Who Says What Now? Templates and the Directive Approach to Normal Discourse

Kasey Cheydleur ’15 explores the argument for the directive approach using some tricks of the trade.


In our discussions of normal discourse and the accessibility and value of different writing styles, a controversial issue has been whether directive instruction limits a student’s creativity and personal voice, and where a Writing Associate should draw the line when offering their aid. On the one hand, some argue that non-directive tutoring is the better approach because it allows the student the freedom to grow and find their own way to write. Supporters of this idea believe this is a more effective strategy because it focuses on process and produces long-term results. On the other hand, however, others argue that directive tutoring can also produce long-term benefits without sacrificing the short-term. These supporters think that non-directive tutoring is too vague and leaves many writers out of the conversation because it relies on the writer learning the rules of normal discourse on their own, while a direct approach eliminates the mystery. In the words of Linda Shamoon and Deborah Burns, a few of the view’s main proponents, the Writing Center could be, “a site where directive tutoring provides a sheltered and protected time and space for practice that leads to the accumulation of important repertoires, the expression of new social identities, and the articulation of domain-appropriate rhetoric.” [1] According to this view, directive tutoring, rather than limiting freedoms, actually enhances them because it gives students the tools to engage in normal discourse. In sum, then, the issue is whether non-directive or directive tutoring is the best way to enable students’ ability to take part in the what Kenneth Burke describes as the “ongoing conversation” that is academic writing and discourse. And if directive tutoring is appropriate, what is helpful and what is limiting when learning the academic style?

Within this larger conversation, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein offer a unique way to give students access to the normal discourse. Taking a directive approach, in They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, Graff and Birkenstein provide templates designed to give students access to various conventional phrases and forms found in academic writing. Specifically, Graff and Birkenstein argue that the types of writing templates they offer provide a way for anyone to improve their writing, while also improving their critical thinking skills. As the authors themselves put it:

Though the immediate goal of this book is to help you become a better writer, at a deeper level it is to help you become a certain type of person: a critical, intellectual thinker who, instead of sitting passively on the sidelines, can participate in the debates and conversations of your world in an active and empowered way. [2]

The essence of Graff and Birkenstein’s argument is that the rules of discourse need to be made explicit, and in doing so a student can engage in academic discourse because they will know how the game is played. They will have the tools and phrases that mark them as a fellow contributor to the “ongoing conversation.”

Lisa Delpit supports Graff and Birkenstein by providing further evidence for the importance of explicit rules and instruction to students unfamiliar with the norms of academic discourse. She argues the best teaching approach is a mixture of skills and process based instruction, so that students of all backgrounds can engage in the dominant discourse. Similarly, Shamoon and Burns also look at a mixture of approaches and the value of making the implicit rules of discourse explicit. They use many examples to support their claims, one involving the author herself. In graduate school Deborah Burns had a professor who went through her paper and marked it up, showing her concrete examples of where she had failed to adhere to the normal discourse. This decisive action by the professor was not harmful, as minimalist tutoring would seem to suggest, but rather, “For Burns, and for others, when the director intervened, a number of thematic, stylistic, and rhetorical issues came together in a way that revealed and made accessible aspects of the discipline which had remained unexplained or out of reach.”[3] For Burns it was this direct approach that finally helped her with some of the errors she had been struggling with, and convinced her of the value of explicit instruction.

Yet some may challenge the view that this direct method is appropriate for students. Some argue that this method borders on plagiarism and is disingenuous to the writer’s voice. Despite Shamoon and Burns assertion that “Instead of appropriation, [the graduate professor’s intervention] made knowledge and achievement possible,” for many directive instruction still seems to borders the line of what is and is not acceptable. Graff and Birkenstein are particularly sensitive to this tension. They insist that their templates are not a form of plagiarism, but rather a collation of common words and phrases made accessible. They argue that they do not shape the writer’s ideas or give them what to say. Graff and Birkenstein themselves write, ”As for the belief that pre-established forms undermine creativity, we think it rests on a very limited idea of what creativity is all about. In our view, the above template and the others in this book will actually help your writing become more original and creative, not less.” In sum, then, their view is that by giving a student the outline of how to approach a topic, there is more creativity that goes into the ideas and assembling of the templates.

I both agree and disagree with Graff and Birkenstein and the general approach of direct tutoring. In my view, directive teaching and the types of templates that the authors recommend are useful when they are used to clear up the mystery around the rules and conventions of academic discourse, but they have their limits. For instance, these templates may help a novice writer who is struggling with how to approach essay writing and the normal discourse. However, I think Graff and Birkenstein underestimate how much a writer needs to know before using these templates. An advanced writer can use these effectively, but, generally, they do not need them. Choosing which template to use can be a matter of nuance, rather than simple correctness, and there seems to be little distinction in the book between the different options. Instead all of the templates are given equal weight under a category heading. For example, under the heading “Verbs for Introducing Summaries and Quotations”[4] the words “assert”, “emphasize”, and “suggest” are grouped together. They do have a similar general meaning, “to say something”, but they all carry very different connotations and cannot be used interchangeably. This is not to say this list is not still useful for students to find ways to introduce a quote, but it needs to be acknowledged that a certain familiarity with English and writing conventions are needed to be fully successful.

