My Thoughts on Grammar

As a student, I LOVE grammar. I love thinking about it- I find diagramming sentences one of those eerily calming things to do in my mind. It’s like my version of a rubik’s cube. I went to Catholic school all my life, and those nuns and brothers really held “proper grammar” next to godliness. For me, these lessons just clicked. I was also a native English speaker, an avid reader, and had a mother as an English teacher. I very clearly see that my elementary and secondary education was rooted in a white, religious, middle-class experience.

Therefore, I cannot in good faith use my experience of learning grammar as a measure for my students. I believe that using my narrow definition of what I was taught was “proper grammar” would be a racist, classist, xenophobic way of teaching. Besides, who wants to be that person on Facebook who tries to end an argument by saying “you’re*?” As Dunn stated, “As a recent rhetorical analysis of grammar rants has demonstrated, many such rants are laced with moral judgments about the departure from allegedly proper grammar. In a disturbing, repeating trend, the offending speaker or writer is seen as uneducated and lazy, the latter judgment being connected not too subtly to one of the Seven Deadly Sins (Sloth).” I certainly don’t want to lay a curriculum’s foundation on being a jerk.

That being said, as I teach business writing, grammar is part of many different lessons. As we discuss the proper tone and formality for an external business presentation, or an email to your boss, grammar inevitably comes into play. Dunn’s quote of Elizabeth Wardle really put my teaching into perspective when she says “’There is no such thing as writing in general.’ Every writing project is constrained by previous iterations of that type of writing. Is it a memo, résumé, game manual, business plan, film review?” Since there is no such thing as writing, can there even be such thing as proper grammar in general?

Similar to Dunn’s point above, I try to focus on how writing will need to ebb and flow to accommodate different audiences and different workplaces. My goal is to make flexible writers- and their flexibility will make them strong writers, and good writers. We talk endlessly about industry terminology, similar to Harris’s note on COIK. We address those challenges together and make sure when we are reading student writing that they define any acronyms or industry terms that the other students wouldn’t know. It’s a collective learning- a future lawyer can learn more about a future computer engineer’s world, and the engineer can practice being explicit in different formats, and making their writing clear for a lay audience.

I took a grammar class in college and was super proud of an essay I wrote entitled “I Give a Fuck About an Oxford Comma,” just to come to realize that it truly does not matter. When ESL students are working so hard to move from one language to another, they’re doing four times the work I will ever do to express myself in English. That by itself is cause for celebration and acknowledgment. Instead of saying “this is a run-on sentence” I try to say things like, “this sentence isn’t clear to me. How can we rephrase what you’re trying to say?” so that they can think through how to improve their writing in real time.

While I don’t grade based on grammar, I do have a PowerPoint presentation of grammar memes. It’s a list of 20 common grammar mistakes, and we talk about them as a class, and then work it out in sentences. Many students find it mildly entertaining, and have a moment of clarity with at least one, but I’ve long since abandoned my thought that seeing one meme will change a writing style that is years in the making. Instead, my hope is that by encouraging them to read and assigning them different types of writing throughout the semester, they will naturally experiment with different types of writing and their grammar will develop as well.

Work for week of Weds April 14 and Weds April 21

Hi everyone!  By next Weds, April 14, please watch and answer the questions on THIS EDPUZZLE. There’s kind of a lot of writing there, so leave yourself some time. Edpuzzle is a cool program which allows you to ask questions mid-video, so that you can have conversations with students and, let’s be frank, see if they’ve watched.  In the video, I talk about the 1121 Unit 2 assignment as is and also ask for your input as we think about revising it to make it a bit better.

Here are some resources I refer to: You do not need to read them, but they are there for you if you find them useful:


For Weds, April 21:

Please read “Teaching Grammar Improves Writing” and “Grammar Should be Taught Separately” from Bad Ideas About Writing (below) and write a blog post here on Open Lab about… grammar. How you teach it, what your thoughts are about it– what you think works teaching it and maybe where you are stuck.

When we meet, we’ll talk about the possibly not-unrelated topics of teaching grammar and using mentor texts in the classroom.

