Sunday, November 2, 2008

Essays and Cultural Differences

Recently -- like, last week -- it was explained to me that the German tradition of essay writing differs sharply from the English one. American and British students are taught to write thesis-proof papers: set forth a central idea upfront, write points and cite texts or research supporting that point, and finish with a restatement of the central idea or a discussion of its applicability (in the case of scientific articles).

German essays, on the other hand (including the ones my university students have studied throughout their long schooling), are structured differently. An argument often examines all sides of an issue. The essay may start anywhere, since the point is often not manifest until the end.

All this clarifies a question that a student asked me last Monday after class, a question I did not understand at all. She said, regarding the paper I had assigned, "So do you want us to write this in the style we were taught before?" I said, "Style won't count as much as content. I want to hear what you have to say." But now I think she meant "structure," not what I was thinking of as style (voice, eloquence). These students at the Institute for American Studies were taught, in their first year, the American style of paper writing. By failing to say that's what I want now, who knows what I will get.

I will try to clear this up in class today, but the papers are due next week and it's possible that many of them have started to write (I hope). But I will try. The difficulty with cross-cultural differences in that if you don't know the divide is there, it's hard to build a bridge across it.


tatere said...

I don't know where that "statement-body-restatement" structure came from, I've heard different theories. But it is the most godawful way to write an essay, ever. "I am going to say bla bla bla. Bla bla bla. I have now said bla bla bla." So dull. There is no progress, no direction of thought, no discovery. No narrative. I suppose it's handy to skimmers.

Nick A said...

German essay format: since the essays can start anywhere, you could challenge your students to write their essay in a 'simultaneity format' :)

Mike Flynn said...

Dull, but clear. That's the English pragmatist approach. French physicists noted that about English physicists back in the early 1900s.

It's descended from a late medieval form called a "tract." It became very popular during the Renaissance and later, when folks were less interested in weighing all sides to a question and more interested in simply convincing others of one side. Rhetoric replaced logical syllogism as the style of the day.

+ + +

Someone once complained about Thomas Aquinas that his arguments were incoherent because he contradicted himself all the time. "First he says something, then he says the exact opposite."

This of course was the style that the medievals calle "the dialectic." This High Medieval style seems the ancestor to the "German essay format" you describe. But Germany went through the Romantic movement. The classical dialectic is more rigorously arranged and less discursive:
1. State out the question
2. State the principle arguments against it (the antitheses)
3. State the prinicple arguments in favor (the theses)
4. Weigh the arguments and concluse in favor of the thesis, the antitheses, a combination of both, or in another alternative (the synthesis). This is sometimes preceded by a division into cases or by definitions.
5. Rebut each of the principle objections. (Since this arrangement was made after thinking through the problem, the antitheses usually stated what the writer proposed to argue against.)

Oh. And you're supposed to write it in Latin. :-D

Nancy Kress said...

Mike, you continually amaze me. How do you know all this stuff? I want direct acess to the database in your brain, as a reference tool.

P.F. said...

I suspect he is holding Robert Silverberg hostage in his basement.

But seriously, I'm confused by all this. I thought Germans were supposed to be rigorously methodical? I would never have thought they start essays "just anywhere".

Mike Flynn said...

I had to learn all that stuff to write Eifelheim. It's stuck up there like a jingle you can't get out of your head.

(So I wrote the alt.hist "Quaestiones super caelo et mundo" and the fact article "De revolutione scientiarum in 'media tempestas'". The latter, I wrote in the form of a Question. Confused the heck out of some readers.)

The French physicist Pierre Duhem wrote "The English School and Physical Theories" (1893) and "Some Reflections on German Science" (1915).

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Mike Flynn--
Good info, thank you!