Beyond the five paragraph essay

This is a post originally from T Burke at Swarthmore. I found the link via

Beyond the
Five-Paragraph Essay

When I hand back
analytic essays, I try to leave room to do a collective post-mortem and talk
about common problems or challenges that appeared in a number of essays. I think
it helps a lot to know that the comment you got is a comment that other people
got, and also to know how some people dealt more successfully with the same
issue. All anonymous, of course, and following my Paula-like nature, nothing
especially brutal in terms of the actual grades dispensed.

I usually base
my comments on some scrawled meta-notes I keep as I work through each batch
of essays. Sometimes there are unique problems that arise in relation to a particular
essay question, which is sometimes a consequence of my having given enough rope
for certain students to hang themselves in the phrasing of the question. Often
there are problems I’ve seen before and commented upon.

1) Some
of these perennial comments concern smaller but important stylistic errors and
misfires, such as:

Choice of
, which can be difficult in history papers if the student is writing
about contemporary texts as well as past events.

The only thing I strongly discourage is the use of the “royal we”,
though there are ways to make it work rhetorically if used with care. The
other thing I mark is switching randomly or rapidly between point-of-view.

Endless unbroken

Weirdly arbitrary

misuse of commas and semicolons

that I label “awk” (awkward) or “ugh” (ugh)
, where
there’s just something really aggravatingly roundabout if not absolutely
grammatically forbidden in the structure of the sentence or where the sentence
or phrase is plain-old butt-ugly.

, e.g., wildly overwritten or florid. The template I have in
mind here is an actual paper I graded some years ago that began, in apparent
seriousness, “Verily, the colonial state in Africa indeed formulated
a versilimitude of societal establishments…”

, the opposite of purple prose, with every sentence a completely
unadorned subject-verb-object monotone. The composite effect is like reading
a telegraph message. “Africa was ruled by Britain, France and Portugal.
They constructed colonial states. Most colonial governments were based on
indirect rule. Indirect rule was based on Africans having their own customary
rules and rulers. Colonial authorities controlled customary rules and rulers.
There were many conflicts over these rules. Indirect rule was an unjust system.” And so on.

over the difference between different sources or materials.
On a recent
assignment, for example, some writers ended up comparing a contemporary scholar’s
work with a primary source from the 1920s and acted as if the two sources
were contemporaneous with each other and written for more or less the same

purely “structural”, use of evidence or supporting material
where an essay has the feel of having been written with “blank spots” for evidence which the student then fills by more or less randomly pulling
out quotes from a text.

: an essay that indiscriminately throws every scrap of potentially
relevant material and information at a problem, organized serially as it occurs
to a student during the writing process. This is especially bad at shorter
lengths, where making good decisions about what to include and exclude is

Words and
phrases that implicitly or explicitly assert mastery of the entire corpus
of material related to the assignment
, often through language that compares
a source text to all other source texts of the class X from which the text
comes. Every once in a while, I get an undergraduate who has some justifiable
reason to assert this sort of authority, but most of the time, it is a mistake,
though often an unconscious one.

Bad introduction
that doesn’t do any sort of useful job stylistically or structurally
A writer can have an introduction that doesn’t do any structural work
but is stylistically compelling, or a writer can have a plain-Jane intro that
gets the structure set, but having neither is a problem.

Bad or nonexistent
paragraph transitions
. At its worst, this makes me feel like I’m
reading the private confessions of a schizophrenic.

2) 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, a “flow” to the analysis. Here’s some of the structures I often suggest for history
papers written in response to a professor's prompt or question:

Simple compare
and contrast
. This is often the next step up from the plain five-paragraph
essay. I sometimes call it the this-and-that paper. The essay can be written
around a block comparison, where the two (or more) things to be compared are
discussed separately in longer multi-paragraph sections, or on a point-by-point
basis, alternating each paragraph. The key here that makes this structure
rise above the purely pedestrian is the conclusion. A compare-and-contrast
paper that concludes with an unresolved or rhetorical question about the meaning
of the comparison is banal and descriptive, but a paper that concludes with
an emphatic resolution of the comparison or contrast can be excellent.

Close reading.
An essay built around a very tight interpretation of a single word, phrase,
metaphor or other linguistic component of a source or scholarly account, or
focus on a tight comparison of several related passages. The implicit hope
here is that the writer will find a potent enough metaphor or passage to hang
a larger argument on if they pay close attention to the language of their
sources or material.

