting themselves from the conversations that surround them. As a result, they have all of the benefits of the five-paragraph theme without its liabilities.

Building on Bartholomae and Clark, we teach our own students that persuasive writing rests on a single ur-formula, which we call "they say/I say," in which you summarize someone else's argument (they say) in order to set up your own (I say). Some versions of this include:

Although it is often said that _____, I claim ____.

I agree with X that ____, and would add ____.

Group X argues ____, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, . On the other hand, ____.

I used to think ____. Now, however, after ____, I have come to see ____.

Debates over ____ tend to dominate discussions of ____. But these debates obscure the far more important issue of ____.

At this point you will probably object that ____. While it's true that ____, I still maintain ____.

Far from turning students into mindless automatons, formulas like those can help them generate thoughts that might not otherwise occur to them. And such formulas aren't set in stone. Students can and should be encouraged to modify them to suit particular arguments and audiences.

Many students fail to pick up those moves on their own, however, either because they don't read widely, or they don't read with an imitative eye. That is why representing the moves in explicit formulas is often necessary. Teachers who think they are being progressive and student-centered by rejecting such prescriptive methods are passing up a chance to demystify intellectual practices that many students find profoundly puzzling.(emphasis added)

This might not be for all writing assignments or all students--but if it helps a student get unstuck, wouldn't the dangers of prescriptiveness be worth it?


Bardiac said...

I've just recently started using their book, and I'm impressed. I sure wish I'd read it as an undergrad!

JM said...

At WSU, their _TS/IS_ book is the only required text in all of the comp classes. As you can imagine, there are plenty of people on both sides of the fence. I am on the side of formulas as liberating and not restrictive. I have been teaching other things here and not comp, but I am looking forward to teaching with this framework. I wish I knew about it when I was at SJSU and teaching comp there, but _TS/IS_ had just been published, we didn't have any sort of departmental support for using it, and I was still learning the ropes.

In brief (which I have not been in this comment), I'm a fan.

The Bittersweet Girl said...

I saw them give a presentation and they completely overcame my initial skepticism: "But formulas will squash the creative work of the mind!" Enough of that fantasy! I've used their formulas in all levels of teaching from intro to grad classes and they've only been helpful. Students /do/ end up being more creative, more thoughtful, and more substantive when they have a model to follow.

StupendousWoman said...

I completely agree with the use of formulas. However, most of my students still need to learn to distanciate themselves from the texts they are presenting. Therefore, I usually spend lots of time reminding them to use “According to...” or “The research has showed that...” -- and I am not even teaching comp.

I don't know why there is such reticence to consider writing as a technical, as well as a communicative and artistic skill. Most students seem genuinely relieved -- and improved! -- when they see that good writing has more to do with structure than with some mythical inspiration. ;)

undine said...

bardiac and jm, you've made me want to read their book even more; I think I would be a fan, too. bittersweet girl, I wish they would come to our campus; I'd like to see a presentation like that. stupendouswoman, the creative/technical divide shouldn't really be there, which is what I think all of us are saying. Even Keats had to learn the form of a sonnet before he could cut loose and get down with his Romantic self.

cero said...

I need this book.