How to Break Free from the Cookie-Cutter Essay

Sasha Pea
Sasha Pea
Sep 2, 2018 · 18 min read

An argument for bridging the personal with the academic and incorporating new literacies into the writing classroom.

Image by Sasha Patkin

On a lazy afternoon during the summer before college, I found myself lounging in a friend’s room as she strummed out a few songs on her guitar. She had a poster of chords hung on her wall; finger positions charted out and labelled with names. Music made physical. I studied it. “If I learned all the chords, would I know how to play guitar?” I asked her. “No,” she laughed, pausing her song. “You’d know a bunch of chords.”

Even though I am a musician myself (beginning on the viola at age three), I had somehow never considered what struck me then as the gaping divide between the technical and the intellectual; the corporeal and the spiritual. As I finished high school, college, and began teaching courses of my own I began to realize that, too often — in music courses, in math courses, in literature and writing courses, and in courses across the disciplines — we teach students the equivalent of the chords. We provide them with a technical toolbox but fail to teach them technique. We hand students a photocopy of chords on the first day of class which we insist they memorize, applaud them as they practice scales and get quizzed by a standard rubric at the end of the semester, but we withhold our promise to teach them to hear the music in between these notes — to understand the context and musicality of a piece or the shaping of a musical phrase.

We fail, in short, to teach students to hear the music which comes from the interconnections of the technical and to understand the practical lessons of technique or analysis in a larger context. Students may at most learn how to reproduce, regurgitate, or mimic what is asked of them, but very rarely will they learn how to interact with it; to analyze it, pick it apart to put it back together, and to make it their own. By attempting to ground our students in the technical or purely alphabetic literacies of their fields, we end up accidentally starving them of the greater significance or art of their craft; rendering them unable to innovate, adjust, or reach across the disciplines.

By attempting to ground our students in the technical or purely alphabetic literacies of their fields, we end up accidentally starving them of the greater significance or art of their craft; rendering them unable to innovate, adjust, or reach across the disciplines.

I now write essays more often than I play music, but while completing my Master’s in English at Georgetown University I was struck by an excellent articulation of exactly this frustration as it often surfaces in the humanities — and particularly in classrooms that expect writing from their students. In a class called “Approaches to Teaching Writing,” my professor brought in an article published in Georgetown’s student newspaper, The Hoya. The author, a disgruntled undergraduate (referred to here as “Jack”, as no one deserves to be haunted by their undergraduate self), lamented in his article “GU Must Teach Students Critical Thinking,” that his Georgetown courses seemed designed for short-term memory. Although he praised Georgetown for offering courses in the spirit of a liberal arts education, he lamented that there is “an absence of a program at Georgetown that empowers students to harness the accumulated information from their courses” — a mechanism that would allow them to synthesize the diverse array of information they were gaining as students and figuring out of to pose an argument in written form. “For instance,” Jack writes, “each course has its own format of essay-writing (composition) for papers… [but] students have to ascertain how each professor wants the essay to be written” with often no more direction from a professor than a vague ‘good luck.’”

Jack argues that more attention needs to be given to directing students how to translate what they are reading into writing. Jack, in short, asks for a template. He asks a list of chords he can memorize — a toolbox of ready-made, one-size-fits-all tools that he can plug in to an essay that will satisfy the requirements of his professors. And why shouldn’t he? This is, after all, the way that writing is often taught. Students are promised a pathway to critical thinking but are instead presented with, as Ann Berthoff describes in her own critical writing, the misconception that writing is a linear process and that “language is a muffin tin; that we have meanings, a kind of batter we then pour into molds.” (Berthoff 1981, 25) Instead of learning how to utilize an instrument of thought, students are taught where to plug in their thesis statement, taught how many sentences a paragraph should have, and instructed the conclusion should be a restatement of the introduction. This is, after all, what the SAT and the GRE ask of their test-takers. In an essay written in 25 minutes or less, students wishing for high marks should already know what they are going to say before they begin to write. Their essays should immediately state a thesis, and the supporting paragraphs (designated clearly with transitions such as “firstly,” “secondly,” “thirdly,” and “finally,”) should provide support of the thesis, which will then restated in the conclusion.

