Very Good Bad Paragraphs – Pedagogue Edition

From this psychology textbook I’m waist deep in right now[1], itself citing Bransford, J.D. and Johnson, M.K.’s 1972 paper on contextual prerequisites for understanding:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First arrange things into different bundles depending on makeup. Don’t do too much at once. In the short run this may not seem important, however, complications easily arise. A mistake can be costly. Next, find facilities. Some people must go elsewhere for them. Manipulation of appropriate mechanisms should be self-explanatory. Remember to include all other necessary supplies. Initially the routine will overwhelm you, but soon it will become just another facet of life. Finally, rearrange everything into their initial groups. Return these to their usual places. Eventually they will be used again. Then the whole cycle will have to be repeated.

It’s inscrutable, right? I read it twice and was unable to see or understand anything from it. Then I kept reading and was told it was a description for the process of washing clothes.

Suddenly everything made sense. It doesn’t become a paragraph of good writing once the context is known, but it becomes a paragraph I as a reader can make sense of. This textbook’s authors present this as a case of the influence schemas provide on meaning-making (fundamental in the formation and long-term retrieval potential of new memories), but I like it as a writing lesson. How often do we see such grafs (if not whole drafts) from beginning writers, where some vital contextual element has been occluded or outright withheld from the reader such that nothing ever ties together? How often do we sit in conferences and get told, say, “Oh that one’s about my first pet,” and some aha bulbs light up and suddenly we have to change our whole suggested approach to revision?

For some beginning writers, particularly those encouraged in NF or comp classes to write about their pasts, the idea that If It’s Not On The Page It Won’t Be In The Reader’s Mind is hard to get at first. And hard to keep in mind when writing. So paragraphs like Bransford & Johnson’s are what result. Showing students what such writing can look like, leading them through their own aha moments, might help reinforce that it can be dangerous to presume some understanding or familiarity that the writer hasn’t worked to establish.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. If I’m going to keep telling people and students that essays in specific and nonfiction in general show you a mind at work it’s high time I start understanding what all that work entails. Join me, fellow nonfictioners.

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