A structure that is more precisely fitted to historical writing, where it
traces the development of a theme or issue over time. This is also very simple,
and often produces a mediocre paper that is purely descriptive and non-analytical,
but if it is done well, can be very sophisticated. The key to doing this paper
well is picking a theme or issue where tracing its development over time is
itself a potent or pointed analytic choice, where pursues a chronological
dimension to an issue repudiates some other way of understanding it. (The
reverse, by the way, works equally well, namely, taking an issue that is commonly
understood as changing considerably over time and arguing that it actually
is quite static.)

A paper built around a full-scale attack on the source material or even the
assumptions of the essay question. The key to doing well here is tight discipline
and focus, remembering that this is for “argument’s sake”—but
also making sure that the criticism on offer isn’t arbitrary, a wildly
inconsistent grab-bag of fault-finding or a mouth-frothing disproportionate
polemic. The best essays under this heading will identify some deep axiom
or assumption made by the source material and ask, “But what if this
is not the case?” and go from there. Incidentally, I tell students that
just thinking about a contrarian essay is a good way to clarify the argument
in any essay—if you aren’t offering an analysis that is potentially
arguable, that you can think of ways to attack or counter, you don’t
have a good argument.

Thematic. Hard to describe: this is a catch-all term for an essay that isolates a single
theme or issue in response to the professor’s initial prompt, and focuses
exclusively on it. On a recent assignment, for example, I had one very good
paper that took a general prompt about development policies in colonial Africa
and zoomed in very tightly on agriculture and gender. The good thematic writer
just needs to have enough faith in the heuristic they’re using to isolate
a single issue or problem—a thematic essay goes wrong when the theme
is very badly chosen or when the writer loses confidence and switches halfway
through to something else.

When it’s done right, this is just about my favorite
kind of short analytic essay, and it is one of the structures well worth learning
for its general utility outside of the college environment. In this structure,
the writer explores some simplistic or banal assumption or argument for the
first part of the paper, carefully bracketed off as a sort of “Let’s
suppose that X is true”, where it is clear that the author is just thinking
it through. Then halfway through the essay, the writer pulls the rug out,
revealing that the initial argument is totally wrong, and substituting some
other argument or line of analysis in its place. In the end, the reason I
like set-em-up, knock-em-down essays is that they are so clearly focused on
the purpose of analytic writing, at least in my classes, and that’s persuasion.
This is why I grade descriptive essays so relatively low: they only prove
that someone did the reading. An essay that is persuasive is an essay that
shows a student has command of the material, has taken ownership of it. It
doesn’t matter if their knowledge is less than encyclopedic in that case.

Frustrations with Drupal 4.4

Rule #1 when using the latest and greatest software: don't.

I upgraded this site to the latest and greatest Drupal at some point and totally messed up the site. First my green theme didn't work, then all the nodes died because I invoked some filters. As near as I can tell, the filter.module can't be working at all.


Rule #2 when using the latest and greatest software: See Rule #1.


Three times' a charm & Kris turns 30!


Or, Migraines: 3, Periods: 1

Had my third migraine of the year today. It started this evening around 5:30 at Costco. Kris' parents, Bob & Lil, and I had just finished shopping for Kris' birthday celebrations at the All-Star Baseball Academy of Mountain View. At checkout, my thoughts were, "Uh oh." My vision was suddenly doing funny stuff, but I couldn't quite confirm a migraine because I couldn't find the blind spot.

Five minutes later at the car, I couldn't see Lil's face when I looked at her. Sigh.

Lil gave me two 8-hour Tylenol, then drove us home, Kris arrived home as we were cleaning out the fridge for room for the cakes. When he got home, around 6:30, I went to sleep. Kris woke me at 7:30 (at my request). I scarfed down spaghetti and a Codeine from Kris' surgery (expiration March 2004 - how's that for close).

Off to set up the party. About 5 minutes after I got there, wham, more visuals. This time, pretty bad. I had no pain, but I was definitely 2/3 blind. Lil and I set up everything, people starting arriving. I don't think anyone could tell I was having problems.

Christina Valvo asked me about migraines, as she thought she had one earlier in the day. The symptoms certainly sounded like it, with the numbness, pounding headache and light sensitivity. I asked is she could tell I was having one right then, and she, along with Wade, laughed and said she couldn't.

