Celebrity Deaths, Blind Mice, and Composition

Last night, my six-year-old daughter wanted to help me peel carrots, so I showed her what to do and let her have at it. It went well, until she licked the peeler. When I told her not to do that, she asked why, so I gave her the two reasons that immediately came to me: (1) carrot peel is bitter and (2) the peeler is sharp (in hindsight, I realize I probably should have reversed the two). Of course, as parents do, I preceded each reason with its number, and as soon as I finished the second reason, my daughter asked, “what’s number three?”  I didn’t have a number three, and I doubt that, if I had, she would have asked, “what’s number four?” It seems that three reasons would have instinctively satisfied her. I immediately thought about the significance of the number three in writing and the difficulty I have in getting students to abandon the idea that essays must have three body paragraphs–no fewer, no more.

What is it about the number three that governs us? I admit it. I am also a victim of Three. Indeed, I arrange framed photographs and decorative items in threes. I strive to have at least three types of food when I cook–even when I make casseroles, which already have at least three types contained within them. When writing a poem, I am dissatisfied with a metaphor until it contains a descriptive threesome, and if I can’t accomplish that, the poem forever feels unbalanced and inharmonious.

Yet in my composition classes, I encourage students to abandon this structure, usually requiring more than three main ideas but sometimes just two, in order to challenge them in the shrewd evaluation of their ideas. This requires not only evaluation but also synthesis, for it requires students to figure out which smaller ideas generated during the invention process need to become a single, larger idea. I inevitably have students ask, “but aren’t we supposed to have three body paragraphs?” (because they equate main ideas to single body paragraphs). To which I reply, “no, but if all you know and believe in this world will be rendered false if you do not have three body paragraphs, then develop one of your ideas so that it can be logically split into two paragraphs.” Distrustfully, they usually respond with “so one idea can be two paragraphs?” Sigh.

I understand the logic behind the Compositional Trinity: there’s a better chance that a thesis will be sufficiently developed/proven if it produces at least three main ideas, but many students don’t catch the at least part and, as a result, internalize the number three to the detriment of their composing possibilities. But it’s not their fault. Here’s how Three governs our understanding of the world: the holy trinity, celebrity deaths, problems/negative experiences, sneezes, and blind mice, to name a few. . . but more than three.

Is this a major obstacle in your composition classes? Please share your experiences and advice in the comments section.

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