The Challenge of Supporting Generalizations with Examples
Department of English
Composition teachers are faced with many challenges in ENGL 1100 and 1200. One of the bigger obstacles that composition teachers face is instilling in students the importance of illustrating their points with examples, rather than just making rash generalizations with nothing to base them on. This is a concept that comes into play in just about any type of writing anyone, whether student or teacher, professional or amateur, does. Using examples to illustrate one’s ideas may seem like common sense, but it can often be hard for students to grasp this concept.
Why might this seemingly basic concept be hard to comprehend? This is a question I have often wrestled with. There are many possible reasons. Students are often stuck in their own points of view, as I suppose everyone is, and therefore think that everyone sees things the way they do, so in their minds no examples are needed. In a sense, they forget they must show as well as tell. Of course, sometimes they just do not want to take the time to thoroughly explain and illustrate their ideas in their work. Whatever the reason, students often do their ideas a disservice in this manner. I, myself, struggled with this problem early on in my undergraduate career when I wrote essays for classes. After a while, though, I finally realized that using examples and offering up evidence in support of contentions gives ideas a weight and credibility they might not otherwise have, and I seek to give students this same realization with my writing assignment and its prewriting exercise.
In my experience as a composition instructor, students, for the most part, are actually pretty adept at coming up with theses and conclusions. Their main problems lie in the development and support of those initial ideas, which is what I aim to help them with in the literary analysis essay I ask them to write, based on a story of their choosing from a collection we cover in class and the class discussions and in-class exercises preceding the assignment. I often use this assignment in ENGL 1100 as a way to introduce them to integration of outside material into their own work and MLA documentation and sometimes in ENGL 1200 as a break from research papers that still gives them practice using and documenting sources. In addition, the analysis essay encourages students to do a close reading of the story to see what the author is trying to say both explicitly and implicitly, so this assignment hopefully helps them with reading comprehension as well. In this way, the assignment is multi-purpose. I provide them with a sample essay written by me that shows them what I want them to attempt and gives them an idea of how to approach the material and what it’s supposed to look like.
Coming up with a suitable sample essay for them has been a challenging task for me, so my handouts and exercises have gone through some changes over the years. For instance, my first sample analysis essay was an analysis of David Benioff’s “When the Nines Roll Over” from his collection, When the Nines Roll Over and Other Stories. It was about an A and R man for a record company trying to break up a punk band to get the attractive lead singer, who would also need to be separated from her boyfriend, the band’s drummer. The thesis of my sample essay was that, often in our day-to-day dealings, we focus on what’s good for us without realizing how our quests for what we want might affect other people, which is exemplified by what I saw as a change in the protagonist’s character from a callous business man unconcerned with how his dealings affect the girl and the members of the band, specifically her boyfriend, to a more empathetic person who’s steadily more mindful and also more remorseful of what he has done, though he does not try to undo his scheme because it’s part of business. I tried to show this slow progression in the man’s character with examples from all throughout the story. I thought it was fairly obvious what I was going for, so I did not bother to annotate my old essay with comments. However, what I started getting from students on the due dates, despite explaining the assignment thoroughly in class and having one-on-one conferences to advise them on what to do, were plot summaries with very little, if any, analysis in them. I figured that, because the story was expansive and the character’s change was a gradual one, they might have gotten the wrong idea despite my intentions. This was vexing for me.
After some frustration, I decided to write another sample essay that I hoped would make my points and the purpose, ways, and means of the assignment more readily apparent. I decided to pick a story that was briefer and less sprawling, one that would hopefully cut down on any unnecessary plot explanations or other digressions on my part, so I chose to write about Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” from his collection, The Night in Question. I often use this collection in my classes for the literary analysis assignment anyway and it is one of my favorite stories because it is full of underlying meaning despite its brevity and straight-forward plot, so I figured, why not? I ended up writing what I felt was a more focused, to-the-point essay with plenty of examples illustrating my thesis and explanation of points to show how these examples related to my thesis. Additionally, I annotated my sample essay with comments explaining the choices I made and pointing out the importance of thesis statements, topic sentences for paragraphs, signal phrases for quotes, and proper MLA documentation, all problems I usually see in these papers, just to make what I was doing in the paper that much clearer, and this can all be seen in the sample essay in the appendix. I felt I had made good strides in combating problems I had been running into on this assignment, but I also wondered if I was overlooking something. Then, it occurred to me what had been missing.
As always, a major—perhaps, the most important—part of the writing process for this assignment is the planning stage. Coming up with ideas for one’s topic and getting a blueprint for how to arrange the material to best convey the thesis are often the hardest parts of the process and, once these initial stages are done, the actual drafting of the essay is easy in comparison—at least, to me. Generally, I cover this stage in my writing classes, but the analysis essay is more complicated than other assignments. I realized that I had never really addressed how to plan for this particular assignment, so after thinking about the problem and how to alleviate my concerns, this is the plan of action that I adopted and have been using ever since. After covering many short stories in class, as the analysis essay due date approaches, I devote a day to the planning phase and circulate amongst my students a handout with a series of questions designed to stimulate thought about their prospective topics and get them focused on how to develop their ideas.
