Tag Archives: WTF moments in teaching

It’s Called an Email Policy

A "Zits" comic: three teenagers operating lawn equipment while texting and closing in on each other. Two adults watch saying "This should be interesting."I remember when my family got our first answering machine.  That answering machine introduced us to the wonders of call-screening.  When Caller-ID came out, we immediately got one of those little boxes that attached to your phone cradle, since phones weren’t coming equipped with them just yet.  If we were hanging out around the dinner table (as we often did), and the phone rang, we would let the machine get it, half listen as the caller left a message, and if the words “is going to die” or “on fire” or “detached appendage” did not float across the kitchen within the first few seconds, we would ignore it until it was convenient to call them back.  And if we didn’t want to talk to that person, we just wouldn’t call them back ever.  People who came to visit us were horrified by this practice, and I’ve never understood why.  We were having FAMILY DINNER.  The people physically  in front of you are always, in my thinking, more important than people who aren’t, unless those people require medical attention.  I do not understand the people who cause fatal traffic accidents because OMG MUST ANSWER THIS TEXT RIGHT NOW!!11!1  And I do not understand the people who take calls on their cell while I am having a conversation with them, unless they are in danger of being fired for failing to do so.

Which is probably why I found this article, entitled “E-Mail: the Third Shift” on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, in a word, stupid:

Many academics have a love-hate relationship with e-mail. We know it has made communicating with colleagues in our own departments and around the world far, far easier. But we are also aware that e-mail is devouring a great deal of our time.

For faculty members, it is not just e-mail messages from professional associates, friends, family, and spammers that demand our attention. Students, sometimes by the dozens, e-mail their instructors daily, seeking an immediate response. For faculty mothers and fathers, e-mail eats up the extra hour or more a day after they have put the children to bed and prepared for the next day’s teaching—or perhaps the hour before the children or the sun rise.

Yeah, people are sending and receiving a lot of email these days, and it takes time to deal with them, but the data that this author presents to back up her argument that answering email now represents an enormous additional workload is fuzzy and anecdotal and the argument itself seems to boil down to a pretty standard “Kid’s These Days” polemic:

Today’s students were introduced in grade school to instant messaging and Facebook; immediate access is the new cultural norm. The formal barriers between student and instructor in the university world have come down, with no real etiquette to replace them. Students expect instant replies, not a five-day wait until office hours on Tuesday.

Ok, who are these students exactly?  I’ve known the odd student or twelve who seems to think I live in the classroom we meet in (which often isn’t even in my department’s building, though I suspect this assumption is a holdover from high school, where classrooms double as teachers’ offices), but I have yet to meet an 18-year old so oblivious to social norms that they expect, nay demand, instantaneous responses to every electronic missive.  And if there are such socially inept individuals trolling our college campuses, are there numbers so vast that we must institute university policies to stop them from taking over their instructors’ lives as this article suggests?  And are these instructors so spineless that they feel they need an institutional policy to protect them from ever having to enforce pretty reasonable interpersonal boundaries with their students?

I suspect, in fact, that this sense of obligation is coming not from the senders of these student emails but from the receivers.  Since I spend most of my day staring at Word documents that stubbornly fail to fill with felicitous prose on my preferred schedule, I do understand the OH HERE IS SOMETHING REQUIRING MY ATTENTION CAN’T LOOK AT YOU WORD DOCUMENT impulse.  Email can be one of those simultaneously welcome and hated distractions.  But the beauty of electronic communication is that you are free to set your messages aside for later or even ignore them altogether, and for the most part, no one is going to walk in your office and scream at you for doing that.  Remember:  the task or person in front of you is more important than the person trying to get to you through your inbox or your iPhone.

Thankfully, one of the profs interviewed in the article has more than a shred common sense:

“I rarely check my e-mail after I leave the office at 5:30 and before I return the next morning,” she said. “If I do check it at night, I generally do not respond to student e-mails until the next day. Almost the only exception I make to this rule is that I will answer e-mails at night if I am traveling.”

One way she limits e-mail messages, she said, is to direct students to an electronic blackboard where she posts general answers to common questions—or sometimes other students do. She also explains the course requirements to students upfront, including the e-mail guidelines spelled out clearly in her syllabus. Finally, she said, “I know how to say no, and I’m not afraid to do so.”

Right on.  Personally, I am a fan of observing “normal business hours” both for mental health and “saving the marriage” sort of reasons.  At the beginning of every semester, I always tell students that I do not answer email after 6:00 pm and that it may take me 24 hours to respond to questions.  It is also perfectly reasonable to be specific about what sort of business you are willing to conduct over email.  I refuse, for example, to give feedback on early drafts of assignments over email, because exceptionally nervous students will sometimes cope with the discomfort of the writing process by asking me to approve every sentence, and enabling that behavior would be a waste of my time and an actual disservice to them.  I also refuse to deal with grade disputes over email, explain missed content over email, and calculate what Johnny needs to get on his final essay to score an A.  My syllabus, schedule, and copies of all handouts are available on my course website, so students who fail to respect these boundaries will get one of the following responses:  “Check the website” or “I’d love to talk to you about that.  Come in during my office hours on Xday.”

