Week 4

I think this week’s discussion might follow quite logically from last week’s. We’re talking about really practical things here, about the kinds of marks we make on our students’ writing, to teach them how to strengthen the revisions that will follow from their drafts. And I want to keep this week’s discussion focused on the practical, because I know that you must be learning a lot in every stack of papers you read, and you must be asking yourself a lot of questions, too.

But if those questions are practical, they also have big theoretical implications, as you suggested last week, too. By what standard do we decide that a stylistic or grammatical feature is an “error,” and what are the best ways to talk about that with standard with our students? How can we write about it meaningfully without spending hours on every paper? And how can we navigate the politics that attend the question, particularly the diversity of cultures and languages among our students?

What do you get from this week’s readings to answer these questions–and/or, how do you see this week’s readings speaking to the questions that are on your mind in class?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

13 Responses to Week 4

  1. Caleb Fridell says:

    Several of the articles we’ve read have used a kind of Academic Marxisant vocabulary to describe the typical classroom in which composition is taught. Min-Zhan Lu, for example, defining “the politics of style in the contact zone,” writes of the “second-class status of work in composition” (443) or, more dramatically, its “ghettoization” (442); the “highly asymmetrical relations of power” between cultures (447); the “unequal power relationships pervading the history, culture, and society my students live in” (448); the “‘foreign’ student writer” as “least powerful” in the classroom (452); the “hegemonic attitude toward ‘ability’” (454); and the way “unequal sociopolitical power of diverse discourses exerts real pressures on students’ stylistic choices” (457). But for all the political-seeming language––and like the other articles––I find the arguments curiously detached from any real basis in material concerns. In the interest of keeping focused on the practical, then, and because it seems to me that any discussion of the “politics” of teaching students grammar would be otherwise lacking, I would like to write about some of what I think is missing here and elsewhere (and everywhere).

    Most significantly: that first year composition courses are overwhelmingly taught by adjuncts paid a poverty wage to students burdened by debt. Even amid the general ruin of academic life, professional composition as a discipline is exceptional in its organization as a “management science,” as Marc Bousquet has argued––the site of an enormous amount of managed and exploited labor in the form of cheap teaching supervised by an academic administrative class. Writing instruction is carried out through what Sharon Crowley rightly calls “unprofessional and unethical practices. . . such as hasty hiring, low pay, low status, denial of academic freedom, and intellectual coercion of students and teachers.” The current strategy, resembling triage more than anything, involves hiring a revolving, contingent labor force of graduate student-employees and other part-time teachers (nonfaculty, parafaculty, or subfaculty) with few resources, little relationship to the institution they are meant to represent, and, perhaps, no acquaintance at all with the discipline of rhetoric and composition. That is, unprepared in every way possible for what ought to be a serious responsibility. It’s always useful to examine the historical conditions in which labor relations arose; the casualization of composition instruction was the solution reached by American universities––as power on campus was increasingly taken into the hands of upper administration, legislatures, and trustees––as a response to a rapidly growing student body in the middle of the century (Bousquet). Rather than matching the massive increase of students to teach with an increase of full-time faculty, universities found a reserve army of contingent teachers, and composition instruction became the most convenient position to thoughtlessly fill.

    Again, I think it’s important to remember all this because I think the sort of granular “political” questions Lu is working through can meaningfully be thought only in a department not built on exploited labor; an environment where well-paid faculty actually have control over standards of instruction, where her concerns could become institutional concerns rather than the individual, personalized responsibility of adjuncts. That is, we should never allow ourselves to take for granted these conditions created by austerity measures. CUNY’s board of trustees has recently agreed to an $11 million contract for EAB (Education Advisory Board––now bought out by a private equity firm) software to monitor and analyze the data it gathers on students because, in the words of CUNY management, although “there is no substitute for quality, in-person advising. . . we live in an age when technology can reduce the effects of less than optimal numbers of counselors and advisors.” This is the rot threatening to consume us all, and why I think, in any discussion that wants to treat the politics of the matter, we have to repeatedly insist that composition should be taught by full-time teaching-intensive specialized faculty. Then we can talk grammar!

