A Loose Canon No More: Style's Relevance to Writing Instruction – CCCC 2009 – Session I36

  • Nate Krueter, “High Stakes Style”
  • Star Medzerian, “Rereading the Past: Style’s Place in Our Disciplinary Memory”
  • Mike Duncan, “Destroying the Topic Sentence”
  • William Fitzgerald, “Dressing Up in Style: The Return of the Figurative in Composition Pedagogy”

This was one of the most enjoyable 4Cs panels I’ve attended, mostly because it reminded me that I got into this major because I love words.

What follows are my rough notes, lightly edited, with my own comments in square brackets.

Nate Krueter, “High Stakes Style”

F. Christiansen’s Notes Towards a New Rhetoric (1967): We evaluate based on our assumptions about style, derived mostly from handbooks. Trivial kit of tools from handbooks don’t equip us well for our job. Writing manuals emphasize clarity and simplicity, rather than stylistic sophistication. Student writers should be taught to write for clarity, but also for sophistication.  

Rather than striving for clarity, what if we asked students to strive for stylistic complexity? Business-driven academic model equated good model with plain style; lately, good writing has been taken to mean only clear and simple writing.   Style and sentence-based pedagogies remain largely absent from composition scholarship.  Correctness is too often conflated with simplicity of style.

Focuses on Joseph Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons on Clarity and Grace (which includes more lessons on clarity than grace).  Wants to eliminate “bureaucratese, legalese, and academese”.  When written deliberately or carelessly, the complexity and density is unethical and exclusionary. Williams elevates clarity to an ethical issue.  Many contemporary style manuals discourage experimentation and push the clarity hobgoblin. Lanham questions that “clarity” actually accomplishes clear writing.  A typically American commandment – thou shalt be as clear as necessary so that business may be transacted. Lanham says clarity supports a false model of human cognition, a naïve theory of the self.  In The Economics of Attention, stylistic consciousness is the primary commodity of the new information economy. Style and Substance in the Age of Information.  We’re drowning in information, but lack the human attention that makes sense of the information.

[Is Lanham, then, conflating “information” with “data”?] 

Lanham notes that a bureaucratic memo looks suspicious and even flippant if translated into simple language. The gravitas and obfuscation was necessary for the rhetorical situation. Academic style is not style for the sake of style; contextually savvy style carries weight in the new information economy.

Prose style should matter more than it currently does in our composition classroom. Sentence rhetorics have all but disappeared from handbooks, preferring rules and dogma rather than communicating to students a more sophisticated perspective on style, such as the notion that style generates meaning.

Kreuter’s dissertation focuses on the intelligence community.

Star Medzerian, “Rereading the Past: Style’s Place in Our Disciplinary Memory”

Began with style’s rich history in composition studies; notes that style has gone without much notice since the 80s, though there’s a recent resurgence.  Some scaffolding regarding the position of composition as the underdog, which defines rhet/comp practitioners by what they are not. The stigma of composition as service existed long before the professionalism of discipline; early composition programs were remedial, and students were taught through decontextualized skill and drill.  (Good style is both “correct” and “clear”.)  Implies that the goals of style study must be aligned with “current traditionalism”.  Style is traditionally limited to the translation of ideas to the page.  In 70s, invention was chosen as the more legitimate canon to guide our field; process-focused areas in the 60s; by 70s style was positioned as antithetical with invention. Invention is aligned with idea generation, and style is limited to ornamentation and polish.

Current traditional has come to represent the “negative past from which composition has escaped”.  

The profession has been operating on this false memory for so long that it has become our truth. We are not skill-and-drill service providers, neither a product-focused discipline.  The publication of four books on style in the last five years suggests a resurgence of scholarly interest in style.  The public is talking about style, but we, the ones who should be conversing with them, aren’t. Our comp students have had much of their valuation solely based on performance on multiple choice tests.  Our role expands beyond the teaching of writing, into the public arena of knowledge-making.   (Medzerian walks through each of those four recent books.)

Recent scholarship on style is a step in the direction of making style useful again, and changing our perception of the discipline.

Mike Duncan, “Destroying the Topic Sentence”

Begins with “What is a topic sentence?”

Imagine a happy world, full of sunshine and flowers, in which scholars never came up with the concept of “topic sentence”.  If the writer wishes to imply the main idea, rather than state it explicitly, could the reader not infer the intended meaning?  Of course, in this magical land, readers were expected to learn how to read a text with an implied rather than specified point.  

