Galen Leonhardy, teaches English and humanities at Black Hawk College in Illinois. "A letter to my writing students on why they have more freedom to create than they seem to think."
|Adam Niklewicz for The Chronicle Review|
In this college course, you were assigned to write an essay explaining which is better, cats or dogs. And what every one of you submitted turned out to be a basic five-paragraph essay, the kind your high-school teachers told you to write for college-entrance exams.
Your essays seemed written for schoolteachers whose daily lives are filled with managing 150 postpubescent adolescents — amid the ever-present necessity of avoiding any kind of off-the-beaten-path instruction that might give a high-school administrator or a fearful parent a reason to invade their classroom. Those teachers were often bravely doing what they could to prepare you for college-level writing. But the fact is: They have neither First Amendment rights while on the job nor the rights of academic freedom that liberate college teachers from administrative and legislative domination.
As I’ve mentioned in class, I do have those liberties (for now, anyway), which means I can let you write about any topic you want, in any way that you want to write about it. Yet even knowing that, you chose to write an essay that you could crank out, clean up, submit for a grade, and then forget.
Your essays weren’t "bad." Your writing, as a group, tends to be fairly clear and the paragraphs mostly focused. But it’s not the kind of essay writing that honors the legacy of Michel de Montaigne (the Frenchman who invented the concept of essays) nor the kind of essay writing that would capture and hold the attention of college-literate readers.
Rather, the style you chose would get you through the socially constructed coronary blockage of an overcrowded high-school classroom. Or, it would get you past the requirements of a high-stakes barrier examination read by folks enchanted into believing that a concoction brewed of Alexander Bain’s 1860s paragraph prescription, Victor Pudlowski’s 1950s five-paragraph form, and Barrett Wendell’s 1880s-era daily writing theme is the love potion to produce Jerome Bruner’s pedagogical scaffolding.
So, yes, you wrote a fairly clean five-paragraph essay. Well done.
But this is a college-level writing course. Your college-level readers are looking for you, dear students, to engage thoughtfully with ideas and to produce insightfully delightful essays. As composition instructors, we value publication as a kind of ideal of accomplishment and would love to see our students’ writing published in local newspapers or on websites. But that would involve more than writing five clean paragraphs.
In an article well-known in composition circles — "The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year" — Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz argue that "students who see writing as something more than an assignment, who write about something that matters to them, are best able to sustain an interest in academic writing throughout their undergraduate careers."
Sommers and Saltz argue that if you are going to learn how to do the kinds of rhetorical backflips necessary for college-level writing, you first need to see yourself as a neophyte writer and then come to understand writing as a tool for locating yourself within academe: "When faculty construct writing assignments that allow students to bring their interests into a course, they say to their students, ‘This is the disciplinary field, and you are part of it. What does it look like from your point on the map?’ And freshmen respond by writing their way into a small corner of academia, gradually learning to see themselves not as the one mistake of the admissions committee but as legitimate members of a college community."
Source: Chronicle of Higher Education