Beyond ABC: Going Deeper with a Subject

Here’s a handout I just put together for my ENG 101 class when I realized (after more than a decade of teaching!) that my students might not know what I mean when I tell them to “go deeper” with a subject.

Frequently, a teacher will respond to an essay by saying that the author could stand to “go deeper” with an argument or discussion. What this frequently means is that the student has done a decent job of explaining the facts of a given topic or issue but hasn’t fully explored that issue. It can also mean that the student has only discussed what might be described as “obvious” or superficial concepts associated with the issue at hand but hasn’t really done anything interesting with the material or explained something that the reader might not have already known. One way of describing this problem is to say that the author has sacrificed breadth for depth.

Imagine, for example, that you’ve decided to write an essay about Facebook, and you’ve narrowed your subject down to the subject of marketing products and services on Facebook. Let’s further assume that you’ve personally had some good experiences with marketing a your band’s music on Facebook and that you’ve come to the conclusion that Facebook is a great marketing tool. Although this is a decent place to start, it runs the risk of leading to a paper that does little more than list some of the reasons why Facebook is a great marketing tool. A paper on those lines would tend to be somewhat formulaic and wouldn’t allow you to explore your position in great depth.

Let’s look a little more closely at what I’m talking about: It would be pretty easy to write a paper arguing that Facebook is a great marking tool. The opening paragraph would provide a little bit of background and end with the statement that Facebook is a great marketing tool. The next few paragraphs would then provide evidence of why it’s a great marketing tool. Body paragraph A would begin by saying something like, “First of all, marketing on Facebook is free.” Then it would go on to provide examples or explain why free marketing is a good thing. Body paragraph B would say something like, “Additionally, Facebook has many users.” The rest of that paragraph might discuss the numbers of users in different demographics and why they matter. Body paragraph C might mention something about the ability to target specific types of users. The paper would then end with a conclusion that says something like, “Facebook is a strong marketing tool because of A, B, and C. A is good for this reason. B is good for this reason. C is good for this reason. Therefore A, B, and C make Facebook the ideal marketing tool.”

The trouble with this approach is that it really doesn’t leave any room for debate and doesn’t fully address the complexity of marketing products and services on Facebook. Basically, it presents information that everyone probably agrees with. At the same time, though, it leaves some questions unanswered. For example, why do some products and services sell better than others on Facebook? Are the marketers of these products and services using the Facebook more effectively? If so, how are they doing that? Or is it a question of the type of product or service that’s being sold? Are Facebook users more likely to purchase some products and services than others? Which products and services are most conducive to being marketed through Facebook? By dedicating a paragraph to each of these questions, you will be able to write an essay that takes the reader much deeper into your subject matter than the basic A, B, and C pattern.

One thought on “Beyond ABC: Going Deeper with a Subject

  1. Marc, for the most part I agree with what you’re saying here. However, I don’t necessarily agree that the structure of the essay is what’s keeping students from writing “deeply.” The questions that you want your students to answer are nuanced. They also require some knowledge of information that students may not have at all or, at the very least, may have never paid attention to before. They may not know what questions to even ask themselves about a topic before they start writing, which is why they tend to lean so heavily on the A,B,C stuff. Trust me…I try to teach students about gender roles in film: They’ve seen (and typically are themselves) women and men. They’ve seen movies. It doesn’t mean they know how to talk about gender roles in movies.

    It seems to me that it’s not entirely the A, B, C format that’s creating the simplistic logic of, as you say, “‘Facebook is a strong marketing tool because of A, B, and C. A is good for this reason. B is good for this reason. C is good for this reason. Therefore A, B, and C make Facebook the ideal marketing tool.'” A,B,C structure is just giving them a strict framework in which to convey or organize information, but it’s not limiting the information itself. The problem IS the information or, more specifically, how students think (or don’t) about the complexity and nuance of an issue. Our job is to push them to go deeper by teaching them how to ask critical questions and not just stop at the surface (agree/disagree, good/bad). Though an A, B, C essay is limiting in many ways, it doesn’t have to cripple the way students think about and discuss an issue. They can still dig deep within the A,B,C structure if they know what to talk about and how to talk about it.

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