Wednesday, April 12, 2017

On the Paragraph and the Sentence

For the past three years, I have taught a few hundred students a specific paragraph structure. I learned it from a professor in graduate school. I don't use this model in all my writing, but I try to use it in my academic writing. I rarely use it on this blog.

First, you write a thesis. Then, you write two points in support of your thesis. Then, you write an antithesis, something that calls your thesis into question. This antithesis can include new evidence or it can reinterpret the evidence you have already provided. And finally, in the conclusion, you write a synthesis, a chemical reaction, as one student once called it, something that brings the thesis and the antithesis together. Out of the hundred or so students to whom I've taught this structure, maybe five percent master it within a lesson or two and another ten percent are able to figure it out by the end of the quarter. We like to say that we are teaching students to be better citizens. The romantic side of me would like to believe this exercise, repeated several times throughout a quarter, helps students question their own ideas even if they will never be masters of the written word.

The culture I grew up in was primarily oral. Our ideas of narrative came from movies and television shows. People were into poetry, as long as it came from rap music, Bob Dylan, or Paul Simon.

There is more writing in the culture I live in today. People read Twitter and Facebook posts. They communicate through texts. They are as likely to get their news from articles their friends post online as from YouTube videos from their friends. They like memes. I don't think it's surprising that Oscar Wilde is one of the few great writers I've seen on the bookshelves of friends and casual acquaintances who don't read a lot of books. The writing they read is not all that divorced from speech.

It's never been harder to teach someone to sit down and write the paragraph I assign. Many paragraphs I have gotten over the years consist of several good first sentences, but not a single second sentence. No one knows how to write a good second sentence.

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