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Plant Leaves with Twisted Branches

Sentence Imitation with a Cultural Rhetorics Twist

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Activity title: Sentence Imitation with a Cultural Rhetorics Twist

Author: Erik Ellis

Course: PWR 1 or PWR 2

Activity length and schedule: 60 minutes. This activity will work best when students are currently working on a PWR essay other than the TiC. (Because the TiC usually asks students to take a more objective stance, it doesn’t lend itself well to the kind of rhetorical investment this activity fosters.) Doing this activity early in an assignment sequence, if not early in the quarter, will encourage students to keep experimenting with style.

Activity goals:

  • Appreciate the potential for stylistic diversity in academic writing. Basically help students recognize that they don’t always need to inhabit an expository prison when writing for academic audiences. As Helen Sword writes in Stylish Academic Writing:

[. . .] Cultures evolve, note Richardson and Boyd, only when “individuals modify their own behavior by some form of learning, and other people acquire their modified behavior by imitation.”

For academic writers, the implications are clear: We can continue to “imitate the common type” of academic writing, endlessly replicating the status quo. We can “imitate the successful,” adopting the stylistic strategies of eminent colleagues. Or we can undertake “forms of learning”—reading, reflection, experimentation—that will take our own work in new directions, so that we, in turn, can become the pathbreakers whose writing others will emulate.

  • Extend stylistic creativity from non-academic writing—including students’ own non-academic writing—to academic writing.
  • Validate voices, including culturally diverse voices, that are often invalidated or discouraged in academe.
  • Expand students’ stylistic horizons, so they will be more likely to think consciously and rhetorically about sentence structure.

Activity details:

Please see the student handout (download at link), and especially the annotated instructor version of the handout (download at link), for a detailed account of this activity.

The series of smaller activities begins with a brief analysis of style as rhetoric in the first paragraph of Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “Big and Bad: How the S.U.V. Ran Over Automotive Safety.” Next, students choose a sentence or series of sentences that they find stylistically interesting—from any source they like (other than their own writing—that will come next). They might find an online excerpt from a favorite novel, a tweet by a celebrity they admire, etc. Then students imitate the structure of the sentence(s) they’ve found, but they change the context to their current PWR assignment. Theoretically, at least, students’ sentences could work in their actual essays. After sharing their original sentences and imitations in small groups, students choose a stylistically interesting sentence or brief group of sentences from their own non-academic writing and, again, imitate the sentence(s) in the context of their current PWR writing project. The activity concludes with small-group sharing and discussion, along with a conversation with the whole class about the rhetoric of style and voice in academic writing.

Additional notes:

  • You might want to discourage students from choosing song lyrics to imitate, because lyrics’ tendency to consist of rhymed fragments might make them harder to translate to academic contexts. Poems might present a similar challenge. Then again, you might want to give students unrestricted stylistic freedom and then encourage small-group discussion or facilitate whole-class discussion about the appropriateness of more poetic styles, the importance of context, etc.
  • If you encourage stylistic experimentation through this exercise, don’t be surprised if students use their sentences from this exercise in their actual essays. Even if their sentences don’t work in the context of their essays—for example, because they call too much attention to themselves and create an awkwardly inconsistent style—be prepared to at least reward students’ risk-taking. If you encourage stylistic creativity yet stifle it in practice, students might see you as contradicting yourself. Focusing on the rhetoric of style during this activity can help students remember that stylistically interesting sentences should serve a good purpose.
  • To save time during class, you might want to ask students beforehand to bring in a stylistically interesting sentence or brief series of sentences from a non-academic source of their choice, as well as from their own writing. You wouldn’t even need to tell them why. In fact, the suspense might make them curious and more invested. But you might want to discourage students from selecting super-long sentences (that would take too long to imitate during class).
  • Consider discussing the ethics of sentence imitation. When might it be considered unethical to imitate someone else’s sentences? Make sure students understand that the point of sentence imitation isn’t to learn to imitate sentences—it’s to cultivate a specific rhetorical awareness and stylistic finesse, so that students don’t always default to bland, conventional sentences.
  • The .pages and .pdf versions of the handouts have easier-to-read text than the .docx versions (the Gladwell excerpt looks a little fuzzy in Word). If you want to tweak the student handout to suit your needs, consider using the .pages version. If you don’t have a Mac, the .docx version should work okay.
  • Put whatever twists you like on this activity. Have fun