At my day job, I do a great deal of tutoring in writing at the college level. Most students who sit down to work with me expect that I will help them learn to use commas and apostrophes, to write thesis statements and to unclutter their sentences. I do that, but the most important part of tutoring writing at the college level is actually rhetoric. One of the things I constantly tell my students is that Philosophy and English are friends.
Many freshmen have no idea why either course is required for a bachelor’s degree. I hope that the ones who find their way to my office for writing help finally understand–however reluctantly–that composing essays and learning critical thinking skills do merit their attention and do, in fact, transfer to whatever set of skills their majors may require of them.
This past week, my sessions featured the “Analysis for Rhetoric” paper and papers for several different Philosophy professors, including essays based upon readings of Garrett Hardin (the famous “Lifeboat Ethics” essay) and Mortimer Adler. Most of the time, I helped my students read rather than write. It isn’t possible to write effectively about a text one does not understand, and rhetorical analysis is new to most college freshmen. Between the not-knowing-how and the not-understanding, most of the student attempts at paper-writing end up weak and wordy.
With no foundation in rhetoric, essay structure disintegrates. Even sentences often operate with a rhetorical function that few 18-year-olds understand until it is pointed out to them: sentences that offer parallels, for example, or if/then speculative structures, or the this-therefore-that causative rhetoric. If the student hasn’t yet figured out how to analyze a text for rhetorical strategies, he or she certainly cannot structure a credible paper about it. What I have learned is that many people know what they want to say but cannot relay it to a reader who isn’t psychic. I have to keep reminding narcissistic young people that, amazingly, the professor does not share their assumptions or “know what they mean.” Sometimes I use Lego blocks to give a visual, concrete example of linking, scaffolding, and therefore building an essay in a fashion the reader can follow.
After years of tutoring, I often do know what the student is trying to say; but I pretend I don’t. If I say it for them, they don’t learn how to say it themselves–and that isn’t teaching.
Two excellent books to study regarding how grammar structure relates to elegant writing are Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences and Sister Miriam Joseph’s classic work The Trivium.