Friday, September 23, 2011

The Dangers of Thinking in Five Paragraphs

If your writing strategy is absurdly demonstrated as a
cheeseburger, then it's probably absurd.
The other night, I sat on Twitter talking to colleagues about the Five Paragraph Essay (which, yes, I do hate). The argument was about purpose and whether it was useful. I argued that the Five Paragraph Essay is like playing Hot Cross Buns; sure, you're making music, but it's only three notes, neither deep nor complex. The argument I got back was something along the lines of  "15-year-olds don't have much to say anyway." According to this colleague, their thoughts are simply not deep or complex (I am happy to say that my Twitter colleague eventually rethought this statement).

I think this idea is at the core of some of our very real problems in education. We believe our students, simply because they are novices, have nothing to say. As a result, we fail to challenge them. Even worse, we fail to listen to them.

Expediently Killing a Generation: An Intellectual Holocaust

The goal of the Five Paragraph Essay is to expediently teach students how to write essays and expediently score high marks on standardized tests. The little Marxist in me wants to scream at the word "expedient." If we read the work of Stephen B. Katz, "The Ethic of Expediency: Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust" (in College English), my reasons become immediately obvious.In this particular piece, Katz rhetorically analyses a memo from Nazi leaders that addresses how to more efficiently transport and execute the "undesirables" (Jews and other prisoners). How does this have anything to do with the Five Paragraph Essay you ask? Let's continue.

Katz writes:
let's do a brief rhetorical analysis of this memo from the standpoint of technical communication, argumentation, and style. By any formal criteria in technical communication, it is an almost perfect document. It begins with what, in recent composition theories and technical writing practices, is known as the problem or "purpose statement." 
This Nazi memo sounds like the perfect academic paper. A clear thesis, a solid argument-- every teacher's dream. Katz continues on:
Indeed, in this memo one can find many of the topoi first defined by Aristotle in the Rhetoric II xxiii. 1397a6-xxiv. 1402a29) that are used to investigate any situation or problem and provide the material for enthymemic arguments. For example, in the first section the writer uses the common topic of relationship: cause/effect arguments, in conjunction with the topic of comparison (difference) and the topic of circumstance (the impossible), are used to investigate the problem of maximizing the use of space, to refute the manufacturer's claims that the problem is one of overloading, and to conclude in an enthymeme that a reduction in the load space is necessary. Just further supports his conclusion by cause/effect arguments embedded in the topic of contraries....Finally, Just argues by cause/ effect and contraries to refute the manufacturer's claim that reducing the load space would overload the front axle by arguing from precedent (example)... Thus, in a series of enthymemes that make use of the topoi, Just investigates and proves his case for a reduction in load space.
Great! Just the Nazi has figured out how to persuade his audience, using the tools of our favorite Ancient Western Philosopher, Aristotle!

Katz also writes:
Based on the ethic of expediency, rhetoric for Hitler was pure technique, designed not to encourage debate, but rather to indoctrinate: "all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan"; the reason, Hitler adds, is that "As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided the effect will piddle away, for the crowd can neither digest nor retain, the material offered. In this way the result is weakened and the end entirely cancelled out" (47). Even in these abbreviated quotations we see not only a greater (political'?) distrust of the masses than we find in Aristotle (Rhetoric I. ii 1357a5), but also it greater "technical" preoccupation with the end to be achieved, both of which tend to work against free discussion, true deliberation.
And isn't that the purpose of those darn Five Paragraphs Essays--"pure technique"? We don't ask our students, at least not at the beginning levels, to construct essays that ask them to think deeply. We just want them to learn the technique, learn the form, see how to provide three examples to back up any argument regardless of how ridiculous or unethical it may be. They are supposed to come up with a claim that they can already prove rather than learning about it as they research and write. An evaluator is able to expediently grade these essays, checking off the boxes that make it "good" writing. Even if they deeply disagree with the message being presented, there is no place for debate; it either meets the criteria of the form, or it does not. 

It is thus easy to understand why Katz argues:
In the gruesome light of the holocaust, then, we should question whether expediency should be the primary ethical standard in deliberative discourse, including scientific and technical communication, and whether, based on Cicero's advocacy of a rhetoric grounded in a knowledge of everything and Quintilian's definition of the orator as "a good 'man' skilled in speaking," we can and should teach the whole panoply of ethics in deliberative discourse in our rhetoric and writing courses. 
Hannah Arendt, who also writes about the ways in which the Nazis used rhetoric to accomplish their ends, says,
“To think with an enlarged mentality means that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.” 
Yet, in assigning a Five Paragraph Essay, we barely give the student's imagination a place to search within the self, let alone go visiting other perspectives and ways of thought. Furthermore, it certainly doesn't encourage empathy or creative thinking. I would argue that it barely encourages that money term in education, critical thinking, if it does at all. We kill their quest for deeper knowledge before it even begins.