Worse, students are often even rewarded for following formulaic arguments; Sparknotes-approved methods of literary analysis that they expect that their teachers are looking for. As Gerald Graff writes, students are often taught to say smart things in a vacuum — to develop pointless arguments in the classic undergraduate literature essays which never engage in any kind of real questions outside of established scholarship and hardly ever speak to a larger audience than the teacher they know has been assigned to grade their work. Students learn to write essays that argue arguments that no one would ever think to argue against, arguments like the fact that a book is organized around notions of good and evil, for example — and thesis statements that ultimately amount to proclaiming, “How ‘bout that Wordsworth!” (Graff 2008). Students never learn to spark a conversation or persuasive argument and never learn to ask themselves, “So what?” So when the day comes that their template no longer fits the work they are being asked to produce (never having learned why it worked in the first place at all) and how to use language as a tool to celebrate and order chaos, make meanings, and see and articulate relationships, they don’t know what to ask for except for more templates.

Image by Sasha Patkin

Of course, it’s easy to blame the larger, institutional system for this failure of how writing is taught. Teachers are taught to teach to tests, and students are given blue books in which there is no room for deletion or re-thinking, re-structuring, or time for critical thinking. Writing is simultaneously presented as a high-stakes event, and yet as barely more than a mechanical skill. Writing is not taught as an exploratory process or method of scholarship, but as a method for proving or convincing.

This culture, in many ways, seems reflective of larger cultural struggle that the humanities have come up against in recent years. Institutional issues such as no tenure-track teaching positions, no public funding, the shrinking of course offerings, and the increase of student debt have been met with an impulse in our culture toward the standardized-test essay, the clickbait title, and the listicle. In a culture increasingly driven by profits and results, many have begun to ask, what’s the use of the humanities? What need is it fulfilling? What argument is it making? A five-paragraph essay at least teaches students to organize thoughts and persuade others (and this could be used to sell things!), but what’s the place of something which is not a persuasive argument, or which is an exploration, or an investigation? What is the purpose of looking into a piece of text — not to clarify it, sell it, or argue it — but (as Ann Berthoff encourages) to mine for its chaos, to destabilize our perception of it and to see the ways that language is capable of making new meanings, new orders and understandings, and of turning it into something else? Increasingly, our society believes that having a multiplicity of thoughts is dangerous or threatening — that an emotional response to a text is the result of an irrational mind. But we also need to learn how to embrace nuance — to appreciate and celebrating the ambiguity of language; to weigh it in our hands, and then to sculpt it.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong about the SAT-ready, Cookie Cutter, Easy-Bake Oven style of writing. There are, of course, times when you need to be able to state a clear argument. There’s nothing wrong with teaching students to apply and follow this formula as long as they are also taught to understand the difference between different styles of writing and when and where it is most appropriate to employ each. Therefore, in order to appreciate writing, students need to be afforded transparency in the structure and intentions of their assignments so that they can learn to critically ask themselves why they are being given an assignment, what its uses and relevancies are, and how to critically question themselves and the structures they engaged with. Rather than assigning 5-paragraph essays as the template, they should be introduced as a template. By introducing writing as a method of thought — as a method of asking, rather than explaining — and assigning multiple low-stakes writing prompts in order to get students comfortable with writing and learn to read as writers, recognizing the code as well as the intention of what is said.

Image by Sasha Patkin

Jack’s article is problematic even on even its surface level — he is exercising the same skill he claims to lack — but, in many ways, he articulates a very real and pressing concern that teachers can work to address. Many classes fail to model and scaffold assignments and don’t provide transparency in expectation or model critical reading or analytical writing with their students. As Bartholomae writes, “[Students] cannot sit through lectures and read textbooks and as a consequence, write as sociologists or write literary criticism.” (Bartholomae 1985, 157). Bartholomae calls for drafts, revisions, and, ideally, for writing courses which bring these concerns to the forefront and teach students how to approach the non-linear, contemplative process of writing. Rather than being asked to write the single final paper due at the end of the semester that Jack finds so problematic, students — even at the college level — need to be afforded the benefits of peer reviews, writing conferences, and multiple revisions. In order to shift the emphasis of the class away from the final letter grade and toward an environment that fosters learning, development, and understanding, an environment of imagination and questioning needs to be encouraged. Students and writers of every level need to have their thoughts and arguments questioned, their writing persona and intentions challenged, and given the chance to understand why their writing matters, and what practices will best help them to achieve their desired results.