The first question I ask them on this sheet is what their thesis is. After all, it is very hard to write an essay without a clear idea of what writers want to say, though many students try to do just that, which leads to rambling, unfocused essays. A thesis is absolutely necessary in order to write anything that has a point. The accompanying handout for the classroom exercise helps them figure out what they want to say before they start writing. Since I have started doing this, I have seen some improvement in terms of thesis development in their writing. For instance, one student chose to write about Tobias Wolff’s “Powder,” another short story from The Night in Question, which is about a boy and his father, who have a strained relationship due to an impending divorce, going on a ski trip together and the son learning to overlook his father’s shortcomings and accept him the way he is, despite his father’s juvenile irresponsibility landing him in another awkward situation that could lose him visitation rights. The student’s thesis was that the story shows three different approaches to life with the mother’s and father’s views being in conflict and the son’s attempts to be accommodating to both. Having read the story myself, I felt her thesis was a good one. She just had to build on this foundation, and the rest of the sheet was my attempt to get her to do so.
After they know exactly what it is that they want to say about their particular topic, I next ask them what evidence in their story leads them to the theses they have proposed. After all, there must be something in the stories that leads the students to the conclusions they have drawn, what they feel are the points, themes, and/or messages the author is trying to convey. Basically, they have to set forth the points they will be using to develop their theses. For this part of the in-class exercise, the student decided that her best course of action for illustrating her thesis was to show examples of the mother’s sternness and strictness in the story, examples of the father’s irresponsible behavior and love of his son, and examples of the son’s responsible, possibly uptight, personality and his eventual acceptance of his father by focusing on his good qualities. These were good observations, but she needed evidence to support her ideas. Of course, this was the case for everyone.
Once they have come up with points for their theses, I ask my students to find quotes and/or scenes from the story that illustrate these points. Not only are they pointing out evidence for their ideas here, supporting the generalizations they make with examples, but they also get practice both with using and documenting outside sources. For her particular essay, my student used a number of quotes from the story to illustrate her points. To illustrate the mother’s strictness when dealing with her ex-husband, she used the example of how the father “had to fight for the privilege of my company, because my mother was still angry with him for sneaking me into a nightclub during his last visit, to see Thelonious Monk” (Wolff 33). This showed how the mom was at her wit’s end with her husband’s shenanigans.
For evidence of the father’s continuing irresponsibility, she pointed to the plot of the story, where the father stays too late at the ski lodge, which is seen here: “But as we were checking out of the lodge that morning it began to snow, and in this snow he observed some rare quality that made it necessary for us to get in one last run. We got in several last runs. He was indifferent to my fretting. Snow whirled around us in bitter, blinding squalls, hissing like sand, and still we skied” (33). She also detailed how the storm closes up the roads so they cannot get home as promised so, rather than accept defeat and anger the kid’s mom, he prank-calls the police to get them away from the barricade, moves the barricade, and drives down the closed, snow-covered road anyway. This shows both the dad’s irresponsibility and the kid’s nervousness, indicating he has to play parent to the dad.
In detailing the narrator’s complicated relationship with his father and his own personality, my student used the aforementioned quote and the following: “I was a boy who kept his clothes on numbered hangers to insure proper rotation”(36). After using a few more quotes illustrating his disapproval of his father, she then focused on the boy’s realization that the father is taking these measures to keep the relationship going and finally looks at his father and their situation in the following way:
I knew we’d get caught; I was resigned to it. And maybe for this reason I stopped moping and began to enjoy myself. [. . .] And it was all ours. And it kept coming, the laden trees, the unbroken surface of snow, the sudden white vistas. Here and there I saw hints of road, ditches, fences, stakes, but not so many that I could have found my way. But then I didn’t have to. My father was driving. [. . .] And the best was yet to come—switchbacks and hairpins impossible to describe. Except maybe to say this: if you haven’t driven fresh powder, you haven’t driven. (37)
In this way, she showed the son’s reconciliation of his father’s bad qualities with his good ones so that he could enjoy his father’s company while he was still able to.
The final question on the handout pertains to organization of the amassed material of the previous questions. I basically ask them to organize all this information into an outline that best serves their thesis statements. This hopefully gives them a nice road map for writing their papers so that they can convey their thoughts in an orderly, detailed, concise manner with minimum confusion or randomness. That way, during the drafting process, they can use the outlines as checklists insuring that they have made all the points they wanted to make and done so in the proper order. For her particular paper, my sample student basically organized her paper in the same way that I have laid it out here, only with a few more quotes for each point. It was a thorough paper and a well thought-out and organized essay, thanks to some pre-writing planning, which my in-class writing exercise is supposed to encourage.
The sample analysis essay and the in-class planning exercise are designed to show the necessity of using examples to illustrate generalizations in writing. While this particular assignment is a literary analysis, the concept is true for most—if not all—types of writing. While not every student takes the in-class writing assignment or, for that matter, the paper itself very seriously, I have nonetheless seen improvements in organization and illustration of points with supporting evidence since using these assignments. At the very least, they highlight a point I often try to make to my composition students, which is that a writer simply should not make a statement in writing without offering any type of evidence as validation of his or her point. Students need to understand this principle if they want any of their printed ideas to have any credibility in the eyes of others. References
Wolff, Tobias. "Powder." The Night in Question.
New York: Vintage, 1996. 33-37.