As a teacher of composition, I remember having discussions privately and in faculty meetings about anxieties fellow teachers have had in allowing their students to look at an example of a particular assignment before sending the students out to compose that assignment. I have understood where these anxieties come from. After all, is the student really learning or developing as writers if they are simply filling out a template? How could students invent new ideas if they are merely replicating existing ones? Fair enough. But, when I reflect on my time as either a technical writer or a short story writer, my writing development has always been informed by reading the work of others. Any creative writing class will reinforce this mantra: if you want to write, read voraciously. As a technical writer, when burdened with writing in a new genre or a new variation of an old genre (the narrative-driven advertisement blog was a new one for me recently), the very first thing I would want was an example. I, someone holding two degrees in English, couldn’t imagine learning the moves of a new genre without observing how those moves have been implemented in the past. It would be like hitting the bull’s-eye of a dartboard on the first try, blindfolded. Sure, prior experience throwing darts in the first place would be helpful, but hitting that bull’s-eye (or anywhere on the board for that matter) would be quite the undertaking. Possible, but quite the undertaking.
What I’m primarily interested in is not why imitation has such a bad rap, but should imitation have such a bad rap. The idea of teaching imitation sounds unsavory to say the least. It has that plagiaristic ring to it. It sounds like the opposite of creativity and invention. But humans tend to learn through imitation. Children learn language through imitation. We create meaning with metaphor, which is a kind of imitation: imitating an idea by constructing a congruous, but altogether different, idea that is easier to understand or connect with. Culture is imitation. And that, I think, is ultimately the roadblock students predominantly have to deal with, which is admittance into the culture of academe. As Bartholomae writes, “I think that all writers, in order to write, must imagine for themselves the privilege of being ‘insiders’--that is, the privilege both of being inside an established and powerful discourse and of being granted a special right to speak” (612).
Ultimately, I’m interested in how writing actually develops as opposed to how we wish it would develop. Through my highly biased personal writing experience, I’m convinced that writing development generally occurs through attempts at imitation, and that imitation is just another (although I would argue, critical) tool in the writing teacher’s toolbox. Just as we understand that writing does not occur in a vacuum, writing develop does not occur without some attempts at emulation or imitation, without some attempt to learn from the work that has come before. So then, a final question would naturally include, how would we successfully implement such a pedagogy?
Arrington, Phillip K. and Farmer, Frank M. “Apologies and Accommodations.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Winter, 1993), pp. 12-34. Print
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Journal of Basic Writing, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring 1986), pp. 4-23. Print.
Boyd, Richard. “Imitate Me; Don’t Imitate Me: Mimeticism in David Bartholomae’s ‘Inventing the University’.” Journal of Advanced Composition, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Fall 1991), pp. 335-345. Print.
Connors, Robert J. “The Erasure of the Sentence.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Sep., 2000): pp. 96-128. Print.
McKeon, Richard “Literary Criticism and the Concept of Imitation in Antiquity.” Modern Philology, Vol. 34, No. 1 (1936), pp. 1-35. Print.
Muckelbauer, John. “Imitation and Antiquity.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Spring 2003): pp. 61-88.