Body and Soul informs me that everything I was taught in middle school was wrong. I was taught the five paragraph essay with zeal in middle school, and even in high school, where my own sophomore English teacher endlessly mispronounced “chasm” (with a soft ch) and scolded me when my “fictional” writing about religious conflict lacked sufficient resolution. The idea, I suppose, was to make writing accessible, or easier, or something, by distilling it into the simplest procedure possible. This was 1990. Fortunately, I had an excellent English teacher in my senior year (Thanks, Mrs. Rostkowski) and was able to shrug off the five paragraph essay paradigm.
Still, the very first paper I wrote in college earned me a C-, just like they said it would in the freshman convocation. The first comment from the professor, to my opening sentence, (a sentence that I thought was gripping) was a scribbled “So?” I would later earn myself a lot of those in that class. The professor’s point, conveyed to me plenty of times, was that the every sentence you write should speak to the ideas you want to convey in the paper. I’m still working on that. When I turned in a draft with a title that read “INSERT TITLE HERE,” I got a frustrated reply: If you don’t know what to call your work, do you really know what you want to say? What’s that? You don’t know what ideas you want to convey? Then how will you write the damn thing?
Introduction to Fiction remains among the undergraduate courses that taught me something really valuable (and, damn, McClintock was a tough grader). Contrary to the lesson of the five paragraph essay, writing is hard to rationalize; meeting simple technical criteria doesn’t necessarily mean you’re said anything worth saying or worth reading. Or, and I guess this is the crux of educational testing, that you’ve learned anything.
This semester I have seen my share of good papers from undergraduate writers who both know the goal of their writing and are able to pull together various threads of research and theory to say something interesting. I’ve also seen many mediocre and bad papers, those that might have a point but are poorly organized, and those that demonstrate with clarity that the author has yet to read a single assignment. Then there comes a paper that, as Jeanne writes, “makes no sense at all, and bores you to tears, but looks weirdly organized.” It mimics the form of a paper, but it’s not a paper. Rather, it’s the contemporary instance of the five paragraph essay, transformed into a three-page paper on medicalization or doctor-patient interaction, and it’s coming from juniors and seniors in college from all over the country.