Keep in mind that these are some of the most emotionally intense and unsettling years of their lives. Being a teenager is not easy, though we nostalgically like to remember it as being so.

So basically, we create a bunch of drones running around who can now effectively "prove" anything in five paragraphs by giving three examples (because it's easier to deal with). Super! Because they are novices, we do not make them more deeply examine their ideas. We do not encourage their curiosities or ask them to use their expertise. We don't push them to make new conclusions, but simply say "restate your introduction." We don't tell them to include examples that contradict your own without trying to undo them for the sake of being correct. We tell them, "show how there are loopholes in the other's argument." Easy, expedient essays-- that is the goal. 

Pick your target. Aim. Fire. Pleasure in writing and desire to think: dead.

Dying to Be Heard (in more than Five Paragraphs)

Intellectual curiosity isn't the only thing suffering. Students are physically suffering because of this arrogant belief that students have nothing important to say. 

A year ago, Tyler Clementi took his life because no one would take his feelings seriously. He was blogging and writing online, as was Phoebe Prince, a 16 year old girl who committed suicide due to bullying. She was also writing essays for class that were about topics such as cutting and suicide. No one consider them to be anything but the twisted fascination of a teenager. Sadly, despite the media uproar and the memorials across campuses nationwide, other young adults continued to take their lives. 

Most recently in the media, Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14 year old from Amherst, NY, took his own life after years of bullying finally took their toll. Jamey had been reaching out all along. He wrote on his Facebook page:
"I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens.... What do I have to do so people will listen to me?
It is clear that Jamey was trying to reach out, to find support, to find someone (other than his parents) who would listen and take him seriously, especially online. In her article for ABC News, Susan Donaldson James writes, 
"Jamey's school counselors had advised him not to go on social media sites to talk about his sexuality, according to the Buffalo News."
In other words, though they meant to shelter him from harm, they basically told him to shut up. They invalidated his claims, made it sound like no one wanted to listen to him whine about his sexuality and the bullying that was being inflicted upon him. It was Jamey's fault for talking and exposing his differences, not those bullies for being ignorant and heartless.

In addition to blogging and using Facebook, Jamey participated in the It Gets Better campaign by making a YouTube video. On one hand, I openly support the campaign. I believe that things do get better. As a victim of childhood bullying myself, I know that, while it took time, I grew into my own skin and became someone of whom I am proud; I could ignore their words.

On the other hand, this seems to reflect part of that "kids don't know what they're talking about" mentality, the same one that says that they only need to write from a formula because that's all they are capable of doing. Maybe it does get better, but at the moment that pain is fresh and real, and having someone tell you to put it off makes you feel just as isolated and alone. Instead, we should be asking these kids to analyze the things that are happening to them, just as we should be asking them to analyze the things they are writing about.

We don't ask them to do that, however. We think reflection and analysis are tasks that are too complicated for mere teenagers. So what do they do? They rebel. They shout. They lash out against us. They lash out against each other. They do anything to get a significant reaction, to feel like what they are saying is important. Or they shut up and write/think what we want, and learn to resent it. Which sounds like a good option to you?

Taking Lives, Saving Lives

My point is this: if we continue to do things for sake expediency, we will see learning fail, and, furthermore, we will see our culture fail. The five paragraph essay, among other "educational" practices, strips students of their voices and their ideas; it marginalizes them. Expedient educations will create more students who feel dejected and unattached, who think school is a burden that is disconnected from real life, who don't know how to interact positively with one another, who feel unable to be themselves. The message is: fit this mold and be rewarded, or fight the current and be held down.

We lose much by applying methods simply because they are easier to evaluate or easier to teach, without giving regard to the quality of that learning process. Instead of teaching students tricks to write, we should be giving them tools to think. Instead of telling them how to prove a point, we should be teaching them to examine their claims and the claims of others. Instead of avoiding technology because it's hard to learn, we should be modeling better uses of it.

Finally, we should stop ignoring our students simply because they are young. We don't know everything either, and we cannot live outside our own realities. We have to stop trivializing their feelings simply because they are not as experienced, and when they are experienced, we must not tell them that they are novices.


David Price said...

Great post Nicole! Really think it sheds a light on the power of writing and teaching writing in a prescriptive way. I've linked your post to my "Freshman Comp" blog, so that my students can check it out as it is very relevant to a unit we just finished on "good writing" and language.

NP said...

Thanks, Dave! That is quite the compliment. I'd love to hear what they think about the topic. Hope teaching and school work is going well this semester. Hope to catch you in the IWS some time.