More on the Five-Paragraph Essay

While some of us are busy posting scanned images of detritus we find on the street, Mike over at Vitia is posting well considered prose about the five-paragraph essay, form, style, and Peter Elbow's recent piece in C3. This is something I like about blogs: they contain multitudes.

(You can also see Mike dialoging with Shelly on some of the realities of teaching the five-paragraph essay here.)

A while back, I posted a sort of end-of-year-teaching-thing about having students (seniors and juniors) in my courses write five-paragraph essays. In addition, I should say that I'm also "working" on an article on the five-paragraph essay, only I'm really not working working on it because I have this pesky book about field guides I'm trying to write. But! I did complete the lit review for the article back in December, and wrote 1/2 of the darn thing before ditching it to do something else, so I really should just finish it up.

Maybe this discussion will help.

Anyway, over at Mike's post mentioned above (excellently titled "Form, Space, and Synchronicity") Mike generously posts a portion of one of his old seminar papers, and I'll do something similar, linking to a kinda fuzzy pdf of a five-paragraph essay I wrote about the form in (was it really that long ago?) 2000.

(click to download the fuzzy pdf,
complete with possibly annoying didactic gestures
added by the textbook's really-quite-dear authors)

Anyway, what I was thinking then is not far from what I'm trying to say now (in the article about the five-paragraph essay I'm "writing"):
  • that even very rigid forms like the fpe have many elasticities

  • that by centering composition practice on innovation, we can teach students to exploit and invent such elasticities, even in the most "formulaic" writing

  • that this kind of composition pedagogy ends up teaching students ways to conform, too, if they want and/or need to

  • that an under-explored avenue in current alt-(academic)-dis involves syntactic play

  • that abusing the fpe as an overly rigid form of mind-control diffuses insight into similar rigidities within academic writing (at the undergrad level, but also at the grad and professorial level)

  • and, lastly, that bashing the fpe ignores labor and educational-policy realties in our current climate where, as they say, no child can be left behind

Anyway, so I posted my own twenty-five sentence five paragraph essay (above) to gesture to my own commitment to the idea that within constraints (specific word limits, say, or formal dictates) there are always ways for writing to be smart or smartish ... even moreso, sometimes, than prose that emerges from what we like to think of as the freedom from constraints. Of course, this assumes a pedagogical leaning toward innovative grooviness in student work, which is not always there, but I'm working on that one too. :)

Now: I've gotta go read Elbow's article; thanks for the tip, Mike.

Found Sticky Note

Found on the ride in to campus this morning. (Purple ink on yellow sticky note.)

And then, waiting for the scanner to warm up, I just enjoyed about a hundred "funny faces" on Flickr.


Catesby's Robin

I'm writing and revising a chapter that deals in part with Mark Catesby's bird illustrations (mid 1700s), so I thought I'd take a look at what Catesby does with the robin. Wow.

In a recent article in Birding, Rick Wright talks about a similarly illustrated dead swallow. In an edition of the Princeton Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, the authors paint a swallow dead on the ground, and Wright makes a number of points: among them, that dead birds are weird in a field guide as they disrupt the illusion that bird illustration (and ornithology, by relation) are not only harmless to birds but somehow environmentalist in nature.

Funny: a lot of Catesby's supposedly alive birds look dead, but his dead robin looks amazingly life-like.

What is also particularly clever about what Catesby does is that, by placing the robin on its back with its feet in the air, you end up with a pretty nice look at the plumage.

Anyway, my newly hatched robins flew the coop yesterday. One at a time, the little buggers stood up on the edge of the nest before flapping off. We'll have to see if the folks go for another brood before the summer is out.


Five-Paragraph Essays in Community College English

In an interesting dialogue between two teachers (also sisters)—one in a four-year college, the other at a community college—explanatory context for why the one at the community college teaches students to write (gasp) five-paragraph essays:
The objective for the Writing Skills II [part of a three-course sequence] students is to write grammatically correct essays with unity, support, and coherence. These students start at the paragraph level with a focus on topic sentences, supporting evidence, and grammar, and are given ample classroom time for revising and editing with teacher input. [...] The majority of my students were ready to move on to a five-paragraph essay. I added in some reading-based assignments, but allowed students to continue to use their personal experiences as supporting evidence. On the other hand, WS III students start off with the five-paragraph essay, usually experience-based as well. They concentrate on writing thesis statements, grammar, and eventually work up to doing peer editing in class. They also move on to reading-based essays and using citations by the end of the semester. The objective for these students is, in addition to proper grammar, unity, support and coherence, to be able to edit their own papers, and to start to critically read an article and write about it objectively.

