Modelling a Discipline and Delaying Closure in WAC Pedagogy

In Engaging Ideas, our WAC textbook, John C. Bean proposes that a “problem-driven model” of writing instruction draws on practices in the academic disciplines in order to reimagine the usual “think-then-write” approach to composition. Bean suggests that orienting writing assignments around a problem or question, rather than asking students to decide on a guiding thesis statement early on, can extend the process of exploration, much the way it does for scholars participating in written and verbal conversations, producing sketches and reflections, partial and complete drafts. In fact, the thesis often arises within that process of exploration: “A thesis statement often marks a moment of discovery and clarification—an “aha!” experience (“So this is my point!  Here is my argument in a nutshell!”) rather than a formulaic planning device at the very start of the process” (Bean 34). As I’ve become more familiar with Bean’s approach, I’ve noticed a lot of overlap with the way writing is taught in the high school English department at Friends Seminary, a Quaker school in Manhattan where I taught for three years before entering the English PhD program at the Graduate Center. I want think about the practical application of some aspects of Bean’s model by taking a close look at the way I learned to teach writing to ninth graders at Friends. I think to do this well, I’ll have to go into some detail, so apologies in advance for that. If it becomes tedious, just skip to the last two or three paragraphs!

Over the past ten to fifteen years, instructors at Friends have developed—and continue to modify—a formal model for writing instruction, a set of fixed terms and procedures, for deriving arguments from close readings figurative language in literary texts. In ninth grade, students begin by learning to produce simple units of analysis of very short, figurative passages, usually no more than a phrase or a sentence, from the first text covered in the Fall semester, Genesis in the King James or Robert Alter translation. For each unit of analysis, instructors ask students to give a sentence of context, situating the passage within the scene at hand; then another sentence presenting the quoted text itself; another to observe the meaning of a pivotal word or phrase in context; and finally a sentence asserting an implication of that meaning for the narrative—maybe something about a character’s attitude, the meaning of an action, or the nature of a belief. This basic unit analysis is called a “sequence of analysis.” In later assignments, students practice synthesizing the findings of two or three sequences of analysis to form a substantial analytic paragraph. Towards the end of the first semester, they will write a four-paragraph essay—three paragraphs of analysis and a conclusion paragraph—on Macbeth.

Students begin the essay-writing process by choosing a big question about one of the play’s major concerns that have emerged in class discussion, e.g., “What does Shakespeare’s Macbeth suggest about political titles?” “…about women?” “…about visions and dreams?” For each question, the instructor will provide a short, relevant passage from the play. The first scaffolded assignment will be to give a sequence of analysis on this starter passage, drawing out an implication or two that in some way begins to answer the big question the student has chosen. In the next assignment, students conduct a passage search, casting a wide net for moments in the play that, like the starter passage, might lead to an answer to their big question. For each of these, they give a preliminary or loose sequence of analysis bearing on their question.

To be clear, at this point students have not arrived at an answer to that question. They are still in the exploratory phase of the writing process. Instructors ask them to collect and analyze more relevant passages than they think they will ultimately need, because gathering evidence is not an exercise in shoring up a fixed position, but rather a good-faith inquiry into the question at hand–a study of what, in fact, Macbeth has to say about political titles, or women, or visions and dreams. When it comes time to decide which moments to focus on, students are encouraged not to select passages that could easily be yoked together to reiterate a flat answer to their question—”Macbeth suggests women can act like men”—but rather to include passages whose implications seem to complicate whatever tendency the student has begun to notice, or that raise further questions—Does Lady Macbeth, in fact act, “like a man?” What about Lady Macduff? What does it mean to “act like a man” in this play? Going through this process of provisional passage selection, students will begin to develop a rough sense of an answer to their question, but it really won’t be until they’ve drafted all three paragraphs of analysis and compared and synthesized the full range of their findings in the conclusion that they will articulate a thesis statement.

