Most teachers have encountered the paradox that students are ferocious when it comes to having opinions but less confident when trying to express them as written arguments. Many of them turn to the five-paragraph formula, stringing together a series of examples. What other options do they know that they have? To explore this topic, I studied a group of sample essays from the following 2003 argument question:
The Prompt: Free-Response Question 1, 2003 AP English Language and Composition Examination
In his 1998 book Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, Neal Gabler wrote the following:
One does not necessarily have to cluck in disapproval to admit that entertainment is all the things its detractors say it is: fun, effortless, sensational, mindless, formulaic, predictable, and subversive. In fact, one might argue that those are the very reasons so many people love it.
At the same time, it is not hard to see why cultural aristocrats in the nineteenth century and intellectuals in the twentieth hated entertainment and why they predicted, as one typical nineteenth century critic railed, that its eventual effect would be “to overturn all morality, to poison the springs of domestic happiness, to dissolve the ties of our social order, and to involve our country in ruin.”
Write a thoughtful and carefully constructed essay in which you use specific evidence to defend, challenge, or qualify the assertion that entertainment has the capacity to “ruin” society.
I chose samples that received a score of 8, which, according to the scoring guide, “recognize the complexity of the claim that entertainment has the capacity to ‘ruin’ society and successfully establish and support their own position by using appropriate evidence to develop their argument.” The “8” papers don’t have the sophistication or fluency of the “9” papers, but they are excellent models of argument.*
The One-Point Essay
Accumulation of evidence is by far the most common approach, a kind of reverse induction: the writer agrees or disagrees and cites examples to support that categorical position. It’s typical for a student to write “Gabler’s theory... has been proven true by historical falls of empires, literature, and modern-day society.” What follows are three rather lengthy paragraphs, each developed with an example on one of the specified topics: the fall of Rome, Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and computer video games: a four-page essay with five paragraphs.
Another student challenges Gabler with this thesis: “...in most instances of ‘risky’ books, movies, and plays, entertainment... has something to offer beyond the cover that most people are not willing to look for.” The writer then develops an essay with a paragraph about Broadway plays, specifically The Full Monty; another on books, specifically Huck Finn; and another on movies, with reference to John Wayne westerns, Psycho, and A Beautiful Mind. Perhaps somewhat more subtle than the previous response, this one is also a five-paragraph essay driven by examples.
Of course we tell students to support their arguments with examples, emphasizing that the most effective essays are concrete and specific, developed with relevant details. But the responses that follow this pattern are essentially one-point essays – the same point, “I agree or I don’t,” supported by three different examples or types of examples. I often tell my students that I think this kind of essay is the verbal equivalent of raising one’s voice: with each example, the volume goes up, yet the same point is repeated. Given the scores, however, it’s clear that this approach can work well. It’s a safe one, though the essays lack nuance.
Form and Substance
I noted three other patterns as I studied this pool of samples, though none as prevalent as the example-driven form: (Re)Definition, Consequence, and Yes... But... In each of these approaches, the writers subordinate their supporting examples to subassertions or claims. The pattern then becomes agree/disagree, discuss a series of issues related to the stated claim, and support with examples or further explanation. It’s worth noting that though some of these are also five-paragraph essays, they are less one-dimensional because the arguments are more layered.
The point that struck me as I read these essays (all receiving the same score) is that the accumulation-of-evidence approach is not wholly ineffective. It’s a clear method of organization, but it locks the writer into a static argument because the structural template seems to drive the thinking. The writers do “establish and support their own position by using appropriate evidence,” often with considerable fluency, but the arguments are less developed than simply asserted, and then hammered away at. In the other three patterns, I found students “questioning the question,” as the argument developed more of an organic life of its own that reflected several levels of critical analysis.
Most of the students assume that entertainment is a synonym for television and movies, but some recognize the importance of defining the term precisely, using that process to structure the essay. One such student asserts: “Though often controversial and viewed as ‘mindless,’ entertainment positively contributes to society and enriches rather than ruins our society.” Neither assuming that we equate entertainment with violent films and mindless television nor accepting the binary opposition of entertainment and reality, he structures his essay by examining alternative definitions of entertainment. He first discusses entertainment as “an especially potent educational tool due to its ability to combine fun and learning” and includes (without relying on) examples such as Sesame Street, and educational programs that dramatize historical events or classic literature such as Hamlet or Great Expectations. Secondly, the student expands the definition of entertainment as a means to “express and communicate ideas and information... [in order to] vastly increase and encourage cultural sensitivity and diversity.” In a lengthy paragraph, he discusses music and even plotlines that cross cultural and geographical boundaries. The essay has only two developmental paragraphs, yet each includes several ideas discussed with considerable complexity.
