"They Say / I Say": The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing with Readings Paperback – 1 Dec 2008
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A joy to read . . . like having a private tutorial with gifted teachers. --Sarah Duerden, Arizona State University --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
They Say/I Say is a short book with a simple premise -- it correctly states that no argument occurs in a vacuum, but must depend upon what others have to say about it. Moreover, the authors believe one of the principle difficulties which students have with persuasive writing is an inability to correctly utilize these necessary ingredients (introduce what others have to say on the subject, and then present their own voice on the matter). Though I am not a writing teacher, I have found this to be the case in my classes.
TSIS summarizes the important aspects of this conversation in persuasive writing and provides templates for students to summarize what others say, introduce their own points, and perform various other techniques. While one may think the use of such templates leads to formulaic writing, the authors suggest the opposite is the case. By understanding how to shape their ideas, students can learn to better express their orginal thoughts, thus making their writing more individual.
While I am inclined to agree, TSIS is not perfect. It certainly cannot be used as a thorough textbook on all persuasive writing, nor am I completely convinced that the exercises provided in the book are the most effective at using the templates in student writing. If teachers can get students to incorporate the ideas of TSIS into student's writing, however, they will accomplish much. Check it out for yourself.
The authors' thesis is that writing is an uncomplicated process which can be reduced to a handful of rhetorical components. If students see writing as a social act, joining a larger conversation already in process, they will produce engaging writing which both they and their teachers will enjoy. Since the book is laced with examples of effective and ineffective writing, there is no doubt as to which the authors aim for, making evaluation a simple, somewhat objective process.
This book seeks to be accessible to a mass audience. It's written in vernacular English, using examples from current culture and respected print sources. It is so straightforward that teachers can use it at multiple levels, from advanced middle school up through college composition. It's so explicit that it could even be used without a teacher, with only a writing group or college writing center to fill in the role of hands-on assistance with individual problems.
This "With Readings" edition contains the full text of Graff and Birkenstein's original short primer of the same title. The original is less than 150 pages and can be digested in small segments by teachers and students alike. This edition contains over 250 pages of articles from respected print and online publications to guide students into the larger writerly discourse. Selected authors include George Will, Thomas Friedman, Eric Schlosser, and Barack Obama.
My only regret is that I did not receive this book sooner. My teaching career up to this point would have been both easier and more productive if I had enjoyed this text, which simply states everything I wanted to say. Both teachers and students often make writing a more difficult process than it needs to be, but this book strips the mystification away and makes classroom writing as easy and clear-cut as the conversations students already have.
The academy has for 50 years become more and more bound by a publish or perish model. New Ph.D.s are expected to make contributions very quickly to advanced fields. The disproportion between the youth and inexperience of new authors and the requirement of professional work for advancement has lead to predictable outcomes. First, young writers must quickly hyper-specialize to be able to master a sub-field. Often then scholars are fairly blind to areas that are adjacent as they cannot afford "horizontal" growth. Second, they must tailor their work to what is fashionable and currently being published: this means that the typical article spends a large chunk of time in the "literature review" of what has come before: then the author "turns the screw" a little and goes on to the next half turn paper. This pattern has now come to the undergraduates, and this book is its result.
The problem is that the book skips over all the basic skills of composition as if they were already mastered. Most students do not know how to read critically the primary materials that should form the basis for original thought. Therefore, when they enter the critical literature before reading primary texts as this book suggests, they have no idea themselves where they fall in regard to the material at issue. This means they are too easily swayed by the first "plausible" argument they find. Therefore, their relation to the material in question is often tertiary.
There is a "benefit" here. They may have by this technique quickly developed a skill at passing off the thought of others as their own, but they may have not engaged the material critically. It's true that much scholarly work is of this ilk, but, for me, no admirable work follows this pattern. If one asks students who write in this fashion to explain the terms of the argument, the sources of disagreement, or to point to evidence other than that they found in their sources, often they cannot. Thus, this text encourages the appearance of analysis without the incumbent skills or depth. In short, to immerse them in the field before they have some capacity to respond to the primary material independently seems an inversion of priority.
In contrast, most students need assistance in areas this text hardly addresses. While reading is discipline specific in its sophisticated state, many students lack the capacity to understand sentences of normal complexity outside of any field's specialized language. Let me cite some of the weaknesses that I think perennially appear in student papers:
No thesis or an unclear or too broad thesis.
No clear topic sentence for paragraphs.
No transition between ideas.
No or little evidence.
No analysis of evidence.
No definitions of terms.
TS, IS starts as if all these central problems are solved. These issues can seem solved if the student parrots a form but that simulacrum does not reflect the cognitive mastery that was the supposed point of education. In short, I think this book will improve student grades more than their minds.
Specifically Graff and Birkenstein argue that the types of writing templates that they offer provide a framework for the development of critical thinking skills. As the authors themselves put it "Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this book is its presentation of many such templates designed to help you successfully enter not only the world of academic thinking and writing but also the wider worlds of civic discourse and work".
Although some people believe that critical thinking and writing are more complex than any set of linguistic templates, Graff and Birkenstein insist that these deeper thought processes cannot be used without the means to express them in a clear, organized way.
For the most part I agree with their approach. In my view the types of templates that the authors recommend provide a good framework for constructing academic arguments. For instance this book review has been constructed using one of their templates! In doing so it has allowed me to put their approach to a practical test, which has proven to be worthwhile. Some might object on the grounds that I have used their words as my own, and therefore I am not being creative. Yet I would argue that the words that I have contributed are my own and have allowed me to express my own ideas.
Overall I believe that Graff and Birkenstein's approach is extremely useful and provides a simple framework upon which to build a critically thought out scholarly argument - an important point to make given the simplicity and ease of use of this "how to" manual.