I have never had a student complain about my availability as an instructor, either to my face or in my course evaluations.  In fact, the vast majority give me the highest possible score in the “Cares about student progress” category. So, I’m skeptical about this need to institute university policies in order to keep the exceptionally needy ones at bay.  While somewhat different in the way they were socialized, eighteen to twenty-three year olds are actually human beings, many of them very sophisticated ones.  Developing healthy relationships with them means treating them like human beings and behaving like one yourself, and negotiating access and boundaries in both professional and personal relationships are perfectly normal human behaviors.  If some student just doesn’t get this, sack up and take them down a peg.  It isn’t the job of university administrations to keep instructors from ever having to be the bad guy.  Remind those students that there are boundaries to their relationship with you.  You will be doing them a huge favor by doing that.

Comic found at Language Log.

Passive Voice Shenanigans

In the wake of Kathleen Parker’s absurd column on Obama’s use of the passive voice in his speech on the Gulf oil crisis, Geoffrey Pullum of Language Log has been doing blog posts on this much maligned grammatical construction.  His dismaying finding is that many of the people clutching their pearls over the passive voice are completely incapable of correctly identifying it.  The subject of today’s post seems to be completely unaware that the passive voice is a verb construction.

Passive Voice

Many people write in passive voice because that is how we’ve been taught to write “formally” in high school composition and then in freshman college English. It is habit and as a result of the habit, the passive voice is prevalent in self-written resumes. The problem with passive voice, however, is that it is just that — passive! A resume needs to have punch and sparkle and communicate an active, aggressive candidate. Passive voice does not accomplish that. Indicators of the passive voice:

  • Responsible for
  • Duties included
  • Served as
  • Actions encompassed

Rather than saying “Responsible for management of three direct reports” change it up to “Managed 3 direct reports.” It is a shorter, more direct mode of writing and adds impact to the way the resume reads.

This is, of course, not the first time I’ve seen or heard people in business combine irritating grammar snobbery with ignorance, and the consequences for students and college graduates entering the professions is disheartening.  As Pullum says:

This is serious business for America’s economy. It does nothing for getting Americans to get into employment, realize their talents, and contribute to tax revenues, if we simply extend into resumé-writing the promotion of nervous cluelessness that seems to be the main strand in English language instruction in the USA. It is so easy to get sensible and intelligent native speakers terrified that their language isn’t good enough. And the business of getting people into that state is being managed by teachers and tutors and advisers and columnists whose lofty opinion of their own expertise is matched only by their utter failure to grasp even the rudiments of sentence structure.

Awesome.  But hold on a sec.  Pullum here picks on “English language instruction in the USA” as if it’s some sort of monolith.  In fact, there’s a substantial body of pedagogical theory on composition, pedagogical theory with real, immediate implications for practice in freshman English classrooms and writing centers.  Many teachers staffing freshman composition classes in Rhetoric and Writing departments are trained to help cultivate fluency, not simply pick apart sentence structures until students become so nervous about their comma placement that they forget about the need to write an arguable thesis.

The problem is that there isn’t much cooperation, from what I can tell, between academic departments that specialize in composition and other parts of the university–including career development services.  Writing Across the Curriculum programs tend to be organized around the principle of getting students to produce a certain volume of writing throughout the semester, without much attention to what kind of writing instruction is being advanced in those classes.

So, you know, the utopian solution to that would be better funding for departments that staff comp classes and more outreach to other parts of the university.  But our department just got cut back by about half while the college that houses and funds it builds a new building.  It also wouldn’t hurt to get all the university faculty that deals with writing in a room and allow some Comp people to box them about the ears with the Clue Stick.  Too far?  Maybe.

On No. 2 Pencils

A variety of specialty artists' pencilsHistoriann has been hosting a lively discussion of helicopter parenting and its impact on student attitudes and performance at the collegiate level that prompted this apropos reflection on “the larger forces that have shaped our students and their approach to higher education before they darken the doors of our unis.”

As Squadratomagico said in response to last week’s post, “Now I better understand the student who inquired, when I asked if there were any questions about the final exam, “Can I use a blue pen?” They’re paralyzed with indecision and fear of making a mistake on their own, because they’ve never had to decide before!”  I too have anecdotal evidence of increasing student apprehension–but I’m not sure if that’s due to parenting or the No Child Left Behind-style of test-driven education, which has put I think too much pressure on children to perform particular skills and not enough on creative problem-solving.

