On the Importance of Teaching Edge in Writing

The Sisyphean task of teaching a class of students how to write interesting argumentative essays has begun again in earnest, with the first essay of the year assigned to my AP Language students. The topic I’ve chosen(the role of media violence in actual violence) certainly isn’t groundbreaking, as some told me they’ve already written it before, but I tried to dress it up a bit with an interesting quote from Professor Todd Gitlin. Here’s part of the prompt:

The campaigners believe they know what screen violence does: it invites imitation in the real world. But brutality plays on-screen virtually everywhere on earth without generating epidemics of copy-cat carnage. Demonic Hollywood is a handy issue for politicians who prefer to avoid palpable social failure: poverty, inequality, guns. To blame human wickedness on images is the moralistic recourse of a society that is unwilling to condemn trash on aesthetic grounds.

Despite his interesting diction and the fact that he raises issues like “palpable social failure,” most of my students seemed to have glossed over the presence of poor Professor Gitlin and to have leapt into the standard tropes of the role of media, fairly broad generalizations about human nature and violence in video games, often not far removed from arguing that “on one hand” media may cause some to act violently, but not all people.

You’ll hear teachers the world over lamenting the banality of the five paragraph essay, but it’s not the common number of paragraphs that makes grading these essay so challenging, but the tendency of many students to write such non-controverisial observations about the topic they’ve been assigned. Instead of tackling the powerful critique Gitlin levels at the moralists who ignore a collapsing society to blame Grand Theft Auto, most of my students retreated into pieces that ignored that  call to action.

The difficulty of grading the papers is not editing the grammar or suggesting structural fixes, but the challenge of reading so many papers that say the same thing. So much conventional wisdom wrapped up in three body paragraphs would be hard for anyone to read.

It’s all the more surprising because my students are so willing in class to express unconventional and surprising views. Discussing Wallace Stegner’s Wilderness Letter last week elicited some fascinating insights about our culture’s obsession with collecting images rather than experiences, including a heated debate about whether or not we’d preserve wilderness that isn’t as “Instagrammable” as a mountain. Discussing Into the Wild, we had an excellent debate, complete with positions that might have shocked parents, about the obligations young people have to notify their parents before heading off to a great Alaskan adventure. These are bright, interesting kids—and the challenge is to get them to express that in writing, even in a lame essay assigned during a beautiful autumn of their junior year.

Our kids need to be reminded, early and often, that to effectively write an argument is to stake out new ground. To challenge the reader and even threaten her worldview. Tomorrow, when I tell my students (in the nicest possible way) that their papers bored me, I suspect most will,at least privately, acknowledge that they bored themselves writing them. It may take just a few more moments to stake out a position that’s not right in the center of a topic or to expertly craft a single phrase or sentence in a way no reader could forget, but that’s what teaching writing demands.

Essay one has been turned in. The real struggle begins now.