Shuffling through some web sites the other day (instead of grading essays, no doubt), I found an interesting article, "Forming and Meaning: Writing the Counterpoint Essay" by David W. Chapman. Why do so many students have such difficulty producing good writing using the rhetorical modes approach? Chapman suggests that perhaps the problem is due not to the confines of the standard forms (whether decreed by a teacher or willingly assumed by a student), but rather the scarcity of forms to which the students have been exposed. In particular, he writes about using John McPhee's essay "The Search for Marvin Gardens" as a model for students to write what he terms the "counterpoint essay."
Chapman, quoting William Zeiger, describes this as a "dialectical" form. This is interesting to me because I see dialectical thinking as the heart of the composition process, the balancing between specific and general (aka development and focus or, as Bruce Ballenger terms it, splashing in the Sea of Experience, then climbing up onto the Mountain of Reflection for a more objective overview). Chapman writes
McPhee's essay intercuts narrative of an "actual" Monopoly match with historical background and contemporary description of actual Atlantic City. After students read and discuss this essay, Chapman "invites" them to construct in similar fashion their own dual narratives. When many students have difficulty handling one narrative, it may at first seem ill-advised to let them try to handle two, but it seems to me there may be gains in terms of maturation of critical thinking faculties, even if the resulting essays are not necessarily successful as free-standing pieces of writing. (As Chapman puts it, "using counterpoint helped them discover connections and contradictions, instead of simply recounting their experiences.") Chapman apparently takes this sort of approach further:
I'm used to thinking of form in terms of poetry, the stringent requirements of the sonnet, for example; assigned to write several in graduate school, I thought about how the form can tease meanings from the subconscious and about the tension it provides against which chance operates (there's some analogy to mutation, natural selection, and evolution buried in here). Consider that there are three aspects to a piece of art: its materials (subject matter, specifics, words, pigments, clay), its mold (form, structure, focus), and the process of its making. The beginner aims to slap that material down, usually as fast as possible. I have thought/talked/written about how material and mold relate. The interesting thing to me here is thinking about how choice/assignment of mold influences the process of making.