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Posts Tagged ‘Emulation’

Teaching Style

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on November 16, 2011 at 10:13 am

Allen Mendenhall

In his essay “Teaching Style: A Possible Anatomy,” Winston Weathers mentions a “definite exercise system” whereby students learn to mimic stylistic writing models.  This exercise recalls writing emulation activities that were popular in late 19th and early 20th century America.  Recently, I have conducted some “emulation exercises” in my classes. 

I had students compare Natalia Ginsburg’s “He and I” with the draft of an essay by Michael Blumenthal (whom I met during law school and who was kind enough to show my students what a professional writer’s “rough” draft looks like).  Then the students undertook an exercise.  They picked out their favorite sentences, which were mostly the sentences they thought were the most “stylistic.”  The students wrote these sentences on the board.  They erased all the words in the sentence so that only punctuation remained.  Finally, they inserted their own words where the authors’ had been, maintaining the integrity of the sentence structure (i.e., the punctuation) but conveying an entirely different message.  After doing this with several sentences, my students, some of them at least, began to see how professional authors use colons, dashes, and semi-colons.  They began to see how professional authors use different styles.  I believe they also learned ways to experiment with syntax. 

To employ Weathers’s wording, I hope the students learned “(1) how to recognize stylistic material, (2) how to transfer this stylistic material and make it a part of compositional technique, (3) how to combine stylistic materials into particular stylistic modes, and (4) how to adapt particular stylistic modes to particular rhetorical situations” (369).  I’m not sure my exercise provided much guidance as to # 4, but it seemed to teach the lessons of # 1, # 2, and # 3. 

Since I gave this exercise, I’ve noticed one sign of improvement among my students:  they have become better readers.  They know, for instance, what style they like.  Some students preferred Ginsburg’s style to Blumenthal’s, and vice versa.  At first, they weren’t sure why, but after the exercise, they slowly gained a sense of why they liked one more than the other.  One student claimed that Ginsburg’s piece was a faster read because it had fewer commas.  This student preferred short, matter-of-fact sentences with a quick rhythm.  I don’t think he realized this preference until he did the exercise.  I later gave this student a Hemingway passage and asked, “Is this the style you like?”  The student said that, indeed, this was the style he liked, and also that he was afraid that my reading assignments were encouraging students to write sentences in a New Yorker style: long, meandering, and comma-heavy.  This last comment was interesting on many levels.

Writing instructors ought to teach or at least encourage style. 

Style is important; style can be cultivated.

 

For further reading, see Winston Weathers, “Teaching Style: A Possible Anatomy,” in The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook, Fourth Edition.  Edited by Edward P. J. Corbett, Nancy Meyers and Gary Tate (Oxford University Press, 1999).

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 emulationRead the rest of this entry »

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