By Drew Edmonds and Ben Caldwell
In the shift from high school to college many writers find themselves wrong footed, confused, and often woefully unprepared for the rigor and complexity that professors expect in to see in essays. The word ‘rigor’ may be misleading, because this is not just a matter of college courses being ‘harder’ than high school classes in the vague sense that many prospective students hear about during their college search. The change is not just some indefinite increase in workload or the harshness with which professors assess grammatical errors. College is harder and more rigorous than most high schools, it’s true, but there are specific differences in the approach to critical analysis that are never explained to most students when they first arrive on campus.
A prime example that some professors make a point of addressing right away in first year courses, but most take for granted as common knowledge, is the myth of the five paragraph essay. In the vast majority of American high schools, English and composition courses have moved farther and farther down the road toward being essentially ‘test-prep’ classes. Teachers focus on the kind of critical writing that their students will be expected to produce on standardized tests like the SAT and the various AP exams, because that is the kind of writing that will have the most immediate impact on their academic success. As a result, students learn to churn out stiff, stilted, simplistic essays by pouring their ideas into the same formulaic 5-paragraph mold again and again and again. There are rigid prescriptions for every step of the process that not only stifle creativity but also limit complexity.
Unfortunately, the formulas that high schoolers learn and practice in the hopes of increasing their chances at getting into college embody an approach to writing that is almost antithetical to the philosophy of analysis that they will asked to employ once they get there. Structures like the 5-paragraph model create an illusion of universality and scientific perfection that is not attainable in an essay, due to the inherent subjectivity and creativity of writing. They also privilege form over content, without ever questioning how that form serves the content or considering how variations in form might better display different topics. Why not three paragraphs? Why not nine?
Finally and most importantly, these formulas condition writers to approach a text or topic with preformed thesis in mind. High school students become afraid to look too closely at the evidence in the text, because it might contradict their preconceived claims; so they end up skipping over evidence that doesn’t fit perfectly with the larger trend or theme they want to focus on. Rather than wondering why the author included bumps in the road and analyzing how they may serve the work as a whole, many high school students learn to drive right over irregularities and steamroll most nuances in the process.
One alternative to this approach that many professors value as more critical and productive revolves around the phrase liberal arts students often to hear repeated ad nauseum with almost sacred reverence, like a mantra: “take the text on its own terms.” Few professors seem to realize how mysterious this maxim seems to most first semester college students, so it deserves some explanation. Taking the text on its own terms means acknowledging textual evidence that doesn’t fit or even contradicts your argument and using them to complicate your understanding of the text and generate a more nuanced claim. Real critical writing does not attempt to fit evidence inside a preconceived argument; it instead seeks evidence of tension within the text, challenging the student to find new ways of looking at the text.
This approach is focused on exploring the texts, issues, or events that your are analyzing, rather than conquering them. This approach requires reading the text with an open mind, setting aside presuppositions, and allowing yourself to form more than one idea while you read, not before. The more ideas the better, in fact, because they will all be examined together for consideration after you finish reading. Finding connections and contradictions between ideas that seem totally unrelated at first often produces the most innovative and interesting interpretations of texts. This approach lends itself naturally to close-readings of specific passages, which you choose because they jump out at you personally as significant and relevant to other significant passages and therefore worth exploring further. This approach is diving off point, an ignition spark, a primer pump, a trail of breadcrumbs to follow. And this approach, it turns out, is not an approach. It is many approaches. There are dozens of prewriting exercises that professors uses to shake their students out of old habits and obsolete formulas, many of which can also be found on the internet. We have compiled a few of them here for your perusal.
The “10-on-1” Exercise
- Choose a single paragraph, sentence, or line from the text.
- It could be one that is particularly confusing, frustrating, fascinating, weird, or cool.
- Brainstorm ten sentences of your own about that one piece. Ten separate ideas.
- This activity forces you to say more about less, rather than less about more. Instead of analyzing a general idea like an entire ‘theme’ within a text, the 10-on-1 makes you analyze a specific fragment in depth, after which you can draw connections to the text as a whole more effectively.
