MW10: Actually Teaching Style: Upping the Ante on Academic Writing
Reviewed by Danielle Koupf, Wichita State University, KS (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: Brian Ray, University of Nebraska at Kearney, NE
Speakers: Paul Butler, University of Houston, TX, “Style in the Public Sphere: Students Writing for Wider Audiences and High, Middle, Low Styles: How to Vary Style, including Code-Meshing, the Prepositional Because, ‘I Can’t Even,’ and Other New Stylistic Innovations”
Brian Ray, University of Nebraska at Kearney, NE, “‘I Don’t Have Time for All That!’: Juggling Style and Other Pedagogies in a Crammed Syllabus”
Zak Lancaster, Wake Forest University, NC, “Style as Stance-Taking: Using Insights from Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) Register Theory to Trouble the Content/Form Division When Teaching Style”
Andrea Olinger, University of Louisville, KY, “Corpus Stylistics in the Classroom: Using Student-Centered Corpora, and Corpus Analysis, to Facilitate Students’ Analysis of Writing Styles”
Jonathan Buehl, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, “Style and the Professional Writing Curriculum”
Star Medzarian, Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, FL, “Teaching Sentence Variety as an Invention Strategy and Assessing Style in the FYC Classroom”
William FitzGerald, Rutgers University–Camden, NJ, “Using Rhetorical Figures in the Composition Classroom”
Nora Bacon, University of Nebraska at Omaha, NE, “Style in Academic Writing”
I love style, sentences, and grammar, but like many teachers, I find these topics difficult to teach—regardless of how fun they are to read and think about. So, hoping to gain some practical teaching advice, I chose to attend a Wednesday morning workshop called “Actually Teaching Style: Upping the Ante on Academic Writing.” After more than three hours of friendly and thought-provoking discussion, I left with a stack of handouts, eager to incorporate what I had learned into my classes.
The format of the workshop provided many opportunities to meet other participants and discuss different topics. We began by reflecting on style in small groups at separate tables, and then throughout the morning we rotated to different tables to focus on particular themes facilitated by the discussion leaders. Conversation often returned to questions like: What is the relationship between style and grammar? Should we use specialized rhetorical and grammatical terms in the classroom? How do we define style, anyway? One of the best articulations of style was “experimenting with different ways of saying the same thing.” A related idea that recurred throughout the workshop was the notion that as teachers, we do not have to endorse or condemn particular styles, but show students how different styles form from different sentence-level features and become more or less effective based on context. This lesson emphasized the importance of experimenting with different styles until finding one that suits one’s occasion.
At a table led by Paul Butler, discussion focused on Cicero’s three levels of style: low, middle, and high. After examining samples of each level (middle being the most difficult to locate), we discussed the rhetorical effects of blending stylistic levels, a technique related to code meshing. We then had some fun pondering the stylistic effects of two constructions that have grown popular on the Internet: the prepositional because and “I can’t even.” Butler provided example texts that we might review with students, along with some enticing exercises involving tweets and memes.
Jonathan Buehl conducted a detailed workshop on incorporating lessons in style into the professional writing curriculum. I was especially interested in this conversation because I regularly teach courses in professional, technical, and business writing and am always looking for new activities and course content. Buehl argued convincingly that every professional writing course offers opportunities for teaching style and that even an entire course could be organized around the concept of style (something I hope to try in a future semester). Example lessons included using the “you attitude” in sales letters and cover letters, revising in plain language for technical writing, and editing with Richard Lanham’s paramedic method (with some useful modifications from Buehl). (The paramedic method provides a step-by-step approach to clarifying the action in wordy sentences. Students eliminate to be verbs and lengthy prepositional phrases, replacing them with concise action verbs.) Buehl also highlighted how digital tools can help students recognize certain stylistic patterns in their writing. For instance, using Word’s Find and Replace function to identify all instances of that, to be, or of, and then revising for clarity according to the paramedic method.
At another table, William FitzGerald suggested rhetorical figures often seem absent from first-year composition but are actually flexible tools for emphasizing rhetorical choices and even prompting invention. Thus, instructors need not present rhetorical figures as ornaments reserved for the end of the composing process. Introducing them earlier will provide students with what FitzGerald called a “workable toolkit,” helping them to develop and refine their ideas. As a group, we examined two examples of highly figured prose and identified and described the figures while avoiding overly technical terms (though some—like ellipsis, repetition, parallelism, and appositive—cropped up anyway). We concluded the session by completing an exercise in copia—rewriting a short sentence in as many ways as we could imagine. This challenging short assignment reminded me that practicing copia is harder than it seems and that it’s worthwhile for me to try out an exercise before assigning it to students.
Finally, at Zak Lancaster’s table, I learned a great deal about using systemic functional linguistics (SFL) to teach style. Lancaster quickly and clearly summarized this complex material and helped participants apply it to sample texts. He explained that SFL is concerned with how grammatical choices form a pattern in a piece of discourse to create style, and that style is intimately connected to context. A key tenet of SFL is that we are unable to separate judgments about good texts from their contexts. Modeling a discussion he has with students, Lancaster compared two versions of a published critique, paying attention to subjects, verbs, and adverbs. Our comparison revealed that one excerpt incorporated more hedging and a less-intense critique in order to suit the academic context in which it appeared. We then compared examples of student writing and noted how first-year critical writing differed from upper-level critical writing. By adopting the characteristics of academic writing, the more advanced writer managed uncertainty better for the reader. I was reassured to hear that we can identify and analyze these distinctions with students without privileging one style as absolutely better or worse than another because SFL recognizes the importance of judging within context. I hope to have this kind of discussion with my students in the future.
Although time constraints prevented me from listening in on all the presentations at this workshop, I gathered additional handouts before the session ended and now have a list of new topics and texts to check out. I really appreciated the practical angle of this workshop. In fact, I was able to incorporate one of the exercises into my professional writing class immediately after returning from the conference.