Download (PDF, 151KB)

Download (PDF, 127KB)

Research Reflections

When I was in grad school, I developed a healthy obsession with Virginia Woolf. I had taken a class called “Virginia Woolf as a Public Intellectual” at City College and from there descended down a very productive and exciting rabbit hole. Funnily enough, the paper I wrote for that class was on small presses and not even particularly focused on Hogarth, her press with Leonard. Still, from that point on, I bought and read the volumes of her diaries, her letters, obviously all of the fiction, and many biographies. I had a little book that listed all of the Hogarth publications and their editions, and spent a good deal of time imagining her laying type at her dinner table. I bought my own Adana table-top press and took classes at the Center for Book Arts in the garment district. I never wrote another formal paper for school about her, but that class and very charismatic professor got me started on the deep dive, which occasionally flares up to this day.

This same thing has happened around Dostoevsky, P.K. Dick, Russian science fiction, classical rhetoric, the illustrator Virgil Finlay, and others. My own propensity for research, open-ended and for its own sake, is a through-line in my life.

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I am guilty of some of things that I disparage in the teaching of research! In the past, I have taught research techniques using a very conservative approach. To be honest, and in my defense, I went to a school without grades for twelve years—not quite Summerhill, but with some counter-cultural propensities—and have at times over-compensated for my own free-form proclivities. I was not taught to write using even theoretical templates and in fact have a naturally anarchic brain, and I did suffer for it for a bit when I first got to college. I had to learn for the first time at seventeen how to be “normal,” and many of the aspects of my style and technique that had been rewarded as a kid became, outside of my college creative writing classes, a liability.

I’m excited to create assignments that incorporate “curiosity and delight,” but fearful for my students who cling to the surety of form and what they’ve known already. With that being said, I think the first step to this is making it clear that their grades won’t suffer if they take risks. That’s really what the engaged students worry about. Once it’s clear that they’ll be rewarded for striking out on their own, and that the process, not just the formal end product, will be emphasized in grading, I think that the ideas mentioned in the essay, and in the 1101 curriculum, can be embraced.

“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 “self as text”. This professor’s students wrote beautifully. I was blown away by their beauty and relevance.   But I am concerned that our world’s seem to get narrower and narrower until people just can’t 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.”

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.

“Getting On The Right Side Of It”

I really enjoyed Kynard’s piece and admired her ability to draw out the idiosyncrasies that each of her students brought into her classroom. I think that we can all relate to encountering that formulaic research paper that feels like it was written by a bot. But one focus I was hoping we could discuss is how we, as instructors, may unconsciously perpetuate this formula. As I was reading the piece, I was blown away by the type of writing that Kynard’s students Malcolm and Rhonda were able to produce. At the same time, an odd question popped into my head, which was, “how would I grade something like this?” It sounds so silly, but when I think about it, many of my rubrics are inadvertently holding up those old formulaic structures, with 20% dedicated to structure and 20% dedicated to research/quote integration etc, meanwhile I’m saying things like “try to incorporate your voice!” or “Write about something you’re passionate about!’ I now see how this is somewhat contradictory. So, I think Kynard was correct when she pointed out that these papers are not only easy for students to produce, but also easy for us to grade because they are so familiar. There are also qualities to a formulaic research paper that are easy to “measure,” for lack of a better word. If students begin centering personal styles of writing and individual experiences in their research, it becomes a bit more tricky to craft a rubric that captures all that may be produced. I suppose, then, my question for everyone is, how would you grade assignments like those described by Kynard in her piece? I would love to find more of my students’ voices in their writing. At the same time, I fear that encouraging too much personal experience may cause the research paper to drift into the territory of a narrative assignment. Maybe these are arbitrary boundaries, but I do think there is a way to craft the requirements for a research paper that encourages the type of self-exploration Kynard is advocating for while also keeping research centered…if that makes sense. I’m not sure! This is making me self-reflect on my own understanding of what research is and what the desired goals of research should be. I will add that I recently read all of my 1121 student submissions for the letter/speech discourse community assignment and I did see wisps of this “self as text” happening within these pieces. It was incredibly rewarding and fun to read the students write about a community and issue they feel passionate about, while also integrating some research into their work.

