Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | September 13, 2013

Some Links About Teaching: the Five-Paragraph Essay, Adjuncts, etc.

For a lazy Friday afternoon:

1. The eight-legged essay and the five-paragraph essay: in Imperial China, from at least the Tang period until near the end of dynastic rule at the beginning of the Twentieth Century — a period of over a thousand years — employment and advancement within the imperial bureaucracy was was to a greater or lesser extent determined by the imperial examinations, a multi-stage series of exams focusing on Confucian philosophy and writing.[1] Thousands of students sat for the exams in each exam cycle, and a test-taker’s score and rank in the examinations could determine the trajectory of his career. As important as the SAT, ACT, LSAT, GRE, and other standardized exams are today for contemporary American students, the imperial examinations were more important for aspiring civil servants in imperial China. Common participation in the examinations was central to the self-identity and self-image of the class of gentry scholar-officials who ran the Empire.

As we would expect, a standardized test evolved standardized answer formats, and in Imperial China this took the form of the eight-legged essay. The eight-legged essay was a formulaic, rigid, and artificial style of writing, and thousands of Chinese students across dozens of generations spent years perfecting it.

I thought about all of this when I read this post at Duck of Minerva, wherein it is written:

I’d heard of the five-paragraph essay before, but I’d never had to write one (or if I did I never bothered to learn the specific rhythm, since it looks like the topoi I learned when I was a high school foreign extempore). This summer, students asked whether their essays should be in five-paragraph formats. Apparently, American high schools have evolved their own version of the eight-legged essay. Tim Burke has suggestions on how to get students beyond the format…

The five-paragraph essay is the modern American counterpart to the eight-legged essay of Chinese history. I am of two minds about the five-paragraph essay. On the one hand, I can see how it could, in the right hands, be a useful pedagogical tool, especially for younger students, helping them learn about organization in writing. On the other hand, it’s just so damned formulaic. Moreover (and this is the real problem), it seems that some students continue to adhere slavishly to the formula, even in situations when it is not warranted or useful, often well into college. At some point, the training wheel should come off the bike.

Perhaps some students will struggle even to produce a readable paper within the confines of the five-paragraph essay, and for them the five-paragraph essay will remain a goal to be reached. But I truly believe that many other students, especially by the time they graduate high school, should be capable of much more. For them, the five-paragraph essay is a crutch that they may have needed at one time but which is now restricting their freedom of movement and causing (writing) muscles to atrophy.

If mocking and bashing the five paragraph essay is wrong, then I don’t think I want to be right.

Tim Burke (Chair of the History Department, Swarthmore) has some thoughts on how to get college students to go beyond the five-paragraph essay:

The most important fundamental issue I see again and again is a paper which is largely descriptive rather than analytical, which proves that a student has “done the homework” but not taken ownership of the material and crafted an argument of their own. Sometimes I see an argument in the first paragraph or in the last paragraph (the latter often appearing to be a last-minute discovery) that is cut off from the rest of the essay, unexplored or unsupported. I often comment that papers lack what I call “flow” a sense that they are moving relentlessly and naturally from one assertion to the next, building towards some goal or overall point. I often suggest some pre-built analytic structures that go beyond the usual five-paragraph essay that students are taught to write in K-12 schooling. These are hooks, conceptual heuristics that I hope can help a student find an argument, a structure, “flow” to the analysis.

Prof. Burke then lists some example structures that he uses to ween students off the five-paragraph essay (e.g., “simple compare and contrast,” “chronological,” and “set-em-up, knock-em-down”). Please do read in full.

Kevin Drum has some thoughts on the five-paragraph essay; see, for example, this post: “although I have no problem with mechanical aids to guide young minds, my real problem with the five paragraph format is that it seems so limited: even on its own terms it only applies to a very specific kind of writing. The whole format is geared toward making a persuasive case, and how often does that come up in real life? Writing a company newsletter? Nope. Technical writing? Nope. A college term paper? Nope. What you did on your summer vacation? Nope. Penning a postcard? Reviewing a book? Writing a status report for your boss? Nope, nope, nope.” And this post. And this most excellent post:

Texas says they have excellent public schools but they are actually quite bad. They are bad because they have a high dropout rate. They are also bad because their test scores are low. And they are bad because they teach students to write five paragraph essays.

Texas schools have a high dropout rate. They say their dropout rate is low, but they are lying. I blogged about this back in August…. Texas schools have a high dropout rate.

Texas schools have low test scores. Their test scores seem high, but this New York Times story shows that they are actually very low. A passing grade on the Texas test is equal to the fifth percentile on a national test. That means you can pass even if you are in the bottom ten percent of students. Texas schools have low test scores.

Texas schools are bad because they teach students to write five paragraph essays. I had never heard of five paragraph essays until today, when Jeanne d’Arc told me about them. I am writing a five paragraph essay right now! Texas schools are bad because they teach students to write five paragraph essays.

In conclusion, Texas schools are bad. They have lots of dropouts, low test scores, and five paragraph essays. Texas schools are bad.

