Lanham on Style

Here's some brief snippets from Richard Lanham's 1974 Style: An Anti-Textbook. 30 years old, Lanham's scathing assessment on the academic and public valuing of prose style perhaps rings more true today than at the time of its publication (during the "birth" of R/C). I say "perhaps" because, as Lanham's more recent publications suggest, the development of new media and digital communication suggest possibilities for reinvesting a wider interest in elements of style. Reconfiguration generates new ways of seeing [appreciating].

On Why Freshman Composition courses are destined to fail:

The usual Freshman Composition course takes as its subject something called (old-fashion) Rhetoric or (new-fashion) Basic Communication Skills. New or old, it is basically the medieval trivium, or first arts course, a progress of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The medieval student spent all his time on these three until he got is B.A.. Students now get ten [or sixteen] weeks. (10)

On a cultural aversion to revision/artistry as feminine or superficial [irony alert]:

Only a child would do this. What's the point in spending a lot of time prettying things up? The thought is what counts. Style is for English teachers and editors. To be interested in it, especially for a man, is like being interested in furnishing his house--women's work.

On the social criticism of writing, good and bad:

Good prose does not come from a one-time inoculation. It has to be sustained by the standards of a society, by that society's sense of style. It has to be encouraged, appreciated, rewarded. Its countervailing ugliness has to be mocked. None of this now happens in America.

I am thinking particularly of this last point after my upper-division writing classes' previous workshops. In short (and I have a post on this coming), I had the class look at the first sentences to all of the posts written during the previous week (about 40 in total). Out of the 40, I would say about 32 of them were terrible. And I told my students this explicitly--that I was holding the first sentences workshop because these sentences were terrible. One student, a budding future English teacher, suggested that this was not good pedagogical practice (as did one of my colleagues). But I am calling Lanham to my defense--don't I, as a writing instructor--have to blame as well as praise? Doesn't my honest assessment lend more value to my feedback? Because I can say that, after the workshop, the amended first sentences I saw displayed far more sophistication. (Here again I nod to my own personal pedagogical narrative, my ties to Dr. David Zern's emphasis on disequilibrium culled from Freudian psychoanalysis-- although this time I am clearly back in the mode of making my students uncomfortable).

On another note, more and more watching Project Runway influences my teaching persona.


pure_sophist_monster said...

With respect to your concluding remark on Project Runway. I feel the same influence, and, quite related, I often feel jealous of coaches for the liberties they can take in "teaching" athletes. They are able, it seems to me, to be more aggressive and count under their purview issues of effort. I could never circle my class up and tell them to "pull their heads out of their asses" as I once told as a high school athlete.

I think this has to do with how "we" view both intellect and athletic ability. Athletic ability is easier to tie to issues of effort, commitment and habit. We see sport as activity and practice, so it is more like to be a failure in activity and practice that leads to a failure on the field. Intellect ("smarts") are seen as a possession rather than an activity. I refer here to an earlier blog of yours. Most teachers would, of course, that some students work harder than others, but to make a part of their pedagogy would be a bridge too far.

It is no doubt the classroom setting as well that prevents us from treating students as athletes, but there seems to be sometime else at work. Maybe, also that sports are more social (at least team sports) and academics are seen as more personal. To tell a running back that their blocking sucks maybe not be as personal as telling a student their first sentence is terrible.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Very thoughtful response--especially framing my maneuver in terms of coaching. Granted that classrooms are different than fields and that academic prowess isn't necessarily athletic ability. I do, however, feel that "revision" is a matter of effort--something more akin to moving your feet on defense than jumping through the gym.

I admit to be at a bit of a loss as to how my previous post matches with this one--is it the weight of expectation?

As to the final point--the difference between blocking and writing--yes, it likely is more personal. But, I believe, it is also possible to improve performance if we address the person, directly, confrontationally, instigating some form of discomfort. Of course, my mom has said that I was a "deconstructionist" long before I knew the word--so this might just be me justifying what I enjoy.

And I would totally like to see you hyped up telling some kid to pull his head out of his ass.

pure_sophist_monster said...

"As to the final point--the difference between blocking and writing--yes, it likely is more personal. But, I believe, it is also possible to improve performance if we address the person, directly, confrontationally, instigating some form of discomfort."

This is what I was getting at. This also connects to my link to your previous post. This is about human beings doing things. In that sense, blocking and writer are very much the same things: activity, practice, motion, becoming.

Casey said...

Let me try an act of "framing":

This reminds me of the different kind of work preachers do: on one hand, they make sure their congregations have "right doctrine." But on another, they do try, very actively sometimes, to get their congregation to feel the doctrine.

And why can't we all consider being more like the fire & brimstone Jonathan Edwards in the classroom? Would it simply be too much work for us?

Certainly there's enough data to justify a little "pull your heads outta your asses" rhetoric... something like 22% of last year's nationwide graduating seniors had jobs lined up when they walked in commencement.

So I'm not sure why that can't be a part of our pedagogy.


Insignificant Wrangler said...

My own education is littered with fire and brimstone--and, until Purdue, I would say that I learned (and enjoyed) those professors more than anybody else. I always wanted the challenge, and appreciated the candor. Of course, I was a pretty accomplished student, and their criticisms were often accompanied with compliments. Those profs were all older, and I wonder if any of the younger generation keep the torch lit, so to speak.