Writing, after all, does matter, and guiding students to write in a way which matters to them works to bridge the perceived divide between academic pursuits and personal interests that often limits a public investment in the humanities. If a literature classroom and all the writing performed within it is taught exclusively as an academic or technical ordering of concepts or as a method of presenting an argument, rather than as a method of personal exploration, it should come as no surprise that most student essays come out tasting like rubbery, factory-made tin-pan muffins, rather than anything of taste and substance. So how can students break these molds? How can they show their true size and shape and posture and write about topics that really matter? In truth, students already bring their concerns and reactions to the classroom, and it is rather an issue of modeling different types of writing for them and allowing them to formulate and express these types of responses.

Where is the place for the reflections of a body travelling through time and space; the body that perceives, that thinks, that reflects, that brings with it observations and reactions and past experiences? The body feels the temperature of the room that it’s in; the body that discovers and fails?

Too often, the personal is kept outside of the academic. In her essay “Writing Material,” Laura R. Micciche speaks of the corporeality of mixing human and nonhuman matter. Writing, she claims, is socio-discursive, and our identities within and beyond writing are constructed from the sociocultural, political, biological systems, and toxins that surround us. (Micciche 2014, 491) Similarly, in his essay “The Nervous System,” Richard Miller asks — where is this body in academic writing? Where is the place for the reflections of a body travelling through time and space; the body that perceives, that thinks, that reflects, that brings with it observations and reactions and past experiences? The body feels the temperature of the room that it’s in; the body that discovers and fails? Why is our academic system so nervous about accepting that it is composed of and part of larger, networked systems and beings? Miller insists upon an ecology of language which grows and pulsates beyond the technology of pen and paper. For Miller, writing is a collaborative system and a technology of shaping thought; it is a way of figuring out who we are and what we think. Miller notes that this thought is echoed in the writings of many writing scholars, such as Jane Thompkins, Nancy Sommers, Linda Brodkey, Peter Elbow, Lynn Z. Bloom, and Donald McQuade, and asks, “Who among us has not felt Tompkin’s weary dissatisfaction with the performative aspects of teaching? Sommer’s sense of the invasive threat posed by theory? Brodkey’s desire to speak without citation, weaving together one’s past experiences with one’s current academic preoccupations?” (Miller 1996, 267).

Why is our academic system so nervous about accepting that it is composed of and part of larger, networked systems and beings?

In his essay, we get to watch as Miller works to make sense of the world around him — he weaves in and out of vignettes depicting his father’s suicide attempt, attending an academic conference, and his own creative writing and as he pushes aside the academic notion of writing (one which Miller argues feels more like a performance and an erasure of lived experience — a claim of useful knowledge, rather than the admittance of an exploration), in favor of pursuing writing as a way to reclaim and create a form of expression that really matters, to unhinge mastery. (Miller 1996, 266) But, on a more practical note, he asks: How do we build this bridge between the personal and the academic? What are its structural supports? Where does it begin, and where does it end? Miller suggests that there is more than personal backstory to the entry point of interest to an academic subject; more than affect theory or the studies of close reading. There is an interplay between the personal and the academic, the individual and the institution, between public and private which is interwoven throughout one’s life and existed in more nuanced ways than as the binary experience it is sometimes taken for. (Miller 1996, 267)

It is through writing that students learn the discourses of the university and begin to imagine themselves within them. As David Bartholomae writes in his essay, “Inventing the University,” “Every time a student sits down to write for us, he has to invent the university for the occasion… The student has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the particular ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of the community.” (Bartholomae 1985, 134). Students learn to write for particular audiences, adapting and appropriated specialized discourse, building bridges between their points of view and the readers, and this work prepares them to exercise perspectives that will shape and save the world.

