Author Archives: Sadia

Grammar: Eureka Moments are not Created by Staying within the Lines

One of the first things I casually mention to my students on the first day of class as we go over the syllabus is that I honestly genuinely do not care as much about grammar as I do content. Technicalities bore me to death, and I consider grammar technicalities. I am nowhere near saying that reading a paper with atrocious grammar does not bother me. But the reason for a student’s quality of grammar could be numerous. English may not be one’s first language and they may still be struggling to learn all the intricacies of the English language. They may have not been fortunate enough to go to a school that had quality resources to educate their students: the tools for music, science classes, updated textbooks, extracurricular activities or college readiness programs – never mind grammar, of all things. They may struggle with a learning disorder. But do any of these possible reasons necessarily mean that these students are not capable of holding rich, deeply complex thoughts and ideas within their minds? Certainly not. Can horrible grammar get in the way of understanding a student’s ideas effectively? Yes, and I clarify to them that if it gets in the way of conveying your ideas effectively, or hinders me from understanding your ideas, I will recommend that you go to the Writing Center, or a tutor. I write this on the feedback for their essays. But otherwise, I do not want to hold grammar over my students’ heads in such a way that the fear of a grammar mistake cripples them or hinders them from being able to get their thoughts down onto paper or screen. Students have enough anxiety about writing. Writing is difficult enough of its own. The process of trying to extract something you cannot touch (thoughts, ideas and emotions, which can be haphazardly scattered or vague or blurry) – from your mind, and produce them into enough of a legible, coherent sentence that captures effectively what you hold in your head – is enough of a difficult process on its own. (Was that a long, rambling sentence? It certainly was, but right now I am more concerned about trying to get my ideas down).
I do not want the fear of grammar to begin to censor my students’ thoughts and ideas. Once they have written down whatever they can get down, once we can enrich the writing further or clarify the ideas, then we can work on grammar, or even get past it if that is possible. To me, it is the last step; not really the first.

I think the reason why grammar is associated in society with “laziness/sloth/uneducated” – as Patricia Dunn writes – is more due to a societal association of grammar with law and order, strictness and rigidity of rules. Laws and rules can be important — but not when the richness of thought, humanity, morals, and free-flowing ideas are sacrificed at their expense. There have been many social, political and educational laws and rules throughout history that were morally wrong. It was once a practice to punish Native American children in school if they spoke their own native language over English, even in a casual conversation. Segregation was once the law, slavery was once the law and the rule. (I am going overboard with the examples but I am sure you get the point). So to abide by the principles of only law and strict rules, without leaving the freedom of space to allow for ideas to flow, is I think ignorant and can even be dangerous. So I really do think that the lamenting of the loss of grammar isn’t always accurate, but also negligent. I think upholding grammar as the only standards of education has more to do with an association of grammar to law and order than anything else. And sometimes, we need to break the rules – or at least not glorify them – if it means creating something genuine, true and meaningful. The “eureka!” moments of scientists, artists and writers throughout time did not occur when they always stayed within the lines, but sometimes, outside of them.

Invisible Knowledges – Kynard Response

In the previous semester, I had a student who, for his final paper, could not precisely get at what it was he wanted to actually write about. There was something about his writing that always seemed evasive, inconclusive. At first, I was confused and assumed that he was not comfortable with writing or did not really spend much time on the assignment. But when we sat down for a meeting, the more I prodded to try to get to what might interest him, (as he said he just could not articulate what he wanted to) – he finally said that he felt that his previous education had left him uninterested in education itself, because it limited him from his interests. This was what he had been trying to write about, but felt uncomfortable making that statement. The high school he attended before had no music classes, no art classes. He felt confined, and therefore he felt he was restricted to only science and math and technical fields. He did not want to pursue them, but to him, these were the only acceptable fields. This restriction seemed to resonate in him so much that even as I tried to elicit from him what it was he was really interested in, it was as if he felt ashamed to admit that it was music he was interested in – he was so hesitant about uttering it almost as if it was a bad word, a curse. When he finally said it, and when I finally understood, he expressed a sense of relief – he could finally say it out loud. His inability to articulate his thoughts and interests in education reflected for me the same restrictions he felt imposed upon him before – something that was not a legitimate field to be studied or valued, and therefore not to be expressed, for fear of being shunned, chastised, and set upon another direction.