Overall, then, I believe that in addition to non-directive approaches, direct methods have their place and can also have long-term results-—an important point to make given the practical implications this can have for teachers and students. The direct approach gives concrete tools to work with, Graff and Birkenstein’s templates being an example of one of these tools. Though I concede that directive discourse, and Graff and Birkenstein’s templates, can overstep their bounds and do harm, I still maintain that they are important to the learning process and in making the academic discourse and community open to a wider variety of students. For example, these templates may help an ESL student or another novice writer focus on the structure of their essay and create an essay that follows the conventions needed. Although some may object that these templates create too generic of a paper, I would reply that, while the paper may sound formulaic, clarity and soundness in structure are also very important to how a paper is received. Formulaic does not necessarily mean bad, or that the ideas within the paper are unoriginal. Like most things, it seems that Graff and Birkenstein’s templates are best in moderation and should be used consciously and with consideration, just as the valuable practice of directive tutoring should be used carefully and deliberately. When used with awareness, these techniques let a new set of writers into the realm of academic discourse, and allow all of us to benefit from what these students bring to the ongoing conversation.

Reflection on the Writing Experience

If it was not already apparent, the above essay was written using the templates found in Graff and Birkenstein’s book, “They Say/ I Say.” I chose to use these templates because this was the second time that I have encountered this text and I was skeptical about the effectiveness of an almost cookie-cutter-like approach to essay writing. Now that I have used the system, I have rather mixed feelings.

Surprisingly, it was Graff and Birkenstein’s longer templates that I found most helpful. When they gave me all of the pieces at once I could see how they wanted them to go together and I could make my ideas fit in that space. However, when I tried to implement the shorter templates I found them butting up against my instincts as a writer. When I looked for ways to introduce or explain my quotes I found them awkward to manage and not containing enough information. I also struggled when looking for transitions and other linking words. The index is laid out in a very logical style, but it was still difficult to sort through. It was almost as if I had to translate my thoughts into their style and avoid using my own. I felt like my voice was getting lost, and, despite their assertions to the contrary, I felt it was much more difficult to be creative. I found it hard to just write and explore, instead, the process felt very formulaic. Though I did pay more attention to the structure of the essay, I may have lost many of the ideas I could have had along the way because I was so concerned with following the path that had been laid out for me. So while the templates alleviated some of my burden as a writer, they also added new challenges and difficulties.

This prescriptive method may be useful to what I assume is Graff and Birkenstein’s target audience, novice writers and those uncomfortable with academic discourse, but for me using the templates was often frustrating and confining. Now that I look back at the essay, however, I think it flows nicely and the templates do not stick out as awkwardly as I was afraid they would. In fact, I use many of the templates as a part of my personal style. I think it was just the sheer number of them that I used in this paper that made them feel overwhelming. In my peer group someone mentioned that some of the phrases sounded unsophisticated or “cookie-cutter,” but they also complimented me on how clear the paper flowed and was organized. If I had to choose one over the other, I would err on the side of better form over sophistication any day. So I suppose that means I am cautiously endorsing the templates for some writers, but I would advise using some restraint and careful judgment when choosing among them.

 

Works Cited

Delpit, Lisa. “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children.” Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. New York: The New Press, 1995. 21-47. Print.

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2012. Print.

Shamoon, Linda, and Deborah Burns. “A Critique of Pure Tutoring.” St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Eds. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 133-147. Print.

 

Kasey’s usage of the They Say/I Say template is highlighted below:

 

Who Says What Now?

Templates and the Directive Approach to Normal Discourse

 

In our recent discussions of normal discourse and the accessibility and value of different writing styles, a controversial issue has been whether directive instruction limits a student’s creativity and personal voice, and where a Writing Associate should draw the line when offering their aid. On the one hand, some argue that non-directive tutoring is the better approach because it allows the student the freedom to grow and find their own way to write. Supporters of this idea believe this is a more effective strategy because it focuses on process and produces long-term results. On the other hand, however, others argue that directive tutoring can also produce long-term benefits without sacrificing the short-term. These supporters think that non-directive tutoring is too vague and leaves many writers out of the conversation because it relies on the writer learning the rules of normal discourse on their own, while a direct approach eliminates the mystery. In the words of Linda Shamoon and Deborah Burns, a few of the view’s main proponents, the Writing Center could be, a site where directive tutoring provides a sheltered and protected time and space for practice that leads to the accumulation of important repertoires, the expression of new social identities, and the articulation of domain-appropriate rhetoric.” According to this view, directive tutoring, rather than limiting freedoms, actually enhances them because it gives students the tools to engage in normal discourse. In sum, then, the issue is whether non-directive or directive tutoring is the best way to enable students’ ability to take part in the what Kenneth Burke describes as the “ongoing conversation” that is academic writing and discourse. And if directive tutoring is appropriate, what is helpful and what is limiting when learning the academic style?

