Author Archives: Prof. Edelson

Multi-Modal Writing and Grammar

Let’s’ start with what I love and then I’ll write fifteen to twenty paragraphs explaining very carefully my position on academic writing and grammar. Thanks for asking. Have a seat. Smoke if you got ’em.

Martin Brandt’s book excerpt was fun and engaging and I would like to find ways to work with his ideas more.

The Annotated Bibliography is a wonderful assignment and I’ve been meaning to say this for two semesters now. I can’t say enough about how much I like it, but I’ll try. ¬† ¬†I honestly can’t figure out how I didn’t come up with it before. ¬†It’s so obvious and solves so many problems both basic (stop plagiarizing) and complex (what kind of source is viable?). ¬†I embrace it. ¬†Fully. ¬†They could have been doing this the whole time! ¬†I will never go without it again. ¬†I think I’d like it better as a series of mini-assignments that get folded into a final project, but that’s just a tweak I might add.

Representing themselves in different media will be important in student’s careers and educations, and I’m happy to fold a podcast, a TikTok, or a TedTalk style video into my syllabus. It’s liberating to be told to keep students up to do date with technological advances. ¬†Students need more multi-modal writing assignments. ¬†How could they not? ¬†Most of their communication will be in these new forms and we would do them a disservice not to guide their use.

Now.

Please don’t yank the basic research paper or the basic essay.

I’ve been haunted for many years now by a conversation I had with a friend who worked for a legal staffing firm who told me his firm would not consider even interviewing a student from City Tech for a paralegal position because their writing was notoriously terrible. ¬†He told me this full well knowing I was a writing instructor there (and he had worked as a CUNY adjunct himself). ¬†I also had a friend at the Board of Education tell me that they didn’t accept candidates from another non-CUNY college I worked at.

These chilling conversations strengthened my resolve to make absolutely certain that my students could work in whatever genre they met.  Could they fill out a job application?  Send a thank you letter?  Write a colleague a work email?  Present a school with a decent sample of academic writing?   To do that they need to write in all different genres, including standard possibly soul-deadening academic ones.

I am wary of the idea that teachers will turn students off writing by teaching them to do it in an academic manner or that by teaching them grammar they will be crippled as writers.  I sense the belief that by teaching them to write a five paragraph essay or a four page research paper they will become so traumatized that they will drop out of schoolРthey will HATE writing more than anything, or even worse, that my teaching them to write in standard edited American English is going to ruin them.  Literally, they are going to drop out of college because they will hate academic writing so much and then they will be shut out of so much of what society has to offer that they will be forced to a life of crime.

I’ve always assumed it was the other way around. ¬†Yes, they are absolutely traumatized, yes, they are scared and hate it and don’t see the point. ¬†At least when we meet, that’s sometimes the feeling. ¬†But when I’m done with them, I hope, if all goes well, that ¬†they will be great at writing. ¬†Or at least, Very Good. ¬†And being Very Good at it makes them like it a little, or hate it a little less.

I have always assumed that the problem wasn’t that people were teaching research papers and certain structures, but that they were teaching them poorly. ¬†If you watch how grammar gets taught, even the tone becomes sort of punitive and mean and sadistic. ¬†Delores Umbrage, that famously terrible teacher, would probably run a tight grammar class. ¬†And I suspect five paragraph essay structure might somehow turn teachers into assholes, because power corrupts, and that’s what is making students turn a way from an education.

A certain tone of voice.  A certain disdain.  Contempt.  Strict standards vaguely expressed.

But I felt like it was my job to prepare students for all the ¬†professors, mean professors, tough graders, angry “normed” adjuncts sitting in windowless rooms marking their way through hundreds and hundreds of papers over the course of a weekend for 40% of their actual salary.

I’ve been using five paragraph essay structure to stack the odds in students’ favor in these situations — if students know one paragraph is all about red and another paragraph should be all about about blue, then they won’t repeat what they’ve said about red in the second and third and fourth paragraphs. ¬†I write the words RED and BLUE on the board in huge letters. ¬†I give them quizzes on red and blue paragraphs. ¬†And then I have them free write and free write, to get the taste of being ashamed out of their mouths.

I worry that removing the basic research paper from composition will put students at an academic disadvantage when they go on to other classes or programs. ¬†I always assume that after Tech they are going straight to MIT to do their graduate work, where they will have to write a research paper at least once. ¬†(Or possibly NYU or the Graduate Center or Teacher’s College.) ¬†What’s going to happen to them there if they’ve never encountered the most basic (if boring and possibly silly) forms of academic writing?

I do think working in other genres or in more engaging writing projects will make them better writers and ready for the workplace, but if they don’t have any clue how to write a basic boring old research paper, even how to focus on writing something that’s not fun, not scintillating, I think their lives might be the worse for it. ¬†Possibly not life-of-crime worse for it, but embarrassment awaits.

Also, I started teaching grammar because the students were freaking out about it. ¬†Not all of them, but enough of them, were so frightened of grammar that I thought it would just be easier to teach it than to try to talk them all out of worrying about it. ¬†I tried to teach it in a way that wasn’t shaming and punitive, but still relevant. ¬†I would never write students mistakes on the board–even doing so ¬†anonymously is a sadistic practice. ¬†I just can’t be funny or humble enough to pull this tactic off. ¬†I would just write my own made-up mistakes on the board and have them correct them, and the mistakes might match a grammar lesson. ¬†The whole thing took 10 minutes a class and seemed to calm their nerves.

