It was one of those weekends that befall every composition instructor. A weekend of grading final drafts. Maybe you have a settling in routine—or maybe you don’t. Sometimes I fluff and rearrange pillows and grade in bed, or grab a blanket and read at my dinner table. Perhaps you’re a coffee house grader, or a in the office only grader. Whatever the case may be, read enough student essays and you’ll know exactly why I tend to couple my readings of student work with good literature (See Anne Paul’s “The Neuroscience of your Brain on Fiction”). I’m not calling for the resurrection of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, but something’s got to give.
Rhetorical knowledge provides the skills needed to “analyze and act on understandings of audience, purposes, and contexts in creating and comprehending texts” (WPA’s “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing”), so I ask students to compose a rhetorical analysis where they critically examine the writers attempts when persuading an audience (see assignment description below). However I suck teeth and roll eyes at what I call soulless academic essays—an essay where there is little personality, and a whole lot of pontification for the sake of pontificating (or in this case a rhetorical analysis for the sake of a rhetorical analysis).
I constantly question better ways to instruct my students on voice, which is another way of saying style or stylistic expressions in writing. According to Paul Butler “style…involves a series of both conscious and unconscious choices that writers make about everything from the words used (diction) and their arrangement in sentences (syntax) to the tone with which we express our point of view.” Nevertheless, such a definition should also consider genre restrictions or rethinking genre constructions in ways that ‘push/pull the genre forward,’— think T-Pain and auto tunes, or better yet (theory heads) think Bakhtin’s heteroglossia.
Anyways, the opportunities for style shift are based solely on the purpose of the assignment and the conventions of the genre. Rhetorical analysis explores rhetorical effect within a given artifact, but also it forces students to consider how the author sells his or her truth.
My students seem to be so caught up with locating rhetorical devices and getting the essay done, that many of them lose sight of unique stylistic expressions. Rather than consider their own rhetorical appeals (ethos, logos, and pathos) when composing a rhetorical analysis where they examine rhetorical appeals of others. The result: student essays that provide monotone analysis or detailed summarizes of the text(s) they’ve chosen. While caught up with asking students to push their rhetorical analysis further, or my favorite comment LESS SUMMARY AND MORE ANALYSIS–CONSIDER VOICE, I’ve also come across essays that seem to do style well, but lack an analysis that can be concluded as rhetorical.
For instance, take student X for example, when analyzing rhetorically Jesymn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones one student writes (paragraph 7/final draft):
Jesymn Ward addresses Discourse Elitism by contrasting conceptions of poverty against Esch’s broad intelligence and poetic language. In this society, there is a certain stigma associated with all things of and related to the Discourse of the poor. However, Ward establishes that character Esch (along with the whole Batiste Family) is well versed in this Discourse to say the least. This family is the poorest of poor. They live in a tiny, perpetually dirty home aptly titled “The Pit,” fighting pit bulls, swimming in dirty water, and stealing from neighboring farmers. Ward makes sure to thoroughly describe and emphasize the poverty of the Baptiste family to ensure that any and all negative stereotypes will be applied to them: they are the perfect antithesis to the Elite Discourse. The proverbial cherry on top of this poverty sundae is Esch’s pregnancy. A predominant problem associated with the young, the poor, and the black is teen pregnancy.
What’s interesting about this essay is the author’s ability to utilize his reading of the text, and synthesize and infer from additional readings— James Gee’s “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction” and Elaine Richardson’s “African American Literacies: Introduction.” For this student, the readings helped better situate the novel and the character’s usage of black vernacular within a setting of rural poverty in Salvage the Bones.
Regarding style, notice the author’s authority of language, but most importantly the usage of sensory words like “The proverbial cherry on top of this poverty sundae,” to hone the effect of Esch’s pregnancy. The essay personalizes the assignment, and moves away from the formulaic rhetorical analysis where in which students report their responses to the text with a rhetorical appeal-by- rhetorical appeal organizational approach with very little voice or character. However, throughout the entire essay no where does the student provide actual excerpts from the text as proof of his analysis.
I continue to ponder voice, syntax and the relationship between stylistic effect and other more dominate rhetorical concepts, if not but for the sake of soulful student drafts. Perhaps a game of adjectives might work—or an exercise on the usage of similes and metaphors. Nevertheless, the question still stands, as readers (of student writing) how do we better teach students how to use language effectively to foreground style? How do we get students to a place where their final drafts are as exciting and impactful as finding a new book we’ve been longing to read?
LaToya Faulk received her MA in Rhetoric and Writing Michigan State University in 2009. She joined the department as a lecturer in 2011 and is currently teaching ENG 1020.