Writing naturally engages with the world, and by expanding potentials for how writing is presented in a literature or writing classroom it is possible to engage with more of the world and engage the interests of more of the students in the classroom. Writing is an in-road to all disciplines, and by bringing writing to the fore it is possible to bring into focus the larger cultural conversations and an examination of their dominant voices. As Geoffrey Sirc argues, what is needed less than any particular style of literacy is an expressive process of production and for an understanding of composition not as the academic surface that its final form takes, but as a series of tracings or records of a body moving through life, an expressive, discursively hybrid text, rather than the purified and taxonomized retreat into convention that most scholarly compositions devolve into, resulting in the exhaustion and alienation of students. (Sirc as quoted in Anderson 2007, 46) Just as Freire believes in the students teaching themselves with guidance from the instructor, I believe an educator’s role is to enter into the dialogues that their students are already engaged with, encouraging them to analyze what kind of arguments different forms of writing set up, to place themselves and their lived experience into these arguments, and to better understand how they construct themselves and the world constructs them.

If we expand our notion of what writing and the humanities are, we can expand our notion of what writing and the humanities can do. Through the combination of academic pursuit, critical analyses, personal reflection, and creative endeavors students are able to reach beyond their spheres of understanding into a world of interest and engagement that allows them to articulate, express, and craft themselves in a way which is relevant, and which persists beyond the walls of the classroom. So beyond making better use of the toolbox and the practices for teaching writing we already have, what lies beyond it? What tools are not making use of? Literature and writing should not be taught in isolation, even through multiple drafts. What are we keeping in, and what are we leaving out of our classrooms?

If we expand our notion of what writing and the humanities are, we can expand our notion of what writing and the humanities can do.

While there are many answers to this question, in addressing students who are already citizens of the modern world, I believe in the necessity of teaching multiliteracies — in fostering interdisciplinary insights, and in developing hybrid courses which not only teach students to think and write across the disciplines but connect on a personal level with the content they are being taught. As Walter Ong writes, “Literacy is imperious. It tends to arrogate to itself supreme power by taking itself as normative for human expression and thought. This is particularly true in high-technology cultures, which are built on literacy of necessity and which encourage the impression that literacy is an always to be expected and even natural state of affairs.” (Ong 2001, 19) If writing is a technology of thought, in the 21st century, this technology must also be presented as hyperlinked, networked, multifaceted, and remediated, or else we cannot claim to be exposing our students to the full uses and potentials of literacy.

Surprisingly, perhaps, incorporating multimodal texts and technology does not require a reimagining of the skills taught in the writing classroom, but simply expands traditional notions of rhetoric and literacy and applies these concepts to modern and multimedia situations which have often gone ignored in academic settings. With a grounding in the toolkit alphabetic literacies, it is then possible to develop, integrate, and go beyond them. Teaching new communications technologies, multimedia, and digital media allows for multiple access points for students to accommodate different learners, and through project-based and student led inquiry, it is possible to integrate knowledge and interests that students already have and build upon their knowledge from previous courses. Integrating multimodal forms of writing and learning helps students to integrate their content and analytic skills with their emotional or identity-based understanding and provides a knowledge transfer from school into their personal lives. It helps to foster connections between ideas and a form that stretches beyond alphabetic presentation. What is different about a Twitter post, an Instagram caption, a Tumblr post, a YouTube narrative, and a podcast audio essay, for example? Each of these styles has different formats, expectations, conventions, and communities, and learning to recognize, mimic, and produce these media allows for the same realizations as asking them to consider the styles of an academic essay, a letter to a senator, or a personal letter printed on paper.

