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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).


Teaching Audience

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on October 21, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The following post comes from a journal entry I wrote to myself in the fall of 2010.  The post addresses the importance of audience to writing, and more specifically to the teaching of writing.  Other posts on this site have addressed this topic: see here, here, here, here, and here

I’m sitting here at a small wooden desk in my hotel in Destin, Florida, beneath a window that overlooks crowded parking lots, ivy-lined tennis courts, swaying palm trees, and beyond all these, white sand and an emerald-blue ocean.  I haven’t shaved all weekend.  I’m slightly sunburned.  I feel refreshed, except that Giuliana keeps insisting I get a haircut before I head back to Auburn and she to Atlanta.  Instead of walking the beach with her, I’m reading The History of the Kings of Britain and considering what I’ll teach my college freshmen this week. 

I’ve skimmed my syllabus and revisited each underlined phrase and barely legible marginalia from my teaching notes, and now I’m considering a line by Douglas B. Park.  It says, “Locating and discussing the audience for a given piece of prose can be frustrating.” 

Indeed it can.  Just this week I gave my students an assignment that I hoped would teach a thing or two about audience.  I handed out two pieces of paper on which I had copied and pasted three articles about Cancun, Mexico.

I had drawn the first article from the website of a tourist agency, the second from a newspaper, and the third from a literary journal.  I asked my students the same question that Park posed to his students: “Who or what. . . is the audience for this piece?”   

My students replied that tourists—surprise, surprise!—were the targeted audience for article one (perhaps “brochure” is a better term than “article”).  But they couldn’t name the audience for the second and third articles.  They responded with things like “the general public” or “the average reader,” categories so broad as to lack any clear referent.  So I tried, without really knowing what I was doing, asking something like Park’s next question: “How does audience manifest itself to writers writing?”   

I think I put the question more simply: “What’s the point of each piece?”

Perhaps stuck on the first brochure, my students answered, “To persuade you to go to Cancun.” 

I was making progress, but not enough. 

“How,” I asked, “does the article accomplish that?”

One student said, “By bolding words like ‘vacation,’ ‘beach,’ and ‘fun.’”

“What could make this article more effective?” I said.

One student, in so many words, said, “More adjectives.  Some pictures.  Maybe a story or two.” 

The students seemed to “get” article one.  But articles two and three were harder to pin down.  When I repeated my question—“Who is the audience for this piece?”—the students said something like “smart people.” 

Not until this weekend did I realize why my exercise failed.  The failure had something to do with Park’s claim that in the “case of unstructured situations where we would call the audience ‘general,’ where no simple, concrete identifications of audience are possible, the whole concept [of audience] becomes much more elusive.”

Articles two and three were elusive.  Or maybe my exercise for articles two and three was elusive because it created an unstructured situation. 

What documents could I have used to show how different kinds of writings signal different audiences? 

One problem with my activity was that even I couldn’t determine the intended audience for articles two and three.  Presumably there were several audiences.  The point of advertising, after all, is to appeal to as many audiences as possible.     

To satisfy my students, I lumped together articles two and three and said something like, “Now you see how a persuasive piece is different from leisure reading or newspaper reading.” 

That was that.  My activity failed.  I learned, however, about what Park calls the “elusiveness of audience in written discourse.”  I learned that I needed a better exercise to show my students how to anticipate their audiences.  Read the rest of this entry »

What is a Research Paper, and How Does It Implicate Disciplinarity?

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on September 8, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Richard L. Larson interrogates the “research paper” signifier. He claims that this signifier lacks settled meaning because it “has no conceptual or substantive identity” (218). He calls the term “generic” and “cross-disciplinary” and claims that it “has virtually no value as an identification of a kind of substance in a paper” (218). Despite its empty or fluid meaning, the term “research paper” persists inside and outside English Departments, among faculty and students, at both university and secondary school levels. The problem for Larson is that by perpetuating the use of this slippery signifier, writing instructors mislead students as to what constitutes research and thereby enable bad research.

