I had the opportunity this week to see Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein give a lecture on “Demystifying Academic Writing,” and even more fortunate to have the chance to ask them a question during a discussion afterwards.

I was interested in an issue they raised during their lecture, as it’s something I’ve encountered in my own teaching.  In They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter In Academic Writing, Graff and Birkenstein provide many templates for argumentative movement.  They encourage student writers to use these templates as needed in their own work — word for word, even.

But in suggesting this, we each run into a number of students who resist even considering such an approach.  They worry that using templates is an affront to their own creativity and individualism.

I asked Graff and Birkenstein why they think students have these negative reactions to very practical and helpful approaches to writing, considering that we, the teachers, are providing a sort of cheat sheet for what we like to see in academic writing.  Is there a problem in the way we teach genius and creativity, or are these conversations natural to have at the University-level?

In replying, Cathy thought it had broader cultural links to our ideas of American exceptionalism.  But in arriving there, I thought she struck on a very simple parallel I hope to use in my own classrooms: Cathy talked about how students, when learning an instrument or sport (among other things), never object to finger drills on a violin, or dribbling drills at a soccer practice.

Frankly, I was disappointed that such a direct and relatable parallel had never occurred to me before.  I don’t think it’s such a stretch to imagine that a majority of students will have some sort of history with a sport, class, hobby or lesson that they consider creative, but is only grasped through the mimicry and interpretation of previous work.

We don’t use templates to avoid creating something new, but to find what it is we wish to build.