formulas that are good enough?

My apologies to Charles for not responding sooner to his comment. It’s just be crazy ’round here. Anyway, in reference to my previous post on Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein… yes it is certainly a simplification. It’s a couple hundred words on what is arguably the fundamental philosophical question: "why is there something rather than nothing?" That is, for me, the fundamental question of composition, writ large. And in that context, formalism is inadequate. Again, it’s good for abstracting qualities of events, but not good at telling you how to compose future events.

Take the example Charles gives: F=ma. Of course the application of this formula in real world events is always an approximation. However, it’s "good enough" to convince you to look both ways before crossing a street lest you become part of an unfortunate demonstration of physics. However, if you want to compose force, what does it tell you? It tells you that you need mass and acceleration. Mass is maybe easy enough: you pick up a rock. But how are you going to accelerate that rock? Well… you’re gonna apply force to it, and thus the cycle begins.  Force is composed of force; it’s turtles all the way down.

Like F=ma, a formula for rhetorical analysis might be good for reading texts, just as formalism proved quite useful to literary criticism (though I would point to Fredric Jameson’s explanation of the breakdown of intrinsic and extrinsic critical methods in Postmodernism). However, just as an understanding and "following" of new critical formulas leads to writing crappy poems, following rhetorical formulas generally has equally poor results.

I’m not sure why anyone even needs to make this argument. All you have to do is read the thousands of mediocre, formulaic, FYC essays that kill trees every semester and have for decades. So I suppose we can say that the results are poor b/c the students don’t write well or the instructors don’t teach well or the particular formulas at work are poorly constructed. However I do not believe that the "secret" to better composition pedagogy is building a better essay-constructing mousetrap.

On the other hand, there’s the pragmatics of the situation. If you want to teach someone to assemble the food on the McDonald’s menu, you don’t need to teach them how to become a chef who can compose interesting meals. You just teach them the faculty formula for slapping together a Big Mac or whatever. Maybe, pragmatically, that’s what FYC is about, teaching students to compose rhetorical Big Macs. Yes they taste like crap, but they all taste like exactly the same crap. Uniform crap.

In sustaining the division between form and content, between writing and knowledge/thought, the fact that the form/writing is crap doesn’t matter as long as it is uniform. Then as professor of whatever discipline I can judge the content. Oh I’ll complain about the writing, but that’s about it.

Also, pragmatically, 90%+ of our students will never be good writers no matter what. Because in order for them to become good writers, they’d have to write on a regular basis, and they just aren’t going to do that. So trying to teach the average college student to be a good writer is like trying to teach her to be a marathon runner or painter or a guitarist. It ain’t gonna happen.

So if FYC is about teaching people who will never have an interest in writing how to slap together some uniform crap so that other professors will have an easier time grading them, then I suppose that it is an anti-intellectual practice to be carried out as cheaply as possible.

I suppose in some circles this might be called "empowerment" b/c it will help you get through your other classes and get that degree. Fine. That’s still not a reason not to do it on the cheap b/c certainly little expertise is required to carry out this formalist approach. That’s why formalism became so popular with literary criticism: cheap, portable, easily-reproducible. If you want 100+ sections of FYC to produce predictable results, formalism is likely a way to go. With luck, every burger will taste the same.

It’s on these grounds that I would be an abolitionist. Because, unlike with my digestive system, I would prefer the unpredictable crap to the predictable crap in FYC. I don’t think FYC should be a cybernetic system designed to produce predictable products (either in terms of students or texts).

To me, FYC isn’t about trying to take unpredictable, mediocre writers and make the predictably mediocre and pretending that’s "better." It’s about giving students an opportunity to choose to be writers in the first place, to become people who write. I’m sure at a different institution with a different population, I would say something different. But that’s how I see students here. Maybe most of them won’t choose to be writers and will never be good writers. They’ll also not choose to be artists or mathematicians or scientists or dancers, etc. Here most of them will choose to be teachers… teachers who don’t write… teachers who will teach your kids formalist approaches to writing, especially if that’s what we teach them.


6 replies on “formulas that are good enough?”