Three obvious values/assumptions grounding this rationale for teaching the five-paragraph essay are clarity=good, becoming "grammatically correct" is somehow tied to arresting form and rendering it a-rhetorical, and a notion of writing acquisition as progress. I call these "value/assumptions," I guess, because they seem so grounded in values as to be impervious to debate.

Audubon's Robins

The robins out back are growing at an amazing rate, looking more like full-grown birds by the hour. About two days ago they stopped acting so desperate for worms and bugs (no more open mouths wavering above the nest all day long) and started sitting around with this new "we're lazy birds" vibe.

Nineteenth-century bird illustrators were pretty crazy about portraying birds in and around their nests, and in looking up Audubon's version of the American Robin I find this domestic scene:

The birds behind my house aren't quite as big as Audubon's (yet), but they're getting there. (I'm also not sure that the adults feed their little buggers berries, as Audubon suggests.) But whatever: Audubon gets the nest exactly right, with the tidy mud lining sitting like a shallow bowl inside the spiral of twigs and grasses. Andrew Goldsworthy, take note.

Common nineteenth-century portrayals of "bird families" cast the members as happy, domestic, and often acting out desired human gender roles. So in this one, for instance (from the 1890s), we get a chivalric bird husband coming home after a hard day of work:

No matter, of course, that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds don't tend a nest or raise their young together.

What I like about Audubon's portrayal of the robins is that he shows a nest in chaos, demanding young, and a couple of frazed "parents." That's exactly what I've been seeing these past few days.

Gmaps Pedometer

Gmaps Pedometer's version of today's jog. Kind of a cool app.


Nix List: Write Piece About Parkour

It's all over the media, so I've decided to nix even the mere thought of writing a piece about parkour. On the nix list, filed under too popular.

The Worm Super-Highway

For the past few days, I've been working diligently to re-structure sections in my project on field guides. For the past few days, the robins out back have been working diligently to deliver worms to the nest. Worms, worms, and for a break from the usual: more worms. I read through a few of the articles in my "backlog file;" the robins switch to beetles.

All day long, every day since the squablings crawled out of their eggs, worm importation on a large scale has been what the robins have been up to. They've set up a sort of worm super-highway, in fact, flying in the wriggly beasts one after another—but only to momentarily appease the hungry squabs.

In the first couple of days after The Hatch, I noticed that if I was too close to the nest, the robins would churrr at me from the fence, or the top of the garage, or a nearby telephone wire. If I gave them a bit more space, the churrring would stop and the worm importation scheme would recommence.

I have a friend who recently had a baby. About a week into the whole nursing thing, she proclaimed "He's sucking me dry!" We all laughed and said baby reattached himself to her breast. This robin duo looks similarly frazed. I wonder to myself, watching the robins fly to and away from the nest all day long: where do they manage to get all those bugs? I mean, is there an open-pit worm mine I'm unaware of somewhere in the neighborhood?

This has been metaspencer's early-morning installment of Champaign-Urbana Natural History. Now back to writing the new introduction about, in part, natural history. Which figures.


Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Though old-school in its method of delivery, I almost always find myself reading and liking what comes out via the Tomorrow's Professor email list. I like the list in part because it's not a discussion list. Anyway, Rick Reis runs the list, and I think he does a bang-up job.

In case you didn't see it, today's message is an article by Dan Pratt up at UBC, and he does an excellent job of laying out four embedded assumptions in the process of using a statement of teaching philosophy in the review process.
Within the implied promises are four unspoken assumptions that are part of understanding how we might use a personal philosophy statement for evaluative purposes: First, is the assumption that there is agreement as to the form and substance of an acceptable philosophy of teaching statement; second, that all acceptable philosophies of teaching should be 'learner-centered'; third, that the reviewers' own philosophy of teaching will not prejudice them against other philosophies of teaching; and fourth, that student evaluations of teaching will have fair regard for a plurality of acceptable philosophies of teaching. Each of these assumptions will be examined in turn.
This time of year, of course, most people who are thinking about their statement of teaching philosophy are planning to use it in offering themselves up for The Job Market, and there are a few other assumptions tied to the statement of teaching philosophy and lurking in that related but different process.

One thing that bugs me about having to compose a statement and submit it as part of a job application (and I've done this many times; I think my current statement is the sixth one I've written) is the way the claims made in the genre erase the economics of teaching. We teach because ... we are committed to inquiry, or because we favor the cultivation of a certain kind of critical thinking, or to build community, or to challenge assumptions, or for social justice.

