David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

No More Formulaic Composition Essays

Full vitae front movie trailer teaching

Image: iStock

Next week I’ll travel to Kansas City for the annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. It’s where rhetoric and composition scholars from across the country gather to give papers, attend workshops, and talk teaching. One perpetual complaint that is sure to be discussed in the hallways and coffee shops, if not from the lecterns: Our students don’t read.

I’m not talking about the challenge of getting students to read the day’s course materialbefore class. That’s another topic that instructors from every discipline love to chew over. No, the familiar lament I’m referring to is one that particularly affects writing teachers: How can we teach students to write when they don’t seem to spend much time reading? How can we help them develop into good writers when they seem to have no conception of what good writing is?

I’m actually skeptical of that complaint. I think today’s students probably read as much as any generation did, even if much more of their reading is on screens. The real problem for writing instructors is that the vast majority of students don’t read much of the kind of writing that we teach in composition courses — the broad genre of the academic essay. That genre ranges from intro-level essays for composition courses on up to complicated scholarly essays written by professors. It’s not that there was some golden age when students did read a lot of academic essays. This has always been a problem we’ve struggled with as composition instructors.

I love the composition-class essay. I love its flexibility, the way it can accommodate both the personal and the scholarly. It is a form well suited to the rhythms of the semester; its brevity allows connections to be drawn more easily among composition, feedback, revision, and assessment. Do I wish my students read more essays? Of course. But even if they don’t, I still want to give them a chance to express themselves effectively in a form so crucial to academic discourse. What’s more, I want to give them a chance to express themselves more effectively in whatever mode they choose.

Students tend to have a weak feel for the essay as a rhetorical mode, and little sense of what effective college-level writing looks like. So is it any wonder that, when it comes time to write in a first-year composition course, they turn to formulaic conceptions of good writing? They rely on the received wisdom they learned in high school — the pinnacle of which is the five-paragraph-essay, with its first-X-then-Y-then-Z thesis and a conclusion that restates the main points.

Lacking their own standards for effective academic writing, they adopt their former teachers’ rules. We see the result: a lot of formulaic prose.

One way to meet that challenge is to better familiarize students with the genre. Providing examples of good — and bad — undergraduate writing can be enormously helpful in teaching students how to write well. In class activities, I often use anonymous excerpts of papers from a previous semester’s class to help students identify the writing strategies that work and the ones that don’t. I also assign readings that resemble the sort of essays we expect students to produce in a first-year composition course.

But lately I’ve been approaching this problem from a different angle. Instead of only trying to teach students how to fit their work within the unfamiliar strictures of college essay writing, I’ve been looking for parallels in rhetorical modes that first-year undergrads are already familiar with. I start with what they know well before moving to what I want them to know better.

Take introductions. I’ve read enough essays that open with "Since the dawn of time …" or "The Oxford English Dictionary defines …" to last a lifetime. Too many students have been taught that an essay should start with the general and move to the specific. So they start very general and meander their way until they settle on their actual topic. How can we teach students to write introductions that entice readers, that actually lay the groundwork for the paragraphs to come?

I start by showing them movie trailers. No, a movie trailer isn’t the same as a written introduction, but there are enough commonalities in purpose that they function well as a gateway to learning the rhetoric of the introduction. Just as important, students have seen loads of movie trailers.

First I ask students to tell me what makes for a good trailer. They generally have plenty to say on the subject: It gives a sense of the movie but doesn’t give away too much; it creates tension that seeing the movie promises to relieve; it quickly establishes the movie’s genre. Then I show them a good trailer (this semester it was a scary teaser for It) and a bad one (the promo for C Me Dance, which really has to be seen to be believed), and ask them what they think. What worked? What didn’t? Students are quick to assume the role of critics.

Then I ask them how an opening to an essay is like a movie trailer. By now they’ve figured out my point and can see the parallels. So I persist: What would they include in the trailer to their essay? How would they entice readers to read on? How can they get across something of the paper’s tone and themes? Suddenly we’ve got a new way to talk about their writing, one they’re much more comfortable with.

Aside from movie trailers, there are other nontraditional forms of rhetoric you can use to get students thinking more clearly about their introductory paragraphs:

  • Say you’re meeting with a student whose essay features a lot of good points but no overarching argument or thesis. Ask: If this were a magazine article, what would your headline be?
  • In class, offer examples of Facebook posts promoting content from magazines and websites. Ask students to analyze the headlines and subheads. If they had to promote their essay online, how would they get their point across in one sentence? How would they entice readers to click?

I can assure you that this exercise does not lead to clickbait thesis statements ("You’ll never believe how this text uses pathos!"). But it does help students understand the point of a thesis statement better than telling them to just list their three main points. A good thesis statement offers a succinct but precise overview of an essay’s argument, a highly condensed rendering of the writer’s take. If students can learn how to tweet, they can learn how to write a thesis statement.

The point is: Our students understand rhetoric even if they don’t understand how to apply it to a composition essay. Help them make that connection.

We have to meet students where they are — not because our courses have to be "relevant," but because our goals have to be bigger than just to teach students to mindlessly follow established forms. In her excellent book, Toward a Composition Made Whole, Jody Shipka argues: "What matters is not simply that students learn to produce specific kinds of texts. … Rather, what is crucial is that students leave their courses exhibiting a more nuanced awareness of the various choices they make, or even fail to make, throughout the process of producing a text and to carefully consider the effect those choices might have on others."

Many of our students already have a keen grasp of effective communication. Part of our task is to help them develop the flexibility to use those skills appropriately in response to a variety of rhetorical situations — say, for example, on social media, in a college course, and, eventually, in the workplace.

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