Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

The Most Important Project of Our Time! Hyperbole as a Discourse Feature of Student Writing

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

The Most Important Project of Our Time! Hyperbole as a Discourse Feature of Student Writing

Article excerpt

It is difficult to chart the constellation of conversations that aggregated into our desire to study hyperbole in student writing. Initially, we had tracked the origin of this project to an average fall day when an idea sparked in our minds while listening to the hyperbolic rhetoric saturating the conversations of our daily lives. But perhaps the genesis of this project lies deeper in our writing and teaching histories, back to experiences with past instructors who scolded us for our use of absolute language or to the overly rigid rules prohibiting the use of such words as greatest, every, and never, rules we often see on our colleagues' assignment sheets and on our own. Maybe the idea for this project built up as we noticed repeated uses of hyperbole in our students' writing and began to wonder how and why students used such a rhetorical strategy.

Once our interest was piqued, though, we started noticing instances of hyperbole usage all around us-in conversation, in writing, in movies, on television. Increasingly, we started pointing out hyperbole use in each other's speech as almost a game, one equivalent to "Jinx, you owe me a Coke." We also became more aware of our students' uses of hyperbole and began asking each other the questions that would form the foundations of this study:

* How can we define and categorize hyperbole?

* Where is hyperbole found in student writing?

* How and why is hyperbole used in student writing?

We approach these questions not as prescriptivists seeking to eliminate instances of hyperbole in student writing but as researchers who are trying to understand the context, rhetorical rationales, and intentions underlying hyperbolic utterances. Given the prevalence of hyperbole in student writing, we argue a more nuanced understanding can provide new perspectives on writing and writing instruction, perspectives that are increasingly important as the number of international and L2 students increase at American universities. Rather than assuming students' use of hyperbole indicates a sort of failure, we set out to engage in a generous reading and theorization of hyperbole and invited student writers to discuss their reasonings and thoughts behind specific moments of hyperbole. If our project has implications for the teaching of writing, we hope that it encourages teachers at all levels to inquire into those features of student writing that might be casually dismissed as "mistakes" or misunderstandings of discourse conventions. We encourage the type of teacher inquiry we are engaging in with this project on an everyday level by seeing students' rhetorical moves as intentional and providing space for a discussion of these moves and the intentions behind them. We do not mean to suggest that we assume all utterances represent students' mindfulness about language, but likewise, we insist that one cannot assume that they only represent students' thoughtlessness.

Why Hyperbole? Why Now?

During the 2012 election cycle, the American public was reminded, through political punditry, advocacy, and comedy, how strong a role hyperbole plays in shaping public discourse. From the overexaggerations of "edge-of-your-seat" news programming to the extreme positions of partisan politicians to the punch lines of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (which seemingly wrote themselves in that climate), the American viewing public swam in a sea of hyperbolic conversation that seemingly dictated much of public discourse in the months leading up to the November elections.

This environment served as the backdrop of our thinking on hyperbole in student writing. Indeed, the idea to begin this project came within a few weeks of Election Day in the fall of 2012. While election coverage and commentary is not our focus, as a microcosm of popular discourse that includes a wide range of outlets from sports talk radio to reality television to popular magazines, it represents one-half of a general trend of hyperbole use we noticed. …

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