As I woke up this morning, I looked through the instructions of a philosophy essay. I read the following: “In addition, do not waste space on general introductory or concluding paragraphs which do not contribute to your argument or interpretation.” Mind blowing!
The professor and the course were obviously quite traditionalist, and yet in even in such a context, she disobeyed one of the biggest assumptions we’ve all acquired in high school English class: that you always need a introduction which explains what you are going to write about, and that you always need a conclusion that summarizes what you have just written about. In other words, the “say what you’ll say, say it, say what you said” model.
Thank goodness for idiosyncratic credits
It reminded me of the time in CÉGEP when I wrote a humanities essay, and I was debating as to whether I should include an introductory thesis or not, as per the instructions. I decided to omit it, because I felt like (and still believe) that doing so gives the reader a better and more engaging reading experience. You see, my paper starts off with a general, yet organized and flowing analysis. And then, near the end of it, BAM!, a new realization is made. All of the arguments fall into a neworder, proving my initial point. (In a brilliant fashion, if I might add!) It keeps the reader in suspense, and then leaves with an exciting “ah ha!” moment.
In the end, the teacher decided not to penalize me for not sticking to the instructions, but only because some of the other aspects of the essay were “so good” that she had those marks spillover” o the organization criteria. And she gave me a fair warning about it.
When “real life” rolls in
These two experiences have got me thinking: is it really necessary to have an introduction and a conclusion? Do we actually do this in real life? In what contexts do we do this, and in which contexts do we not? And every time I think of a context – e.g. writing a script for a play, writing an instruction manual, etc. – I’ve noticed that it only requires a the “say what you’ll say, say it, say what you said” model if it’s in the world of academia.
writing emails –> no
writing lab reports –> yes
writing advertisements –> no
writing an information pamphlet –> no etc.
The only nonacademic one I could think of was newspaper articles, but even then, often only the title and subtitle are summarizing; the article goes off on its own track. For example, some newspaper articles go as follows:
- What happened
- How does person A react to this event
- How does person B rebut person A’s opinion
- The implications: where do we go from here?
In the newspaper articles’ first paragraph, the writer usually spends the entire paragraph just describing what happened. Other arguments are brought in naturally and sequentially, not hijacked into the first paragraph. So there’s no 5-paragraph prescription following; no obligation to “say what you’ll say.”
Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe I just haven’t thought up of any contradictory examples yet. That where you all come in. Any thoughts?
Coherence, or summarizing?
I think it’s important to for students to understand the difference between having a beginning, middle, and end vs having an introduction and a conclusion. Because the former happens way more often than the latter. And even when a writer uses an intro and conclusion, there are a multitude of ways to going about doing it. The 5-paragraph essay version is just one of them.
At the moment, the value of a beginning, middle, and end is only taught implicitly in English class, under the guise of the 5-paragraph essay. I say, let’s make it more explicit to students, and essentially “pull it out from underneath the rug.” Let’s have students learn communication skills for all aspects of life. Or at the very least, more. As many as we reasonably can.
For me, the 5-paragraph essay is an example of the world of academia carving out a little world of its own, with its own set of rules and norms, and then self-reinforcing its ways of behaving. I hate to say it, but I find it’s an example of the ivory tower mentality. Let’s break down that mentality, and have our English classes reconnect with reality. Let’s have it be, more multidimensional!
Here’s an article that takes a critical look at the 5-paragraph essay format, if you’re interested in seeing a teacher’s perspective: www.chicagonow.com/white-rhino/2012/05/if-you-teach-or-write-5-paragraph-essays-stop-it/
And here’s another article that was Tweeted to me today, about a slightly less relevant, but interesting topic nonetheless: http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2012/07/blogging-is-the-new-persuasive-essay/
Looking back on my post here, I notice that I “came to a conclusion” but I didn’t “write the conclusion.” I didn’t restate the arguments I made in the rest of the article. Also, I didn’t reveal this last argument in either the introductory paragraph, nor in the paragraph where I wrote my main argument/”thesis.” I hope it didn’t detract from your reading experience!
On another note, this article was in no way meant to poo-poo on English teachers themselves. I personally have had amazing English teachers throughout my time in high school and CEGEP! I’m pretty sure that they’re only doing this because they’ve been forced to by their higher-ups, who often don’t know any better, and who never had this cross their minds. I don’t want want to play the blame game here, but just in case you thought I was, just to make it clear, I’m not here to blame the teachers!)