Teaching students how to interpret and analyze media they may otherwise passively consume enables students to read their worlds like writers. Identifying and analyzing instances of mode, genre, rheotorical situations, and authorship illuminates the constructed nature of media and presents them to the students as cultural texts. As students develop their understanding of rhetoric, personal ethos, style, tone, voice, and writing structure within the writing classroom, they can also — through remediated assignments and finding parallels in the analysis of multimedia texts — begin to understand the application and resonance of these considerations in digital and design literacies, such as in the relation of form to content, presentation, and digital ecologies and networks.

Teaching students how to interpret and analyze media they may otherwise passively consume enables students to read their worlds like writers.

Class blogs in which students learn to interact with one another provide low-stakes spaces for peer review. Digital projects also allow for the incorporation of skills which relate to the writing classroom and transfer into the creation of any future project or project-planning endeavors, such as the benefits of studio time, peer review, and critique sessions. Though the remediation of traditional assignments and the creation of e-portfolios, students can learn to put theory into practice, take ownership in their work, and realize that they have the potential to reach audiences and make an impact beyond the walls of the classroom — developing a sense of self, voice, and the often-porous boundaries between fields of study, scholarship, entertainment, and citizenship. Through incorporating multiliteracies into the humanities, students who are often already grounded in technology are able to make sense and see the interconnections between their interests, skills, and knowledge, drawing connections between their intellectual and emotional investments and reflecting on their future goals and aspirations.

Most importantly, technology can enable a self-conscious creation and recognition of agency and self — the person holding all of these tools. As Daniel Anderson suggests, expanding and valuing a variety of literacies can also help students see themselves as active participants in what they are learning and see themselves as active designers and participants in social change. (Anderson 2007, 41) Anderson writes about the benefits of introducing technology into the classroom, including: “[facilitating] a sense of creativity that can lead to motivation… higher aspirations of critical and media literacies, providing individuals with opportunities for action, a sense of competence and control, heightened awareness of personal identity, avenues for creative self-expression, and a sense of agency.” (Anderson 2007, 44)

I believe in creating citizens and students who are aware of the potential of their agency.

But beyond any particular approach to teaching literacy, beyond creating proficient readers and writers — I believe in creating citizens and students who are aware of the potential of their agency. Recognizing multiple literacies allows for students to recognize and actively change their position and agency in a variety of contexts, and naturally encourages the transfer of skills between disciplines. As Paulo Freire writes: “To acquire literacy is more than to psychologically and mechanically dominate reading and writing techniques. It is to dominate these techniques in terms of consciousness; to understand what one reads and to write what one understands; it is to communicate graphically. Acquiring literacy does not involve memorizing sentences, words, or syllables — lifeless objects unconnected to an existential universe — but rather an attitude of creation and re-creation, a self-transformation producing a stance of intervention in one’s context.” (Paulo Freire, 404) We need to restore this urgency and relevancy to writing in order to move our students from collecting technical skills to creating their own meaning. We need to transition our students from being producers to being consumers of knowledge. We need, in short, to stop asking students to pour themselves into molds and teach writing that can nourish the whole student.

Image by Sasha Patkin

FURTHER READING

Anderson, Daniel. “The Low Bridge to High Benefits: Entry-Level Multimedia, Literacies, and Motivation,” Computers and Composition 25 (2008), 40–60.

Bartholomae, David, “Inventing the University,” in When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing Process Problems, Mike Rose, ed. (New York and London: The Guilford Press, 1985), 134–166.

Berthoff, Ann E., from The Making of Meaning: Metaphors, Models, and Maxims for Writing Teachers. “What We Teach”/ “Reclaiming the Imagination”/ “Learning the Uses of Chaos”/ “Writing and Editing”

Freire, Paulo, “From Education and Conscientizacao” in Perspectives on Literacy, eds. Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, Mike Rose, Southern Illinois University Press, 1988, 403–409

Graff, Gerald. “How ‘bout That Wordsworth!” MLA Newsletter, Winter 2008, 3–4

Micciche, Laura R. “Writing Material.” College English 76.7 (July 2014): 488–505

Miller, Richard E., “The Nervous System.” College English 58.3 (March 1996), 265–286

Ong, Walter J. “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought.” Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook, eds. Chusmna, Kintgen, Kroll, Rose. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001, 19–31

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