  2. Min-Zhan Lu’s “Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone” definitely has a subject that I can relate to in regard to my 110 class. Several of my students whose first language is not English would benefit from “the import” of “multiculturalism” (442) although according to Pratt as cited by Lu, this remains “up for grabs across the ideological spectrum” (442). I certainly agree with Lu that sending students with poor grammar and syntax to the writing center would leave me highly frustrated (443) and this might increase their anxiety and single them out as being outsiders or even failures. Lu’s two examples, Gertrude Stein and Theodore Dreiser were interesting, and the fact that Dreiser would have failed to get the two term teaching position at the University of Indiana at Bloomington if hadn’t been dispensed from the preliminary examinations was telling. However, both of these were literary luminaries and Stein could afford to tell her editors (in a very subtle way) to go to hell if they didn’t want to publish her book, “Three Lives,” exactly the way she wrote it. More practically, Lu writes that she applies “a multicultural approach to student writing,” and “views even “error-ridden” student writings as texts relevant to critical approaches available to English Studies” (447). I found this idea to be quite interesting as well as her “view of writing as a process of re-seeing” (449). But I lost my focus in her article when reading about the detailed descriptions on the various uses of the word “can” that she used as an example—although her aim to get students to “re-construct the voice of the writer by focusing on the various uses of the word “can”’ was well put.
    In “How To Deal with Student Grammar Errors,” Jennifer Gonzalez’s finding that “grammar taught in isolation, outside the context of meaningful writing” not only did not lead to better student writings but also when drilled into students had a negative impact was a revelation. This is the exact opposite of what I was instructed all throughout my pre-college schooling! Fortunately, what Gonzalez suggests is what we already do here at Queens College, constructing our classes “around some form of reading and writing workshop.” Her other suggestions of creating a database with short grammar lessons and have individual students practice individual lessons was also very useful. This could be a way for students to get to learn without feeling that they are/were singled out to study with the writing center as a sort of remedial schooling but I’m just not sure how many students would actually access this database on their own.
    In “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar,” Patrick Hartwell gives us the pros and cons according to “the grammarians and the anti-grammarians” about the teaching of formal grammar. His conclusions that “seventy-five years of experimental research has for all practical purposes told us nothing,” is certainly frustrating (106). Frankly, as I read through his article, I (again) lost focus especially when he used diagrams with mathematical (or other) types of formula. I completely freeze when confronted with any type of mathematical symbols requiring interpretation (that’s why I became an artist…).

  3. The discussion and application of grammar, syntax, etc. in and around the academic experience is something of great interest to me as an educator. Even before I started teaching, this aspect of writing was still a large part of my life, due to years working at university writing centers. While there has been an almost universal decision at the university level to put more of a focus on “higher order” concerns in regards to writing, rather than grammar, the way an instructor must contend with these issues is more than marginally different than the way you would in a one-on-one instructive/tutoring session.

    At the core of this discussion of “grammar” and how to effectively assist students struggling with it is the complete fact that, for most students, grammar discussions are counter-productive. As Gonzalez effectively illustrates, particularly using the National Council of Teachers of English’s resolution stating that “the use of isolated grammar and usage exercises…is a deterrent to the improvements of students’ speaking and writing,” grammar classroom discussion has been mostly ineffectual. While sounding like parrot here, this is why I am constantly arguing for more integration between writing centers and freshman composition courses. To use a bit of a forced analogy, I have never had any interest in any form of math that didn’t have a practical use in my everyday life. Because of this, I have fairly terrible math skills, but what does the square root of anything have to do with, well, anything? Grammar instruction can function similarly in a vacuum, but when discussing actual, recurring mistakes and tendencies in a student’s writing, the personal, relevant discussion of the student’s grammar issues is proven to be much more effective.

