A Conversation with Les Perelman

Editor’s note: Les Perelman has a new article in the March/April edition of the WLN Journal, called “Grammar Checkers Do Not Work.” He also graciously agreed to talk a bit more about his career, writing centers–and that dratted 5-paragraph essay.

UnknownCan you tell us more about your career, from your perspective?

I did my graduate work in medieval literature. I was fortunate that while I was in graduate school, Mary Louise Pratt came as an Assistant Professor for one year before she went back to Stanford. Mary got me interested in sociolinguistics, which led both to an interest in classical and medieval rhetoric and connecting her work on Speech Act Theory to teaching writing. Oral speech is innate. We do not learn it; we acquire it as young children because we are hard wired for it. Writing, on the other hand, is a relatively recent technology that is only about 5,000 years old. Thus oral conversation is the default language situation, and one of Mary’s great insights is that writing is a conversation in which one of the other participants is absent and writer has to “fill in” the questions, arguments, and objections, that the absent reader may make.

After graduate school, I was a post-doctoral fellow at USC for three years working with Ross Winterowd before going to Tulane University to serve as Director of First-year Writing and a faculty member in Writing, Rhetoric, and Linguistics. I then moved to MIT, where I became an Associate Dean and Director of Writing Across the Curriculum.

Working with faculty from across the Institute in this later role, was probably the most formative experience in my career. First, MIT culture has a very low tolerance for bullshit. You can assert anything as long as you have data to back it up. An assertion without corroborating data is considered bullshit. In addition, working with computer science classes has given me a keen understanding of both how powerful computers are and how limited they are in some contexts, such as natural language processing. Finally, being at MIT has given me the opportunity to bounce ideas off of some of the world’s great linguists.

Obviously, you are widely recognized for addressing the issues with the SAT. I’m curious how that, and this fresh article for WLN, shape what you think of writing centers. You’ve fought the machines—what would you tell the tutors battling in the proverbial trenches?

Les_Perelman1To follow up on my last answer, the graders of the old SAT essay were not readers in the conversational sense I described above. They were reading 20-30 essays an hour. They were simply too overwhelmed and too tired to have to kind of the reactions a normal reader would have to a text. Machines, of course, are much worse. All they do is count. What students need is to internalize the hidden conversations that are always present in any piece of writing. Writing tutors, by asking questions, making objections, requesting clarifications–that is, being a reader that is present–help student define and then internalize the reader who is almost always absent. That is the writing tutor’s most important and extremely vital role.

What are some new technologies/approaches that you think tutors should be beefing up on?

As I argue in the article, computer grammar checkers are a far way from being helpful. At the same time, the function I describe above is much more important than Writing Centers becoming proofreading services. There are technologies, however, that can aid the Writing Center conversation. Skype and similar applications can achieve much of what occurs in a Writing Center while obliterating the need for physical proximity. I am sure that, if not already available, there will be applications that will let two or more people see and talk to each other while also both marking a text on computer screens or tablets.

I am not, however, advocating large Writing Call Centers in India. Writing Centers and tutors need to be connected to and in contact with writing teachers and other faculty. They need to know the specific assignments and the instructor’s expectation for them in order to be stand-ins for the instructor-as-reader. Finally, they must be firmly embedded in the specific culture of a university or college.

How can undergraduate tutors combat the 5-paragraph essay approach? Both in terms of stretching outside their own experiences—and challenging the writers who visit them?

$_35Testing companies love the 5-paragraph essay because it is more suited to machines (and humans who are forced to grade like machines) than it is to real people, as both writers and readers. As I said previously, machines love to count and the five-paragraph essay is all about counting: 1 introductory paragraph; 3 supporting paragraphs each consisting of an opening declarative sentence (the topic sentence) and then at least three supporting sentences; followed by 1 concluding paragraph. Using ETS’s Criterion, I wrote the best essay I could on one of their standard break-an-argument topics (used for the GRE), which contained one well-argued paragraph of only three sentences. Criterion told me that that paragraph was underdeveloped. I inserted the opening line of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” as a sentence. Criterion’s comment that the paragraph was undeveloped went away and my overall holistic score increased.

