Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Sandwiches Are Not Freaking Beautiful

It has many names, this foe of mine...many names and, unfortunately, only one form. It is the five-paragraph essay...the sandwich essay...the hamburger essay...the cookbook method. I would call it a beautiful, deadly protean force, breathtaking in the scope of its diabolical wickedness, but that would be pretty damned inaccurate. The sandwich essay is the perfect illustration of the principle of the banality of evil. It must be stopped. I must stop it.

However, I'll begin by being uncharacteristically fair on this subject. The idea of the sandwich essay is not evil. In fact, it has the potential to be rather useful. High-school teachers seize on it as an eminently convenient way to teach the basics of essay writing, and in a sense, they are right to do so. Where they go wrong is in continuing to teach the bloody thing year after year after stultifying year until graduating students, having been bludgeoned repeatedly over the head with this formula, are afraid to try anything else. I have stood in university classrooms and engaged in heated arguments with students who insist that they will never abandon or modify the sandwich method. Why should they? It has worked for them for years.

What we might call Sandwich Theory goes as follows:

1) An essay consists of five paragraphs: an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

2) The introduction states the essay's topic, then narrows it down to a thesis that lists the paper's three points.

3) The writer presents these three points in ascending order of importance. The body paragraphs begin with the words or phrases, "Firstly" or "First of all," "Secondly" or "As well," and "Lastly" or "Finally."

3[alternate]) The writer presents these three points in ascending order of importance. Each body paragraph begins and ends with a restatement of the thesis in relation to this particular point and the points that have preceded it. For instance, one paragraph might end, "These examples prove that [the thesis is true]," and the next one begin, "In addition to x, y also proves that [the thesis is true]."

4) Each paragraph must therefore also be a sandwich: topic sentence, three examples or sub-points illustrating the main point, and summing-up statement.

5) The conclusion begins with the words "In conclusion" and is a restatement of the introduction.

Under the good points:

A well-balanced short essay--say, between 500 and 1,000 words--will often contain five paragraphs. Fifty-minute in-class essays also generally turn out to be around five paragraphs long. Having three body paragraphs, each containing one concise thesis point, allows a writer to provide substantial support for a thesis. Having only two points sometimes (though certainly not always or even often) makes an essay seem inadequately supported; having four or five is not always possible in a very short paper (or if it is, then the writer must skimp on support for each point in order not to exceed the word limit). There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing a five-paragraph essay. Problems only arise when someone refuses to write anything but a five-paragraph essay.

Another benefit of sandwich method is that it teaches the student to organise her thoughts. A fourteen-year-old confronted for the first time with the idea of using a specific format to make a reasoned argument is going to want some kind of structure; the sandwich provides it. In this context, even the listing of thesis points makes sense. The list allows the writer to discipline herself, setting out the exact parameters of her discussion and sticking to those parameters as closely as possible.

The sandwich method breaks the process of essay writing down into bite-sized chunks. It tells you exactly what to do. It is a bit like a rubber mould: you know that it will turn out something similar--and functional--every time.

Under the bad points:

People. Please. It's only a model.

Shall I continue to use the sandwich method--without modification or subtlety--when I graduate to writing 1,500-word essays? 2,000-word essays? 5,000-word graduate-level term papers? 100,000-word dissertations? Don't laugh. I've seen 2,000-word masterpieces that include only five paragraphs. Some of those paragraphs are four pages long, but hey, the students didn't break the Holy Dictate of the Wonderful Sandwich, did they? Some writers live in anguish because they are being asked to turn out such long pieces of writing...in only five paragraphs! The horror. The horror. Listen to me: it is okay to write essays that contain more than five paragraphs. I swear it is. No, I really do.

Other students run into a different problem. They understand that a complex point can be dealt with over more than one paragraph, so they have no problem with turning out eight- or nine-paragraph sandwiches. However, they hit the wall when their essays become so long that they find they need more than three thesis points. They have been warned by scary high-school English teachers never to have more than three thesis points. These students have to decide between 1) making the points so complex that they are difficult to encompass in a single-sentence thesis statement and 2) adding an extra point or two, in the process lengthening that same thesis statement to the point of absurdity.

It's too much for them. Many of them break down. Most of them do not believe their university-level markers' explanations that it is actually perfectly all right to have more than three thesis points.

Yet even students who are still writing very short essays--in first-year university writing courses, for instance--run into problems with sandwich method. Some of them spend so much time carefully repeating the thesis statement at the beginning and end of each body paragraph, then paraphrasing the introduction in the conclusion, that fully half of the essay consists of pointless reiteration. Some of them believe that "Firstly," "Secondly," and "Lastly" are transitions that adequately tie their points together. Most of them assume that an example is the same thing as a thesis point, that plot summary equals analysis, and that essay writing is busy-work: a way to complete an assignment without having to engage one's brain.