    While I also appreciated Gonzalez’s links and suggestions for grammar lessons, I think something that hasn’t been discussed much as a response to student grammar and syntax issues is something that is working wonderfully for my classroom here at Queens College: the conference hour. While free writing and exercises are certainly helpful, the direct assistance from an instructor, over a friend, fellow student, or peer tutor, is especially valuable. Additionally, I’d like to stress a psychological bonus of this feature. Having this time to work with smaller groups of students outside of office hours and in a classroom location, particular with recurrent writing problems, is a boon as young students, particularly incoming freshman, can be a skittish breed; and often the idea of speaking to a professor in their office is terrifying, akin to going to the principal’s office in high school (often the only office other than a counselor’s office an incoming freshman would have experience with).

  4. Elaine Housseas says:

    h’ve always had conflicting feelings regarding the role of grammar instruction within the undergraduate classroom. I was enrolled in a Catholic school until I was in eighth grade. From first to eighth grade, we were given two separate courses: Literature and English. In our Literature course, we would read and practice comprehension and analysis. Our English course was built around the grammar drill method. Each day we were taught a different lesson for fifteen minutes and then were asked to do an in-class assignment for the remainding thirty minutes, which would be handed in to be graded at the end of the period. Then, I went to public high school and never received grammar instruction again. Even though I took both honors and AP courses in English throughout my high school career, I never received one lesson on grammar usage or mechanics. It was either perceived as an assumed skill or one that would be improved through afterschool instruction with your teacher or a tutor. While Gonzalez may call my elementary and middle school experience an example of the “drill and kill” method, I believe it is highly responsible for the praise my writing received from my high school teachers and the reason I did well on the Writing portion of my SATs. Mind you, I don’t think this was fair or that proper grammar usage should be defining factor of exemplary writing or a staple of standardized testing. I asked my students in our second class if they had received grammar instruction at any point in their education. The vast majority said they received very little instruction, predominately learning punctuation, capitualization, verb tenses, and parts of speech. I then asked if they felt they would benefit from the incorporation of some mini grammar lessons in our course. They were less than enthused. I found Gonzalez’s suggestion of creating a course database or Dropbox a practical and useful tool; however, like Alain I’m not sure if my students would consult it on their own without it being assigned. As Gonzalez recommends, I could direct students to this Dropbox and assign them exercises I feel may benefit them. I would make these decisions based on patterns I see in their writing. I agree that grammar should be taught through writing rather than before it. Students will be less opposed to this method, learning its practical applications in a more creative and less “lecture hall” or regimented style.
    I too found Lu’s article interesting. I was fascinated by the idea of a writer only being able to experiment with innovative types of style once they’ve established proficiency in their native language and a background of superior, higher education. Those who do not have such credentials could have their attempts at “self conscious and innovative experimentation” judged as “blundering errors” (444). How many writers have faced this criticism? How many students? Like Lu, I agree we need to move away from this distinction between “real writers” and students (447). We are real writers; we are students. We have to move away from this distinction if we are urging our students to recognize themselves as academics that have the ability to enter into academic conversations. This is why I like Lu’s idea of the classroom as a “contact zone where various cultures crash and grapple with each other often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (447).We want our students to feel like they have voices and writing that matter. We want them to know the value of their lived experiences and identities. Like Lu points out, it is equally important for them to “hear the discoursive voices” of others that contrast their own and are also struggling to be heard. We have to encourage them to “negotiate a position” that listens, acknowledges, and responds to these voices and finally “ask them” to think about where their position fits in larger discoursive conversations and their own lived experiences (448).
    Lastly (and this is just a little bit of a peeve of mine), I appreciate and support Lu’s incorporation of the individual’s lived experience in her design for a multicultural approach. I take issue with her definition of the conditions of life. This “includes a whole range of discoursive life, including gender, race, sex, economic class, ethnicity, education, religion, region, recreation, and work” (453). There is no mention here of disability. This is an omission that I often find in scholarship I feel that I need to bring attention to this moment because disability is equally important to the lived experience of a person or writer as those listed.