Katelyn Connor Blog Post 2

My research journey actually did start with my freshman writing class in undergrad, and it affected my every academic and professional move thereafter. The topic was food studies, and the first assignment I had was to write about my favorite food. I was a terrified, exhausted pre-med freshman, and was expecting to have some difficult, stodgy writing assignment. Instead, I wrote about the strawberries that never grew in my parents’ backyard, and the little farm stand the next town over where we would get the seeds from. (The strawberries never grew because the fat squirrel- affectionately named MF, or “Mommy’s Friend”- always ate anything that came up.)

My professor recognized the farm stand, and it started off a wonderful mentorship and friendship, where he graciously made room for my growth in his classroom. He also thought my squirrel joke was funny. He convinced me to change my major to English (over pizza on Arthur Avenue- who could say no?) and prompted a significant grappling of a nuanced past that I was previously unable and unwilling to see. He was the one who made all my writing become deeply personal as a student. He took very literally “reading the self as a text,” in his classroom. We explicitly discussed the historical, social, and political implications of what we eat, how we eat it, and who we eat with, which squarely placed my classmates outside our small childhood bubble and into the world at large.

After my major-changing writing class, I became a writing tutor, and noticed that many other students were dealing with similar affronts to everything they knew about themselves. But, it was one student in particular who really changed how I saw writing to be a personal tool for growth. He was in a class called “Death as a Fact of Life,” and he was asked to write about someone who died. He sat with me for an hour to write about the death of his mother. The tutoring session turned more into a grief counseling session for the student, where he shared that his mother recently and suddenly died, making the assignment all the more raw. This willingness to “lay it all down on the line,” or even to take on “themselves as texts” that Kynard describes allowed for the release of his emotions, and allowed me, a stranger in a cubicle, to effectively make space for it.

This session, and many others like it, stuck with me. I began to follow the writing professors around- stalking their syllabi to see if I had the opportunity to tutor students in a more meaningful way, or if a final paper or writing prompt would bring them to the writing center. This obsession turned into a research grant where I worked with a writing professor and a psychology professor examining meaning-making in drafts of freshman writing classes. I took both a qualitative and quantitative approach- choosing key words that indicated growth, as well as taking the symbolism and meaning from the actual story they were telling, and how these developed through the drafts. The grant was small, and only lasted the summer, but it was enough to cover what I would have made at my restaurant job and then some, so I was thrilled to not have to go back home for the summer. I examined two classes, in total about 30 students, and their drafts that they submitted throughout the semester. All the students needed to agree to hand over their work to me for the sake of the project, and some were even excited to hear that they would be part of the project. It turned into about a 40 page paper, where the results confirmed what I had originally hoped- that students who put it all on the line were more likely to show meaning-making in their final drafts.

After this experience, I met with my freshman writing professor, who suggested I look at Narrative Medicine, since I was becoming so interested in the personal narrative and expressions during times of transition. At the time, I didn’t have plans to go graduate school right after undergrad, but this professor always pointed me in the right direction. In this way, my initial research interest that first started with writing about my own personal experiences, brought me to teaching writing myself, and hopefully to do it full-time. I strongly feel that this is a calling for me, and every step brings me a little closer to understanding where I should be.

I try to invite the students to bring in their personal lives as much as possible in the writing class. I teach business writing for City Tech, so the material itself is incredibly dry. In order to keep it interesting, I ask the students to talk about the jobs they have now, or their ideal jobs they are working towards getting in the future. Their final paper is a problem they see in the workplace, and I really challenge them to identify something that angers them about the workplace- something they feel passionate about. The students who end up doing this always have a better finished product, however, they do say that the assignment was difficult. I think it’s important for them to identify the problem and then ask the questions “how can I fix this?” in a way that challenges their original idea of a thesis statement, where they need to have an answer before they even ask the question. It sparks true research, true curiosity, and true problem-solving in a real-world situation.

When it comes to future classes, I love the idea of taking something so universal- like eating, family, music, humor- and using it as the crux of a writing course. These topics are easy for a student to identify with, and to begin the process of self-reflection, while also pulling the topic outside themselves in order to objectively analyze it. Additionally, I think these kinds of topics ask the students to expand on their thinking of research being something cold, informal, or impersonal.

Hi (sorry this is late)! Work for Feb 24

Hi everyone!  I was having some technical difficulties, but everything is up now.  But since I have been remiss, I’m making deadlines much later.

