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.