In this way, both the writing process and the essay structure are designed to delay the closure of a final assertion. The four-paragraph essay has no introduction in the usual sense—no statement of the topic, no guiding thesis, no argument synopsis. The first paragraph begins immediately with analysis of contextualized language and closes, not with a thesis, but with the essay’s guiding question, raised by the initial close reading. Similarly, the following two analysis paragraphs begin immediately with analysis—no topic sentences or claims. At a later stage, students will be encouraged to make a transition at the beginnings of their paragraphs, but for now they are asked to get right to the analysis and wait for close of the paragraph to synthesize their assertions and make a larger claim that begins to answer the essay’s guiding question.

I’ve been told that topic sentences, introductory theses and argument synopses, and other measures of enforcing closure early on in the writing process keep students “on topic.” This may be true, and approaches that delay closure may risk allowing students’ analysis to meander. But the encouragement to inquire into tricky, conflicting meanings and risk being confused, rather than simply prove a canned thesis, sometimes gives students room to work out remarkable accounts of textual complexity, or in other words, to think critically. Other times, that extra room leaves students stumped by the contradictory implications of their analysis–they may restate inconclusive findings or grasp at a reductive thesis that doesn’t do justice to their work. Still other times, students’ analysis is too general or under developed to lead to much of a statement at all. To me, any of these outcomes is preferrable to a premature claim justified by convenient evidence because, compared to that, all of them suggest an attempt at something like genuine intellectual inquiry.

This approach to scaffolding and delaying closure, with its emphasis on close reading, is especially suited to the study of figurative language and the supposedly unified structures of literary texts, usually plays, poems, and novels. I don’t think it would be as useful even in the proximate disciplines of the humanities, say, history or philosophy. Furthermore, the conventions of  academic writing in other disciplines do often prescribe a thesis and argument sketch in the opening paragraphs of a paper—for that matter, many articles in English studies journals begin this way. And of course the range of what counts as an object of study in any of these disciplines today is very wide, and none of them treats texts uncritically as thematically unified structures. When scholars in English programs do study a text in a traditional literary genre, they usually bring it into conversation with texts in other genres, with historical and material contexts, and often with one or more theoretical apparatuses. Few of these aspects of what it means to conduct intellectual inquiry in the disciplines find their way into the Friends Seminary approach to teaching writing.

In fact, the disciplinary practices that are reflected in the Friends approach tend to make it look a lot like the New Criticism with its discredited commitments to the unity and autonomy of texts. While I would not endorse these commitments in academic work, I’m not sure the version of them that structures the Friends approach necessarily implies something backward in the program. The Friends approach is the result of a series of choices that instructors–trained academics, a number of whom have published in their field–made to model the practices of the discipline for a high-school classroom while preserving some of what they considered the most vital affordances of those practices, among them the possibility for discovery that comes with the delay of closure. Their choices aren’t in any way necessary. Other choices might highlight other affordances of the discipline. But their choices do reflect some aspects of the way actual practitioners use writing to support their intellectual work. Their choices also reflect a serious consideration of the less glamorous, but no less vital, need to adapt those practices to form a usable pedagogical model.



One Reply to “Modelling a Discipline and Delaying Closure in WAC Pedagogy”

  1. Thank for you this post Noel. You’ve given me a lot to think about, especially in how I assign argumentative philosophy papers to my students. I’ve always tried to use problem-oriented assignments, because what I think students’ papers should be doing is trying to solve some philosophical problem or other.

    But Noel has touched on a very important point: problem-oriented assignments are most effective if the act of completing the assignment is part of the problem-solving process. Speaking from experience as both a student and an instructor, it is very easy for students to fall into the trap of picking a solution quickly (and potentially picking the solution that will be “easiest to write about”) and completing the assignment based on that presupposed solution. This happens in philosophy all the time: students are asked to write a paper defending a thesis that weighs in on some philosophical debate, and they pick the thesis that they think will be easiest to defend. I certainly did my share of that as a student, and I know that many of my students have done the same (some of them have told me so explicitly, which is not the sort of thing I would have shared with the instructor when I was a student, but to each their own).

    The problem with this is that it’s not a good way to come up with one’s own ideas, because it involved choosing an answer before you’ve spent much (if any) time finding out what YOU think the answer is.