Over the course of his high-school career, a student is likely to be taught sandwich method so often, by so many different teachers, that for him, the sandwich model is the essay. He is afraid to deviate from the basic rules he was taught at fourteen because his teachers really do mark him down for not listing the thesis points, not beginning every paragraph with a repetition of the thesis, not repeating the introduction almost word-for-word in the conclusion, and so on. His teachers have, in fact, been teaching the model as the thing and the whole of the thing.* If I walked up to a bunch of space aliens, magically taught them English, showed them a model airplane, and said, "This is an airplane," the space aliens would take me at my word: the model plane would, to them, be an airplane, not a plastic sculpture of one. Sandwich method is, metaphorically, that model airplane. It looks like an essay. It may even act like an essay. Yet...it's only a model. It is never going to fly.

Part of the attraction of sandwich method is that it is comfortingly familiar. If you are stuck on a point, you fall back on the formula, which tells you exactly what to do. You cannot fail if you Follow the Yellow Brick Road.

Leave the Yellow Brick Bloody Freaking Road, students. The sandwich method is telling you exactly how to get "C"s.

Take, again, the split thesis, which I examined in the last section. The split thesis is a staple of the sandwich essay; many teachers love it because it ensures that their students really do have something to write about in every paragraph. I hate it. I hate it as passionately as I hate the comma splice error, and I hate the comma splice error pretty damned passionately.** The reason for my hatred is simple: the split thesis almost always prompts the student to remain on the surface of the issue at hand.

Take this example, based on but not drawn directly from many papers I have marked in the past:

In "My Last Duchess," Robert Browning uses figurative language, dramatic irony, and characterisation to create the impression of the narrator as heartless.

This "student"*** has answered a "How?" question: "How does Robert Browning create the impression of the narrator as heartless?" The topic itself is rather weak--the narrator of this poem is eminently more than simply "heartless"--but this weakness has not become apparent to the student because her thesis points are so vague and disconnected that they seem, to her, to support it adequately. The points are all very broad. Browning, a poet, uses "figurative language"? Well, gasp. No poet has ever used "figurative language" before, obviously. What kind of figurative language does Browning use? How does he use dramatic irony...not to mention characterisation? Don't most writers use characterisation? Isn't it difficult not to use characterisation if you happen to be writing about characters?****

A bigger problem is that the points have very little to do with one another. This student will spend a paragraph on figurative language, a paragraph on dramatic irony, and a paragraph on characterisation. She will probably connect them only with those hateful words: "Firstly" (since when is "firstly" even a word? It isn't a word! It has never been a word! All right, I'm lying; the Oxford English Dictionary claims "firstly" is a word, though it does say that most people prefer "first." Also, "firstly" has a very short entry), "Secondly," and "Lastly." Frankly, she is not connecting them at all. "Firstly," "Secondly," and "Lastly" tell the reader only that the points in question come first, second, and last in the essay. There is no necessity for any of the body paragraphs to be related to one another in any way at all. The student will be bouncing around on the surface of her argument, never allowing herself enough room to explore any one aspect of her thesis in depth.

An argument needs to be built. The thesis is the foundation; in the body paragraphs, the writer constructs the walls piece by painstaking piece. As I said yesterday, a good short or mid-length essay has only one thesis point; the sub-points that appear in the body paragraphs arise directly from this one point and from each other. If this student focussed on one of figurative language (and the specific ways in which Browning uses it to create a certain impression of the poem's narrator), dramatic irony (and the way it rebounds upon both the narrator and the narrator's companion), and characterisation (or certain important aspects of characterisation that come out through the use of language and irony), she would be able both to narrow her extremely broad topic and to go deeper into her argument.

I'll admit that many high-school students are forced by their teachers to use sandwich method. These teachers have problems. Yes, I said it. High-school teachers! What is wrong with you? I understand why you might want fourteen-year-olds to stick to the sandwich (though I still don't think they should have to do so if they are ready to move on)...but seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds? These kids have been writing essays for years. They are very, very used to the bloody formula. They don't need it any more. By insisting that they use it, you are convincing them that they will never have to write any other kind of essay. Fine: some of them never will. Some of them will leave high school and never put pen to paper again. You're still depriving them of the opportunity to develop not only their writing but their thinking as well. Essays, dear teachers, do not exist simply to give students something to do. They help kids with good, if unfocussed, ideas learn how to think analytically. People who only ever write sandwich essays learn how to think formulaically, not analytically.

