there’s gotta be a way to teach students the effective commonplaces the way we teach them “They Say, I Say” templates

I was just reading Ann Berthoff’s “Is Teaching Possible? Writing, Meaning, and Higher-Order Reasoning” (1984) (for the Ciceronian assignment I have due on Tuesday). Berthoff is basically making the point that we cannot think of our job (teaching writing and reading) as one in which we simply exhort students to move up a developmental scale from simple to more complex thought. That scale is too mechanistically conceived and so it does not accurately describe what is really going on when we use language. That scale assumes that we can separate language from meaning, when in fact meaning and interpretation inhere with language. (That’s a very sketchy summary — honestly, I haven’t finished her article yet.)

Anyway, then it occurred to me that our templates from They Say, I Say do that very thing — they assume a separation of meaning and language. They provide sentence-level moves of academic writing, and they are — to use one of Berthoff’s similes — like so many muffin tins in which to pour the dough of thought.  I’m not thinking that these templates are not very helpful. I think they are. But I’m thinking we should also provide students with not just the sentence-level moves of academic writing, but also with the commonplaces, the argumentative moves that help convince an audience.

They already TRY some of these out when they say things like “In today’s society” and “since the beginning of time,” — like Bartholomae points out in “Inventing the University.”  But that’s exactly one reason they need explicit instruction in the effective (and more complex and nuanced) commonplaces. They seem to already know they need to make intellectual moves like that, but they don’t yet know what the better moves are. I know, in my experience of learning to write academic papers, I remember reading someone else’s paper or some article and thinking things like, “Oh, I never thought to make the point that way — what a great idea.” I had to pick those up over time, as most of us have. But there’s got to be a good way to help students see those sooner.

Heheh, now I hear ancient Greek and Latin voices saying, “Yo! Been there, done that!” (Yes, can’t you hear Fabius Quintillian talking like that! ;)) So now I’m curious to look into ways to teach commonplaces.  And a question: what is the difference between Ciceronian argumentative moves and Aristotlean commonplaces? Just two aspects or angles on the same phenomenon: the ways we make an argument? I mean, there are sophisticated commonplaces (aren’t there?). But maybe it is just that argumentative moves are in general more sophisticated than commonplaces.

Oh, and I was thinking also: what Peter noticed last week when he showed us (in the practicum) the example of a student’s paper which tried to use the sentence-level moves, but didn’t understand them… isn’t that one of the pitfalls of providing students with sentence-level moves without also specific help with intellectual-level moves?  That student, for example, used “on the other hand” before she/he had said anything. Or??? Is that something else? I mean, is that something that could be helped by helping the student understand intellectual moves, commonplaces?


4 thoughts on “there’s gotta be a way to teach students the effective commonplaces the way we teach them “They Say, I Say” templates

  1. hey! It’s going slowly, but only because I keep letting myself get distracted. I’ve read the article once, slowly (Berthoff’s “Is Teaching Possible?”). I figure I’ll just make an outline of what she’s doing, Ciceronian-move-wise. How’s it going for you??

  2. Great questions, Laura.

    I’m wondering about the misuse of “on the other hand.” I wonder if it has anything to do with how much the student has thought deeply about their topic or developed critical thinking skills in regards to their topic at all. I wonder if isn’t an attempt, as Bartholomae discusses, to use a specific type of academic commonplace, the sign-posting, much in the same way that students use sign-posting “incorrectly” elsewhere, e.g., Firstly (which is okay, but so pointless: just say First!).

  3. Great thinking going here – thanks. (sorry I’m a bit behind on the reading – and so curious what class you are in that is doing Ciceronian argument??)

    Where we have to start with this, I think, is to help the instructors understand the cognitive challenges, the thinking challenges, as we teach argument, especially academic argument. There’s just so much to cover in our classes and our practicum. All of us who teach writing – even now 25 years after Berthoff need to keep learning how to comprehend the task of higher order thinking and then how to share that with our students. This can be especially hard for new TA’s. Sure, the They Say, I Say templates may be a bit superficial, but they do demonstrate that there are moves to be made, and the way of situating oneself in an ongoing argument is critical. One of the TA RJ’s that I recently read argued that to feel authority, students should (had to) pretend that they are the first to write on this topic (so as not to be overwhelmed or feel silenced) but I disagree. If one is not aware of the context of the argument and who has been saying what, then one’s remarks are irrelevant, in a vacuum, pointless. It is exactly, to my thinking, the finding out of who has been saying what that is the invention – that sparks the ideas – to enable someone to move forward. The ideas and the moves for building an essay from those ideas, bricks and mortar.

    We all need to keep on learning how to make these higher order thinking moves. Education is never finished. All writing could be better (this post too:))

    And I agree with Michael about “on the other hand” which I think is an attend to make a move and use an academic transition, some signposting, and some sense of juxtaposing. So, while it’s funny to see “on the other hand” without yet hearing “on the first hand” – it does show an effort to contrast points of view. This term my students’ papers show a real need for more transitions between sentences as well as between paragraphs. Two items that require a huge jump with no bridges. Some “therefores” that do not follow logically from the sentence before.

    I’m rambling – better stop now!

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