- When you think you have run out of things to say about the text, challenge yourself to go out on a limb. The most unique ideas can emerge out of discomfort and uncertainty.
Subverting the Obvious: It seems _____, but actually ______
- Form an initial observation or obvious assertion based on a particular issue from the text.
- Use that initial claim to brainstorm a list of ideas about that issue that contradict, complicate, subvert, re-frame, or change that claim somehow.
- Filling in the blanks of the “Seems to be about ____ but is really about ____” can be a very productive place to start. Also try “Seems to be just about ____ but is really ALSO about ____” to see if that gets you to a different place.
- Pick one that seems the most surprising to you. Write a sentence or two which highlight the pivotal seeming or appearance which you want to complicate, then launch into your own deeper or more complex interpretation.
- Pay close attention to maintaining the subtlety of your analysis as you continue, rather than portraying your new interpretation as the only possible reading.
Idea-Triggering and Freewriting
- Set a timer and write about a particularly interesting passage for twenty minutes. Allow your thoughts to take unexpected turns and run with them.
- Don’t stop writing until the timer goes off–if you run out of ideas write one word over and over until something new comes into your head.
- After you finish, take a quick break, re-read your freewrite and ask yourself what your subject or key point is.
- Underline that idea and then formulate it as a question, statement, or series of words. Put that at the top of a fresh page.
- Set the timer again, and generate a second twenty-minute timed write from your subject, this time following a more open-ended approach.
- Reviewing your work, consider what your best ideas are and how you would go about translating them into an analytical paragraph.
Paraphrase x 3
- Settle on two passages that seem to be going in the same direction and suggest a pattern within the text.
- Write each passage at the top of a page then, below it, write at least three different paraphrases of that passage, using the following instructions as a guide:
- Paraphrase #1: Understanding. Restate in your own words exactly what the passage is saying but dont be overly general. Try to engage with a range of possible meanings in the passage.
- Paraphrase #2: Deepening. Having arrived at a new point of understanding, now paraphrase your quotation, following each sentence with a second sentence in which you continue with the statement, “And the reason this is important (or the way this connects) is…”.
- Paraphrase #3: Implications. Now that you’ve worked to understand the significance and context of the text, paraphrase your quotation a third time, using the formulation, “What in the end this quotation is really about is…[X]. The reason that is important/interesting is because…[Y]. And the still further implications of that are…[Z].”
- The progression of paraphrases here is intended to deepen your interpretation and allow you to make more exciting claims by understanding the implications of your interpretation. Making claims rooted in your perspective on the evidence is much different than generalizing about the text and finding evidence to support that generalization.
Oral Timed Write
- Arrange to meet with another student in your class for a half an hour.
- Think out loud about the text to your partner for ten minutes straight.
- It may feel like a long time, but keep going. Dont be afraid. Be ridiculous and amaze your partner. Your partner should listen as attentively as possible, but not try not to distract your partner by taking notes.
- At the end of your ten minutes, you and your partner should pause for each of you to write down a few sentences about what you said that was most surprising and/or interesting, and what each of you thinks your best idea was and why.
- This exercise allows you to imagine an audience. It forces you to be attentive to another perspective besides your own. Ask yourself what excited your partner while you were talking to them and how that could be translated to your writing.
Implications in Tutoring
If a student is struggling to get below the surface, is not explicating their evidence thoroughly, is summarizing, or not revolving their ideas around strong central claim consider introducing them to these exercises. Try to ask them questions that force them to dig deeper and root their claims in the text. These exercises are designed to support a variety of thinking and learning styles. For students who tend to process more externally they may be able to arrive at new ideas more readily by talking to another student while students who need to let their thoughts flow onto the page in a freewriting session may prefer the Ideas Triggering exercise.
Citation: Exercises and ideas adapted from Encounters with professor Jen Mouat and the textbook Writing Analytically