You think essay writing is boring? It can be. Sandwich essays are deadly boring because they just don't go anywhere. Real essay writing can still be boring, but it can also be challenging and intriguing.

High-school students: I am now going to teach you how to cheat on your teachers' sandwich-essay requirements. It will not be real cheating; you will still be doing exactly what you have been told to do. However, you will, at the same time, be transcending the stupid, mindless formula.

Here we go:

1) When you develop your thesis statement, unify it. Instead of writing, "X is true because of c, d, and e," write, "X is true because of y." Let's say your topic is--oh, I don't know--"the sandwich method: why is it useful/useless?". Your teacher expects something like:

The sandwich method is useless because it is formulaic, repetitive, and uninteresting.*****

Instead, try:

Though the sandwich method imposes a useful structure on the essay, the fact that it does so via a rigid, unvarying formula means that it deprives the writer of scope for creativity.

This statement answers a "How?" question ("How does the sandwich method deprive the writer of scope for creativity?"). It is controversial (does formula necessarily limit creativity in and of itself?). It is unified. It does not stray from the topic at hand. Hurrah.

2) Now figure out your thesis points: i.e., the sub-points of y. They should all be related to one another; c should lead to d and d to e. Perhaps e could even end up leading to f...but if your teachers want you to stick to three points, you had better stick to three points.

Perhaps your three sub-points will be:

-writers who use only the sandwich method become over-familiar with the formula
-they use this formula as a crutch, paying attention to it
as formula and neglecting the content of their essays
-they thus become complacent (what they have now is "good enough") and are not willing or able to progress to a more complex format

3) Make them shorter:

-over-familiarity with a single writing model
-using the formula as a crutch

-resulting complacency and unwillingness to progress

4) Incorporate them into your thesis statement:

Though the sandwich method imposes a useful structure on the essay, the fact that it does so via a rigid, unvarying formula means that it causes the writer to become over-familiar with a single writing model, use this model as a crutch, and consequently become complacent and unwilling to progress intellectually. Effectively, it deprives the writer of scope for creativity.

It isn't perfect, and it's awfully long, but it is a unified split thesis that allows for the student to construct a smooth, connected argument. Ta-da.

I haven't written in detail on all my favourite sandwich-essay idiocies; if I had, this post would have ended up about three times this length and included a lot more screaming. However, I'll get to such subjects as unnecessary repetition, "universal" openings, clumsy introductions, the five-sentence paragraph, the conclusion as paraphrase, vague transitional words and phrases, and weak support--all part and parcel of the Mighty Sandwich Method--as I work through this guide.

In the next section, I'll probably take a short break from the essay and talk a bit about one or two of my grammatical pet peeves. After that, I'll haul you back to the beginning of the essay-writing process: brainstorming.

In conclusion (*gag*):

Guess what I had for dinner tonight?******

*Thank you, Terry Pratchett. I only steal from the best. Oh, you're welcome! You can go back to writing Discworld novels now. You're going to leave the preachiness out of the next one, right?......right?
**Eventually, of course, I shall tell you why.
***All right, this "figment of my imagination."
****Do you think I'm being unfair to my fictional student? I'm actually giving her the benefit of the doubt. I have had students include the following "thesis points" in their discussions of works of literature: language, irony, characters, setting, theme, words (or diction), rhyme, metre, description, narrative, and plot.
*****All true.

******Roast beef and cheese on whole wheat. Mmmmmmmm.


Ivy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ivy said...

Thank God for you! I am a seventeen-year-old high school student who has, for years, been certain that there is more to essays than the sandwich method, but has been assured by an endless string of teachers that I "am certainly a funny student, because no, there is not." Why so secretive? Are my instructors simply too lazy and unwilling to teach me the correct way to construct an essay (namely, without giving the appearance of immaturely-crafted rigidity?) Or are they just sadists who can't wait to find out that their five-paragraph essay has devastated all my hopes for good grades in college? Either way, I'm glad I took responsibility for my future and stumbled across your site. Thanks in advance for saving my life! I hope my fellow sufferers (and, believe me, there are LEGIONS of us) will also discover this guide--not only for the salvation of their academic careers, but also because I know that I'm not the only one who has always wanted to self-righteously go "Another Brick in the Wall" (pt. 2) on a despised English teacher.

Kem said...

Ivy: You are a seventeen-year-old student who can write in complete sentences, formulate coherent thoughts, and call her unimaginative teachers on their mindless, stultifying teaching methods. You give me hope for the future.

Hang in there. In university, your instructors will be BEGGING you not to use the sandwich method. They will actually go down on their knees and plead. Forget all the formulae and simply follow the rules of logic (state your thesis, prove your thesis, conclude); as long as it is logical, coherent, and persuasive, the exact form of your paper is unimportant. (Caveat: your essay DOES need to be structured. It just doesn't need to be structured in five boring, formulaic paragraphs. As well, you do need a thesis. Never forget the thesis. The thesis is your friend.)