Some students choose to agree or disagree in terms of consequences, again subordinating examples to larger subissues. The prompt itself, with its reference to “eventual effect,” suggests this approach; often these essays look beyond mere assertion that Gabler’s statement is or is not true, focusing instead on defining the consequences of entertainment on society. One student considers entertainment as a cause that has certain negative effects: children watching television until they “forget what it requires to imagine,” young women modeling themselves after film and television stars, young men seeing violence as the only answer to conflict, and an obesity epidemic plaguing all of society. There are some concrete examples in this response, but the writer argues persuasively by formulating and explaining four issues. In the paragraph on young women, for example, the student examines the consequences of body images that require plastic surgery and harmful diets and the glorification of beauty over brains: “Since entertainment shapes society, females idolize those portrayed in entertainment and find themselves lacking in beauty. High school girls starve themselves, quest for plastic surgery... [and prefer] a superficial image of a model [to that of] a woman scientist.” The paragraph is concrete because of the specific details explaining the consequences the writer is exploring, yet it is not structured around a series of examples.
Perhaps the most nuanced of the approaches, the “yes... but... ” technique addresses the counterargument as a way to craft an argument. In this way, the writer redefines the terms and explains points, using examples more to illustrate than to carry the argument. One student asserts, “It is important that people are able to separate entertainment from real life, spending... time watching TV, but being able to recognize its limitations.” Then she discusses ways in which people, especially adolescents, model themselves after pop stars, “fail[ing] to differentiate between what is real and what is not,” before she makes the point that if people can learn to see the difference, then they can take advantage of television and movies that are uplifting or simply relaxing. The writer concludes by emphasizing the importance of educating today’s youth on the “limitations and flaws” of entertainment so the next generation can understand it as a way “to help our society rather than hurt it.” Thus, she has used the “yes... but... ” approach first to support and then to challenge the Gabler claim, by exploring both sides to arrive at a conclusion or propose a solution.
Continuing the Conversation
It is worth noting that I did not find any responses (in the 8s or the 9s) that presented an argument through narrative. I recall a few outstanding examples from previous years (a memorable one on the James Baldwin quote in 1995 about language as identity), but in this pool of samples I found narrative only when a student related a personal experience as part of the introduction or a developmental paragraph. Perhaps if students read such essays as George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” W. E. B. DuBois’s “Of the Passing of the First-Born,” or Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” less as memoir and more as argument, (though argument crafted through indirection), they might see more possibilities for structuring their own work.
Granted, the pool of essays I examined was relatively small, and the categories I have suggested are by no means the universe of possibilities. Nonetheless, I hope this beginning work will encourage others to continue the conversation. These samples offer valuable information about what students know and are comfortable doing with argument. We see that most rely on examples to structure their essays in a linear mode that makes the same point with several different examples: the examples become the argument. Other organizational structures suggest more complex thinking, as the writers break their main assertion or thesis into several subclaims that usually involve specific examples as part of a discussion. These other structures also are more likely to acknowledge, possibly even refute, a counterargument. (The counterargument is likely to have a stronger presence in student writing after the 2004 question that directed students to address it.)
Yet it seems to me that the process I went through might be most valuable as a model for students themselves to discover how an argument can develop an organic life of its own and a form to go with it. Some of the categories I have described can be found in various textbooks along with other possibilities. The point is not to hand students a list of “types” of argument but to assist them in understanding how different approaches work. Students might use a pool of sample AP essays to go through a process similar to mine as they discern patterns of thought in written arguments. Or they might write to a sample AP prompt, exchange essays, and describe one another’s arguments. As a class, then, the discussion could focus on similarities and differences in the ways students handled the question as they developed their own arguments. Are there predictable patterns? Is one approach more appropriate to the question than another? How might the possibilities seen in their classmates’ work influence revisions of their own essays? Such discussions can surely lead students to take control of their own writing processes and, ultimately, write (for the AP Exam as well as in other contexts) more thoughtful and effective arguments.
*The samples were training papers used at the 2003 Reading and provided by ETS.