Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Fray Formula

I hope everyone has had, or is having, a good summer. I know I have, and I'm looking forward to getting back in the swing of things (my jet lag is now almost behind me). Before going on vacation, I found an interesting commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the use of formulas in writing instruction. I decided to write a post about as soon as I got back.

While I remain a fan of the five paragraph essay, I completely agree with Birkenstein and Graff that one of its weaknesses is its tendency to isolate writers among their own ideas. That's not really a problem with the formula, however. It's just a matter of placing constraints on the topic of the assigned essay.

Now, I don't really teach writing; I work with writers, i.e., researchers and PhD students, to improve their work. So formula are not pedagogical exercises to me; they are editorial heuristics. There is a lot of clarity to be gained from the act of restating your ideas in five well-formed paragraphs. But what I want to emphasize here is the "they say/I say" formula(s) that also provide the title of a book I'll be ordering shortly.

What Birkenstein and Graff righly point out is that when we write an academic text "we enter the social fray, presenting what others have said not as an afterthought or as mere support for our own argument, but as our argument's motivating source, its very reason for being". Getting the particulars of the fray right is an important "rhetorical move" in your writing.

To that end, the formulas they suggest are entirely useful, and I'm sure I'll be using them in talking to my authors in the weeks to come:

Although it is often said that _____, I claim ____.

I agree with X that ____, and would add ____.

Group X argues ____, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, ____ . On the other hand, ____.

I used to think ____. Now, however, after ____, I have come to see ____.

Debates over ____ tend to dominate discussions of ____. But these debates obscure the far more important issue of ____.

At this point you will probably object that ____. While it's true that ____, I still maintain ____.

Like Birkenstein and Graff, I'm less worried about how such formulas constrain thought and more interested in how they provide structured occasions for thinking about our rhetorical situation. I look forward to reading their book.

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