  5. Kate Bryant says:

    As I read through my first digital stack of student drafts mid-week grammar wasn’t yet remotely in my field of vision as a concern. I was more concerned with apparent gaps in understanding about what the assignment is asking, and regarding the essay they are writing about more generally. So I was thinking about the ways that I had potentially facilitated these things and can better anticipate them in future, the areas of the reading that I will need to revisit, and the daunting task of commenting and posing questions that can hopefully help students develop their thinking. Virtually none of my questions or comments had to do with grammar, though there were a couple instances when I saw a student repeatedly using a word that I suspected was changing their intent, which I asked them to clarify. I guess I would consider those usage issues and I wasn’t inclined to think of them as errors. But, I understand that this will be an evolving strand of thinking/commenting throughout the semester.
    I appreciate that Min-Zhan Lu provides a model of how her “politics of style in the contact zone” actually unfolds, in her description of a classroom discussion of a student’s use of “can able to” beginning on page 450. She says that, “devoting a few class periods to familiarizing students with this approach to style can be fruitful, especially if students are asked to theorize their action afterwards by reflecting on its strengths and limitations.” (456) On the same page she notes that “negotiating as a group gives them the distance they need but might not have when dealing with their own writing in isolation.” These sound like worthy goals but I feel like I’m still in the zone of higher order concerns, so it’s hard to transcribe to my own students and plans yet. I wonder if her model of discussing students’ writing choices at the word/sentence level might work applied to other parts of their writing, but I’m not sure how to think about it yet. I expect more hands-on research is needed. She does note that she introduces this kind of discussion around the mid-point of a semester when “students are beginning to apply to their actual practices a view of writing as a process of re-seeing.” (449) I like this articulation of writing, which feels relevant to me now as I confront this first moment of intervention. How do I immediately begin the process of helping students re-see?
    Patrick Hartwell articulates something similar near his conclusion, when he says “Writers need to develop skills at two levels” which he describes as “broadly rhetorical” and “broadly metalinguistic,” the latter involving “active manipulation of language with conscious attention to surface form.” (125) He claims this is “primarily developed by any kind of language activity that enhances the awareness of language as language.” While thus far I’ve wanted granular and practical knowledge about all of the mechanics of planning classes and activities, I found myself gravitating to these broader-seeming frameworks of Lu’s and Hartwell’s: “writing as a process of re-seeing” and “awareness of language as language”. Maybe it’s because they feel more familiar to me, more like the way I implicitly think of pulling apart writing in my own work and study, part of my own “tacit and unconscious knowledge.” (Hartwell 111)
    Finally, I appreciate Caleb’s insight about the material conditions in which we approach these questions. Writing the first comments took me a really long time, almost certainly longer than will be practical at every stage and draft (as the next one approaches rapidly.) I expect that I will get faster but it absolutely made me think about the way my own limitations (i.e. time, money, sleep– and the things that lay claim to those resources) will always be informing the ways in which I can practically implement any of this.

  6. While reading all three articles, I was thinking about what I tell students at the Writing Center: When you’re writing, forget about everything but writing. Don’t think about spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Think about what you have to say. When you’ve finished writing, proofread your work aloud so that you can hear it. As noted by Hartwell, “Most students, reading their writing aloud, will correct in essence all errors of spelling, grammar, and, by intonation, punctuation, but usually without noticing that what they read departs from what they wrote” (18). For ESL students, this is more difficult than for students whose first language is English, so I tell the former to mark what they think might seem like it needs to be edited and come back so we can work on it together. Rather than “errors” in writing, I try to concentrate on proofreading and editing as different skills altogether—because they are—and part of the revision and editing process “a process of re-seeing (Lu 449).

