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On My Teaching

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Information Design, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Writing on January 10, 2011 at 8:05 am

Allen Mendenhall

Everything is an argument.  I say that not because I’m a lawyer, but because all writing has a rhetorical purpose.  Poets have reasons for writing what they write, just as technical writers have reasons for writing what they write.  Poets have audiences; technical writers have audiences.  What distinguishes poetry from technical writing, or from any kind of writing for that matter, is audience expectation, or, in a word, genre.  Students in my classroom quickly learn that all writing has a purpose that usually, though not always, has to do with audience.  They learn to anticipate audience by contextualizing writing.  A brief for a judge, for example, serves a different purpose than an expository essay, and thus a “good” brief will look different from a “good” creative narrative.  A short story by Toni Morrison may be good writing, but it does not fit the needs of a peer-reviewed academic journal because the audience and genre do not match.  A crucial process of writing therefore involves understanding cultural and social interaction and their relation to discourse communities.  Communication, after all, is participatory and not unilateral.  It is the transmission of information from one source to another through particular media such as language.  The receiver or reader is as important to writing as the sender or writer.         

Because all writing is rhetorical—and hence an element of argument—rhetoric is neither good nor bad.  It just is.  Stigmas accompany the term “rhetoric” because of its association with “manipulation” or “persuasion.”  My teaching explodes these stigmas and explores the endless possibilities of rhetoric; it emphasizes both the beauty and utility of language and suggests that beauty and utility are inextricably tied.  Aesthetics provides a way of packaging information to convey certain messages or generate certain actions.  Using language to excite sensation enables meaning to happen to an idea.  The right language can invest an idea with profound significance.  My students learn that language is so powerful that it can affect public policy and trouble or affirm social syntax.  For instance, a legal brief that supplements logos with pathos may move a judge to interpret “law” differently than he might if the brief displayed, say, only logos.  In this example, language is responsible for law itself. 

If language is powerful, then students should learn how to use it constructively.  Writing that is pleasurable has the constructive effect of impacting readers, so I urge students to seek out pleasurable forms and styles of writing that are suitable for particular audiences and purposes.  Accordingly, my students read a wide variety of texts written by established authors from various eras and think critically about how and for whom these texts “perform.”  I ask students how diverse styles affect writing and create meaning, and also why authors make certain choices about grammar, punctuation, and syntax (we can only guess at the “why,” but the process of guessing is always revealing).  I have discovered that students are rather opinionated about the kinds of sentences and styles they like and dislike, but they’re not always sure about why.  I also have discovered that in trying to figure out why, students begin to mimic and imitate writers as they struggle to find the right voice for the right setting.  

Students seem to realize that there is, to give just one example, something about the way Virginia Woolf uses commas that appeals to them, so they try their hand at that sort of comma deployment.  Students seem already to have an ear, as it were, for style, even if they don’t know exactly what the style is or how it works.  They simply need someone to point them in the right direction and to focus their attention.  Sometimes I give them a helpful nudge.  Short, choppy sentences, I tell them, can convey the feeling of suspense: “The alley was dark.  The moon was high.  Jimmy heard the footsteps behind him.  He shoved his hand into his pocket.  There it was: the gun.”  Likewise, long, repetitious, comma-loaded sentences can convey a sense of motion or urgency: “Jimmy, panicked, sprinted down the alley, desperate to get away, watching his legs turn over again and again as if they were independent of him, two little machines that did whatever they wanted, and every time he turned around, every time he took his eyes off those two little machines, the shadow was still there, still gaining on him, still growing larger and larger in the moonlight, and Jimmy, wheezing for air, realizing that he had nowhere to go, stopped running and braced himself for impact.”  These are just two quick examples, but they suffice to show how I encourage students to play with syntax to trigger particular feelings or emotions.

I think of my classroom as a small community where students collaborate to produce and interpret meaning.  Working together, students compare techniques and commonplaces of disparate genres and consider what strategies signal what audiences.  Collaboration allows students to hone their close-reading skills by testing their interpretations against the interpretations of others.  A comfortable community environment allows students to question not only how authors produce meaning that enables human action, but also how students themselves produce meaning and thereby establish their own authority.  My classroom, then, is a laboratory of self-discovery.  I learn as much from my students as they do from me.

To emphasize that writing is a process and not a product, I like to demystify the role of teacher.  I maintain that teachers are authority figures and that the student-teacher relationship is not one of absolute equality.  The teacher is a coach, not a teammate.  Nevertheless, I show my students that I am a learner just like they are.  In so doing, I show them that they, too, can become teachers and writers.  I share early drafts of my published writing so that students can see how dramatically I alter my text from draft to draft and also how unstructured my early drafts really are.  I explain to students that writing is a craft requiring constant revision—i.e., major surgery and not just minor face-lifts.  Exposing my own drafts seems to substantiate this point.  It also gives me the opportunity to explain, step by step, the reasons I used particular words or punctuation; and students, who are used to reading famous or distant authors, benefit from hearing how a writer wrestled with certain decisions and even, in some cases, made bad decisions.  

I delight in showing students that writing does not always come naturally or spring out of a vacuum—that it is a craft.  I therefore participate in the writing activities that I assign.  Students compare their writing to mine, and we experiment with different ways of conveying the same message.  This back-and-forth helps students learn to distance themselves from their writing and let go of vocabulary or phrasing that does not work.  It helps students learn that writing is not set in stone, but always subject to adaptation and refinement. 

My hope is that students leave my class prepared to become lifelong learners.

  1. Your students might enjoy my book, “The Mandolin Case,” a medical legal mystery resolved by local musicians. The subtitle is “Country Doctors, Honest Lawyers, and True Music.”

    At the very least, it would give them an opportunity to explore a new genre. As far as I know, I am the world’s only physician bluegrass fiction writer.

    Dr. B

  2. Dr. Bibey,

    Thank you for sharing this book with me. I have never met a physician-bluegrass writer of medical-legal fiction, but I love hyphenated things and people, and I’m glad to meet you, albeit electronically. I’ll check out the novel right away.


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