Monday, July 14, 2014

This One Has No Pictures

During the winter semester of my first year at the University of Michigan, I was fortunate enough to have Mr. Philip Christman as my English 124 professor.  I was honestly just taking the class because it was required but I got a whole lot more out of that class than I ever imagined I could.  Mr. Christman was very relatable and easy to talk to, which made the class's learning experience more engaging.  Through the semester, we focused on how the introduction of written language affected the course of human history and how literate and illiterate cultures differ.  Mr. Christman made a subject that I wouldn't have studied on my own into something very fascinating, something that I couldn't wait to hear more about during the next class.

At the end of the semester, our last essay assignment was essentially to write an essay about an essay.  Our three previous papers were done in the traditional five-paragraph academic format: one introduction paragraph with a strong and arguable thesis, three supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph.  For this last assignment, we were to take our least favorite aspect of the five-paragraph essay format and not only write about it, but write our essays in such a way that goes against said format.  I was pretty satisfied with my unconventional response, and apparently, so was my professor.

Five-Paragraphs of Approval

The five-paragraph essay; the one format of academic writing that students love to hate and hate to love. From an early age, students are taught to organize their academic arguments in a particular fashion that allows for maximum clarity: One introduction paragraph containing context and a specific argument, the thesis to be discussed, three body paragraphs of roughly equal length with points to support the argument, and lastly, a conclusion that restates the main points of the body paragraphs and ties them directly to the thesis. Many students dislike this format and find the five-paragraph essay to be limiting in creativity, too predictable, and too short to flesh out an argument; however, I hold a different opinion. I must dispel one suspicion though, which is that I chose not to critique the five-paragraph format, to continue writing in this familiar format out of laziness. This is not the case. Much of my appreciation for this essay format started when I was young and impressionable, when misunderstandings and poor communication efforts inspired me to look for the best way to get my point across. I embrace the segmented structure of the essay because it organizes my argument into bite-sized chunks and I use the relatively short format to lessen the possibility of repeating similar information too many times. Clarity, unambiguity, and brevity are the three most important values to me in terms of communication and coincidentally, this is the exact description of the five-paragraph academic essay. 

The structure of the five-paragraph essay, with its three separate body paragraphs, allows for a writer to form an argument and clearly support it three convincing points. My fondness of this format comes from my childhood, and that is the incredibly ineffective, unconvincing way in which my father explained things to me. When he asked me do so something using his method and not mine, his argument would be to “Just do it!” Although his way was usually better than mine, he didn’t make a single effort to explain to me all the advantages that his way had over mine. The two of us would grow more and more frustrated as I would see no reason to follow his exact directions because he never gave me a reason to. On the other hand, if I asked him to clarify something he said, he would repeat it word for word however many times I asked for him to explain. He would even do that without a request for clarification. That didn’t help either and often, he’s say something so many times I’d grow annoyed and everything he said would fall back out of my head. In short, the way my father made his arguments makes me wonder if he believes that everybody has the exact same logic as he does. Nothing needs explaining, and if it does, it means you didn’t hear it. These past life experiences have played a large role in forming the way I verbalize an argument. I always prefer to make my argument clear and support it with just a few strong points. The format of the five-paragraph essay fits my need perfectly. The fact that there are various points makes sure that the audience can relate to and understand at least one of them, and limiting myself to a small number of points makes sure I’m not just saying the same thing again using different words. Because each support point for the thesis gets its own paragraph, it is easy for the reader to look back at certain points. For example, if the audience is looking for a specific sentence that stood out, they wouldn’t have to skim through the whole paper again; they would just look back at the one paragraph that the topic belonged to. This means that the reader is less discouraged from looking back to gain a better understanding of what I said. People arguing against this format can say that the five-paragraph essay is quite rigid and cannot suit a wide variety of writing. Pieces meant to stand out in any way or be entertaining cannot follow this format, and neither can analytic scientific papers. However, my goal for this type of paper is not to capture attention or explain the workings of a new finding; instead, something would have called for me to make an argument in the first place. I would use the essay as a way to make it easier for the reader consider my viewpoint. I prefer to keep my arguments as concise and easy to understand as possible no matter what and if my argument requires more space to explain, I tell myself that I haven’t thought it out well enough to explain it in the most effective way. It is not my wish to run the risk of losing the audience in my writing or repeating and emphasizing my points so much that they grow impatient and decide to skim through my paper. My goal is for the reader to not waste their precious time while still being able to see from my point of view the way I intended.