(An aside: In my courses for English Education majors, I kid around a lot about the prevalent metaphors in the statement of teaching philosophy. There is the garden metaphor, the metaphor of the journey, the metaphor of the struggle, and so on—and all of my students know this. Where is the metaphor of the La Brea Tar Pit? I ask them. The spastic chicken? The raging wild fire metaphor? The statement that describes a person trying overcome what it's like to talk with a mouth full of peanut butter? We laugh. We question the embedded logics of the statement. Then we all go back to what's expected.)

But back to economics ... The statement of teaching philosophy is one of the many forms of textual currency circulated in The Job Market (and of course, not all banks take it), and claims made in the statement invariably ignore the simple fact that nearly all of us teach, at least in part, to make a living. Because as teachers we are required to demonstrate almost cenobite-grade commitment to the calling of teaching, if a statement were to include the sentence "I teach because it's the best way I've found to make a living" it would rupture the maxim of student centeredness that Dan Pratt talks about in his article.

Since we cannot teach for us, only for them, the statement as a genre circulating in The Market environment articulates for us the condition that the reasons why we teach are necessarily extra-economic. In masking that most of us teach at least in part for the dough, we again subscribe as a class of workers to the regenerative philosophy that underpaying teachers is legit. The statement of teaching philosophy makes clear that we still consider this a calling.

And yet, we continue to write them, revise them, and send them out: bow-documents that read almost entirely as if some larger set of beliefs is being subserviently channeled directly through the author.



If you're a UIUC local, you don't need me to tell you about the Ethnography of the University (EOTU) cross-campus initiative. If you don't know about it, know this: it is something that one could only dream of at many other universities.

I met with GR today, who is wrapping up his work on the EUTU to move to warmer climes and a quiet place to write. This website has a nice overview of the EOTU program and mission; this one enacts several tenets of the project, visually arraying an archive of sound and images.

(from eotu.uiuc.edu; art by Anna Callahan)

The meeting with GR happened because I'm lucky enough to be able to link one of my fall courses, "Writing Technologies," to the EOTU program. Students in the course will work throughout the semester to document, practice, and analyze technologically embodied writing practices on our campus. Their work will be displayed online, and while I'm guessing their projects will be pretty image based, I'm also hoping some sound files make their way into the projects.

Anyway, in talking with GR today about EOTU in general and my linked course in particular, I was impressed by the program's flexibility within an imagining of the university as a site for creative inquiry. This is the part of the program I'm most psyched about, and it's something to look forward to in the fall.


You May Find This Gross

Baby birds could not be more unlike baby pandas, and in that way a lot of people think baby birds are kinda gross.

Though I might not experience cute overload upon gazing at the Turdus tots out back, it did strike me as particularly cute when this little buzzard lifted it's wobbly head to try and beg a worm off my camera.

Key-yute! I muttered to myself.

There are about a zillion other people with robin nest pictures on flickr, and a quick Google-ization finds precisely two zillion random blog entries on the domestic habits of Turdus migratorius.

But! What metaspencer's avian musings™ has to offer that is different from all of those is this list of hair-brained speculations about why so many people think baby birds are gross:
  1. the obvious helplessness somehow terrifies us
  2. no fur or hair, and we like fur or hair on little cute things
  3. we like cute things we can touch, and baby birds seem too fragile to touch
  4. calling "baby birds" gross is a safe way to refer to "babies" as gross without going so far as to say that human babies can be a little bit gross
  5. they look too much like Mick Jagger



My pal Turdus was particularly vigilant about minding the nest yesterday, and poking my camera lens in there this morning, I can see why:

You can't see a lot in the picture, but the little one-day-old squabs are snoozing in little egg-shaped balls. While they'll fledge in just a few weeks, at the moment altricial is the operative term.

Bring us some pre-digested worm, and bring it now!

My friend BS has a House Finch nest in a planter in front of her house, and along with the finch eggs it has what she is guessing is a Cow Bird egg. Cow Birds are cleptoparasitic, and after just a day or two the visiting squab will push the other eggs and/or squabs out of the nest. Thinking of this, I find myself instantly protective of the Turdus clutch out back. But that's silly: we'll just have to wait and see how things turn out.


Visual Communication in Science Workshop

This over the wire from Lei Lani; thought I'd post it here in case others at UIUC might be interested in going (and carpooling?).

From: felice frankel
Subject: Regional Workshops for Visually Expressing Science

Dear colleagues and friends:

I wanted to let you know about IM2.1, our successful regional post-Image and Meaning 2 (IM2) workshop, just held at Sigma Xi headquarters June 2, and to encourage you to think about attending one of our future regional workshops.

The next one, IM2.2 will be held Sept 7-8: 2006, at the Illinois Institute of Technology, IIC, in Chicago.

The workshops for this coming academic year are precisely that-very small interdisciplinary groups, intimately working with session leaders, all deeply involved with the visual expression of science.

