I am having my students do an independent study over a book called They Say/I Say (TSIS), which presents templates as a way for student writers to begin conceiving of writing as a conversation they are entering and gives them the “moves that matter in academic writing” that they may or may not be aware of. I am grading their first round of essays.

One student says

Contradicting what we talked about in class, English is like math. There are more ways to get the right answer. For example; 2 + 2 = 4, but 1 + 3 = 4 too. Two problems with completely different numbers, but both the same answer. The same is true in writing. There is a lot of different ways to word what a writer wants to say. There should not be restrictions on how a writer words his or her points. This is like saying that only 2 + 2 = 4 and any other way of coming to that answer by addition is wrong.

I said

In writing, the “answer” might be the same, i.e. “4,” but each writer gets to choose the “numbers” and the mathematical operation used to arrive at this “answer,” and TSIS is simply suggesting part of the equation, not all of it.

Let’s say the assignment is to write a paper supporting the Iraq war (i.e. “4”). Every student will have a different equation for the same answer:

- 1 + 2 = 4
- 7 x 4 = 4
- 3 / 7 = 4
Parts of the equation (i.e. “1”) might look similar, but not two students could ever write exactly the same arguments, whether they use templates or not.

The fact that none of the mathematical questions actually equals 4 tries to get at the point that there are infinitely more methods of arriving at an answer in English than there are in math.

Perhaps I’m comparing advanced writing to simple math, but I think you will still find the same true for derivations and other icky things I never learned. Even for complex math problems, there are a limited number of ways to solve a given problem, although a brilliant mind might stumble upon a clever way or two during her life.

I do not believe that writing is like math, and that is why the templates offered by the book do not stifle creativity, why they do not encourage think-less writing, why they do force students to see both sides and various angles.

Another student argues that “The templates would be useless without my knowledge that fills in the blanks.” Exactly.

Thoughts?