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  • They Say, “Templates Are the Way to Teach Writing”; I Say, “Use with Extreme Caution”
  • Phyllis Benay (bio)

Long before I was invited to write this review, They Say, I Say caught my attention amid hundreds of new books at the publishers’ corner during the 2006 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Chicago. It was not only the authors’ well-known and respected names in the field that attracted me, but the appearance of the book itself. A mere five by seven inches in size, a total of roughly 175 pages, the text is compact, accessible, and appealing. And, at first glance, it may well be one of the most practical books to hit the composition-textbook market in the past decade because it provides a clear roadmap for the creation of academic papers. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein have accomplished what so many of us labor to do in our composition classrooms: they unpack the complicated maneuvers that students need to negotiate in academic writing by providing a series of templates. Although I appreciate and value this very carefully constructed system of templates, I am nevertheless deeply concerned about how this text will be understood and used by today’s college students.

The book begins with wonderful examples for summarizing either a particular writer’s position or a generally accepted viewpoint. The assumption here is that students must first understand an existing debate before they contribute their own ideas to that debate. Most of us agree with that premise, but what is so unique about this book is that Graff and Birkenstein take that agreed-upon understanding and literally show students how to accomplish it. The templates are fill-in-the-blank models such as, “In discussions of X, one controversial issue has been —————” (24). This method provides the novice writer with concrete examples for how to summarize what others have said about a given issue. The following chapters then demonstrate how the student can and should enter into that conversation by stating his or her own position. In order to demonstrate how students can participate through writing, there are dozens of models for how one may disagree or agree with what others say. A few examples might serve to show just how well Graff and Birkenstein have articulated these templates: “I think X is mistaken because she overlooks —————” (55). “X’s theory of ————— is extremely useful because it sheds insight on the difficult problem of —————” [End Page 369] (57). As one moves through the book, there is no rhetorical situation that Graff and Birkenstein have missed; almost every major maneuver is unpacked and clearly laid out for the writer, from “templates for explaining quotations” to “planting a naysayer in your text” (74).

Following their own advice, the authors anticipate a more cautious response, like mine for example, by planting their own naysayer. In the preface, Graff and Birkenstein concede, “We are aware, of course, that some instructors may have reservations about templates. Some, for instance, may object that such formulaic devices represent a return to prescriptive forms of instruction that encourage passive learning or lead students to put their writing on automatic pilot.” Still, they continue to express some doubt that the curriculum addresses these intellectual strategies. “The trouble is that many students will never learn on their own to make the key intellectual moves that our templates represent. While seasoned writers pick up these moves unconsciously through their reading, many students do not” (xiv – xv). Naturally, the authors are aware that many students do not understand the intricacies of how one navigates the waters of written argumentation — the book is written to assist in that process — but what may be absent is a fuller understanding of how and why that happens for some students and not for others.

While I agree that the twists and turns of academic writing are highly complex and require practice, I am also convinced after fifteen years of teaching expository writing that these moves are intrinsically connected to increasingly complex ways of thinking, which then become evident through increasingly complex rhetorical structures. The difference between the so-called seasoned writer and the unseasoned one is not just the process of unconsciously...


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pp. 369-373
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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