There are no presentations. We leave that for the larger Image and Meaning events.

These short workshops are a means to truly talk to each other in small groups, to share ideas and challenges and to discover the universal issues we all address in visually representing science and engineering.

We ask for a one-page submission only to divide the groups properly. No other judgments are made, whatsoever.

Solid Deadline: August 4, 2006

For specifics, please go to: http://www.sigmaxi.org...

Learning after our first small workshop last week, we have decided to make the next workshops 1.5 days, giving us an extra afternoon/evening to introduce ourselves to each other. We are eager to make these programs work for ALL participants.

We plan to have ONLY 30 people (INCLUDING STUDENTS) for each regional workshop: 3 groups of ten. Who will come will be decided ONLY by the goal of making balanced groups.

Martin Baucom, our program manager at Sigma Xi will respond to your questions and accept your submissions. We are thrilled to partner with the Society, making this a truly interdisciplinary and global effort.

How can you participate?

Please go to:http://www.sigmaxi.org...

And also take a look at our updated website:


We welcome EVERYONE to participate and to join us in creating a truly exciting


Wake Turdus!

Things have been pretty mellow among the Turdus Clan out back. Well, incubation is going on, which I guess is a big deal, but nothing much has changed that can be observed.

I just found a full-text copy of William John Burroughs' Wake Robin (1870ish) online; if you don't know the book, it is a classic both in natural history and when it comes to robin behavior. If you haven't seen Burroughs' dog, there is a great picture here.

Burroughs anthropomorphizes robins in ways that are pretty typical of the period: he explores their civility, domesticity, artistry, and citizenship. Basically, he tests them against 19th-century values and ideologies. I could bold a few lines in the passages below, but IMHO the whole thing is worth reading. Burroughs also uses the comma-dash, one of my favorite punctuation marks, but that's a topic for another post.

From the intro:

Robin is one of the most native and democratic of our birds; He is one of the family, and seems much nearer to us than those rare, exotic visitants, as the orchard starling or rose-breasted grosbeak, with their distant, high-bred ways. Hardy, noisy, frolicsome, neighborly, and domestic in his habits, strong of wing and bold in spirit, he is the pioneer of the thrush family, and well worthy of the finer artists whose coming he heralds and in a measure prepares us for.

I could wish Robin less native and plebeian in one respect,—the building of his nest. Its coarse material and rough masonry are creditable neither to his skill as a workman nor to his taste as an artist. I am the more forcibly reminded of his deficiency in this respect from observing yonder hummingbird's nest, which is a marvel of fitness and adaptation, a proper setting for this winged gem [...] Why need wings be afraid of falling? Why build only where boys can climb? After all, we must set it down to the account of Robin's democratic turn: he is no aristocrat, but one of the people; and therefore we should expect stability in his workmanship, rather than elegance.

I would add these things to Burroughs' list: Robin is also one of the worms, of the gaze-boo, and of the plastic bag. Now hatch already, will ya Turdus!


Turdus migratorius

At some point during the year—it might have been winter break—I built a little gaze-boo-type-dealio over my back stoop; little did I know, at the time, that I was building a robin hatchery.

My reference books tell me that American Robins (Turdus migratorious) typically lay up to seven eggs, so these three blue-greenies will make for a small brood. Of course, robins are thrushes, not robins, and the misnomer has everything to do with odd practices of naming "new world" birds after what were familiar (and comforting?) Euro-species.

The robin on my gaze-boo started making the nest using big messy piles of long and newly-cut green grass (around May 28th), then moved to dry twigs, then installed the lovely plastic bag (the edges of which are visible in the picture). I'm most impressed by the layer of mud, which went in next, followed by finer grass wands.

More on the Turdus clan as things develop.


The Dog Whisperer

Just read the recent New Yorker piece on the embodied rhetoric of Cesar Millan, a.k.a. "The Dog Whisperer," and I have to admit to being as nutso about this guy as everyone else.

I say the piece is about embodied rhetoric because, unlike approaches to managing rascally dogs that focus either entirely on action (hold them down, rub their noses in it, go through the door before them, etc.) or syntax (Rascal sit, Rascal quiet, Rascal is a baaaad dog)—Millan's approach so clearly relies on and is being understood as consisting of embodied communication reliant on posture, movement, sound, action, contact, and a range of simple signifiers.

Just as Gladwell takes the article away from dogs for a moment to talk about human/child dynamics, I find myself thinking that paying attention to Millan in my teacher-prep classes could be valuable. His work connects to pedagogical questions about where and how participants stand and sit, classroom gestures, and the use of space—even if we ain't dogs.

But to my deviant dogs, I have this to say: Pssh pssh pssh.