January 11, 2010

An Open Letter to my Students in Freshman Composition

Dear Students,

Over the next four weeks, I will be assigning several five paragraph essays on set topics, and you’ll probably hate it. If it's any consolation, I, too, dislike the early part of this process. I can only promise you that I will try to find interesting topics and I will grade your assignments fairly.

The five paragraph essay is one of the most basic forms that educators use to teach writing. From the first day of class, these essays help me to see if my students understand the building blocks of an essay. Once you have learned the basics, you can explore other, more complex forms. Essay writing is an essential part of your college education and the sooner you master the fundamentals of writing, the sooner you will enjoy your classes, and you may even get better grades.

Why do I say that? One of the key determinants of success is attitude. Whenever we have ill feelings toward anything, especially something we hate, it shows. Buy a Big Mac at a McDonald’s on 163rd Street and another at Aventura. The sesame seed buns are plump and the sizzle of the two beef patties atop beds of iceberg lettuce, pickles, and onions along with the slow drip of cheese down the layered sides are a visual and olfactory delight.

Yet the burger at 163rd Street tastes better because the server, who looked neat and clean, greeted you with a smile and said, “Welcome to McDonald’s. May I take your order?” The server at Aventura with her hairnet out of place and whose fingernails were dirty may have said the same thing, but the look in her eyes said, “What are you doing here? Get out of here before I call the police!” She ruined your meal and the eating experience.

The same thing happens with your essays. There’s attitude all over the paper. And English teachers can tell. How? Well, for starters, you may not think about it this way, but English teachers are trained, professional readers. We became teachers because we love reading. We savor words the way an experienced wine taster appreciates an aged Bordeaux—pure bliss.

And we’ve been “follow[ing] our bliss” for a long time. Some of us when we were younger strained our eyes reading in the dark with flashlight because we wanted to finish a book, but didn’t want to disturb our brothers and sisters who were fast asleep. Others wore baggy clothes to hide our books because we didn’t want to get into fistfights every day with the bullies who used to tease us and say, “You think you’re better than us?” or “Why are you acting ‘white’ reading those books?” That’s how much we loved reading. It was our passion.

And all this reading taught us at least two things: whenever you find your passion, hang on to it; and always try to find a way to make a living doing what you love. So, we began our careers in teaching in order to share our passion for reading with others.

And then, I read your essay. Your essay from the first line says, “I don’t want to write this. You made me write this, so you are going to suffer through this as much as I have.”

We’re back at McDonald’s with the bad server.

You haven’t checked your spelling, grammar, or punctuation. It’s as if you don’t care. And it shows.

But do you really think the server at either McDonald’s loves her job? That’s not the point, is it? The server at the McDonald’s at 163rd may hate her job. The difference is she wants to make eating at McDonald’s as pleasurable as possible.

So what does she do? She makes sure that her uniform is clean, her hair in place, and her nails are clean and polished. Everything about her, including her smile, says, “Welcome to McDonald’s. May I take your order?”

Do her feet hurt? Is she still angry at the last customer who cursed her out and called the manager on her? Is she worried that her baby, who’s been crying all night, may be sick? That her boyfriend may be cheating on her? You’d never know. Because all you see, it this happy person who greets you with a smile: “Welcome to McDonald’s. May I take your order?”

Yeah, but what does that have to do with writing an essay? Everything!  It’s the same as working at McDonald’s. You fake it every time, and you do it with style. And what's the most important aspect of style? As Sam, the surrogate father of Halley in Athol Fugard's "Master Harold"... and the Boys explains, "The secret is to make it look easy." But you never let your customer, the reader, know that you’re faking it.

So, how do you do that?

Well, for starters an assigned topic in class solves one of the first of three questions every writer has to consider before she begins writing: For whom am I writing?

Here’s the second question: What do I want to say about the topic?

Yes, you! What do you want to say about the topic? You have an opinion, don’t you? I want to know about it.

And don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. I’ve heard it a million times from ten million students. I didn’t start teaching yesterday. Tell me your thoughts about the subject because that’s what I want to know. I want to experience the pleasure of understanding your thoughts and ideas about the subject.

For some of you this may be very scary. You may have been told all your life that no one wants to hear your opinion about anything. Or you may come from a family or a culture that discouraged you from speaking your mind. But for the time that you are with me (and I hope you’ll take a bit of the class with you), I want you to forget all that and tell me what you really think. That’s what I want to read.

Now you may be thinking, “That’s easy for you to say, Professor Philp, you write every day. But for me, writing is hard. In my family we don’t speak English and I don’t read a lot of books, so I don’t know what regular English sounds like.”

Ah, young Jedi. You can borrow books from the library on campus, and you already possess all that you will need to write about the subjects that I will assign in this class--your imagination.

For example, if you are writing a persuasive essay, imagine that you are a prosecutor in a court room who makes assertions (generalizations) and provides evidence (supporting details) for a meticulous judge:

Prosecutor:  Mr. Philp is a thief.

Judge:  Do you have any evidence?