    Like Chris, I am seeing much of my English Composition instruction through the lens of someone who works as a tutor in a Writing Center. On Thursday, I worked with a student whose first language is Korean. He wanted to review a summary he had written for grammatical errors, and he was certain that there were “a lot of errors.” However, once we reviewed it together, there were only a few things that he needed to work on. He also told me that he wasn’t a good writer. But he was a “good” writer. Rather than trying to memorize a list of rules for verbs, his task is to try to find tense in what he is reading—a translated script for a Korean movie that he has seen a hundred times. Rather than being critical of his writing, he is “mastering a particular code” (Lu 455). Most importantly, he is empowered to be the master of his own writing/revision process. Again, I agree with Chris the Conference Hour and direct assistance from the instructor is valuable in addressing grammar and syntax issues without the intimidation of office visits. We are fortunate that Queens College has the First-Year Writing Program.

    I’m interested in further discussing the “second-class status of work in composition” (Lu 443). When hiring adjuncts to teach English courses, most CUNY colleges (and non-CUNY colleges) require that they first teach English Composition I and then II. In addition to the “tendency in English Studies to ghettoize the culture of composition” I see Caleb addressing (Preach!), I’m also interested in how many instructors view teaching composition as some sort of penance they must serve before they can ‘teach real English classes’ (442). Note: Despite the low wages, low status, and the anxiety of not yet having classes scheduled for next semester, I am teaching exactly what I want to be teaching. As much as universities have “ghettoized” teaching English Composition, I question how effective any instructor can be if he or she has no desire to teach a subject because it lacks prestige.

  7. Weiheng Sun says:

    Hartwell’s and Lu’s essays both call our attention to grammar “error.” Hartwell argues that “error” should be redefined “not as a cognitive or linguistic problem, … but rather, … as a problem of metacognition and metalinguistic awareness” (121). Lu points out the grammar errors are in connection with the “value systems with unequal social power in the U.S.” (453). I think Lu’s proposal of “negotiation” is a good way to deal with the variations and deviations of the grammar issue. Class as a “contact zone” can provide students opportunities to discuss, explore and analyze the “conflict between the codes of Standard English and other discourses” and to “resist the unifying force of ‘official’ discourse” (455).

    Hartwell’s essay begins with all the different definitions of “grammar,” which shows to some extent the reason why researching on this is complicated and controversial. The “article choice” (116) reminds me of the practice I did from elementary school to high school in China to learn English grammar rules. As the essay comments, “[t]he rule, however valuable it may be for non-native speakers, is, for the most part, simply unusable for native speakers of the language” (116). I remember I still made grammatical mistakes in writing after doing this kind of gap-filling practices, for learning from these rules by this artificial method is quite different from the actual usage in writing. In addition, this grammatical emphasis also easily leads to over-practice, providing a misleading information that doing well in such artificial practices can result in good writing. As Gonzalez suggests in her article, grammar learning is dependent on enough time to read and write in context.

    I’m also interested in the distinction made between Grammar 1 and Grammar 2 in Hartwell’s essay. According to the essay, Grammar 1 is “tact, unconscious, ‘knowing how’ knowledge” (112) and Grammar 2 is formal, conscious, ‘knowing about’ knowledge” (111). The essay asks for attention that “it provides a powerful theoretical justification for mistrusting the ability of Grammar 2 (or Grammar 4) knowledge to affect Grammar 1 performance—was pointed out in this journal by Martin Steinmann, Jr., in 1966 (“Rhetorical Research,” CE, 27 [1966], 278-285)” (112). In last week’s reading, Berzsenyi argues for “comments to comments,” and some of the comments are like “Why are great titles important?” and “Why are topic sentences important to paragraphs and essays?” (85). I’m not sure if this over-emphasis on the writing about writing, or “‘knowing about’ knowledge” can bring positive effect to actual writing, or “‘knowing how’ knowledge” (112).

  8. Zeli says:

    All in all, the Mihn-Zhan Lu essay really resonated with me on several levels. I believe it would take another read to fully glean the multi tiered thesis that Lu weaves together for a multicultural approach to first year writing. This being said, there are several buzz phrases within the essay that pierce my attention. I am taken by the way Lu see’s one of the active properties of the writing process as being related to “re-seeing.” Lu writes, “When teaching first-year writing classes, I usually introduce the multicultural approach to student writing style around the mid-point of the term, when I feel that students are beginning to apply to their actual practices a view of writing as a process of re-seeing”(449). Something about this lucid term–”re-seeing”– seems to suggest a charged moment for the student/writer when practical revision and personal &/or cultural style begin to conflate. Could it be that Lu is suggesting that “re-seeing” is sort of like an active verb; that practiced & learned space where style, (cultural, or otherwise) point of view, and revision become inextricably entangled with one another?

