Who is teaching my students to write rhetorical questions?

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No, really, I’m not being ironic: who are you? And could you please stop? Two of my high-advanced students — smart people by all accounts — started their diagnostic essays thus:

Do you think profit should be the only motivation for businesses?

Should profit be the only goal for business?

And guess what? (OK, that one was rhetorical) The prompt was: Should profit be the only goal for a business? So, essentially, the students started their essay by asking me the same question I asked them. Oh yes, and the second student had even given the essay a title: Profit is the only goal for business. I need to teach them what a spoiler alert is.

Let me be clear: I’m not blaming, mocking, or criticizing my students. After all, they’re reproducing the poor writing strategies they’ve been taught, in which all writing must begin with a so-called “hook,” and proceed with the familiar tedium of the five-paragraph essay. I don’t really like teaching hooks at all in academic writing. They’re fine for a magazine or newspaper article where the writer’s success (and perhaps paycheck) depends on attracting the reader’s attention, but a hook is entirely useless in a class assignment, which it’s my job to read. I can’t choose not to read essays that don’t have my attention! In the end, what makes an academic argument engaging isn’t a weak rhetorical trope in the first sentence; it’s a thoughtful, balanced, and well-supported claim that’s developed coherently and cogently.

Of all the possible ways to start a piece of writing — academic or otherwise — there are few that are more likely to fail than the rhetorical question. True, it is possible to write a witty, surprising, or meaningful rhetorical question, but it’s pretty unlikely that an ESL student is going hit on one of those when writing about business ethics in test conditions. Surely the time would be better spent developing an actual argument.

It seems to me that there are two reasons why teachers continue to push recipes that they themselves wouldn’t touch. One might be called the baby food defense. No, I wouldn’t eat that awful rice mush we fed to our boys as infants, but kids have to learn to eat solid food, and that Gerber goo seems to work as a step towards real food. The problem with analogies, though, is that they quickly break down. Learning to write academically in a second language (or indeed any language) is not really like weaning a child off a liquid diet. It’s simply not the case that if students write bland introductions devoid of nutritional content at first that they will go on to proffer a smorgasbord of rhetorical delights in their future assignments. The proof is on my desk: there’s no incentive as long as teachers keep accepting bad writing. This doesn’t matter in the baby food model because all writing assignments are the same, just variations of the five-paragraph essay. Again, this is true of baby food (is there actually a difference between the jars of pureed peas and broccoli apart from the labels?) but not writing. Genres vary systematically, and their different social purposes require different strategies, language, and organization.

This leads me to my second hypothesis. Let’s call this “never mind the content, count the paragraphs.” I sometimes get the disturbing feeling that students have not been held accountable for the content of their writing rather that just the form. I honestly don’t think they realize that I actually do want to hear their opinions. I’m teaching a group of mostly Chinese pre-MBA students using the theme of ethics as the anchor for my course. I’d really like to know what they think about the ethical goals of business! Of course, it’s a diagnostic essay in an ESL writing class, so I also want to see how well they can write in order to tailor the course to their needs, but writing should be more than an empty display of linguistic facility (as in the thankfully now defunct SAT essay). A futile rhetorical question checks a box on a rubric (“the essay starts with a hook”) but does nothing for the content or purpose of the writing. The same could be said of the ubiquitous tripartite thesis statement, but that’s another blog post.

Would anyone like to justify the rhetorical question in academic writing? And again, that’s not a …

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

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