[journal entry] on second part of Murphy’s “The Key Role of Habit in Roman Writing Instruction”

I really like the idea of using incremental steps to teach composition. I love how it helps build up students’ fodder for future writing as well as helps learn “to see both sides of a question” (69). It makes me think there’s got to be a way to accommodate the progymnasmata to the 21st century writing classroom. It seems as if the only obstacles would be 1) the time it would take to get students from fables to theses and declamations (probably too long for one term) and 2) the choice of material (i.e., making sure to use a wide enough variety of material to avoid the charge of ideology of proselytizing). One of the main advantages, after all, to the progymnasmata, in the eyes of the Romans, was that the student “absorbs ideas of morality and virtuous public service from the subjects discussed” (69).

But, speaking of values, I think I’m going to definitely use some form of the impersonation exercise in my writing classroom. That seems like a great way to teach students about voice, audience, and kairos, as well as a way to help them see other points of view – or almost experience other points of view. And if there’s resistance from students, perhaps using prosopopoeia would work better: imaginary statements of an imaginary person. That imagined person could be, say, “a black woman in the early 20th century,” or even “a presidential candidate responding to a charge of misconduct.” I’m not sure it would work as well to use purely imaginary (as in fantastical) characters. But it might be a good way to start students off, since they might enjoy the exercise more.

Under description, Murphy notes enargeia which Quintilian, according to Murphy, says “portrays persons, things, and actions in lively colors, so that they seem to be seen as well as heard” (68). Richard Weaver refers to this figure in his “Language is Sermonic,” noting it as an example of what the rhetor ought to do to make a scene “mean something to the emotional part of us” (B&H 1358a). Weaver’s point reminds me of one of the problems I often saw, while working in the YVCC writing center, of students writing description papers but failing to make their description mean anything or do anything to the reader. They were rather following the teacher’s instructions by rote – e.g., including concrete details (any they randomly selected) and using the five senses (again, randomly choosing which sense to evoke) – all with no real purpose. I’m sure instructors emphasized that the goal of description is to evoke some reaction in the reader. But perhaps it would help to say, in addition to “write so as to help us see or experience the scene,” say also “write so as to make the reader feel a particular emotion.”


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