Andrew Jackson or Harriet Tubman?

Who should be featured on the new $20 bill – Andrew Jackson or Harriet Tubman?

Many progressives were pleased when the Treasury Department decided to replace President Andrew Jackson’s picture with Harriet Tubman. Eugene Robinson, columnist for the Washington Post, is one writer who favors the change.

(Allow me a detour for a moment: Robinson’s column is an example of stellar writing. That’s not surprising, since Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize winner. If you read the column, you’ll learn not only about Tubman and Jackson, but also about writing.)

Tubman was an escaped slave who returned to the South to lead 70 other slaves to freedom. During the Civil War, she led a raid on plantations along the Combahee River that freed more than 750 slaves. Robinson says she was probably “the first woman to lead U.S. troops in an armed assault.”

Now let’s turn to Andrew Jackson. Before he became President, he was a military hero who won the pivotal Battle of New Orleans. But he was also the driving force behind the “Trail of Tears” that robbed thousands of Native Americans of their tribal lands and – in many cases – their lives.

Robinson calls that undertaking “genocidal.” But a number of commentators feel that Jackson’s military success and Presidential accomplishments more than offset the harm wrought by the Trail of Tears – former Presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, for example. (I was appalled by his column, but I’m providing the link so that you can read it yourself.)

This blog is about writing, not history, so I’m going to change my focus here and explain why I’ve been thinking about the Tubman vs. Jackson debate in the context of writing. What interests me is the link to a thorny issue – modes of development.

If you take a college composition course, at some point you’ll study modes of development: Narrative, Comparison/Contrast, Definition, Process, Classification, and Cause/Effect. The model paragraphs and essays in your textbook will probably be lists of boring information: The steps in changing the oil in your car. The differences between sports cars and sedans.

Most textbooks don’t provide the slightest clue about why you’re studying these modes and how they apply to real-world writing. The fact is that very few workplace tasks call for a specific mode. Yes, you might be asked to write a narrative about a business trip, or a comparison/contrast report about new models of copy machines. But most people I’ve talked to say they rarely use modes of development the way they’re taught in schools and colleges.

So the modes are a waste of time, right? Wrong! Modes of development are highly useful if you combine them. If you’re defending – say – the decision to feature Harriet Tubman on the new $20 bill, you could include a narrative paragraph (the story of her life), a comparison paragraph (stacking Tubman against other historical figures), and a contrast paragraph (demonstrating why her accomplishments matter more than Jackson’s).

Many workplace writing projects can benefit from a similar integration of various modes. Sadly, though, few textbooks encourage students to take that step.

It takes time to develop skill with these modes, but the investment in time and energy will pay huge dividends. Start learning about them, and start looking for them in your everyday reading. You’ll be surprised how useful they are – and your own writing will benefit.

$20 bill




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