    Before I began my dissertation, I tried to come up with a topic for a dissertation. I knew that the dissertation needed to be a thesis: the primary purpose is to argue for a position, or to answer some question. I spent a year or two trying to come up with a thesis to defend before starting work on the dissertation. It went poorly. Giving up on that method, I just picked a very broad topic for myself (basically, “something involving logic and paradoxes and the work that’s been done on those in the last 3000 years”) and started exploring the topic. Within a few weeks, I had a more specific topic; within a few months, I had a thesis to defend. The wandering exploration, with no thesis in sight, was not only compatible with my forming a definite thesis to defend; it was absolutely vital to my finding a thesis to defend.

    Here’s an analogy. I don’t know if it’ll help anyone else, but I think it has helped me see why the approach Noel is outlining works well, and why some of the approaches I’ve used in the past have worked poorly. When traveling from point A to point B, there are really only 3 options. Option 1: you’ve traveled from point A to point B before, and you remember the way. This is how I get to campus from my apartment. Option 2: Someone has given you directions to get from point A to point B. This is how I get to conferences and the like. Option 3: you wander around, hopefully in the right general direction, until you find your destination. This is how I find new restaurants and coffee shops and bookstores and whatnot.

    For many students, especially in introductory classes, option 1 is off the table. They just don’t have the experience to already know what their thesis will be and what their paper will be about before they start writing it. Option 2 might be on the table, but it would basically amount to the instructor spoon-feeding paper topics and arguments to the students. That may have its place, but it is certainly not the right answer in all cases. Often, part of what we want students to learn is the ability to come up with their own ideas, arguments and analyses. Handing them directions for what their thesis/argument/analysis should be would undermine that. That only leaves option 3: wander. If students are going to develop their own theses and arguments and analyses, they need the opportunity to wander and explore so they can find their own way to their ideas. Expecting students to come up with a thesis before they’ve had time to explore is effectively expecting them to get to point B before they’ve figured out how to get there. Noel’s approach to “delaying closure” gives students the chance to explore and find their way to point B.

    But implementing Noel’s approach will require not just some revision to how we design and scaffold writing assignments, but to how we grade assignments. Noel says that in the essay assignment at Friends, “The four-paragraph essay has no introduction in the usual sense—no statement of the topic, no guiding thesis, no argument synopsis.” This is the sort of thing that, in a normal philosophy class, would be considered a problem. I have received lowered grades on papers, and given lowered grades on papers, because the paper did not have a thesis statement in the opening paragraph. But Noel makes a compelling case that this alternative essay structure is an effective pedagogical tool. It’s easy to forget, once one becomes an academic and has spent a few thousand hours writing and rewriting papers, that students tend to write papers linearly. In many cases, students start writing the first paragraph; when that paragraph is finished, they write the second paragraph; and so on. This can happen even if there have been scaffolding steps along the way designed in part to prevent this from happening. And in many cases, a scaffolded paper involves picking a thesis at some early stage of the scaffolding, before the exploration is complete. But as Noel argues, there is good reason to try to delay the choice of thesis statement until the student has gone through a significant amount of exploration. Maybe steps like “choose a thesis statement” and “write an introduction paragraph including a thesis statement” should be the FINAL steps of the scaffolding process. We often think of scaffolding as a tool for “building up” a large assignment from smaller steps to bigger steps. But what I think Noel has shown here is that often the seemingly small steps (like picking a thesis) shouldn’t be taken until after you’ve taken a lot of the big steps. In addition to all of its other uses, we can use scaffolding as a tool for teaching students the proper order in which steps are taken, including which steps should be intentionally delayed as late as possible.

    Noel says “I don’t think it would be as useful even in the proximate disciplines of the humanities, say, history or philosophy.” I can’t speak for history, but I disagree with Noel here about philosophy. If anything, I think an approach like the one Noel describes might be even more useful in philosophy. Instead of analyzing texts, philosophy students would be analyzing arguments. I think analyzing arguments from a neutral standpoint is one of the most important parts of doing philosophy, and one of the parts that students find the hardest. I think this is exacerbated by the tendency to pick a thesis for a paper, and then start reading and analyzing arguments to write the paper. The approach to scaffolding and delaying closure that Noel outlines here seems almost lab-designed to solve this recurring problem in philosophy classrooms. I look forward to applying it.

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