The term research paper “implicitly equates ‘research’ with looking up books in the library and taking down information from those books” (218); therefore, students learning to write so-called research papers inadvertently narrow their research possibilities by relying on a narrow conception of research as library visitation, note-taking, or whatever, without recognizing other forms of research that may be more discipline-appropriate: interviews, field observations, and the like (218). Using the term “research paper” to describe a particular type of activity implies not only that other, suitable practices are not in fact “research,” but also that students may dispense with elements of logic and citation if their instructors didn’t call the assignment a “research paper.” Really, though, research papers teach skills that apply to all papers, regardless of whether instructors designate a paper as “research.” In a way, all papers are research papers if they draw from sustained observation or studied experience.

Having argued that the term research paper is a vacant signifier—vacant of identity if not of meaning (not that the two are mutually exclusive)—Larson argues that the “provincialism” (220) of writing instructors (by which he means writing instructors’ presumption that they can and should speak across disciplines despite their lack of formal training in other disciplines) leads to a problem of territoriality. Some information belongs in the province of other disciplines, Larson seems to suggest, and writing instructors should not assume that they know enough about other disciplines to communicate in a discipline-appropriate setting. Some knowledge, in other words, lies outside the writing instructor’s jurisdiction. I’m ambivalent on this score. Read the rest of this entry »

What Glynda Hull and Mike Rose Learned from Researching Remedial Writing Programs

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Humanities, Information Design, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on July 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Based on their research of remedial writing programs, Glynda Hull and Mike Rose conclude in “This Wooden Shack Place” that students of writing often offer arguments that at first seem wacky or wrong, but that are actually logical and coherent. These students give unique and insightful interpretations that teachers, fixed in their privileged and heavily conditioned interpretive communities, cannot always realize or appreciate. Hull and Rose treat this student-teacher disjuncture as revealing as much about the teacher as it does about the student. Finally, Hull and Rose conclude that student readings that seem “off the mark” may be “on the mark” depending on where the interpreter—the teacher or student—is coming from or aiming. 

Along these lines, Hull and Rose describe “moments of mismatch between what a teacher expects and what students do.” These moments demonstrate that teachers and students come to writing with different values and assumptions shaped by various experiences. Hull and Rose focus on one student, whom they call “Robert,” to substantiate their claims that students respond to literature based on cultural history and background.

Robert and his peers read a poem that Hull and Rose have reproduced in their essay: “And Your Soul Shall Dance for Wakako Yamauchi.” Working together, the student-readers agreed on certain interpretive generalizations but failed to reach consensus about particular lines and meanings. Some students “offered observations that seemed to be a little off the mark, unusual, as though the students weren’t reading the lines carefully.” Robert, a polite boy with a Caribbean background and Los Angeles upbringing, was one of these students. He commented about the poem in a way that troubled Rose—until, that is, Rose pressed Robert about the poem during a student-teacher conference, which Rose recorded. Robert challenged and surprised Rose at this conference by offering a plausible reading, which Rose had not considered. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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.          Read the rest of this entry »

Saying Yes to No

In Communication, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication on October 9, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Not long ago I was in the passenger seat of my friend’s car.  This friend, backing out of a parking space, collided with another car that he didn’t see coming.  I had seen the other car but remained silent, assuming, wrongly it turned out, that my friend would notice the car, which, after all, was an oversized SUV.  Would that I had cried “no!” or “watch out!”  Instead I allowed the wreck to happen.

This year Republicans are crying “no!”  (Would that they had done so earlier.)  Massive bailouts, nationalized healthcare, increased spending—these things simply will not do.  Taking a page from Ron Paul’s playbook, Republicans have realized the power of “no” as a strategic signifier.  They have—implicitly at least—portrayed Obama as someone backing out of a parking space without looking over his shoulder or even checking his rearview mirror. Read the rest of this entry »

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