Your teachers are not evil sadists; they have simply been taught that the sandwich method IS the essay, and they have taken the lesson to heart. They may be afraid to deviate from a method that is functional, safe, and predictable. Don't be too hard on them. They don't realise that they are crushing your soul into a small, compact mass and then casting it into the flames of eternal torment.

Katie said...

First, I just want to say how much I enjoy your blog. I have not written an undergraduate humanities essaies for about 7 years (or marked them), but that doesn't diminish my appreciation for your points. I've passed this site on to my cousin who is just beginning her undergraduate degree.

I should also note that I have learned (from family members with experience working in Canadian high schools) that formulaic writing is EXTREMELY in vogue with the Board of Education. At the moment in Southern Ontario, if you do NOT use a Sandwich Essay (3 points stated baldly in introductory paragraph, etc.), you will be marked Wrong. This state of affairs makes my eighteen-year-old cousin weep and rant in despair because she knows that her teachers are not teaching her anything about writing. She's really looking forward to her Liberal Arts program this fall, and is anxious to learn how to write properly so that education is actually a CHALLENGE and a LEARNING EXPERIENCE for her.

Kem said...

Katie: The Ontario Board of Education is the Devil. I hate it. I want to stomp up and down on its head and throw acid into its beady little eyes. How are students supposed to learn anything useful if we won't let them use their very own brains? What is the point of stifling kids for years, then turning them loose on hapless university professors who are forced to reteach them everything?

The "thinking" behind this idiocy is the same sort of "thinking" that denies children the opportunity to read books that are "too hard" for them. We must not use big words in children's literature! Heaven forbid your ten-year-old daughter should have to consult a dictionary while she's reading for fun! Good grief.

I hope your cousin has managed to get into a programme that allows her at least a few small classes and close contact with her professors. Many larger universities shunt first-years into huge classes taught by harassed sessionals who barely have time to eat and sleep, let alone counsel traumatised undergrads who think that "Since the dawn of time..." is an acceptable way to begin an essay about Charles Dickens.

MiaZagora said...

I'm a homeschooling parent. In a panic, I just taught my 7th grader how to write an "essay sandwich" - because that's how I remember being taught eons ago when I was in school! Please tell me it's not too late! Is there a book you recommend that will wash the Five Paragraph Essay from my feeble mind?

Kem said...

Admittedly, I'm posting a little bit late (I only look at the comments of old posts very rarely), but if you see this, MiaZagora, rest assured that all is not lost. I know I imply that sandwich essays are the devil, but the idea behind the sandwich is not actually a terrible one; this method is meant to teach student writers that structure is important. A grade 7 student needs to learn this fundamental lesson. However, you might also teach your child that the structure has a purpose; it is not structure for the sake of structure. Those five paragraphs are there to keep the essayist from going off on tangents and presenting his or her argument in a scattered, confusing way. The idea that structure is important is one that needs to be retained. What DOESN'T need to be retained is the idea that there is only one possible structure and that the content can be "plugged into" this structure.

I actually can't think of any good books off the top of my head because I generally don't teach this sort of thing from a book. I would simply say that it's essential for students to learn the principles of logical argument well enough that they can mould structure to content and not the other way around.

leonora said...

This is an extremely late post, but I just found your blog. I am in an ontari high school student, and the only method my teachers have ever taught me is the sandwich method. I do not understand how high school teachers are continuously teaching us the sandwich method when they have been to university, and know that the writing method is childish and meant for beginners. You would think at least some teachers would want to prepare us for college/university. Your blog is going to help me immensely when I begin going to university.

Kem said...

Hi there, leonora. I actually don't come here all that often any more (I should, I know), but quite randomly, I have happened to see your comment only a few days after you have posted it (Blogger doesn't send comment notifications to me; I'm not sure why). I'm glad you've found the blog useful. You'll need to toe the line until you graduate, of course, but don't be afraid to think beyond the Almighty Sandwich. You're quite right that it's not coming close to preparing you for university. However, don't put too much blame on your teachers. They are obliged to stick to the curriculum, and the Ontario curriculum is all about the sandwich. All you can do at this point is try to think beyond the model. Conform to the damn sandwich structure so you don't fail all your essays, but WITHIN that structure, create logical arguments. Make sure all your points are connected to each other. Be specific rather than vague. Try my Magic Formula for Cheating Your Way Out of a Split Thesis. You'll survive high school, and you'll have prepared yourself for university as well.

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