Even when I finally clarified to him that he could most certainly integrate that into a paper of its own, he did not believe me – he seemed very hesitant to continue with it, or did not think it was possible. Discouraged, he said he would avoid the topic altogether. This reaction made me think of the ways by which educational systems and the ways by which we reify or denigrate certain knowledges, rhetorics, or languages, as Kynard said, “get on the right side of.” The student felt he could not possibly “get on the right side” by discussing what he was actually interested in. This also made me consider how to establish from early on conscious practices and spaces of discussion within the classroom that ensures that students recognize that they do not have to abide by the formulaic regurgitation they have likely been taught. Most of the time, I generally comment on their papers individually if I see this occur, and sometimes possibly bring it up in writing workshop, but never as a conscious acknowledgment that they have been taught this and therefore is harder for them to break out of it. I think establishing this early on, situating the self within the social, political or cultural problems, would set the stage to become more comfortable with doing so even with research.
Personally, even I myself have encountered this denigration of “self as text” with the harsh phrase of “me-search” (in the sociology field). Yet I think this kind of rhetoric itself is privileged, in denying the reality that all research and writing is rooted in some form of positionality (the term we use in the social sciences for this). Yet, recognizing positionality is still a very recent phenomenon in the field. But I think recognizing it, especially for students, can be the start of work grounded within the uniqueness of their own worlds – and oftentimes, we (as a formal educational system) deny students this. And thus students themselves shy away from exhibiting that reality, connecting that reality to their work, because they deem it illegitimate, invalid – because it has always been considered invisible or denigrated in their surroundings. Particularly, educational settings. The role of educational settings defining formal, or canon knowledges, I think is extremely important. And perhaps by recognizing this, discussing this, in class, can open up those conversations as well. I think much of it also has to do with coming to encourage students to explore their own unique realms that only they can write about – through shorter writing assignments, until embracing that uniqueness within research as well.

Language & Genre – Dirk Response

I introduce both the 1101 and 1121 Writing courses to my students on the first day of class with a reading (transcribed lecture on The Guardian) by Neil Gaiman, about reading and imagination. It is for the most part concerning fictional writing; but in class, we think about how his arguments about the function of fictional writing applies to other forms of writing as well – whether they be literature, news, articles, etc. In part, this first reading is designed to get my students thinking about the function of writing and reading not only within the conventions of a Writing/Literature course, but also within the conventions of whatever field they eventually go into, major in, or have a career in. I have not overtly taught about genre awareness in 1101, but this is one way which I have. But I think it would certainly be helpful to pair the Gaiman reading with Dirk as well. Unconsciously conforming to and adopting the conventions for different genres are of course an instinctive part of being human, but to articulate and consciously recognize genre would certainly enable students to become more conscious writers and thinkers.

Dirk’s point about genre having the “power to help or hurt human interaction, to ease communication or to deceive, to enable someone to speak or to discourage someone from saying something different” reminded me a lot of Toni Morrison’s 1993 lecture “When Language Dies.” She says something very similar about language. This is also our current focus in class for part 3 of the syllabus: Language. We discuss what are the different forms of language that take shape, and how they are used, in what ways do they inhibit/prohibit, can they become forms of power. So this made me consider what ways are genre itself a form of language? Or how are they different/is there a difference?

One aspect this made me think of also is how can genres become a form of constraint in and of themselves, or reflect patterns of hierarchies? For example, how conventions of genre may inhibit goals, such as in the “professional” or, as a peer wrote, in the corporate world. How does the formality or the conventions of “professionalism” in the corporate and capitalist social spaces inhibit those who inhabit them? – particularly for those who may not necessarily be at the top of the hierarchy or decision-making.