The rest of the evening went well. I was in the batting cages three times. I did okay. Tom Senna, the owner of All-Star gave me some pointers while I was in the cage, helped me hit a few balls. Bob helped me the other times.

I had a great time. A lot of people came up to me and told me it was a great idea for a birthday party. There was a ton of activity, everyone seemed to be doing something, from the speed guns to the batting cages to the food.

Bob had a CD/DVD that he made about Kris' baseball career. It was really cute. We played it at 9:30 or so. Tom helped me set it up, we had to play with the laptop (Kris ran home at 8:30 to get the cables, such the sweetheart). People laughed and enjoyed the video.

After everyone came back to our house, the headache started creeping back. I took another Codeine. I tried to stay involved until 1:00, when everyone left, but it was so hard. I wandered away at some point, appearing again to say good bye, then disappearing. I hope no one noticed - it was Kris' night anyway.

I talked to Lisa at several points in the evening. She thinks this is my third migraine also. Kris thinks it's the fourth. Regardless, it's too many.

Update! I recalled I had some Trident gum on Thursday. It contains aspartame! That was probably the root cause of the migraine. Not that it lessens my head pounding, but at least I can, once again, avoid aspartame like the plague! The plague, I tell you!

Hidden Asset :: Fast Company :: 01 March 2004

Hidden Asset

Bill Breen | Mar 01 '04

He's the most influential business guru you've never heard of. Reengineering, knowledge management, enterprise systems--Thomas Davenport helped midwife many of the biggest trends to have shaped business over the past 25 years. And yet, as he readily concedes, he was outflashed by others who got much of the credit (and in some cases, the blame) for these innovations in management thinking. Davenport lacks the theatrics of a Tom Peters and the revolutionary zeal of a Gary Hamel. He's a pragmatist who's painfully aware of how hard it is to effect change in large organizations. "Tom has the intellectual rigor to come up with game-changing ideas, and yet he's not isolated in some ivory tower," says Steve Kerr, managing director and chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs. "He's hard-wired into big, complex companies, which gives him a real-world understanding of how to put those ideas into play."

Davenport, a professor of information technology and management at Babson College, and a fellow at the Accenture Institute for High Performance Business, wrote some of the earliest articles and books on reengineering and knowledge management. Lately, he's been exploring the nature of the thinking that went into these and other business innovations. Working with Laurence Prusak and H. James Wilson, Davenport took on some of the big questions surrounding big business ideas: Where do ideas come from? Who are the idea advocates within large organizations? And how do they get traction for new initiatives, especially in this cautious business environment? The three men put their research into a book,
What's the Big Idea? Creating and Capitalizing on the Best Management Thinking
(Harvard Business School Press, 2003). In a wide-ranging interview with Fast Company
, he laid out his eight-point game plan for winning with ideas. Here it is, in his own words.

Companies compete with their brains as well as their brawn.

Organizations today must not only outgun and outhustle competitors, they must also outthink them. Companies win with ideas. Just consider the differing fates of Westinghouse and General Electric.

Westinghouse certainly had a culture of product innovation: Commercial radio, commercial nuclear power, air brakes, and lots of other amazing inventions came out of Westinghouse. But its managerial culture was incredibly insular. When Michael Jordan arrived as the company's CEO in 1993, he was surprised at how rarely people gathered around the water cooler and talked about new ideas. Innovation, such as it was, was devoted to thinking, "Should we keep this business or sell it off?" For all of its product breakthroughs, Westinghouse is a dead organization--its businesses have been dismantled and sold.

By contrast, GE--even before Jack Welch--has been an idea (and profit) machine. It's a prime example of a company that embraces a few big ideas--boundarylessness, Six Sigma, service businesses, digitization--and executes them really well. Once an idea becomes a corporate initiative, it gets embedded into the company's way of managing itself. These key initiatives are discussed and monitored in at least one management meeting every month. GE doesn't just talk about ideas, it gives them a bear hug, and we all know the result: GE sits at the top of the industrial heap.

Great ideas have three key elements.

All big ideas share at least one of three business objectives: improved efficiency, greater effectiveness, or innovations in products or processes. In a way, it's an exhaustive set of possibilities. You do things right, you do the right thing, or you do something new. Reengineering could have done all three--the mark of a truly big idea--but people used it solely for gaining efficiencies, which limited its power and value.

