Student Introduction Writing and Dialogic Discourse

I've found that more and more often, my first-year comp students are writing introductions to research papers in this manner:

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Dozens of civilians have been killed as fighting continues between rebels and Liberian government forces for control of the West African country's second-largest city of Buchanan.

Rebels seeking to oust President Charles Taylor turned back a counter-attack by forces loyal to the government Tuesday -- one day after they seized the strategical port city, about 70 miles [112 kilometers] southeast of Monrovia.

"There are bodies all over the place. Dozens of people have been killed," one Buchanan resident told Reuters by telephone. "The wounded are on the streets and there is no way to treat them."

Another resident said the dead were being carted away in wheelbarrows when it was safe to retrieve them, Reuters reported.

Why is there so much conflict in Liberia? In this paper, I will attempt to answer this question, going back to the founding of Liberia by the American Colonization Society in 1817 as a home for emancipated slaves. I will trace the historical events that led up to the current civil war and argue that white imperialism and colonialism led to a corrupt government...

Why is that? (See, I did it too.) I haven't read any Bakhtin on dialogic imagination or dialogic novel or whichever it is, but will do so this fall in my genre theory class. I wonder what he would say. Discourse, especially "academic discourse," whatever that is, has always been a conversation, to use the Burkean metaphor, but it hasn't been common in my experience to see it presented in such an outright way. I never know quite how to respond to introductions like these. On the one hand, that's how composition is, and where it's going, but shouldn't they be able to write an introduction without relying on this kind of "prompt"? Sometimes it's easy to rely too heavily on this model of introduction--and sometimes it's better to be able to summarize and paraphrase events and arguments.

(Oh, here's the link to the Liberia story if anyone wants to see it. Here's another one that I used for fact-checking.)


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Intros from Hell

Clancy, I share your dismay at receiving this kind of writing. I think there are two possible explanations for this.

One, and perhaps the simplest for you to deal with, is that the students are simply adhering to a formula they have been taught at the high school level and that lends itself particularly well to The Research Essay. If these are drafts you've received, I think you can ask for rewrites after having a class discussion/lesson on why "signpost" introductions don't work (they are mechanical, boring, cookie-cutter, etc.). I am not required at my institution to teach the traditional research paper, so I don't. I think they too easily lend themselves to formulaic, boring writing. I'd rather see a research project emerge organically from a paper the student had already written for another purpose, or have the student fulfill any research abilities I need to see by doing textual analysis (that's just me, and I know a lot of programs require the traditional research paper--if you have to do it that way, Toby Fulwiler has good ideas for keeping it from being formulaic).

As for the Burkean idea of conversation or Bakhtinian idea of dialogic discourse, wouldn't you agree if that is what students are attempting here, they have failed? These kinds of openings--while they may represent students' attempts to enter the world of academic discourse (or at least what they think it is)--aren't demonstrating any real attempt to enter a dialogue. I'd be much more interested in an introduction in which the writer admits that the Liberian situation is too complex to reach an answer about or that he/she is baffled by part of it. Or, I'd prefer a paper in which the writer analyzes a particular author's viewpoint about the crisis (though perhaps this wouldn't fit the research paper assignment). I guess I'm saying that intros of the type presented here don't show any real reach or engagement to me, and that's what academic discourse should be about and what we need to get them to do, even at the freshman comp level.

So, yes, I share your frustration!!!

since i am still an undergrad

since i am still an undergrad, i'll lend the advice my professors have given me (other than telling me to capitalize on the web -- apparently non-capitalized email is irritating to my english professors -- go figure).

1. analyze the criticism of scholars on a particular work or topic and do your best to add your own voice to the discussion.

2. treat the paper as an internal rhetorical discussion.

number two works best for me, especially because i'm always debating myself in my head. that's what the blog is for.

Bakhtin Quotes

From Thivai,

Perhaps this will help to explain:

"Monologism at its extreme denies the existence outside itself of another consciousness with equal rights and equal responsibilities, another I with equal rights (thou). With a monologic approach…another person remains wholly and merely an object of consciousness, and not another consciousness. No response is expected from it that could change everything in the world of my consciousness. Monologue is finalized and deaf to the other's response, does not expect it and does not acknowledge in it any decisive force. Monologue manages without the other, and therefore to some degree materializes all reality. Monologue pretends to be the ultimate word. It closes down the represented world and represented persons. (Bakhtin: 292-93)

The dialogic nature of consciousness. The dialogic nature of human life itself. The single adequate form for verbally expressing authentic human life is the open- ended dialogue. Life by its very nature is dialogic. To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds. He invests his entire self in discourse, and this discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium. (Bakhtin: 293)

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. Problems of Dostoyesky’s Poetics. ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota P, 1984.

"There is neither a first word nor a last word. The contexts of dialogue are without limit. They extend into the deepest past and the most distant future. Even meanings born in dialogues of the remotest past will never be finally grasped once and for all, for they will always be renewed in later dialogue. At any present moment of the dialogue there are great masses of forgotten meanings, but these will be recalled again and again at a given moment in the dialogue's later course when it will be given new life. For nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will some day have its homecoming festival." (Bhaktin 1979, 170)

Bakhtin, M.M. (1986) "Methodology for the Human Sciences," Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas Press.

Allan Irving and Ken Moffatt in their essay Intoxicated Midnight and Carnival Classrooms: The Professor as Poet state that:

"Dialogue in Bakhtin's view is more than just two people talking; the more a word is used in our speech the more contexts and nuances it gathers and the word's meanings proliferate with each encounter. Our utterances (another of Bakhtin's words) do not forget but rather carry fragments from all our previous speech acts as well as the significance from the current context and this includes even forms of intonation. All utterances are double-voiced, bringing meanings with them, perhaps trailing them, but spoken into the here and now into the ongoing dialogues of our lives. 'Every word,' Bakhtin wrote, 'gives off the scent of a profession, a genre, a current, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an era, a day, and an hour. Every word smells of the context and contexts in which it has lived its intense social life'"

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