    Lu’s repetition of the word “potential” is also striking in the paragraph immediately above the quote I just cited. She describes the “multicultural approach” as “… a way of teaching which neither overlooks the students’ potential lack of knowledge and experience in reproducing the dominant codes of academic discourses nor dismisses the writer’s potential social, political and linguistic interest in modifying these codes, with emphasis on the word “potential””(449). It seems here, Lu presents us with a prism of potentiality that is born equally from one’s socio political/cross linguistic interests, fascinations, passions etc. as it is born from a lack of knowledge as it pertains to entering into academic discourse. This not-knowing seems key to how she speaks about the process through which writers become capable of complex and meaningful discourse.

    While my idealistic predilections lead me towards being just utterly enthusiastic by Lu, in these passages, I think her overall thesis might help me become more specific with my feedback and approach to my students’ reading responses. For the first few weeks, I’ve been a little free spirited in my approach– encouraging students to generate reflections of their own impressions of the poems we have read so far, as a class. I also encourage + prompt them to focus their attention toward certain craft issues, however it’s pretty much free reign with respect to how/what they respond. Lu’s approach, however, is making me question whether or not I should use the reading responses as a means for students to enter into a particular discourse. Perhaps, I should refine my expectations given that I now have several weeks of material that is rich in students navigating through their own interests + personal & social/political proximity the creative writing we’ve been engaging with. It might be an interesting way to raise the stakes a little bit in terms of writing that isn’t necessarily their creative work…. Creative work, of course, operating within a whole other network of “approach” theory than academic writing– at least on a surface level.

    • Zeli says:

      Oh! & her theory of the “contact zone” !!

      That’s another several paragraphs worth of reflection & curiosity. But I love that sort of utopian lens that Lu uses to parse through the classroom as a politically charged cite of cross cultural contact. Yes!!

  9. Jacqueline says:

    I’m noticing that it is really hard to speak about what is “practical,” and am curious why that is the case. Perhaps it has to do with the material conditions that Caleb writes about, that many of us are struggling to juggle our own academic study, other jobs, etc., in addition to preparing as well as possible for teaching a class we’ve never taught before. Thinking about the practical is hard when we haven’t experienced the arc of our courses yet; sometimes it feels like we’re too deep in it to see the bigger picture. Perhaps it is because I’ve yet to get to some of these “practical” matters with my students. Nevertheless, I, like Kate and many of you I’m sure, are hungry for more of those tools.

    As far as marking up their work goes, I have yet to do anything other than checking for credit and short notes of praise or inquisitive commentary. I’ve been reading their free writes, blog posts, short reading responses, etc., and I’m using those to build an understanding of their engagement with the work we’ve been doing thus far as well as of the kinds of “errors” that might come up in their formal writing. The textbook I assigned for the class is “Pocket Keys for Writers.” My plan is to use this text in a way akin to the folder that Gonzalez creates for her students. After peer review of our first essay, I will ask each student to write what they would like to improve for their next drafts. Then, I plan to direct them to chapters in Pocket Keys that will individually address the skills they hope to develop. We’ll have time to get into this on a more student-to-student basis during the Conference Hour. I’m with Chris and Rachael that this time has already been invaluable.

    So by making notes as I go of what recurring grammatical errors come up and by offering them opportunities to articulate the areas where they would like to improve their work, I’m hoping to give them more constructive advice to achieve those goals instead of thinking in terms of errors. I’m trying to stay in the realm of generating and organizing ideas (lots and lots of reading and writing) and hope to address grammatical issues as we go. We’re at the point of trying to switch on the metalinguistic faculties. As students become more confident in thinking critically about what we’re reading, it’s already becoming easier for them to directly apply that thinking to their own writing.

