Thursday, March 1, 2007

Begging the Question

Today I had a student come in for a conference to talk about a piece of writing she had done for the 2007 Hawaii Youth Peace Essay Award Contest. This is a highly motivated, formidably competent writer, one of the most capable and highly motivated students I have ever met, who had stated in her reflection on the paper she wrote that "I think one of my major weaknesses in English and writing in general is writing essays with a thesis or ones with a prompt... I am definitely able to do short stories or write about whatever topics l like. What scares me the most is that when the time comes to process my thoughts into a smooth, clean, strong paper, I crag up and all of a sudden, I feel that I'm incapable of writing such a paper." The student was looking for feedback about how to do better on this kind of assignment, and I found myself in a familiar quandary: having to give advice to a student about how to do something well that may very well not be worth doing at all.

For the record, here's the essay prompt:
Hawaii is a multicultural environment. Hawaiians trace their ancestors in these islands thousands of years; others arrived just a couple of hundred years ago. Many residents are newcomers. How does the mix of cultures and races contribute to the aloha spirit? How do you keep the aloha spirit alive in your family, school, and church? How do you reach out to and appreciate the uniqueness of others who are of a different race or cultural background?
The students are asked to respond to this question (there were other, somewhat similar choices, but this is the one this student opted to answer) "in a well-organized, well-reasoned essay of no more than 500-800 words." The instructions stipulate that "Points will be deducted from essays exceeding the 800 word limit. The word count includes (the, and, a) and quotations."

On the one hand, it's a reality that students are going to be asked to do this kind of writing, in essay contests, on the SAT, in some classes, for college admissions, and in the context of semester exams in college ("You have three hours in which to write essay answers to each of the following six questions.") And since this is a student who has willingly taken the task upon herself and wants to do well, I'd like to be able to give her some useful advice.

On the other hand, the task is at any realistic level a preposterous and self-annihilating imposition. The breadth of the topic combined with the (arbitrary and ridiculous) word limit encourage the students, almost guarantees that the students, are going to wind up writing, well, like this:

The more knowledgable we are of the different ways of life, the more power we have to adapt and easily establish peace between one another. With respect, acceptance, and group effort, I believe that having an immense multicultural environment can further build the aloha spirit that has kept the people of the islands together from the past, to the present, and for the future.
As individuals, we must respect and accept one another; however, working together and sharing, as a whole or as a state, is essential to sustaining the aloha spirit for the future. Those who are able to keep the aloha spirit and share it with one another are able to teach and share with those who are new to the islands.
With Hawaii's multi-cultural environment, sustaining the strong existence of aloha spirit with the islands requires acceptance, respect, and our own actions. We must accept each other, taking into consideration our individual personalities and cultures. If we are able to open ourselves out to others, we give them a chance to be, and with that, we can adjust to make our life on these small islands a much more peaceful and welcoming environment.
Having written this, the student, admirably, sensed that something wasn't quite right. It wasn't satisfying to her, and she suspected, correctly, that it wasn't going to be satisfying to her readers either.

As I explained to her, I think part of the problem lies with the assignment itself (and the school culture which has produced it). We tell students, all the time to do things that are arbitrary and transparently stupid: to limit themselves, in a topic that demands thought and extension, to 800 words; to complete a "well-reasoned, well-organized essay" in 25 minutes, as if such a thing were remotely possible. And then, since the task is impossible, we teach them formulaic tricks ("Thesis, three arguments, restate the thesis") that will allow them to hobble to the finish line in the assigned time, and we deduct points if they don't follow the formulas. I don't think we should be surprised when the results of such assignments are not representative of what the students know or can do.

That much said, there are also problems with the strategies she employed to meet the challenge. The student put in a valiant effort. But the problem, and the reason the essay doesn't work, despite the her obvious control of the language and her stated desire to make her point clear and convincing, is that the essay never pushes down from the level of large generalities to the level of specifics. And the problem with generalities is that they are of their very nature going to wind up sounding over-familiar and clich├ęd. As I read, my imagination, the picture-making part of my brain, waits for the movie to start running, and by the time I get to the end I'm still waiting.

So how do we get around that? Well, we need to get that movie rolling. The example that I shared with the student is a short essay in the form of a poem by Stephen Dobyns:

Where We Are

After Bede

A man tears a chunk of bread off the brown loaf,...
then wipes the gravy from his plate. Around him
at the long table, friends fill their mouths
with duck and roast pork, fill their cups from
pitchers of wine. Hearing a high twittering, the man

looks to see a bird—black with a white patch
beneath its beak—flying the length of the hall,
having flown in by a window over the door. As straight
as a taut string, the bird flies beneath the roofbeams,
as firelight flings its shadow against the ceiling.

The man pauses—one hand holds the bread, the other
rests upon the table—and watches the bird, perhaps
a swift , fly toward a window at the far end of the room.
He begins to point it out to his friends, but one is
telling hunting stories, as another describes the best way

to butcher a pig. The man shoves the bread in his mouth,
then slaps his hand down hard on the thigh of the woman
seated beside him, squeezes his fingers to feel the firm
muscles and tendons beneath the fabric of her dress.
A huge dog snores on the stone hearth by the fire.

