On the Differences Between Cats and Dogs

A letter to my writing students on why they have more freedom to create than they seem to think

December 07, 2016

Adam Niklewicz for The Chronicle Review
Dear Students,

In this college course, you were assigned to write an essay explaining which is better, cats or dogs. And what every one of you submitted turned out to be a basic five-paragraph essay, the kind your high-school teachers told you to write for college-entrance exams.

Your essays seemed written for schoolteachers whose daily lives are filled with managing 150 postpubescent adolescents — amid the ever-present necessity of avoiding any kind of off-the-beaten-path instruction that might give a high-school administrator or a fearful parent a reason to invade their classroom. Those teachers were often bravely doing what they could to prepare you for college-level writing. But the fact is: They have neither First Amendment rights while on the job nor the rights of academic freedom that liberate college teachers from administrative and legislative domination.

As I’ve mentioned in class, I do have those liberties (for now, anyway), which means I can let you write about any topic you want, in any way that you want to write about it. Yet even knowing that, you chose to write an essay that you could crank out, clean up, submit for a grade, and then forget.

Your essays weren’t "bad." Your writing, as a group, tends to be fairly clear and the paragraphs mostly focused. But it’s not the kind of essay writing that honors the legacy of Michel de Montaigne (the Frenchman who invented the concept of essays) nor the kind of essay writing that would capture and hold the attention of college-literate readers.

Rather, the style you chose would get you through the socially constructed coronary blockage of an overcrowded high-school classroom. Or, it would get you past the requirements of a high-stakes barrier examination read by folks enchanted into believing that a concoction brewed of Alexander Bain’s 1860s paragraph prescription, Victor Pudlowski’s 1950s five-paragraph form, and Barrett Wendell’s 1880s-era daily writing theme is the love potion to produce Jerome Bruner’s pedagogical scaffolding.

So, yes, you wrote a fairly clean five-paragraph essay. Well done.

But this is a college-level writing course. Your college-level readers are looking for you, dear students, to engage thoughtfully with ideas and to produce insightfully delightful essays. As composition instructors, we value publication as a kind of ideal of accomplishment and would love to see our students’ writing published in local newspapers or on websites. But that would involve more than writing five clean paragraphs.

In an article well-known in composition circles — "The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year" — Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz argue that "students who see writing as something more than an assignment, who write about something that matters to them, are best able to sustain an interest in academic writing throughout their undergraduate careers."

Your college-level readers are looking for you, dear students, to engage thoughtfully with ideas and to produce insightfully delightful essays.
 Sommers and Saltz argue that if you are going to learn how to do the kinds of rhetorical backflips necessary for college-level writing, you first need to see yourself as a neophyte writer and then come to understand writing as a tool for locating yourself within academe: "When faculty construct writing assignments that allow students to bring their interests into a course, they say to their students, ‘This is the disciplinary field, and you are part of it. What does it look like from your point on the map?’ And freshmen respond by writing their way into a small corner of academia, gradually learning to see themselves not as the one mistake of the admissions committee but as legitimate members of a college community."

All of which is why, in my classroom, I make clear that my writing prompts are just suggestions: You may use the prompt I assign, or you can create your own (though I have to approve it through negotiation). I believe you should write all about whatever interests you if you are to learn to write and learn how you fit in higher education.

Accordingly, dear students, rather than writing about which is better, cats or dogs, you might have written about your mom and dad, yourself and your sister, your first friends as they were when you met and as they are now, the devil and God, Christ and the Buddha, cats as representative of Confucius and dogs as representative of Krishna, fascism and democracy, or the character of the Old Testament God walking alone in the desert and the villain within each of us as presented in the Mahabharata — among countless other topics.

In short, you could have picked an idea and aimed for insight. But you didn’t. Perhaps at this point, those overworked and under-protected teachers whose prescriptions you mastered in high school would tell you something like, "The introduction of your essay is different in voice than the rest of the essay and lacks a catchy or believable snag upon which you might hang your readers’ attention." Those teachers might tell you to fix that problem and then clean up some of the comma errors. And you would be done with it. And there would be some learning in all of that.

As a college-level reader, I noticed that one of you used this word: "exaggeratedly." I enjoyed that word. You could learn to play with words like that, to play with language. And you could learn to incorporate such words into your daily language.

Learn also for the sake of ethnolinguistic inclusion. You know you have a right to your own language, yes? You could expand on your language (or languages) exaggeratedly and come to see litotes in the universe and hyperbole in a grain of sand. You could play with simple linguistic ideas, extending them, even shaping them whimsically from time to time, making a music of your sentence patterns. Fragments, too, like Langston Hughes.

You could try building an idea too challenging for words and impossible to explain. You could break away from elementary- and secondary-school language patterns and attempt to embed essays within essays and ideas within ideas and words within words.

You see, I will not force you to follow prescriptive guidelines. I’m your college teacher, not your boss or parent. I will not force you to be creative. If you write, revise, and complete your assignments, you will not be harmed in terms of grades because nobody can force me to place you in a hierarchy of accomplishment. You will get the A for completing the process of drafting and revising.

But your growth as a writer is not a grade. I would rather have you write exaggeratedly than stay safely confined in a box of false rules.

Because you submitted what you did, it’s safe to say you’ve obviously mastered the stuff people forced you to learn in high school, like not starting a sentence with "because." Sure, some of those rules will come in handy for certain college assignments, such as the ubiquitous "objective summary" assignment that requires writers to paint with dry tones.

There the value ends because, after objective summaries, you get to craft things like narrative-descriptive-argumentative research-based assignments that might invite your readers to see ideas in kaleidoscopic patterns. You get to unleash all that untapped creative energy (that’s apparently had the dickens scared out of it) through the craft of writing, and that is, at its best, a wonderfully witching thing to do.

If you so choose, the assignments in my composition course will allow you to explore the wealth of wonders floating in your head. You might answer essay questions like: What’s a good teacher? What is the role of feminism in a society based on inequality? What is fascism? Is American authoritarianism fascist? Do equality and democracy include killing people? How would Odysseus treat refugees? Why is it that race does not exist, but racism does?

I believe you should write all about whatever interests you if you are to learn to write and learn how you fit in higher education.
There is nothing easy about answering such questions, and, eventually, you will indeed also use the dry language of summary writing in order to enhance the content of your persuasive writing. So not all you learned in that wasteland of testing was a handful of dust. But in the end, the simple fact is that your choice to engage in the process of persuasive crafting will require you to escape the enchantment (and safety) of that rigid five-paragraph essay. Your choice to do so is where college-level writing starts.

Of course you will find some rule barons in college classrooms, too. Unfortunately, there are those who never escaped the myths or the need for power that prescriptive teaching and evaluative testing facilitate. But you can learn to spot (and avoid) those who would restrict you.

I asked you to tell me which is better, cats or dogs, and the point I am making here is that there is nothing easy about creating an essay on the topic of cats and dogs, though it sounds simple enough. In fact, the process can take 10 or 15 hours just to get a draft. But you can choose to make that draft your draft. It’s on you to figure out how to shape any topic into a meaningful discussion.

Maybe you didn’t know that before. But now you do.

Galen Leonhardy teaches English and humanities at Black Hawk College in Illinois.