GUMP DAY: Rules of Engagement, Part 1

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Much of the writing students are asked to do in college requires that they craft a carefully reasoned response to something they have been asked to read.  Assignments like this tend to present students with two separate but related problems:

First, many first-year students aren’t accustomed to being asked to form or express personal opinions.  In fact, they may have been told repeatedly to keep their opinions to themselves, since nobody cares what they think.

Secondly, in order to form an opinion about a piece of writing or an author’s position on an issue, one must first understand what one is reading.  This seems obvious, but the truth is, when faced with college-level material, many first-year students struggle with reading comprehension.

In Part 1 of this two-part discussion of ways to get around these two problems, I’m going to address the second problem (comprehension) first.

First, the causes of the problem:

Most K-12 students are encouraged to read, but they are not always taught to read critically or to engage with the material.  They therefore approach their college reading assignments with the same tools they’ve always known, which are the only tools most of them have.  These tools consist fairly exclusively of the eyes alone.  The brain is used primarily as a memorization tool, since what most students have learned is that they will be quizzed on the material.  The answer to Number Six on the quiz can be reliably found on Page X, word for word.

College writing assignments aren’t often like that.  We don’t expect students to memorize and repeat what they’ve read, or even necessarily to agree with it.  We expect them to understand, to think, to process, to analyze, and to synthesize—that is, to form their own opinions and positions based not just on what they’ve read today, but based on what they’ve read today in conjunction with what they’ve read before.

In order to do all of this, they must engage with the material.  And this requires comprehension.

Many first-year students approach college reading assignments the same way they read anything else: by casting their eyes over the material word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, starting at the beginning and continuing through to the end, until their eyes have looked at each word in the document.  “There,” they say as they close the book.  “Glad THAT’S done.  I have no idea what it’s talking about, but hey, at least I read it.”

The reading tools they used in high school will not often serve them well in college.  Even students who like to read are often stymied when they’re presented with college-level material.

The following strategies can help students improve their reading comprehension:

  1. Skim the material before you read it.  “Skimming” does not mean running your eyes quickly over the whole document.  First, read the introduction.  (Note that the introduction may consist of more than one paragraph.)  Then read the conclusion (again, this may be more than a single paragraph).  Then read the first sentence (or two) of each body paragraph (this is where you’re most likely to find the topic sentences around which the body paragraphs will be organized).  The purpose in doing this is to give yourself an overview of the work as a whole.  What you’re doing is identifying the work’s central themes and arguments—what the author sets out to do, how s/he does it, and where s/he winds up.  Only after you’ve skimmed the work and have a basic understanding of its content and purpose should you go back to the beginning and read it all the way through.
  2. Read actively.  By this I mean, read with a pen or pencil in your hand (not a highlighter).   Put asterisks, question marks, exclamation points, and comments in the margins as you go.  Read the work as if the author were speaking to you personally, and write your responses in the margins.  “I disagree” is fine.  “WTF??” is fine.  “You’re an idiot” and “This is stupid” are also fine.  “Wow, I never thought of that before” is good too.  Or “Interesting!” or “Oh, this is like —!”  Remember, this is a conversation.  You both get to talk.  NOTE:  College textbooks are TOOLS.  You cannot learn to use a hammer if you just sit and look at it.  If you just can’t bring yourself to write in a book—say, the book isn’t yours, or if you can’t get past the idea that writing in a book is a sin—then us a pencil so you can erase everything before giving the book back, or as a last resort, photocopy the assigned material so you can write on the photocopy.
  3. Underline or circle unfamiliar words, LOOK THEM UP, and write the definitions in the margins.  Sometimes you can figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word from the context of what you’re reading, but if that word shows up several times, you should look it up anyway just to be sure you’re interpreting it correctly.
  4. Reword sentences containing difficult syntax.  Unfamiliar sentence structure confuses readers more often than almost anything else.  Combined with unfamiliar words, it can make an assigned reading seem as if it’s written in a foreign language.  Well, guess what?  To many students, this kind of formal English is a foreign language.  How do you cope with it?  Go back to grammar basics:  Find the subject and the verb.  Be aware that the subject may not be at the beginning of the sentence, and it may not be followed immediately by its verb.   Pretend you’re listening to Yoda.  Difficult, it is.  Do it, you can.  Try to summarize the idea contained in the sentence to see if you understand it.  Pretend you have to explain it to someone else.

Can you add to this list?  What methods do you use to get through a difficult read?

 

Rules of Engagement, Part 2 will appear next Wednesday.  Stay tuned, and good luck!

GUMP/College Writing: A Few Words About the Five-Paragraph Essay

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I routinely begin my English 101 classes by asking how many students have been practicing their Five Paragraph Essay skills for the past several years in preparation for this day. On average, twenty-three out of twenty-five hands reach confidently into the air.

“How many of you like to write?” I ask.

Most of the hands go down. On a good day, I’ll get three or four hands in response to that one.

“Of those of you who don’t like to write, why don’t you like it?”

The responses are predictable and almost all run along the same basic theme: It’s boring.

I say, “OK—how many of you have never heard of the Five Paragraph Essay?” With trepidation, one or two students hesitantly raise their hands. Their eyes tell me they’re certain I’m going to say they don’t belong here, and to please move to a remedial class.