Prosecutor: Sir, we have the videotape from Thanksgiving 2008 of the accused stealing McNuggets from a McDonald’s in Aventura. The tape will show him stuffing the nuggets into his pockets while the cashier was not looking. When he was confronted by the police, even though bits of McNuggets were flying out of his mouth into the officer’s face, he denied (he looked quite hungry) that he had stolen anything.

All of the rules of evidence are presented: Who? What? Why? Where? How? and When? You need to do the same in your essays. A successful essay, presents a mixture of assertions (generalizations) and evidence (supporting details):

Geoffrey Philp is a liar and a thief. On Thanksgiving 2008, he was caught on videotape stealing Chicken McNuggets from a McDonald’s in Aventura. The tape shows him stuffing nuggets into his pockets and into his mouth. When he was caught by the police, Mr. Philp, whose eyes had the look of man who hadn’t eaten in three days, lied to the police and denied that he stole the McNuggets. No one believed him. Every time he spoke, bits of the McNuggets kept flying out of his mouth and into the arresting officer’s face.

Philp will be going to jail—he will not pass Go!—because the prosecutor has proven her case.

But how do you build your case for your trained reader—the judge? Fortunately, writing an essay, like any other skill, can be learned by anyone.

But before you begin writing your essay or building your case, you will need to ask yourself the third question, what do I know about this subject? You may even follow up with another question, do I know enough about this subject?

If you don’t have enough information, you’ll need to gather more evidence by conducting research, brainstorming, idea mapping—anything that will help you to generate as many ideas as you can about the topic.

Then, you will need to build your essay logically and coherently. In other words, you will need to decide how you will present your ideas. Will you appeal to the reader’s heart (pathos) or mind (logos) while appearing to be fair-minded (ethos)? Or perhaps a combination of all three?

Once you have done all that set aside about an hour or two to write the first draft of your essay which should have an introduction, body, and conclusion.


Begin with a hook—something that will catch the reader’s interest and will signal your general ideas about the subject and where the essay is heading:

On the surface, Geoffrey Philp may seem to be a mild-mannered English teacher, but he isn’t.

Give some background information about the subject so that the reader will understand the context of your assertions (generalizations). Help the reader to understand why you are making the assertions.

Mr. Philp, who works at Miami Dade College, etc.

Thesis Statement: Make three assertions that you will prove with concrete, specific evidence. Also be bold in your assertions. Don’t add qualifiers like “In my opinion,” “I think,” or “I believe.”

Mr. Philp is a liar, thief, and masticator.
Body Paragraphs.

Topic sentence. Make your assertions in a logical sequence following the plan of the thesis statement.

Geoffrey Philp is one of the most boldfaced liars in Miami.

Give the reader more background information (context) to set up the evidence:

Although he appears to be, etc

Present evidence that will answer: Who? What? Why? Where? When? and How?

Two years ago, Philp etc.

Offer a bit more of interpretation of the evidence and use transitions between the paragraphs.

As if that were not all, Philp is also…

Rinse and repeat for all subsequent body paragraphs.

Concluding paragraph.

Restate the thesis:

Although Philp etc

Sum up the assertions:

Philp blah, blah, blah

Leave the reader with a final thought:

Geoffrey Philp, if he is convicted of the crimes for which he is accused, will spend the rest of his life in jail and Miami will be a safer place.

You now have the framework for writing an essay. But you’ve only written the first draft. If you really want a good grade, re-read the essay and ask yourself, does this make any sense? E-mail the draft to one of your nine million Facebook friends and attach a note: “Does this make sense? Any suggestions?”

If your friend replies and you agree with her, incorporate her suggestions into the text and revise for “flow.” Expand, contract, or delete words or ideas that could confuse the reader. Make sure all those sentences shine--the pleasure principle for the reader. Your sentences should be varied to match the tone, and the word choice of active verbs, precise nouns, and sensory details, when appropriate, should help the reader to experience the emotions or ideas about which you are writing. Make it beautiful.

Then, comes the part that we all hate: editing. Check for proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar. And because excellence always demands some extra time effort and time, proofread once more. How many times did you think I proofread this? Probably a zillion times. And I’m still seeing some places that I could have made it better.

That’s it! You’ve done it!

You’re now ready to begin working as a cashier at McDonald’s or a prosecutor in Miami. Either way, good luck with your writing!

Yours truly,

Professor Geoffrey Philp

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Mrs. C said...

This is great--and so thorough. I do hope your students take it to heart and mind as they prep those essays for you in the coming weeks. I always start my class with an assignment to write 500 words on [some random and ostensibly boring topic]--no other advice, no elaboration. The next class, we read Paul Roberts' "How to Say Nothing in 500 Words--remarkably reader-friendly, even 50+ years on--then they go to revision. Such fun, really, and such good writerly advice!

May I link this for my students?

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Mrs. C.

Give thanks & Welcome.

I hope the students take it to heart and in the spirit that I wrote it.

Yes, please, link away!


Rethabile said...

I wanna go back to school. My teachers, who were great and encouraged me lovingly, never put it quite like this.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Rethabile,

Happy New Year!

I had some great teachers and this is the way that I repay them--by being the best teacher that I can be.