The best way to inoculate all students, including writing tutors is to convince them that the 5-paragraph essay is an unnatural act. Topic sentences occur as the first sentence, at most, only in roughly half of the paragraphs written by professionals in various disciplines (Popkin, 1987; Braddock, 1974) More importantly, the world does not divide nicely into threes. Sometimes an issue has only two main points; other times it may have five or six.

The worst feature of the 5-paragraph essay is that it limits a student to essays of around five double spaced pages. Many issues or topics need much longer and detailed development, but this form does not support it.

Why then is the 5-paragraph form so valued in tests? I mentioned above how easy it is to grade it mechanically. Its major advantage for the short timed impromptu is that it provides students with a prepackaged formulaic structure for students to write about anything in 20 minutes. The problem again is that such writing situations are unnatural. In the real world, we all have to write on demand on topics we know about. We may get an Email from our boss asking us to respond immediately about a project we are working on. But no one gets an email from a boss with text like this, “Is failure necessary for success? Get back to me with an answer in 20 minutes.”

 

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3 thoughts on “A Conversation with Les Perelman

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with the criticisms of the five-paragraph essay and the reasons why it has been embraced by the mass-testing companies and their graders and why it is a Procrustean model. I found the constructivist approach (advocated by Bartholomae and Petrosky) to be a breath of fresh air that deliberately disrupts the knee-jerk five-paragraph format that suburban students can churn out at the drop of a hat. However, that approach isn’t easy to teach or to grade, let alone tutor, especially at community colleges where peer tutors are only a year ahead of their tutees.

    My impression is that many full-time faculty (and administrators) view academic support centers and writing centers as places where proofreading (at worst) and remediation (at best) should take place. Since I have no data to back that up, make of it what you will. As a tutor, I have seen full-time faculty focus on higher-level skills while leaving the task of addressing students’ more basic problems mastering so-called “mechanics” or “lower-level” skills to adjunct faculty, academic resource centers, and writing centers. While this practice may make sense from a faculty productivity perspective, and certainly makes full-time faculty’s task of correction much less onerous, I suspect that all too often in this scenario, students still fail to master those basic skills in part because they are not given sufficient incentives to do so, disincentives not to do so, or the means to do so in a timely fashion (let’s face it, after twelve years of neglect, how much can be accomplished when one is limited to an hour or less of tutoring or a week?). I have seen writing produced by juniors and seniors riddled with basic errors. My own solution would be to ramp up the use of grammar and punctuation diagnostic software with associated self-correcting exercises that would provide instant feedback, explanations, and follow-up exercises, and to provide this from middle school onwards. This is not quite the same as grammar checking because exercises do not provide the same context as essays, but certainly sample essays could be developed. Again, I’m pretty confident this kind of thing exists, although the software license is probably a lot more expensive than peer tutors and adjuncts. In that connection, I’ve often thought that overnight correction of essays by Indian correction centers would be both cost-effective and pedagogically effective because students would get rapid feedback while their memories of the papers were still fresh. The corrections could be linked to grammar and punctuation explanations and exercises, and a final tally of the various errors would help students to focus on their own problems. Correctors could focus on different order problems (e.g., thesis, paragraph organization, punctuation…)… The next day, instructors would have aggregate reports and graded papers ready for revision. Huzza!

    Turning to MIT’s culture with its low tolerance for bullshit and the need for data to back up assertions, and perhaps in the light of current political events in this country, I would point out that rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and that people are often (not always, thank God) persuaded not by knowledge, but by manipulation, deception, half-truths, outright lies, and unsubstantiated claims, as well as by inspiration, visionary projects, and emotional claims on imagined community. And then there are essays that play with ideas and possibilities, that explore without necessarily providing conclusive evidence or hard data, but that make the reader think and consider things in a different light. They can make better and more stimulating reading than the average academic article or even Ph.D. thesis.

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