Form, Space, and Synchronicity

Shelly at UFO recently raised some really interesting points about length and form and how we manage/regulate information and attention in texts. As powerful a template as the five-paragraph theme may be, Shelly suggests that it’s only useful up to a certain length, and I’m inclined to agree. As a template for writers, the five-paragraph theme makes the question of form-as-organization one less thing a struggling writer has to worry about. But for readers, once you get up over 800 or 900 words, the five paragraph theme no longer offers much help navigating the essay’s form-as-coherence.

A couple days later, Spencer pointed out a discussion of the relation between coherence, the form of the five-paragraph theme, and students’ attention to other aspects of writing. And again, the implicit argument in the passage Spencer points to seems to be that the five-paragraph theme is a tool for managing the resources of attention. For me, seeing Shelly’s and Spencer’s posts within the space of two days was an interesting bit of synchronicity that got even more interesting when I read Peter Elbow’s latest (June 2006) CCC essay on “The Music of Form: Rethinking Organization in Writing” in conjunction with the preface to Richard Lanham’s 2006 The Economics of Attention. For one thing, you’ve got to love Peter’s reference to the five-paragraph theme as “a kind of ‘slam bam thank you ma’am’ organization” (632). But to be a bit more serious: in The Economics of Attention, Richard Lanham begins with the assertion that “information is not in short supply in the new information economy” (xi). Rather, “what we lack is the human attention to make sense of it all” (xi). We don’t have enough time to devote to all this information and sort it out. Like our students, we as teachers “are short of time” (Elbow 631). And time and attention are central concerns for Elbow.

Now: one more connection to add to the pile. According to Elbow, “the most common way that writers bind words and pull readers through a text” is in narrative (634).

In 2001, I wrote a review essay called “The Ends of Narrative Inquiry” for a methods seminar and wound up being entirely too proud of myself for what I saw as my own stylistic


Here’s the first paragraph of the essay, which follows an epigraph from Hofstadter about Schr

Form, Space, and Synchronicity

4 thoughts on “Form, Space, and Synchronicity

  • June 30, 2006 at 4:44 pm

    I like this post, and am now making a note to read the Elbow piece that I put aside last night in the hammock. (Summer reading, for me, is often not reading.)

    I’m gonna think about this and, if I can find a certain text, post a response over on my shores. Thanks for these thoughts!

  • July 2, 2006 at 11:23 am

    I find that the five paragraph template is so overused in high school that my students have trouble letting it go–yet I do understand that it is a comfortable means for organizing information while attending to other writerly concerns. I’ve tried softening the blow by giving my students specific instructions for three or four or indeterminate-sized essays, and have seen some success with it, though yes, it is one more example of a power from the outside imposing a structure on the writer. I’m starting to rethink my edict against never allowing the 5 paragraph structure darken my doors, having watched my BW 1 students struggle –if it helps them while they tend to other writerly concerns, like forming thesis statements or strengthening sentences, then perhaps a few 5 p’s should be allowed.

    Haven’t read Elbow’s essay yet, but once I climb out of a month’s worth of mail, I intend to.

  • July 5, 2006 at 10:44 am

    I’m also still in the process of working my way through Elbow’s essay, but was anxious to jump in at the end of yr post. I’m curious about the “teach-ability” of style. What exactly would that mean, or look like? How does a writer develop a style? Can one guide a student towards his/her “natural” style, and what are the ethical implications of that process? Wouldn’t it be necessary to have some evaluation scheme/ranking system in place? (Did you happen to read Ben Yagoda’s book of a few years ago on style? Very thought provoking…)

  • July 8, 2006 at 12:01 pm

    I read Elbow’s article yesterday, and I now see what you mean about some of the correspondences to things I’ve been thinking about. The ant’s dilemma is very much the problem I think Moretti tries to get at in emphasizing what he calls “distant reading.” This brings to mind several of the various efforts to account for scale (like Bronfenbrenner’s micro-meso-exo-macro ordering, let’s say; there are a few others). I’m more familiar with efforts to apply the notion of scale to space, to give vocabulary to the gradually distinguishable scenic spheres, sliced from global to local or universe to body. I mean that I don’t see as much nuance in our discussions of time or temporality (could be I’m not looking in the right places; that’s often the problem!). That is, Elbow’s article got me thinking about the uses and limitations of applying something like scale to time (maybe this is too simple or obvious to be of much relevance).

    I like what Elbow’s doing, and I think he manages successfully to soften what come early on as harder, more rigid stances. Where he says, for instance, that he’s “troubled by the seeming monopoly of traditional nondynamic organizational techniques in the teaching of writing (such as signposting, mapping, thesis statements, and the neat arrangement of parts” (645), I wonder what makes these technigues “nondynamic.” Is this a problem of seeing them as mechanical, algorithmic, formulaic analogs or tidy descriptions? A failure to note their heuristic function? But then he makes it clear that he’s “not arguing against them” (645).

    This comment’s getting long enough that I ought to move it over to my own blog as an entry with trackback. I’ll end qith just two questions or perplexities (of my own) that hung around while I was reading. The first involves the predisposition toward particular musical forms (ones that, perhaps, begin with an understanding of notes, energy and rhythm). He mentions the fugue, but I wanted to think more about improvisational jazz riffs, accidents and oddities, and also techno (as something close to unmusical music that, theoretically, uses repetition, arguably, to loosen time’s grip). The other question folds together the notion of “itch” and also this line: “I feel justified in my enthusiasm especially because I’m fighting a monopoly of vision and space in our conception of organization” (650). What never really comes to bear here is the possibility of the visual/spatial itch or what, if you’ll grant me the leap, Barthes refers to as punctum (Elbow uses a lot of Barthes in this essay but not Camera Lucida). Granted, Barthes develops this in terms of photography rather than visual modeling, but “punctum” might be worth keeping fresh in the critique of the “monopoly,” particularly because Barthes gives us two punctums: detail and time (or the “defeat of time” evoked by the historical photo). I’m not sure I’ve articulated it well here, but I kept wondering whether it should be a given that visual organization schemes couldn’t provoke in us a kind of itch or sting (i.e. the generative turn in the visual heuristic), not timeless, necessarily, but perhaps futuristic.

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