E-commerce has all three elements, which is why the idea has proven to be so durable. It was scarred by the dotcom implosion but is prospering once again because now it tackles the efficiency theme--the one objective that has truly prospered in this conservative climate. As of mid-December, holiday retail sales through online channels were projected to increase by 42% over the previous year. All of which speaks to the power of the e-commerce idea: Despite a massive negative reaction to it during the dotcom bust, it continues to thrive in many organizations.

There are no truly new ideas out there.

Every big idea owes a considerable debt to related ideas that came before it. Reengineering's key components already existed--they had just never been pulled together into one package. Of course, idea practitioners should avoid pointing out that the next big thing amounts to a reshuffling of other ideas. One of the tensions that idea sellers have to manage very carefully is, on the one hand, the need to get people's attention. The innovation has to be new and exciting. But they also have to talk about the idea in a responsible way so people understand how difficult it really is.

I wrote the first article on reengineering and the first book, but not the best-selling article or the best-selling book. What happened? I like to say that I bore the burden of academic respectability. Both the article and the book were less romantic, less revolutionary in tone than those that followed. Michael Hammer introduced his version with an article titled "Reengineering Work: Don't Automate, Obliterate." The headline for my piece: "The New Industrial Engineering" (which tells you something about the writing). Hammer and later James Champy were very successful in taking their ideas into the marketplace; they were not as successful in creating versions of their ideas that people could use. And that's what led to reengineering's decline. It became the innovation that forgot people.

Innovation comes from the front lines, but the top sets the tone.

The leadership at Hewlett-Packard used to encourage the notion that innovation should bubble up from below. HP was an early adopter of quality, which grew out of the company's Japanese unit. Change management, reengineering, logistics--HP was a laboratory for new innovations. Back when HP was pursuing knowledge management, I asked whether the CEO, Lew Platt, was interested in the idea. The general reaction was that the two words had probably never passed his lips--and nobody cared. They didn't need his buy-in. Instead, they pursued an idea at the business-unit level; then they developed some approach to sharing the idea across units. The real test of an idea was whether people throughout the organization--not just the CEO--were attracted to it.

Nowadays, I gather that HP has become much more hierarchical. If the idea doesn't have Carly Fiorina's sign-off, it won't get very far. In that environment, the idea practitioner really needs to understand the incentive for change--that is, where the demand lies--and ensure that the idea lines up with the leadership's focus.

Every new initiative needs a champion.

All ideas must have passionate advocates behind them--people who understand that business-improvement initiatives are vital to a company's success. These idea practitioners are the critical links between ideas and action. Their most noble attribute is their lack of cynicism. They certainly recognize the Dilbertian aspects of the contemporary workplace, and yet they have the ability to see through the problems of new business ideas to their true potential. They hold out a belief that people and organizations can change. At the same time, they are almost always business veterans whose decades of experience have taught them how difficult it is to bring about a new business idea.

Dan Holtshouse, who has helped lead Xerox's change from a copier company to "The Document Company," typifies a successful idea practitioner. First off, he minimizes his own role by giving the credit to his team. Second, he's been with Xerox since the 1970s, and he has the personal network inside the company to know whom to enlist in a change effort. He's a middle manager in the corporate strategy office, and yet he's well connected at the senior management level. Because he has pretty close ties to CEO Ann Mulcahy, his ideas manage to get some traction.

Idea practitioners have the seasoning to understand the company's culture and how to communicate their idea. My favorite example of this is Vince Barabba, who heads up marketing research at General Motors. GM executives spend a lot of time looking at new car models; they're accustomed to seeing things in three dimensions. So Barabba built a giant Lego model of a market-research study--people could literally walk among the bar graphs. That's a great demonstration of someone translating information and communicating it in a way that fits the company culture.

Sell no idea before its time.

An idea cannot take hold in an organization unless it is well timed. Lawrence Baxter, chief e-commerce officer of Wachovia Corp., is a good example of someone who understands that there's a time to pursue new ideas and a time to knuckle in to the task at hand. Not so long ago, Baxter was exploring some uses of superstring theory [an esoteric concept in theoretical physics] for effecting change management. But when we interviewed him for the book, Wachovia had just merged with First Union. Baxter was keeping his head down, trying to make the merger work. He knew it wasn't a good time at all to bring up superstring! But he believes that after the pressure subsides, the organizational culture will become more innovative.