Within this larger conversation, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein offer a unique way to give students access to the normal discourse. Taking a directive approach, in They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, Graff and Birkenstein provide templates designed to give students access to various conventional phrases and forms found in academic writing. Specifically, Graff and Birkenstein argue that the types of writing templates they offer provide a way for anyone to improve their writing, while also improving their critical thinking skills. As the authors themselves put it:

Though the immediate goal of this book is to help you become a better writer, at a deeper level it is to help you become a certain type of person: a critical, intellectual thinker who, instead of sitting passively on the sidelines, can participate in the debates and conversations of your world in an active and empowered way.

The essence of Graff and Birkenstein’s argument is that the rules of discourse need to be made explicit, and in doing so a student can engage in academic discourse because they will know how the game is played. They will have the tools and phrases that mark them as a fellow contributor to the “ongoing conversation.”

Lisa Delpit supports Graff and Birkenstein by providing further evidence for the importance of explicit rules and instruction to students unfamiliar with the norms of academic discourse. She argues the best teaching approach is a mixture of skills and process based instruction, so that students of all backgrounds can engage in the dominant discourse. Similarly, Shamoon and Burns also look at a mixture of approaches and the value of making the implicit rules of discourse explicit. They use many examples to support their claims, one involving the author herself. In graduate school Deborah Burns had a professor who went through her paper and marked it up, showing her concrete examples of where she had failed to adhere to the normal discourse. This decisive action by the professor was not harmful, as minimalist tutoring would seem to suggest, but rather, For Burns, and for others, when the director intervened, a number of thematic, stylistic, and rhetorical issues came together in a way that revealed and made accessible aspects of the discipline which had remained unexplained or out of reach.” For Burns it was this direct approach that finally helped her with some of the errors she had been struggling with, and convinced her of the value of explicit instruction.

Yet some may challenge the view that this direct method is appropriate for students. Some argue that this method borders on plagiarism and is disingenuous to the writer’s voice. Despite Shamoon and Burns assertion that “Instead of appropriation, [the graduate professor’s intervention] made knowledge and achievement possible,” for many directive instruction still seems to borders the line of what is and is not acceptable. Graff and Birkenstein are particularly sensitive to this tension. They insist that their templates are not a form of plagiarism, but rather a collation of common words and phrases made accessible. They argue that they do not shape the writer’s ideas or give them what to say. Graff and Birkenstein themselves write, “As for the belief that pre-established forms undermine creativity, we think it rests on a very limited idea of what creativity is all about. In our view, the above template and the others in this book will actually help your writing become more original and creative, not less.” In sum, then, their view is that by giving a student the outline of how to approach a topic, there is more creativity that goes into the ideas and assembling of the templates.

            I both agree and disagree with Graff and Birkenstein and the general approach of direct tutoring. In my view, directive teaching and the types of templates that the authors recommend are useful when they are used to clear up the mystery around the rules and conventions of academic discourse, but they have their limits. For instance, these templates may help a novice writer who is struggling with how to approach essay writing and the normal discourse. However, I think Graff and Birkenstein underestimate how much a writer needs to know before using these templates. An advanced writer can use these effectively, but, generally, they do not need them. Choosing which template to use can be a matter of nuance, rather than simple correctness, and there seems to be little distinction in the book between the different options. Instead all of the templates are given equal weight under a category heading. For example, under the heading “Verbs for Introducing Summaries and Quotations” the words “assert,” “emphasize,” and “suggest,” are grouped together. They do have a similar general meaning, “to say something”, but they all carry very different connotations and cannot be used interchangeably. This is not to say this list is not still useful for students to find ways to introduce a quote, but it needs to be acknowledged that a certain familiarity with English and writing conventions are needed to be fully successful.

Overall, then, I believe that in addition to non-directive approaches, direct methods have their place and can also have long-term results-—an important point to make given the practical implications this can have for teachers and students. The direct approach gives concrete tools to work with, Graff and Birkenstein’s templates being an example of one of these tools. Though I concede that directive discourse, and Graff and Birkenstein’s templates, can overstep their bounds and do harm, I still maintain that they are important to the learning process and in making the academic discourse and community open to a wider variety of students. For example, these templates may help an ESL student or another novice writer focus on the structure of their essay and create an essay that follows the conventions needed. Although some may object that these templates create too generic of a paper, I would reply that, while the paper may sound formulaic, clarity and soundness in structure are also very important to how a paper is received. Formulaic does not necessarily mean bad, or that the ideas within the paper are unoriginal. Like most things, it seems that Graff and Birkenstein’s templates are best in moderation and should be used consciously and with consideration, just as the valuable practice of directive tutoring should be used carefully and deliberately. When used with awareness, these techniques let a new set of writers into the realm of academic discourse, and allow all of us to benefit from what these students bring to the ongoing conversation.

 

[1] Shamoon and Burns, p. 145

[2] Graff and Birkenstein, p. 13

[3] Shamooon and Burns, p.137

[4] Graff and Birkenstein p. 39

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s