Note: We will not be meeting this Weds, March 17, (though there is asynch work throughout the week.). We will meet synchronously on Weds March 24! 

By Mon, March 22 (6 pm): 

  1. Please read and annotate the Carmen Kynard article on our Perusall site.
  2. I’ve also added an optional article by Nelson Graff, which was the basis of our Unit 2/3 assignment, so it’s certainly worth a read.  Feel free to add some annotations here too.
  3. Write a blog post (here on the Open Lab) about the following:
    • Think about a time when you got really interested in something and researched that thing. How did you get interested? How did you go about the research? What did you DO with that research?
    • With Kynard (and Graff, if you read him) in mind, how might we (or how do you already) expand the definitions of a research paper to more fully contain the curiosity and delight of “real” research?

By our next meeting, March 24: 

  1. Read over your colleagues’ blog posts and comment on one or two
  2. Watch THIS video about the final portfolio. We’ll talk about it, but if you have questions beforehand, feel free to post them in a blog post here on Open Lab (use category 1101 Portfolio)
    • HERE is the slideshow (without my commentary) that you can share with your students.
    • HERE is the final portfolio assignment for the model courses (including reflection).

Incidentally, to make that video, I used screencastomatic and, for the graphics, canva.  Both have both free and paid features.

Screencast-o-matic is a screenshot program that records the screen and your voice (and your face,  if you want.) I often use it for commenting on student writing.

 

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.

“Navigating Genres” and Lowering The Stakes Of Writing

I first assigned Dirk’s article “Navigating Genres” to a class I was teaching at another institution called “Writing Across The Disciplines.” The goal of the class was to have students explore and research how writing varies based on the field they are planning on going into, so recognizing each discipline-specific style of writing as a type of “genre,” as Dirk describes them, worked well. But I realized when I started using the model syllabus this semester for my 1121 course at City Tech that there was a lot of overlap between Dirk’s ideas on genre and discourse communities, the main similarity being that we write and communicate differently in different contexts, and through this we can start to conceptualize concepts like audience and purpose.  Through this overlap, I can see the benefits of assigning an article like Dirk’s to a composition course, and how it might work to compliment concepts like discourse communities. 

 

As Dirk states in the piece, one of her goals is to take genre “often quite theoretical in the field of rhetoric and composition” and make it “a bit more tangible.”  It is this process of simplifying something typically understood as abstract that could benefit students in composition courses. The biggest takeaway for students from Dirk’s ideas on genre might be a “lowering of the stakes” when engaging with the daunting essay writing process.  Partnered with raising genre awareness is a heightened awareness of the fact that we are all writing all the time. When one is able to recognize that, the act of writing on demand becomes less intimidating, as one realizes they are going through the writing process in different ways everyday. With this awareness that we are all writing all the time across genres, students can begin to pay attention to how they already “orient” themselves towards the expectations of genres via text messages, tweets and even asking their roommates to do the dishes. Dirk illustrates this (in terms that I think would resonate with students) when she says “Because you know how these genres function as social actions, you can quite accurately predict how they will function rhetorically: Your joke should generate a laugh, your email should elicit a response, and your updated Facebook status should generate comments from your online friends.” The writing process in a composition class, then, is transformed from some “foreign and weird task that your professor just wants you to do” into a different version, or genre, of what you already know how to do on some level. In this way, students can begin to view themselves as active writers, rather than “non-writers required to take a writing class.” 

 

Furthermore, genre awareness lowers the stakes by letting you know that people have done what you are doing before, and therefore you can look to these previous examples as formulas for success. Dirk quotes Amy Devitt saying, “Genres develop because they respond appropriately to situations that writers encounter repeatedly….once we recognize a recurring situation, a situation that we or others have responded to in the past, our response to that situation can be guided by past responses.” When I’ve taught this reading in the past, the metaphor I use to explain this is building a car. Because writing does not produce “material results,” it can sometimes feel as though there are no directions or instruction manuals that you can follow, in the same way as if you were building a vehicle. Raising genre awareness allows students to see that there are sets of directions available to them when it comes to writing. Once the directions existed to build a car, it would be insane to try and start from scratch! Similarly, students can begin to realize that they do not have to enter the writing process blindly, but can rather identify the genre in which their writing and locate successful “directions” left behind by previous writers.