Man bites dog, teaches freshman to write intro paragraphs

Some of my freshman writing students immediately get the idea of a "destabilizing condition." It's almost intuitive. They see how the introduction of an academic paper and really the paper itself is built around a central tension, a subversion of expectations, which the intro sets up, and then the rest of the paper explains.

Others find the concept more elusive.

Even if they have a really good thesis question, they sometimes struggle to explain why the question would be of interest to anyone if it's not just self evident. They can't quite figure out how to back up from their specific, focused, research question to create an intro that might draw the reader in. They end up either starting very abruptly, as if the question arrived to the paper ex nihilo, or (horrors), starting with the most broad banalities (since the beginning of time) which they then "destabilize," but in the most boring way. 

I decided, in my honors seminar on Watergate, to try a new approach to teaching introductions. 

I tried to think of other ways I could could talk about this subversion of expectations without using phrases like "subversion of expectations" or "internal contradiction" or "destabilization." I wanted to find alternatives, where they actually already knew what I was talking about, but just didn't know the terms or that that was what they were supposed to do in a good academic intro paragraph. 

I came up with three:

1. There's an old journalist saying, for when something is news. They say, "when a dog bites a man, that's not news. But when a man bites a dog, that's news."

I asked the students, "why?" One of them answered immediately, “When a man bites a man we're surprised;  it’s surprising.” Exactly. 

2. These freshman all read Antigone last semester, and in my class at least we talked about the form of the Greek tragedy, what made it tragic, and what the play was saying about human nature with its sense of tragedy. I asked them to remember back and tell me what Greek tragedy was about--what makes a Greek tragedy a Greek tragedy, specifically. 

One student said: Because bad stuff happens and everyone dies. 

I said, "Well not exactly. Here's a story about Dave. Dave is walking down the street, like a person. And then a meteor falls out of the sky. Splat. Dave is dead." I asked, "Is that a Greek tragedy?"

Two other students answer, no, and then gave me two variations of the answer that a Greek tragedy is where people are doomed because of their stubborn commitment to a particular virtue. It's the good thing they love to an extreme that gets them into trouble. 

I re-told the story of Dave: Dave is very cautious. Number one issue for Dave is safety. He's so safe, he never leaves his house. Meteor falls, hits his house, how ironic. 

The class agreed there was a real difference between the two stories, and the second one was better because it had more "tension."

3. At this point, the students could basically see where this was going, but one more example made sure we all really got it: jokes. A joke, in its most basic form, is a set up (stable condition) and a punch line (destabilizing the stable condition). 

I told a joke about Freudian slips. This works doubly, because Freudian slips are also about subverted expectations, and those expectations are pretty explicitly stated, unlike, say, chicken-crossing-the-road jokes. The joke I used goes: Two psychologists are talking about Freudian slips and how awkward they can be. The one says, "I know, I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'please pass the hot buns,' but instead I said, 'you have hot buns.' It was so embarrassing." The other says, "I know. It's so awkward. I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'pass the salt' but instead I said 'you horrible woman you ruined my life!'"

The students who have drifted off are brought back by a joke. I then quickly retell it, marking the parts verbally as I go:

Two psychologists are talking about Freudian slips and how awkward they can be (expectation). The one says, "I know, I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'please pass the hot buns' (expectation) but instead I said, 'you have hot buns'" (subverted expectation). The other says, "I know. It's so awkward (repetition re-building expectation). I was having dinner with my mother and I meant to say 'pass the salt' (expectation doubled) but instead I said 'you horrible woman you ruined my life!'" (subversion doubled). 

At this point, they all have a firm grasp of destabilization, but I want to do one more thing, before I send them back to their intros. I want to talk about "ledes."

Students, even when they have a good idea of how destabilization works, are often so focused on their thesis and getting to their thesis, that they forget they know how to communicate information. They can be freed from this fixation, I think, by considering non-academic (and perhaps less threatening) approaches to introducing a story. I use examples from journalism.

Journalists, I tell them, have two basic ways of starting stories. The first is called the straight lede (misspelled to distinguish it from the metal lead). There, you write a single sentence that contains all the basic information of a story: who, what, where, when, why, and how. 5 Ws and an H. 

Example: Local man Dave (who) was killed (what) walking down the street (where) Tuesday (when) when a meteor randomly fell out of the sky (why) and struck him on the head (how).

Example: President Donald Trump (who) vowed to build an even bigger wall (what) on the U.S.-Mexican border (where), Tweeting this morning (when) that Congress needs to act (how) to stop this "plague on America" (why).

I point out the 5 Ws and an H don't always have to come in the same order, and sometimes it's better to do this in two sentences, or even three, but in principle you should be able to write a straight lede in a single sentence. The straight lede is the whole story, in its simplest form. The BLUF: Botton Line Up Front.

I then tell them about the second kind of lede: the anecdotal lede. Here, I tell them, you "bury the lede." Before you tell the readers who, what, where, when, why and how, you tell them a short pop of a story. The story is tiny, maybe incidental. It's not THE story, but a stray bit of bit of a thing, which illustrates the larger point. It's a helps people understand the theme, often by focusing on a minor detail.

So, your man bit a dog, but before you say that, you say:

"Jim was surprised to find that dog fur is pretty salty. He hadn't expected that. He hadn't expected anything, actually. Jim wants to be very clear this is not something he thought about ahead of time, planned in any way, or imagined like some kind of fantasy.

“‘Not in a million years,’ Jim says.

“He didnâ’t wake up that morning thinking, ‘Today’s the day I bite that dog.’

“But it was that day. Jim Little bit his neighbor’s beagle on Oak Avenue, Monday.â€

The lede, with the who, what, where, and when (but not the why or how, here, because those can be deferred) is still in this version of the intro. It’s just at the end, buried, transitioning the reader from this anecdote to the larger story about a man biting a dog.

At this point, I think, the students are ready to start. I give them their intro assignments:

    1.    Write the straight lede to your research paper.

    2.    Write what is “man bites dog” about your story.

    3.    Write an anecdotal lede to your research paper.

    4.    Explain the “Greek tragedy” of your research paper.

    5.    Write a traditional academic introduction, with the four elements, a) the stable condition, b) the destabilization, c) the “so what?” explanation of the larger importance, and d) your main claim/thesis statement, BUT, incorporate any part of what you wrote for assignments 1, 2, 3, and 4, as it helps you articulate your point and connect with your readers.

I won't really know if this works until I try it a few more times. But the immediate feedback seems pretty good. The intros I'm getting aren't as clunky. The students are finding ways to draw the reader in. They're crafting intros that show why their research problem is a problem, getting at the central tension in a more intuitive way than they might of, if I had just explained "destabilizing condition" two or three more times.