Overview: This activity puts a cultural rhetorics twist on sentence imitation—the pedagogy that seeks to expand students’ stylistic awareness and ability by having them imitate a wide variety of sentence structures. Typically, instructors who use sentence imitation ask students to imitate sentences by famous authors throughout history. But for this activity, students choose their own sentences to imitate—literally their own sentences, selected from their non-academic writing such as e-mails, texts, tweets, Instagram posts, blog posts, etc., as well as non-academic sentences by authors of their choice, such as a favorite novelist, essayist, celebrity, etc.
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.
[. . .] 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.
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.