Mentor Text Wednesday: No Convincing Answer

Mentor Text: excerpt from “Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant” by Wells Tower

Writing Techniques:

  • Research writing
  • Writing counterargument
  • Exploring difficult issues
  • Expanding writing


It is a terribly kept secret that I am a huge fan of The Best American series. These annual collections of writing litter my workspaces, and live in every corner that I stash books. I’m either reading one of these, I’ve just finished one of them, or there’s one floating near the top of my To Be Read pile. Quite often, a Best American is my placeholder read, the thing I read when I’m trying to decide what the next read will be.

As I regularly write a column called Mentor Text Wednesday let me hit you up with a pro tip. The Best American series of books is a fantastic source of mentor texts. Some of my favorite pieces I use have come from these anthologies.

I have a special spot for The Best American Nonrequired Reading. It is filled with such a variety of pieces making it feel like a more diverse read in some ways. The fact that it features a balance of asethetic and pragmatic writing adds a lot to the experience.

23874530I had the 2015 version kicking about and picked it upwhile I was waiting for my next read to arrive. At the time I had my students working on multigenre projects and making zines as their last work of the semester. As I remarked last week, this time of year is fruitful for planning, since I’m reflecting on the courses wrapping up whilst planning the next ones.

Wells Tower’s piece of journalism about sport elephant hunting exemplifies what I love about Nonrequired Reading as a piece I might not have found shows up in front of me. The fact that it showed up just short of me actually being able to use it in class was a bit frustrating.

Because looking at this piece, particularly what I’ve excerpted here, I’ve clearly got a great piece I can use not only in projects like the multigenre one, or the zine, but for other purposes as well.

In short, I feel there is much value for our writers in exploring question for which, as Tower says, there are “no convincing answers.”

How we can use this text:

Research writing – In this excerpt, Tower pauses in the telling of his experiences on an elephant hunt to consider the conservancy side of things. Essentially, he drops a mini research essay of sorts into his narrative.

First off, the structure of this excerpt is strong. He begins by giving some context, explaining the situation as it stands. He then moves into exploring the core arguments on one side of the issue. This is followed by doing the same thing on the other side of the issue. There is even a conclusion to this part of the piece. It models a version of what we expect from students, one they could certainly follow if they’re writing that five paragraph essay, though it might be important to highlight for them that this piece exceeds that format by a couple paragraphs!

It is a strong model of how we can present research, mainly because it pushes past the edited version of a Wikipedia page that passes for a pieces of research writing these days. There is tone, and though a bias is shown, the writer also works to balance their presentation of their research.

An added bonus in this is the fact that it so clearly discusses the fact that this issue is one to which there is “no convincing answer.” I would assign a piece of writing called just that, The No Convincing Answer Essay, wither as a standalone piece, or as a piece to be included into an anthology style project, like the multigenre, or zine.

Writing Counterargument – Is it just me, or is this a thing that our writers seem to struggle with? Perhaps it is that we are letting them pursue topics they are passionate about, and they find themselves with tunnel vision. Perhaps we’re not explicitly teaching this as well as we should.

That’s one of the things I really like about this mentor text – it’s a good teaching tool. The piece explicitly does what we want them to do, exploring different sides of an issue. Tower does put the two sides on equal footing to a certain extent, as he finds what’s puzzling on both sides. Yet, his focus on both sides presents a balance our writers would do well to emulate. Consider that they often present three, or more arguments in favour of their issue, and then drop in the token counterpoint before their conclusions. Pushing for a balance, as is mentored in this piece, would, I think strengthen their ability to craft counterargument.

Exploring difficult issues – As a teacher, I really try to have students deal with issues that challenge their thinking, and push them to think critically. We talk a lot, but I am a hug advocate of exploring their thinking, and the facts that are out there, through their writing.

And this is a prefect mentor text for this, because it’s exactly what Tower does in this piece. Even the conceit of “no convincing answer” is valuable. If the expectation is to present muliple sides of a difficult issue, then this may take away the focus on a thesis. Instead of being asked to argue, they are explicitly asked to explore. They don’t have to come up with an answer, but instead, need to highlight why it is so diffucult to find one.

This structure, in my opinion, gives them a structure to follow as a writer, as they think freely, exploring ideas.

Expanding writing – In my experience, the issue of length is a significant one for many high school writers. Given an assigned length for, say, a paper, they move into a weird panic mode. They drop in gigantic quotes, or find themselves tempted to plagiarize to meet a length.

I’ve mentally been keeping track of strategies to help students “pad” their papers with integrity and legitimacy. I think this mentor text offers a way to do this. If they’re writing essays about a broad enough theme, then dropping in a “no convincing answer” section should be relatively easy. There would be, clearly, a need to discuss where such a section would fit best, and a need to make sure it worked in the piece and with the topic, but I think it could add considerable value to an essay, as well as adding a few parapgraphs of length. I think, if I teach this as a strategy within the writing of an essay, I’d actually encourage students to add this element in addition to their counterarguments, encouraging them to find a “decisive” counterargument, and keep this section as an exploration of the ambiguities within the topic they’re writing about.

As with many mentor texts, this one sparked my interest for a single clear purpose, but as I reflected further, I realized that it was a strong piece with many optential uses. That makes it a great find, and a good share. As well, anything that gives me another reason to love The Best American series of anthologies more is always grealy appreciated.

How do you approach research writing with students – old school, or in creative ways? What are your creative ways? What do you use to teach counterargument? How do you guide students to add length to their academic essays?

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