Introduction to “Damn the Five-Paragraph Format to Hell”: Student and Faculty Perspectives of Writing

During my freshman year of high school, my history teacher gave the class our first writing assignment in preparation for the Advanced Placement World History exam. The prompt required students to analyze a small series of historical documents and evaluate Roman attitudes toward nomadic tribes (the “barbarians”) prior to the fall of the Empire. I wrote feverishly throughout our 42-minute class period, opening the essay with the invasion of Odoacer in 476 C.E., writing a thesis about Roman xenophobia, analyzing the historical evidence from the documents, and concluding the essay with the claim that based on their violence and prejudice against outsiders, the Romans, not the nomads, were in fact the “barbarians.” I finished the essay, flushed with freshman pride at how well I thought I had done. My teacher handed back the assignments at the end of the week with the AP rubric attached. Much to my surprise, my essay received only 5 out of 9.

My teacher then explained to the class that the essay grades overall were low, and that he expected that to be the case the first time. To do well on the AP exam, he said, we would need to write our essays to “hit the points on the rubric.” Throughout my four years of high school, I heard similar comments from teachers in other AP subjects. The readers are grading thousands of these essays, they told us. Make it easy for them. Just write your thesis statement to start the essay. Don’t worry about including an introduction or conclusion, especially if you are short on time. Do your best with spelling and grammar, but don’t dwell on it too much. Write legibly.

I was trained to write specific types of essays tailored to which standardized test I needed to take next. Growing up in New York in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was subjected to the Terra Nova exams in elementary school, the New York State Regents exams in high school, and the infamous college prep tests like Advanced Placement and the SAT. English and history, the two writing-intensive subjects that I decided to study at college, were the worst offenders. In my high school English classes, many of my writing assignments were “critical lens” essays because they were required for the English Regents exam. The “critical lens” essay provided a famous quote (“This above all, to thine own self be true”) for students to interpret, agree or disagree with, and analyze using two works of literature. The rubric required students to “provide a valid interpretation” of the quote and “use specific references to appropriate literary elements (for example: theme, characterization, setting, point of view)” to support their argument (Regents). Students were taught to use a template and fill in the blanks according to the specific topic. Most essay introductions read something like this:

 

William Shakespeare once wrote, “                                                   .” In other words,                                                                                . I agree/disagree with Shakespeare because                                                                          . Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird and Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest support/do not support Shakespeare’s claim because                                                                                                                                                             .

 

This dull, uninspired writing task did not contribute to my knowledge of literature or composition in any substantive way. By the third or fourth critical lens essay, I was on autopilot: reading without questioning, writing without thinking.

I often received writing advice or assignments that discouraged critical thinking and analysis. From the earliest stages of my education, I was told to write a certain way to maximize my chances of success at the latest testing or measurement fad. The five-paragraph structure was ingrained in my writing before I reached middle school. I had elementary school teachers who taught me to conclude historical essays with the phrase, “Therefore, one can see that (reword introduction here).” I had teachers who told me that a conclusion was only a restatement of the thesis (and some of my teachers used the word “thesis” without explaining what it was or how to write one). I had teachers who told me I could never use an example or a quote in an introduction to an essay. I had test prep teachers who suggested that I plan my examples to use on the SAT essay—before I even walked into the testing site and knew what the question was.

Writing instruction was painful, formulaic, and mind-narrowing.

I was fortunate enough to have a few excellent teachers who encouraged me to break from the pattern: to annotate the precious unmarked pages of my books, to venture away from a fixed essay template, to think for myself rather than regurgitate what was expected of me. Inspired by these teachers, I filled my bookshelf with the “classics,” I sought additional writing opportunities outside of the classroom, and I finally committed the cardinal sin of writing all over my schoolbooks. Those teachers and that bookshelf led me to question the effectiveness of writing instruction and what constitutes “good writing.”

After twelve years of schooling (and at least twice as many standardized tests), I started my studies at Villanova University. Villanova, an Augustinian university a few miles away from Philadelphia, is built on the foundations of a liberal arts curriculum and is composed of four undergraduate colleges (Liberal Arts and Sciences, Business, Engineering, and Nursing), a college for professional studies, and a law school. A predominantly Catholic college with most students from middle and upper middle class backgrounds, the words “Advanced Placement,” “International Baccalaureate,” and “private school” commonly describe students’ high school experiences. Boasting high GPAs and SAT scores, Villanova students are often high-achievers who continue their trajectory into college.

At Villanova, there is no Composition 101. All first-year students are required to take a two-semester Augustine and Culture Seminar (ACS), which serves as a “Great Books” program and introduction to western civilization. The rest of the university core curriculum includes theology, philosophy, and social science courses, while individual colleges require additional core courses depending on the discipline. Because Villanova is a competitive university, professors have high expectations of their students’ writing from the first day in the classroom. Likewise, students have high expectations of graduating from college and being prepared for the workforce as future professors, PR professionals, scientists, investment bankers, nurses, engineers, and everything in between.

Yet the stilted high school writing techniques plague students well beyond the SATs and AP essays. As a tutor at the Villanova Writing Center, I can see that the scourge of the five-paragraph essay, the overly general conclusion, and inattention to the mechanics of Standard Written English often remain a problem even at the college level. I speak with students who express concern over adapting to a new writing convention (such as scientific writing or APA style), who want to “figure out what the professor wants” so they can get good grades, and who ask for help with proofreading because they were never formally taught grammar. I read professors’ comments on student drafts, saying that a citation is incorrect or that the student has included too much “fluff” and not enough substantive information or analysis. I also listen to students who believe their essays are “useless” and will never help them in their future careers, or that the conventions for an ACS or humanities paper will not be helpful to them in their business writing or engineering reports. The disconnect between what students and professors expect from themselves and each other, within their own disciplines and across disciplines, is representative of many of the debates affecting writing pedagogy today.

Were my peers and I as prepared as we should have been for college writing? Has college improved our writing skills, or are we still stuck writing formulaically, as with a critical lens essay? Are we as students prepared for our impending transition to writing in the workforce? I have spent my last year as an undergraduate trying to find out.

Over the last several decades, English writing has changed in schools, universities, and the workforce, due to factors such as changing attitudes about composition, mounting pressure and fewer resources for teachers, and an increasingly diverse educational system and workforce. This thesis will provide a background of the debates affecting college writing instruction today, based on composition pedagogy, sociolinguistics, longitudinal studies from universities, and public opinion research. As a case study, I conducted a survey of 228 faculty members and students across all four undergraduate colleges at Villanova to analyze the discrepancies between how students and professors perceive student writing, as well as how these perceptions differ across disciplines. Taking my own research and the current literature into consideration, I contend that in order to strengthen the English writing skills of students and adults for a modern, interconnected world, it is imperative for university departments, as well as workplaces, to collaborate and include writing instruction at all levels and in all subject areas. More specifically, academic and professional institutions should make writing a priority by implementing programs to develop basic literacy skills based on a trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and “rhetorical awareness” approach that will transfer across cultures and disciplines, as well as context-specific writing skills, such as literary analysis, technical/scientific writing, and business writing. Throughout this thesis, I will suggest solutions for the twenty-first century college classroom and workforce by integrating writing across the curriculum, encouraging collaboration among university departments and between schools and the workplace, and providing additional resources and training for teachers and students. I intend to show the interconnectedness of writing throughout all disciplines and argue that it is not the responsibility of one department or institution to improve writing, but of all.

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