I do wish these composition experts would stop using words like “inflicting” when they talk about teaching practices. “But those promoting these grammar drills¬†should also be shown how to observe what happens in their classes¬†when they inflict such lessons on their students, as well as how to¬†document the before-and-after writings of these students. Perhaps
their first-hand experience will convince them when other people‚Äôs¬†research could not.” ¬†There’s a lot of English-teacher shaming going on in these articles. ¬†I understand they’re lobbying for change, but their case is specious. ¬†Teaching grammar can be empowering, or humiliating, for students, depending on how it’s done. ¬†Certainly this writer can’t possibly be arguing that just knowing grammar makes you a worse writer?

I’m willing to wager that some writers have managed to produce works of staggering beauty, all the while knowing grammar.

It’s self-consciousness about grammar that cripples us as writers. ¬†That’s why, I wager, students writing doesn’t improve when you teach grammar. ¬†(Not that I think teaching grammar improves writing–but that’s another essay.) But we have to get them past the self-consciousness. ¬†Get them to focus on the flower bed and not always be thinking about what kind of gardener they are, how they look as a gardener, what kind of grade they’ll make as a gardener or if they should take another selfie.

Meanwhile, in our efforts to prepare students for a world of new means of communication, which we absolutely must do, I hope to also remember that the new fast methods of communication sometimes preclude, by their nature, meaningful, slow thought.

The new constant ticktocking instagramming texting communication illuminates with the quality of a strobe light.¬†The¬†communication goes on around us almost as if no one is doing it, it’s just happening. The¬†accumulation of all this multimodal communication running at us all day long is that we all enter a sort of nod where we just flick ideas back and forth like spit wads.¬† Doing great! Love this! Thanks so much!¬† ¬†We ping memes and images and bright chirpy little jokes with kittens falling all over pianos¬†back and forth relentlessly. ¬† How can I encourage my students to think, to look for facts and substance in this digital haze? ¬†

Thank you for getting to the bottom here.  Nice to see you down here.  Really enjoyed thinking about these issues with other people.

 

“Getting on the Right Side of It”

My mind has always been a whirling dervish.  Whirling everything.   Lost thoughts, lost papers, lost keys, lost change, lost Berit.  While other students looked so steady and comfortable, I was often trying to figure out if we’d changed rooms, or classes, or books, or why the other students’ subways ran on time and mine didn’t.  I just needed a pen, so so often.  People who sat next to me, more than once, took to bringing a pen for me, and I can still feel blood flow to my face thinking back on it. 

But I had two things working for me.  First, I was interested.  Second, I had gone to a school that taught outlining and proper essay structure and I’d embraced it.  I could wake up at 2AM, suddenly remembering, in my sleep, that a paper was due the next day, and write the paper without fear because I could think of three supporting reasons and find clarifying quotations by rote.

So when the author says all these students who hate this formulaic style of writing are suspect, racist, being rewarded for their rigid adherence to a dogmatic, bot like way of writing, I felt personally injured. ¬†Outlining saved me. An outline was an anchor in a sea of whirling words.¬† I wasn’t a robot or a grade digger,¬†¬†I was a just a student who really needed clarity, a system, anything, to keep me steady.

Also, I felt like listing the detractors whose arguments against this revamping of academic writing were weak, self interested or based in systematic racism, was cheap. ¬†Why not find the best reasons for not going along with it? ¬†Yes, it’s interesting that some “good” students who were used to doing it one way were resistant. ¬†I’m not saying the writer should have omitted that information, and I thought the component of racism was fascinating, but I also think there are some valid voices being left out of the discussion and that the absence made me trust the writer less.

I do struggle with this idea of the ‚Äúself as text”. This professor‚Äôs students wrote beautifully. I was blown away by their beauty and relevance. ¬† But I am concerned that our world‚Äôs seem to get narrower and narrower until people just can‚Äôt think about anything but themselves anymore. ¬†They won’t make¬†that jump over,¬†beyond the¬†self, ¬†into a world that might be interesting to them because the connection requires some time…some nuance.

An aside– I would be pleasantly surprised to get 20 competently written research papers that weren’t plagiarized, no matter how lacking in originality. ¬†I’m ever worried that I am sending students out into the workplace — to work as architects, teacher or paralegals, and I don’t want to set them up for humiliation if they don’t know how to do a basic, perhaps boring, research project, perhaps on something that doesn’t interest them. ¬†Work is sometimes boring. ¬†For example, nurses often need to slog through and summarize excruciatingly boring medical documents for work. ¬† Did I give them what they need to do it competently?

On the other hand, the research papers she received were so fascinating that I’m interested in her methods.

Also, her response to her student’s writing was exactly what I’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t quite articulate. ¬†She’s clearly having a deep, personal conversation with her students, at a high level, about the world around them, and I often feel like a grading zombie, which is a sure way to kill student curiosity. ¬†“Here, you pour out your soul and I’ll stamp it for you.”