We don’t live in that world in which the author can rely on the interpretive skills of the readers – compensating not only for the writer’s weaknesses, but also the weaknesses of the readers. Students have a difficulty writing or reading texts with implied points.

Mentioned his work on a research program in experts (80%) disagreed with the computer program (70%) designed to find topic sentences.  But three expert readers couldn’t agree what the topic sentence was. (Only 2 of 3 researchers had to agree in order for an estimate to be a success.)

Likened the topic sentence to a matter of faith, and reader perception.  The search for the topic sentence, based on a definition culled from high school texts, may have conjured the topic sentence into being. Have we trained our brains to impose deep structure where there is none?

A sentence that announces the topic of the paragraph is not the same as the sentence that announces the point of the paragraph. Explicit signposting like topic sentences can help low-level readers, but hurts high-level readers who seek grist for the hypothetical mill.

[The journalistic concept of “the lead” doesn’t limit the reader to a single sentence… there’s the “billboard” or “nut graf” that do a much better job capturing the complexity of grabbing the reader and orienting the reader.  A news article generally does not have local topic sentences, since news paragraphs are often one or two sentences long, so the distinction between “topic sentence” and “thesis statement” has little direct connection to journalism.]

Duncan is not denying the value of teaching the topic sentence. But destroying the topic sentence will help us teach reading, since college texts often have implied or complex theses.  We want our relentlessly linear readers and writers to move on.

Duncan is tired of affirming and denying the thesis in the same breath. Noted that newspapers show a lack of thesis statements when the author wants to “de-simplify” a topic. [Did I get that quote right?]

Duncan says his speech lacks any sentence that might summarize its paragraph, yet every paragraph has a point, and the whole speech has focus.  Modeling – “reading for models that inform writing”

Real-world paragraphs do not always have a quick and dirty idea. We have a hard enough time trying to convince our students that the writing the do is meaningful, without giving them this artificial restriction.

Didn’t catch the citation for “thrashing”

Strike out the topic sentence. You may find the experience refreshing.

[There is a long tradition of teaching writing with literature, for this very reason – that literature (and the nonfiction essay) presents its thesis through absence, forcing the reader to become involved in the text in order to make the final connection. Literature with a thesis is propaganda first and literat

ure second.]

William Fitzgerald, “Dressing Up in Style: The Return of the Figurative in Composition Pedagogy”

The title is more prescriptive than predictive.  “FigaroSpeech.com” website suggests that style is making something of a comeback.  Mentioned several recent works showing growing interest in style / aesthetics.

As a matter of both craft and culture, we need to engage more substantially with the rehetorical nature of style. There is only so far we can go in repeating bromides about clarity – at best, an incomplete truth, and a largely ineffective message.  It’s the equivalent of “Don’t do drugs” or “Stay in school.”

Most students would follow writing bromides if only they could. Invokes a new footing, introducing the figurative dimensions of language that for so long animated the rhetorical tradition. What happened to the tropes and schemes of classical rhetoric, the knowledge of which used to certify the educated person?

The figures offered a convenient marker to distinguish rhetoric from composition. Composition retains formal principles of balance and cohesion, but drains the figures of their compelling force as a school subject. The figures were like the smile of the Chesire cat, the last to disappear as rhetoric faded as central university subject. Rhetoric lost its grip on invention and arrangement, becoming in the modern era synonymous with style.

Reduction of rhetoric to style, and style to figuration, has had a major influence  on how comp has been treated as a practical subject.  Only “ornament” remains MIA in scholarly literature of composition.  (Ornament may be translated as “armament” – not just decoration, but outfitting that makes possible the contest of ideas, a set of tools in one’s arsenal to maintain advantage.  Are we training squads of recruits in freshman comp, only to send them out to battle unarmed?)

Fitzgerald sees Lanham as calling for a “return to the ludic” in language. Rigorous attention to the sentence is a minority focus.  To imagine the return of the figurative, it is first necessary to mark its absence. Next, increasing remediation of print culture shakes the culture of written discourse as the paradigm of education; we now perform discourser across multiple modalities, including speech and visual.  Suggests the resources of figuration will retain their focus, as we explore which will translate across genres.

F’s students in a course “Go Figure” created a treasury and commonplace.  (Looked at rhyme in Dr. Seuss, metaphor in modern song; Come up with 100 ways to say the same thing.)