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Writing, Workshopping, Emulation

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on May 13, 2011 at 9:49 am

Allen Mendenhall

I remember trying to write a paper for my high school English class and sitting in the library for what seemed like hours, looking at my blank sheet—we didn’t use laptops in those days—and thinking, “How am I going to write six pages about this book.”

The book was Wuthering Heights, and I was, I think, sixteen.  I had written papers before, but never one this long.  I was stuck.  I had writers’ block.  All I could think about was thinking about finishing the paper as soon as possible.

Eventually, I jotted down something that led to something else that led, in turn, to something else, which became the bulk of my paper.  I don’t remember what my paper was about, or the grade I received for my efforts.  All I remember was the panicked moment in the library when that blank-white paper stared back at me and seemed to demand that I fill it with words.

I was angry because I felt helpless.  My high school “not-gonna-do-it” attitude was much like the attitudes I sense in my college students.  Frustrated, I convinced myself that I didn’t need to write about Wuthering Heights because the book was old or for girls or whatever.  The problem was, I liked the book and wanted to write about it.  I just couldn’t.

“If we are going to teach our students to need to write,” remarks James A. Reither, “we will have to know much more than we do about the kinds of contexts that conduce—sometimes even force, certainly enable—the impulse to write.”

Reither is spot on.

Today, I can hardly restrain my impulses to write.  I write all the time.  I feel that I’m always learning how to write—and to write better.

What happened between my junior year of high school and today?  I can’t reduce the explanation to a single cause.

The best answer is probably that many things happened between then and now, each of them influencing me in some way.

As Reither claims, “writing processes and written products are elements of the same social process,” by which he means the social process of immersing ourselves in discourse communities and becoming fluent in the language and cultures of our audience.  Writing is not easy.  It involves repetition, experiment, experience, and mimesis.

Reither submits that “[m]ost of us learned to do what we do on our own—perhaps in spite of the courses we took—and some students continue to do the same.”

In college, I read unassigned essays just to get a feel for how authors conveyed their thoughts and feelings, for how they punctuated their sentences and toyed with syntax.  I underlined vocabulary that I wanted to use in my own papers.  I suppose this method of learning could be called emulation

I emulated writing almost every night, but I rarely “workshopped” in the way that Reither recommends.  My most meaningful lessons were self-taught.  They still are.  How much better off might I have been, though, if I had combined self-teaching with more “workshopping,” or engaged in collaborative writing and editing exercises?

One question Reither’s essay raises is how to inspire students to teach themselves to write on their own, apart from their coursework, while engaging with audience.

As teachers we can facilitate the workshop environment, but will “workshopping” initiate students into academic discourse (or other like discourses) as effectively as emulation?

Perhaps comparing emulation and “workshopping” is like comparing apples and oranges.  Workshops seem simpler to enable and supervise than does emulation.

Emulation is so particular to the individual that it’s hard to inspire.  Students must fall in love with a writer to want to emulate his style.

Emulation and “workshopping” are both useful teaching tools.  Nevertheless, emulation is so bound up with inspiration that it’s difficult to teach.  We can force our students to read passages by great authors and then force our students to mimic style, but this works better when students do it on their own, without prompting.

The trick is to make students fall in love with reading; writing skills will follow.

The above quotations come from:

Reither, James A.  “Writing and Knowing: Toward Redefining the Writing Process,” in The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook: Fourth Edition.  Edward P. J. Corbett, Nancy Myers, Gary Tate, eds.  New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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