    Lu’s approach did seem convoluted as others mentioned, or at least challenging to implement especially in our first semesters, but it is definitely a source of inspiration as I develop translation lessons for the writing classroom. Her approach asks students to step back and study language as both process and artifact, developing metalinguistic awareness as Hartwell discusses or what Labov calls “one’s awareness of language as language” (123). I’m convinced using different named languages is one of the best ways to do this kind of learning. Moving across languages emphasizes the fact that something can mean one thing and something different at the same time, which brings about this kind of awareness quite naturally. I will definitely be considering her model in more depth as a tool to introduce around the middle of the semester.

    A question I’m left with is how to best complement the two skills that Harwell says writers need to develop (rhetorical and metalinguistic)? The only answer I can seem to come up with is the same, “lots of reading and writing.” Hartwell calls to “regain the confidence in the tacit power of unconscious knowledge that our theory of languages gives us.” Sure, we’re revolving around some very theoretical and at times utopic notions, but I don’t think our intentions are all for naught. Creating an environment where students’ ideas are treated with respect, where we trust the power of their “unconscious knowledge” (lots of reading and writing), and where we see students as writers as Lu proposes, is an attitude we can readily adapt in the language we use when speaking about students’ work and when commenting on it.

  10. Tyler Plosia says:

    Lu’s “Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone,” while directly pertaining to the more formal prose of student composition writing, also made me consider yet again the role of a teacher in a creative writing classroom when it comes to intentionality and – to borrow a cliche – grasp of the language in student writing.

    The following passage in particular felt pertinent to my current teaching experience: “Stein, an ‘American’ bearing certification of a ‘perfect’ education from Radcliffe and Johns Hopkins Medical School, knew she had the authority to maintain that everything in her manuscript was ‘written with the intention of its being so written.’ Stein’s indignation and the embarrassment she elicited from the ‘young man’ suggest that in the early 1900s, ethnic and educational backgrounds were two common denominators for determining whether style represented self-conscious and innovative experimentation or blundering ‘errors.’ (445.)

    When it comes to students for whom English is not their first language, I have been making an effort to recognize that what I might initially view as an error – or a failure to be precise – in student writing may not be related at all to the student’s grasp of language. Additionally, it has come to my attention over the course of my time at Queens College that “intentionality” has become a bit of a dirty word in academia, which is an curious lesson to learn in the mandatory lit courses I have taken when contrasted with the way the word is used in MFA writing courses. And now, teaching an undergraduate course consumed almost entirely with the analysis and interpretation of student writing, I have to consider if my role is to question the intentionality of a piece and to encourage students to consider their own intentions – to weigh the tension between writing something filled with interpretive potential and writing something concrete, definitive. One common reaction to student pieces has been something along the lines of, I know what this writer is going for, and I think I might know why they’re missing their target.

    But then I have to wonder if words not “written with the intention of being so written” cannot be as valuable or at least useful in the creative and destructive experience of writing as ones that are so clearly and indisputably intentioned. What is the role of, let’s say, subtext in a piece with the clearest and most communicated intentions? When does the effect of writing belong to the writer, when to the audience? And how – when there’s almost no time to even begin to pose questions like this in a class filled, I believe rightly, with workshops – to consider these questions as somehow tasked with guiding and (for lack of a better word) improving the creative writing of students?