Right now, we're just starting to emerge from an economic and an idea recession, a protracted hunkering-down phase. But the signs are starting to point to the return of an idea phase. We're seeing some growth in the economy, and people are talking about innovation again. And even in this conservative climate, smart companies are still in search of performance-boosting initiatives. Microsoft, for example, needs to figure out how to get people to buy more of these office-oriented productivity technologies. Bottom line: If I was an idea practitioner working within a company, right now I'd be cautiously raising some trial balloons for new initiatives that will enhance my business.

The story sells the idea.

The most important way in which ideas and experiences get communicated from sellers to buyers is through narratives. Stories give proof that your idea is going to work. Confidence-building evidence isn't statistical, it's narrative in form.

Here's a story about the power of organizational storytelling: As part of its knowledge-management initiative, British Petroleum rolled out some videoconferencing technology for rapidly sharing ideas. Soon after, one of their gas drills broke down in the North Slope of Alaska. BP's leading expert in gas turbines was working in the North Sea; it would have taken him 20 hours to fly to Alaska. Instead of putting him on a plane, BP patched him into the North Slope via videoconference, and he worked with on-site technicians to pinpoint the problem and get the drill back onstream. They finished the job in just 30 minutes. That story quickly circulated throughout BP; in time, it found its way into other organizations. Because it gave real-world evidence of a dramatic improvement, the story became part of knowledge-sharing's lore.

I doubt that anyone has ever validated these stories. I suspect that some of them are not entirely true. But it doesn't seem to matter. They still influence organizations.

All ideas have a life cycle.

History shows that hot ideas soon cool and fade from the scene. Customer-relationship management fell into that category. CRM quickly caught fire, but when people discovered it was more than a matter of simply deploying the right software, a backlash swiftly followed. Knowledge management has had a far more gentle rise and decline. Most of the people who were involved in it spent a huge amount of time saying it's not about technology, it's about changing cultures and behaviors. Everybody knows how hard that is, so people's expectations were never inflated.

Every idea has its own life span that follows its own trajectory. GE really understands this. GE adopted Six Sigma quality management at a very late stage in the idea's life cycle. GE knew this but didn't care--and it's still prospering greatly from Six Sigma. When it comes to ideas, GE doesn't mind being out of phase with the rest of the business world. Confident organizations adopt ideas not necessarily when others tout them, but when they're truly needed.

At GE, you knew an idea's time had come when Jack Welch wrote about it in his annual-report letter. Welch was such an idea-obsessed individual that if he didn't buy into it, the idea wasn't going anywhere. At most other companies, what's in and what's out is much less obvious. Idea entrepreneurs really need to be attuned to the zeitgeist in the society at large and focus on whether the idea fits with their organization's rhetoric.

Ultimately, an idea succeeds when it becomes pervasive--everyone practices the idea without thinking about it. The great example of this is quality and total quality management. By the late 1980s, 100% of large U.S. companies had some kind of quality program in place. No one does conferences on quality anymore because at most companies, quality is already baked into the way they do business. That's when you know that a big idea has truly taken hold: The idea itself is invisible. nFC

Bill Breen ( is based in Boston as Fast Company's Northeast bureau chief.

More fast zooms!


[image:27,left]At today's Mischief team party, I brought out the Powerball again. Some peaks we have:

Max Chuang 11500 right handed, 10903 left handed.
Me: 9450 Whoo! 8973 left handed.

I'll have to see what other people spun and post them, too.



Ah, Thinkgeek! Great idea. Toys for technically minded people. The best thing about it so far is, however, my employee discount through VA. A lot of the toys are suddenly nicely affordable with the discount.

My most recent toy is the Powerball (yeah, let's see how long that link lasts, eh?). It's a self-contained gyroscope with a speedometer on it. Using constructive interference oscillations, one can increase the gyroscope's RPM theoretically over 15k. However, it takes more wrist, forearm, bicep and shoulder strength to do so than I have.

Current "high" scores for people I know are:

  • Patrick Hard: 11462
  • Kris McQueen: 11394
  • Ariel Garza: 11157

I topped 9k, but will have to wait until I go into work on Monday to recall what I exactly had.