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?