  11. Woo Ree Heor says:

    This week’s readings connect with the readings of previous weeks in that they engage the question of how to better accommodate, and not marginalize, the English learners in classroom setting. The three authors all acknowledge that grammar lessons, while well intentioned, have often been accused of being detrimental to student writers rather than being actually helpful. As Hartwell puts it, “the issues of sequence in the teaching of composition and of the role of the composition teacher” (108) are ultimately at the core of the grievances teachers (and students) are having with grammar. My past experience of learning English is probably similar to many nonnative speakers; standardized tests, grammar drills, times spent trying not to forget the immense amount of vocabulary. I’ve seen many people whose attempt to conform to the accepted form of English (whatever that is) actually hindered their learning capabilities, chipping away at their confidence every time they try to write or speak in English. Perhaps because of this experience, I agree with Gonzalez’s observation that grammar should be learned within the context of writing, not as a separate step taken before writing can begin.
    I agree with others that while Lu offers insightful criticism of how nonnormative forms of English tend to be approached in English courses, her article leaves one with more questions than answers. Lu’s example of Gertrude Stein is interesting, but I think being “indignant” was a possible option for Stein because she was already a poet with established career in writing. The fact that Theodore Dreiser attempted to “fix” his text according to the advice of English users who were supposedly more skilled than him proves that, despite their prestigious status within academia, “real” writers cannot escape linguistic marginalization completely. I doubt that the students we will encounter, who might have anxieties regarding their ability to write “proper” English with little experience with writing as an academic activity, will have the same sociopolitical and psychological capacity to deal with such discouragements. Also, I cannot help but ask: to what extent is “[contesting] the distinction between “real” and “student” writers” (Lu 447) possible at a practical level? As English instructors (or students), we are all acutely familiar with “a view of language as a site of struggle among conflicting discourses with unequal socio-political power” that Lu finds in English courses (444), yet addressing such volatile, complex clash of power dynamics in classroom setting is not always easy or satisfying. Our students are obligated to face various sorts of coercion to conform to the established system of academic writing, even though we might try to combat them in our classes. Lu herself seems to acknowledge this when she adds: “although the process of negotiation encourages students to struggle with such unifying forces, it does not and cannot lead them to ignore and forget them” (457).
    My class just finished writing the first draft of the first essay, with the second draft due shortly thereafter. Like Kate, I did not address grammar in my comments to the drafts at all, opting to suggest ways to improve their analysis and argument instead. Yet the grammar-related anxiety seems to be still there (ex. concerns about “spellings” in their essay), even though I emphasized that grammar and spelling are not really important at this point of the draft. Since I will have to address some of those concerns in the comments for my students’ second draft, I need to figure out how I can make remarks about their “style” and “word choices” not lead to blind endorsement of canonical academic writing.

  12. Audrey Wollen says:

    I was surprisingly taken by Hartwell’s essay this week. This is partly because I find linguistics fascinating but usually impenetrable, but mostly because he (re-)convinced me of something I already knew: that literacy is foundational to all projects of articulation. It is painful, in a certain way, to debate whether or not grammar should be drilled into incoming college students. It reveals that our education system does not necessarily place its faith in reading early on. Reading as a structural mode of learning communication at large, not only a way of distributing information or content. I can’t help but think that if an active and joyful reading practice was supported and upheld in early public education, the debate about college grammar would be unnecessary. Hartwell clearly demonstrates that grammar is a kind of algorithm, although he doesn’t use that exact phrasing, and like most algorithms, it works best when it is invisible. I think exposure to language used in as many modes as possible (formal, academic, vernacular, playful, poetic, lyrical, scientific, ironic) is the best way to underline how certain “rules” undergird such variety of use.

    Something that especially struck me in the Hartwall, especially as it related to Lu’s essay, was his analysis of Seliger’s a/an experiment: “Rules are of no use, he agrees, but some people think they are, and for these people, assuming that they have internalized the rules, even inadequate rules are of heuristic value, for they allow them to access the internal rules they actually use” (p. 199). This comes up especially because I am constantly confronted with my student’s emotional and intellectual attachment to the “rules,” even if they are unsure what those rules may be. Lu speaks about this too in her analysis of the self-policing of “errors” done by students. What Lu proposes in her multicultural grammar is to broaden a sense of the rules, while still allowing the students to feel like they are following some, by validating the systems usually excluded by the academy as systems themselves. This is very different than saying, ‘there are no rules! do what you want!’ The balance between broadening the rules, tweaking the rules, defying the rules, and disregarding them seems important to how we approach students grammar practices.

Comments are closed.