Can we do better than "so what"?
Last week, I posted some thoughts about teaching the art of the conclusion--that is, about explaining the elusive something more that teachers often ask their students to provide. Here I continue my search for the language and examples that will help my students write conclusions. The next and probably final installment of this series will address the journalistic kicker, a subject Michael raised in the comments last week.
Today, however, I ponder the question, "so what?" When I was a student, I saw many teachers tell students that papers should convey answers to that question. When my undergraduate thesis adviser, Patricia Meyer Spacks, received a set of term paper drafts that disappointed her, she gently explained what she was looking for and wrote on the chalkboard in dramatically ungentle four-foot letters, "SO WHAT?"
When essays do find ways to answer the question, the effects can be wonderful. Take, for example, this striking little essay by Phillip Davis about the neurological effects of reading Shakespeare. Having set up a series of problems at the beginning of the piece, Davis shares a few data points in the middle, and about two-thirds of the way in, he writes--as its own paragraph--"so what?"
Davis answers the question powerfully, with a series of insights that expand in scope until they culminate in this final paragraph:
It is early days. But I am getting a greater sense of how and why Shakespeare really does something to our inner reality, making me feel more alive in more unpredictable mental ways when I read or see his work. I am also getting a sense of an underlying shape to experience, as though the syntax in front of my eyes were keying into mental pathways behind them, and shifting and reconfiguring them dramatically in the theatre of the brain.
Yes, that will do nicely as the something more.
All this said in favor of the "so what" approach, however, I must come to an anticlimax: in my own teaching, I have not found that asking "so what?"--or suggesting that students ask it of themselves--does much good. The question may be too vague, or it may be too hard to unburden it of its commonly dismissive inflection: "Yeah, well, so what if it is?"
My current idea is to revise the "so what" approach in two ways: first by switching the language to "and what does that mean?"--with the suggestion that the best essays will find ways to answer the question multiple times. And what does that mean? And second, I want to make the function of the conclusion more concrete by saying that it releases the pain the introduction has inflicted--an approach I'll explore when I come to ponder introductions within the next week or two.