From the window comes the clicking of pine needles
blown against the glass by an October wind. A half moon
hurries along behind scattered clouds, while the forest
of black spruce and bare maple and birch surrounds
the long hall the way a single rock can be surrounded

by a river. This is where we are in history - to think
the table will remain full; to think the forest will
remain where we have pushed it; to think our bubble of
good fortune will save us from the night - a bird flies in
from the dark, flits across a lighted hall and disappears.

from Black Dog, Red Dog
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1980

There are thirty lines in the poem, twenty-five and a half of which are pretty much straight cinematography. Only in the last sentence does Dobyns reach toward the generality, the theme, the idea the narrative illustrates: "This is where we are in history." The poem presents itself, essentially, as a picture and a caption, and the function of the caption is to tell us how to read the picture.

Dobyns could have written an essay in which he would say things like

Humans have a tendency to be greedy and shortsighted and given over to immediate physical pleasures, with consequences that are already visible all around us, and likely to get worse. We have run roughshod over the natural world, we have depleted our food and energy resources, we have polluted the air and the water and the soil. The more knowledgeable we become about the different ways we are hurting ourselves, the more power we will have to change things for the better.
But that writing would not have the texture, the interest, the emotional or intellectual impact of what he did write. His poem runs a movie in my mind which convinces because of the precision of its details and the authority of its language.

So if the assignment is to write an essay about the aloha spirit, we shouldn't be very far into the essay before we meet our the next door neighbor, Mr. Ka'ae'ali'i, who gets up each morning to sweep the street in front of his house to keep the neighborhood looking good; or hear the story of the junior high school girls who decided to go to the Shriner's Hospital every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas to make decorations and read to the children in the burn center.

The move toward specificity is what keeps writing—whether it be poetry, prose, or fiction—alive. I don't think it's impossible to write write well under the gun. But I don't think it's easy, either. And unless we are careful about how we frame our assignments and how we communicate our expectations to the students, I don't think we should be surprised when they struggle.


RJH said...

That's the problem in a nutshell. I see excellent writers who (because of the limits you name) continue to create formulaic and dry essays. Usually, the high grade goes to the kid who manages to follow the format best, not the one with the best ideas—good ideas pull them away from the same pedantic writing.

Now all we need is a solution...Especially at the higher grades. By the time I get them, my juniors would rather give up breathing than the five-paragraph essay.

Bruce Schauble said...

Well, for me the solution is fairly simple: I basically steer the kids away from thesis essays into question-based essays ("Identify one question this reading has raised in your mind and explore at least two possible answers to your question.") and free-choice writing. We talk a lot about process - what to do when you're facing a blank piece of paper without a clue as to what comes next, how to signpost the logic of the essay as it emerges, how syntax creates emphasis (or undercuts it), how to revise, stuff like that.

My working assumption is that students who know how to monitor their own writing processes effectively should be able to write a five paragraph thesis essay in their sleep. It's a reductive form, useful mostly in situations where it's mandated by someone who doesn't have the time or the interest or the patience for anything more complex (and, perhaps, harder to assess?). If an essay is truly an "essai", a trial, an exploration, then I have to trust that it will evolve a form of its own, which I can then try to shape. Take a look at Best American Essays in any year and you're not going to see any thesis essays there.

Systemic solutions are obviously harder to effect. There are a lot of teachers who for various reasons feel like the thesis essay is the (only) way to go. I think they're mistaken, and I try to communicate that and convince them otherwise, but if they are resistant to my suggestions, there's not much I can do to mandate change for them, or for the system.

I used to worry about whether I was putting my kids at a disadvantage when they walked out of my room and into Mr. Hardcore's class. Now I figure that if they can cope with what I'm asking them to do, doing what HE wants ought to be easy enough.

Jeff said...

Yes, yes, yes. YES.

I've been struggling with this myself, too--I teach an Essay Writing class to juniors and seniors, who always want me to show them how to write thesis essays. And when I refuse to teach them, when I say, "didn't you learn how to do that in middle school? Do you really want to spend a semester writing those things over and over?" they look at me like I'm insane to suggest that an essay is anything other than a thesis, three support paragraphs, and a conclusion.
I love your Question Essay idea, and am going to steal it. Try and stop me--I'm a continent away. I love that it forces the student to come up with an interesting question, or at least a question that occurred to him or her.

True story: last December, I received two sets of essays. My honors sophomores answered the question of whether or not Huck Finn should be a required text. My decidedly non-honors junior and senior American Lit students came up with their own questions about Their Eyes Were Watching God. Now, the sophomore papers were much better at meeting my requirements--there were a LOT of As. And the junior/senior papers were messy. A lot of Bs and Cs. But guess which assignment I'll give next year, and which one I'd rather throw myself under a bus than read again?