Alex, you seem to be taking the worst case scenario and pitting it against a best case scenario (and, of course, I’m oversimplifying here).
Let me speak from personal experience. I was in my 9th year of college, working on a second undergraduate degree (the first in sec. educ. biology and science, and the second in classics with some ventures into others) when I mentioned to Ernie Kaulbach, my Latin professor, that I was thinking about taking advanced expository writing with John Trimble the following semester. He asked, “Why?” and I responded, “to learn how to write.” Anyway, at the end of that semester, I turned into two short papers. He quickly perused them, looked up at me, and said, “You might want to take that writing course.” You see, up until that course, my writing had been almost completely limited to lab reports and translations of classics–no essay style writing.
I did, and it helped a lot. But where I learned the most about writing from a beginner’s perspective was when I went to Turkey to teach English. PIcking up one of their books, I read for the first time in my life the words “thesis statement,” “topic sentence,” and others such words.
After teaching these concepts for 4 years, I returned to UT to work on a dissertation and in the process wrote papers, using those simple formulas when re-reading my writing to see how clear it was. I still use them, although mostly automatically now. And I often get comments on the clarity of my writing. In fact, I’ve been told that my dissertation advisor recommends that other graduate students read it.
As you noted, different populations might have you say something different. As the first member of my family to attend college, I didn’t have a strongly literate background, the type of background that might not need to start at the level of B&G’s book. For my type of background, formulas were a useful tool for re-framing my ideas so that others could understand them. And like F=ma, formulas can be used generatively instead of formulaically. (Of course, they can be used the other way, too.) For me, the formula of “formulas = formulaic = mediocre” greatly oversimplifies this issue and neglects that people who are beginning to learn anything always begin with simplified models and through practice complexify their understanding.
Having said that, I would enjoy hearing about how you teach writing and how you help students “become people who write.”


OK Charles. So as we are saying, teaching writing requires addressing a specific audience of students. There’s no real formula for teaching writing, right? Most of us have taught two sections of the same course back to back on the same days and had one turn out great and the other not so. I’ve written before here that I am sometimes frustrated trying to figure out what I am supposed to take from my teaching experiences give that the difference between success and failure sometimes appears to arise from circumstances beyond one’s control.
But I digress.
Generally speaking, Cortland students are dutiful rule-followers. Give them a specific set of directions, a formula, and they are happy as a pig in shit. That’s not to say that they will produce interesting writing, but they’ll be happy.
Reading some of my colleagues’ students’ writing through our FYC assessment procedure, I’ve seen whole classes of students following a formula where they all make the same argument, quote the same passages from the same essays in the same sequence in their papers. And so on. In short, formulaic papers as identical as a row of Big Macs.
Our students don’t like writing, but they are satisfied with doing this. They recognize this as writing instruction b/c it’s what they’ve been getting for 12 years. In short, it’s how they learned to dislike writing and be mediocre at it.
In my view, our students first require a reason to write. They seem absolutely no purpose for them to write. Yes, they need to write to graduate, but that does not seem to be a sufficient purpose, at least not for first-year students. So students need reasons to write and an audience to address.
It’s a well-worn perception that student writing can’t have an audience b/c it has no real value. The only one who reads it is the professor and the professor is paid to do so. But that’s not true anymore. Facebook is a multi-billion dollar business built on student compositions. We may not value those Facebook compositions, but the marketplace certainly does.
Perhaps though this is a semantic argument. I would teach my students tactics, heuristics, strategies–various methods for studying the rhetorical function of a text and for approaching one’s own composition. Again, for me the difference between formula and these other strategies is that a formula is designed to always produce the same outcome.
Take the example of thesis statement that you mention. Students are likely to produce their texts in linear fashion or at least try to, despite what we advise. So the thesis statement is one of the first things they come up with. This immediately closes out the intellectual and reflective potential of writing, doesn’t it? If a student thinks of something that doesn’t fit with the thesis statement, they just leave that out. They incorporate counter-arguments, but not in a way that allows them to actually consider those arguments… b/c that would mean having to start all over again.
And when it comes down to it, how many texts actually have thesis statements? Who really writes like that? Maybe academics do that in their research, but does anyone else do that? What genres/discourses are we preparing our students to write in by teaching thesis statements?


Fascinating. I can see where you’re coming from now because I’ve never seen classes of students writing similar papers. Perhaps I’ll see that next fall due to a change I’m incorporating in my classes. I’m going to think a little more about what you’ve said.


Thanks Charles, I appreciate the conversation. And let me also say that I do think that one can study forms in a generative and useful way. I just think students need a little confidence as a writer first so that they don’t turn formal analysis into a prescription for composition.


What if it’s the other way around? We studied forms waaaayyyyyy back in grade school. All those groovy shapes of paragraphs, for instance, and all the ways sentences can be combined, and all kinds of rhyme and rhythm schems, and oodles of such things. Maybe it was that sense of structure that gave me the confidence not to see form as particularly threatening or confining. It would be, I think (just to give one example) a total kick to make a horror film. To play on and with the conventions, though, it would help to know them.


I see your point Kafaz and to me it’s an interesting question of definition. In a sense it’s the fundamental question of post-structuralism: what is the relationship between an object and the processes by which an object is produced? Maybe it’s just arbitrary but I see a difference between tactics or strategies for composition and forms.
I agree that forms and other constraints can be integral elements in creativity, but I also see, in practice, how they don’t play out that way.


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