I started class yesterday as I often do: I turned off the overhead lights to draw attention to the Promethean board, and I turned on the lamp up front for some house light.

But the lamp didn’t work. Not being particularly handy, I asked the class for advice. “Maybe it’s not plugged in.” “Maybe the bulb’s burned out.” “The lamp might be broken.” I found a plug in the socket, and when we exchanged bulbs with a working lamp, the front lamp still didn’t work. Faced with having to inspect the lamp itself, I checked the plug again. The plug in the socket belonged to the electric pencil sharpener. I plugged in the lamp, and there was light.

My class and I were engaged in the scientific method and the bright narrative of induction. Induction works in essay writing, too. I showed the class how a thesis that evolves as it accounts for more evidence is more interesting than a static thesis stated at an essay’s outset. Consider the outlines of two papers about our lamp issue:

The Evolving Thesis Version

  • Problem and initial thesis: The lamp isn’t working. It seems as if the lamp is unplugged or the bulb is burned out.
  • Evidence: I checked the plug, and it appears to be attached to the electrical outlet.
  • Amended thesis: The bulb must be burned out after all.
  • Evidence: I swapped the old bulb for one I know works, and the lamp still didn’t work.
  • Amended thesis: Is the lamp broken?
  • Evidence: I don’t fix lamps. I check the plug again to make sure. I was wrong earlier: the electric pencil sharpener is plugged in, but the lamp isn’t.
  • Amended thesis: The lamp isn’t working because it’s unplugged.

The Five-Paragraph Essay Version

  • Problem and thesis: The lamp isn’t working. It’s not plugged in.
  • Body paragraph(s): The lamp isn’t working. The lamp is electric. Electric lamps don’t work unless they’re plugged in. The lamp isn’t plugged in. When I plug it in, the lamp works.
  • Conclusion: Because it’s an electrical appliance and isn’t plugged in, the lamp isn’t working.

In their book Writing Analytically, David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen call the five-paragraph essay “a meat grinder that can turn any content into sausage” (113). By putting a static thesis in its first paragraph, this high school essay format “reduces the remainder of the essay to redundancy” (114). The structure conceals the writer’s mind, which is the most interesting thing about essays from Montaigne forward. Peter Elbow makes the same point in contraposition: “the most common reason weak essays don’t hang together is that the writing is all statement, all consonance, all answer” (296).

My friend David Arbogast, an administrator and an English teacher with far more experience than I have, likes to say that all good writing contains a narrative element. People do like stories, but his point is that people like to step into the shoes of an inquiring mind at work. This need for engagement is why Thomas Newkirk finds the five paragraph essay to be a dead genre that many English teachers refuse to bury:

If participation in the mental activity of the writer compels us to read on, it is clear that the thesis-oriented paper may work against this participation because the form is so front-loaded. Readers are given too much, too early. (49)

An unvarying thesis at an essay’s outset with a straightjacket means of proving it trains an essay’s readers not to think. After all, the five-paragraph essay model implies that learning is dyadic, objective, and static. By contrast, an essay with an evolving thesis, like the inductive scientific method, is triadic. One can apply triadic semiotics to the scientific method: the sign is some strange phenomena or data, the interpretant is the scientist’s response (“Hm, that’s funny”), and the object or referent is a new theory that accounts for the new phenomena. On the other hand, to lead with the object, to support the object with the sign, and to eliminate the interpretant — three essential steps in the five-paragraph essay — make for dull writing and (worse) an unthinking generation of underdeveloped writers.

It hurts to write only if it hurts to think.

(I wrote a model essay with an expanded thesis for our current assignment, a comparison research paper. Here’s the link.)

°°°°

The celebration of a new Episcopal rector is broken into four parts: the institution, the liturgy of the Word, the induction, and the eucharist. During the induction, members of the congregation bring gifts and state what the gifts signify. (This is triadic, too. Consider this line from the Book of Common Prayer: “Bruce [the interpretant], use this oil [the sign], and be among us as a healer and a reconciler [the referent].” Imagine the oil and the concept of healing without a healer.)

(In fact, the Trinity is triadic: the Son’s the sign that points to the Father (the referent), and the Holy Spirit’s the interpretant.)

The prayer book prescribes some of the gifts (the oil, the Bible, the stole, for instance), but the presentations may be “adapted as appropriate to the nature of the new ministry.”

Rev. Bruce Cheney received several gifts not in the prayer book’s list, and the one that stood out to me was the work bucket, including a hammer, an air filter face mask, and some caulk. Bruce repairs buildings and, by God’s grace, men’s lives.

Bruce was installed a month ago at St. Paul’s in downtown Newport News. Here he is after the service with Victoria and Bethany.

Works Cited

The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: According Tho the Use of the Episcopal Church. Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David. Seabury Press, 1979.

Elbow, Peter. “The Shifting Relationship Between Speech and Writing.” College Composition and Communication, 35(3), October 1985, pp. 283 – 303.

Newkirk, Thomas. The School Essay Manifesto: Reclaiming the Essay for Students and Teachers. Shoreham, VT, Discover Writing Press, 2005.

Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. Writing Analytically. 2nd ed., Stamford, CT, Wadsworth Publishing, 1999.

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