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.
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?
To 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?
Testing 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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