I don’t.

“Good,” I say to the minority. “You’re the lucky ones.”

Some form of bedlam generally ensues. Most college freshmen in the United States were first introduced to the five-paragraph essay in the fifth or sixth grade and have been practicing it with varying degrees of diligence and dedication ever since, having been warned over and over again that they will need this skill in college.

This is a lie.

In fact, the five-paragraph structure is simply inappropriate for most college writing assignments, and I’ve spent the past twenty years un-teaching it.

It’s endemic these days, but some of you may be wondering what it is. A five-paragraph essay is an essay that begins with an introduction containing a three-part thesis, followed by three body paragraphs that correspond to the three parts of the thesis, followed by a conclusion that reminds the reader of the thesis and the argument’s three main points.

Yes, it’s true that some instructors, even at the college level, require it. I tell my students that’s fine; if that’s what an assignment requires, then of course that’s what the students will produce. They already know how to do it. They can do it in their sleep. They’ve been doing it for years.

But what if they’ve been presented with an assignment that asks them to explain Newton’s Theory of Relativity and relate it to a personal experience? What if they’re presented with a writing prompt that asks for a ten- or fifteen-page response? How can they stretch five paragraphs out for ten pages?

They can’t. And if all they know how to write is a five-paragraph essay, they’re going to be in trouble.

Don’t get me wrong. The Five-Paragraph Essay has its place. It’s useful in teaching elementary arrangement, and it’s useful in teaching students to have, and stay focused on, a central idea or thesis. It helps students understand the basics of topic sentences and paragraph development, and it’s often useful in in-class essay exams where time constraints are a major factor.

But it limits creativity, it limits the writer’s ability to address the complexity of the issue being addressed, and it undermines a writer’s ability to revise at the global level. Worse, it encourages knee-jerk responses to complex issues, it requires that those complex issues be divided into three superficial and largely unrelated categories of “analysis,” and it simply does not have the flexibility or the range to adapt to the intellectual demands of most college-level writing assignments.

It also insults the reader’s intelligence by repeating its thesis and main points after a span of only five paragraphs, suggesting that the reader isn’t bright enough to recall what she just read.

It’s like riding a bike. Most of us start with training wheels, and that’s fine. But nobody rides with training wheels in the Tour de France. It would be ludicrous to even imagine scores of athletes showing up at the race with training wheels on their bikes.

And yet this is what happens every September when my English 101 classes begin. Confident students showing up, training wheels oiled and firmly in place, thinking that’s all they need to win.

And they’re wrong.

When my eldest son was in the eleventh grade, I went to Back to School Night. Six or seven other parents had shown up to hear what his English teacher had to say.

The first thing she did was introduce us to the course’s primary text. She handed out a booklet to each of us, and I read the cover with a hovering sense of dread.

“How to Write the Five-Paragraph Essay,” it said.

I raised my hand, and the teacher looked at me in surprise.

“Yes?”

“Um, you don’t really teach this, do you?” (I confess, I would not have made a great diplomat.)

“What? Yes! Yes, of course I do! Why wouldn’t I?”

“I spend my life UN-teaching this.”

“What? What do you do?”

I told her.

“Well,” she said in obvious relief, “Most of my students don’t go to college. If I can get them to do this, I’m thrilled.”

I could see her point. But all of my students do go to college.

And it’s no wonder so many of them hate to write. Wobbling around on a set of training wheels is boring. Nothing is more exciting than seeing them whipping around a tricky course with increasing confidence once those training wheels come off.

That’s what thrills me.

GUMP Day: Six Tips for Successful College Writing

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Most college writing is persuasive in one way or another. In order to be successful, such writing requires that its author attend to six different skill sets at once:

1. Try to say something worth saying. Don’t just argue that women have come a long way in the past hundred years. We already know that. You can talk about why this observation is important to your argument, but it shouldn’t be your argument. Avoid common knowledge wherever possible.

2. Keep your argument under control. It should progress logically, and it should contain nothing that is not relevant to its thesis (your thesis might or might not be directly stated, but you should always have one, and if your instructor requests that you state it directly, be sure to do so). Make sure your body paragraphs are focused on points that are relevant to, and that help to develop, your thesis.

3. Support all of your claims with carefully-reasoned evidence, explanations, and examples. Be sure to cite any borrowed ideas or material carefully, whether the information is directly quoted or not, using the documentation style your instructor has requested that you use.

4. Try to demonstrate a clear understanding of the complexity of the issue you’re addressing by acknowledging, conceding, and refuting relevant counterarguments wherever necessary.

5. Be aware of who your audience is, what they can be expected to know already, and what needs to be explained to them. Read your work out loud to see how it sounds; your tone and style should be appropriate for the audience you are addressing.

6. Your work should be clean at the surface. Be alert for typos and errors in punctuation, mechanics, usage, and grammar. If your paper isn’t important enough to you to proofread it carefully, your audience will see it as unimportant as well, and you will lose their respect.

Once you have a complete draft, it’s a good idea to read it through at least six times, once with each of these criteria in mind, making revisions along the way. Then, before submitting it, read it yet again. If you’re satisfied that you’ve done your best in all areas, it’s ready to turn in.

Good luck!

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