2. From Inside Higher Ed, “19 Lessons About Teaching” by Andrew Joseph Pegoda (grad student in History, University of Houston). I liked this excerpt:

Students don’t realize that college is when they reach that point when it finally really is harder and different – where the grades finally really do matter. Students, by virtue of having been in the public school system 13 or more years, have had their brains rewired where they physiologically cannot critically think about or un-learn everything they learned incorrectly without a great deal of time and effort. When teaching, we have to allow for their past educational experiences (or lack of experiences). The best way to break this barrier and to get them to actually learn is by using very different methods to deliver and assess course material. Thought-provoking movies, songs, purposely very opinionated statements, and comments critiquing things (such as textbooks or schools) they have taken for granted as always being true and “the way it is” help begin the process where students can think freely and creatively.

Do read the whole thing.

Ancient history

3. PM’s Question Time: “Thoughts on Teaching Introduction to International Relations”: an excerpt:

My first intuition was that students knew little and cared less about the past (defined for my purposes as the world before the end of the Cold War). I’ll talk later about why I feel that political scientists should not see part of their mission as inciting a love of the past as such; right now, I only want to assess how well this intuition described reality.

The answer? It described reality almost perfectly. I have never had a student wish that we had spent more time talking about the Cold War. The Soviet Union is as remote as the Achaemenid Empire to today’s undergrads (and I teach at a top-25 institution, so I’m pretty sure that this generalizes very well). I should note, by the way, that this breaks my heart; about twice a week I wish that I could teach a course in the style I imagine that IR was taught in during the 1970s, where we’d all get together, talk about Bismarck and Thucydides, and then, presumably, repair to the sitting room for brandy and cigars.

I want to forestall all misunderstandings: I don’t like this state of affairs and I wish that this weren’t so. I wish my students could reliably distinguish Gorbachev from Brezhnev, not to mention Walesa from Jaruzelski or Honecker from Hoxha. But they can’t. Nor, in some sense, should they be expected to. Not only do students infamously never get beyond World War II in their high school history classes (which are usually hideously taught, anyway), but when I was an undergrad and high school student (the latter only five years past the fall of the USSR!) I didn’t much care about American foreign policy before Pearl Harbor.

There’s a Santayana quote running through my head right now, and a disquiet hovering over my thoughts as I contemplate of the future of the res publica, but I’m sure it will pass.[2]

4. Thoreau on what type of college math would most benefit non-STEM students: “Honestly, I don’t care if she can pass college algebra. She’s a journalism major. What I care very deeply about, though, is whether this newspaper reporter has taken and passed a practical statistics course. That’s something that I really, really care about. And you should care too. The article doesn’t say which math class was tripping up this specific person, but it does say that algebra was the stumbling block for a lot of people.”

5. Jason Brennan at Bleeding Heart Libertarians on a study asking whether adjuncts or tenure-track professors make better teachers at the introductory level:

One study claims that tenure-track professors tend to be worse teachers (at the introductory level) than adjuncts or other non-tenure-track instructors. … The main argument: Students taught by non-TT professors are more likely to choose to take a second class in that field, and these students end up doing better in those other classes than students who took introductory courses with TT-professors.

It’s worth thinking about whether more universities should move toward an Australian National University model, in which there are separate research and teaching faculty.

EDIT: Aeon Skoble has a good point: This is study is just looking at one R1 RU/VH institution. It would be interesting to see whether you’d get similar results at other kinds of institutions. I’d guess that the TT professors at a typical state liberal arts college are better than the adjuncts.

I suspect that the question may be moot, because (a) on the one hand, parents will not love the idea of paying five figures a year for their freshmen and sophomore children to be taught by adjuncts, and (b) on the other hand, college administrations have been steadily increasing the ratio of adjuncts to tenure-track faculty across the board for at least the past decade.[3]

In other words, considerations besides teaching ability will dictate the course of events in this area.

Image Credit: Map of NATO and Warsaw Pact alliances during the Cold War. Map by “San Jose,” October 2006, and used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

[1] The importance of the examination system varied a little with time — for example, the examinations played a bigger role under the Song Dynasty or the Ming Dynasty than they did under the Tang Dynasty, and the Mongols suspended the examinations for several decades after they conquered China. And there were always exceptions to the rule and a few people who entered the civil service without taking the exams — the sons of some high officials, for example. None of this negates the fact that participation an examination system built around the Confucian canon was central to the identity of the literati class for much of Chinese history.
[2] Also, what was that bit about invading Arab countries without knowing much about them?
[3] Whether that is a good thing for the adjuncts is a separate matter; see item #5 of this post and item #4 of this post for more on that discussion.



  1. […] Some Links About Teaching: the Five-Paragraph Essay, Adjuncts, etc. For a lazy Friday afternoon: 1. The eight-legged essay and the five-paragraph essay: in Imperial China, from at least the Tang period until near the end of dynastic rule at the beginning of the Twentieth Century — a period of over a thousand years — employment and advancement within the imperial bur … Fri, 13 Sep 2013 16:01:00 CDT more info… […]

  2. Ah yes, the Beast with Five Paragraphs. Had students ask me about that. I would try to explain that their goal was to advance their thesis, and whatever form would accomplish that was good. To the ones who gave me a blank stare after I said that, I would add, “yes, the 5-paragraph theme is fine.”

    There are some remarkably inarticulate people out there.

  3. Thanks for posting my article! 🙂

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