Five-paragraph essays emphasize clarity, and this is yet another thing for which my appreciation stems from my childhood. As I stated above, my father frequently “explained” things simply by repeating them, but other times, what he said would be so vague that it could be misunderstood in many different ways. One specific example comes to mind, which is when he told me to “recycle” one of my spray paint cans last summer. In our house, we have a separate box in the basement for hazardous waste, which was where the paint can was supposed to go. I was telling my dad that I finished the paint and I was on the way downstairs to put it in that box when he needlessly said “Recycle!” and pointed in some general direction that was not the basement door. The way I understood it was that he wanted me to just drop it into the regular recycling bin so I started talking about how this stuff can’t just be tossed in there and that I had to send it downstairs to the hazardous waste box. He replied with “That’s what I mean! Recycle!” which started us in a completely stupid, pointless dispute with me elaborating on the differences between recycling and hazardous waste disposal. Moments later, my father and I finally reached the conclusion that we were talking about the exact same thing based on my explanation, and we had wasted at least ten minutes trying to resolve a petty misunderstanding. Thankfully, all of this confusion throughout my growing years did not go to waste. I have developed a habit, almost an obsession, of being as clear as I possibly can in order to not only avoid such arguments with my father, but to make sure everything I say to everyone is interpreted exactly as I intend. This requires me to be meticulous in the phrasing, word choice, and sentence order of what I say and write, which happens to be exactly what a five-paragraph essay demands. One could argue saying that this is what makes the five-paragraph essay format so dry and seemingly prohibitive to creativity, but again, for my purposes, no other format fits so well. In choosing words for an argument, I tend to look for a variety of the least ambiguous words possible so that what I say is exactly what I mean. That is usually the opposite of creative literature. Also, my phrasing must be crystal clear and it has to flow easily so the reader is not distracted by anything that is not my argument. This is the same principle that dictates how joints must be perfect when constructing architectural models. If the material joint, like the phrasing in an essay, is not seamless, the slight awkwardness of it will detract from the real point I am trying to make. The disturbances that ambiguous words and uncoordinated phrases create work against the objective of the essay and the format of the five-paragraph essay helps to ward off that possibility.

The conclusion paragraph, which often causes the most headaches for me, is actually my favorite. Again, this also has to do with my younger life experiences. Time and again, an argument or debate with my father can get off topic or one of us will start talking about a single point for too long and forget about the original argument. In times like this, it is necessary for me to ask how this is relevant to what we were talking about, or to list out all of the points we have agreed on and what questions we still have for each other. I usually have to do this many times. Similar to this, when an essay contains multiple support points in the form of separate paragraphs, it is easy for the reader to get wrapped up in the one paragraph and forget how it directly ties into the other paragraphs and the original argument. Although each body paragraph does relate itself to the thesis, the conclusion paragraph brings everything together in the most concise way, as if to tell the reader “If you forgot everything you just read, here it is again."  Because each body paragraph introduces a support for the argument which itself has supporting sentences or stories, it gets the reader thinking, which is good. This is like when my father and I start arguing about a single point that supports or opposes either of our arguments. A proper five-paragraph essay should not necessarily force the audience to agree with the author, but get them to compare the validity of the author’s viewpoints with theirs. The conclusion paragraph reins in all those thoughts and simply restates the main supports of the argument without the bulk of the explanation in between. This allows the reader to also summarize their thoughts, whether for or against the author’s argument, in ways that would tie in directly to the author’s points. Therefore, the author and reader can pretty much form a pro/con list together for an organized, effective discussion if they were to have one.

Many students despise the five-paragraph academic essay and cannot wait to leave it behind. For them, it is too limiting in creativity, too predictable, and too brief and this is true. It only suits a narrow spectrum of writing, not including the more creative methods that most students would like to use to make an argument. However, based on preferences generated by my past life experiences, I can safely conclude that the format of the five-paragraph essay suits my communication style like no other that I have experimented with. The struggle to reduce misunderstanding and increase clarity of communication with my father has made me promise myself and others that I will do my best to say exactly what I mean with as little words as possible. The five-paragraph essay encourages the author to organize his or her thoughts in a way that is easy to digest. The introduction paragraph gives context and states the main argument, the three distinct body paragraphs support the argument on different points, and the conclusion organizes and gathers up final thoughts. The concise nature of the essay discourages the author from overelaborating and losing the interest of the audience, but just as a table needs at least three legs to stand, the number of body paragraphs necessary ensures that the audience can relate to and understand at least one of them. Word choice and phrasing is important because the author does not have forever to explain any one thing. For me, the five-paragraph academic essay is the most efficient, crystal clear way of supporting an argument and my wish to be clear, concise, and hard to misunderstand fits the format perfectly.