I have very little to say about helicopter parenting.  I’m not a parent myself, and both my parents run their own businesses and have my three sisters to attend to, so I have a hard time getting them to even call me back.  Actually, I sort of adore them for that.  But being married to a public high school teacher and still being temporally close enough to both college and high school to remember the confusion and anguish brought on by pen colors, I have some strong feelings about the degree to which the enforcement of arbitrary standards have hampered the intellectual and social development of many very bright students and discouraged many struggling students from even trying in the first place.  If I had to make a list in my head of the top questions I field in emails from students, it read something like:

  • How do I cite a corporate-authored website in MLA format?
  • Is it ok if I use loose leaf paper in a binder for my journal instead of a composition book?
  • What should the header on my paper look like?
  • Do our papers need to have a title?
  • Where should the page numbers appear on our paper?

Ok, sometimes students want to run a thesis by me or have a question about comments on a previous draft, but it seems like a great deal of my energy is taken up responding to (and student energy is taken up asking) questions the answers to which go something like:  “I’d have to look it up.”  “Don’t care.”  “Don’t care.”  “Sure, why not.”  “Don’t care.”

I mean sure, I clearly state on each assignment page that papers should come out to so many words, typed and formatted legibly, with MLA documentation, but it seems like in absence of instructions about what astrological sign students ought to write their papers under, some students will still experience panic attacks over what I like to call “No. 2 pencil” issues.  No. 2 pencils, of course, are the required writing implement for all standardized tests that students begin taking soon after they acquire the motor skills to wield one.  And if  use a No. 3 pencil, of course, your test results will be invalid, and something horrible will happen to you.  No. 2 pencils have become the emblem of the bureaucratization (that’s totes a word–my spellchecker says so) of education, of the arbitrary rules that teachers are expected to enforce, rules that have some root in common sense that has been long forgotten.

Why do we use No. 2 pencils?  According to someone who had the time and inclination to do the research, pencil grades have to do with the hardness of the lead, and therefore the darkness of the mark.  No. 2 pencils are the medium grade and the ones usually sold for everyday purposes, like filling out multiple choice bubbles.  They’re dark enough to be read by the scanner and light enough to be effectively erased to avoid scanning errors.  But basically, “No. 2” pencil is just fancy-talk for “garden variety pencil you buy at Wal-Mart.”  It’s not really that complicated or threatening.  I guess everyone sort of knows that intuitively, but it’s rarely articulated in the presence of, say, anxious second graders, who are only beginning to figure out that horrible things might happen to them if they breach rules that don’t always make complete sense, that don’t have any basis in an objective moral code (or even common sense), that aren’t really tied to academic performance but nevertheless seem to have DIRE IMPLICATIONS for their educational future if breached.

But, of course, that’s how things work in our highly bureaucratized world.  I fork over the $200 to have my tax return done at H&R Block purely because I fear that I will be carted off to prison for tax evasion if I don’t fill out my form properly.  We’ve developed an entire service industry around making sure that we are in compliance with laws we wouldn’t know existed if there weren’t experts to tell us.  And while that’s sort of a nuisance, I get that this is how things have to be in a society this enormous.  Life is complex in the twenty-first century, and I suppose there is some value in teaching students to mind the details, to read the directions, to put their name on the top of the test paper.  But, I don’t know, maybe there’s value in giving students a break every once in a while, or at least not dole out academic punishment for non-academic offenses or oversights?

This is, to a certain degree, what I’m talking about in my diatribes on participation grades and draconian late penalties:  some policies designed to police those details, while well-intentioned, are a distraction from the actual process of learning, critical thinking, and discovery.  While ingraining good habits with regard to direction-reading and punctuality is great, I think it’s far more helpful to simply take the time to make those policies transparent, to explain how they help keep things running smoothly.  It helps to, on the one hand, recognize that students have probably never heard an explanation as to why their paper needs to be double-spaced, while on the other hand treating them like reasonable people who are capable of getting the fact that instructors who grade by hand need room in order to legibly mark a paper.

As another example, let’s think about citations.  Citation, whether it’s in MLA, Chicago, or APA format is designed to do a couple of things:  1) Protect the intellectual property of the person who had that idea or said those words in the first place, and 2) Give people who are interested in your topic a way to find your source.  Once you take those two things into consideration, the format for citation starts making some sense.  In APA, the convention of putting a date in addition to a name in a parenthetical citation is there because in scientific writing, knowledge sort of has a shelf-life, so you want to put the date in there so that people know that you are citing the most recent studies, or, conversely, that you are referencing some classic or foundational work.  Dates tend to be less important in the humanities, but people who do literature are concerned about editions and such, so you need that info in your works cited.  I try to give this little speech to each student who comes into the writing center with citation questions, then I remind them that most people don’t have every single bibliographic format memorized.  This goes for professors too, and the conventions change all the time.  I’ve had professors correct things in my Works Cited that were correct according to the current edition of the MLA handbook.  So, marking off a point for using a comma instead of a period or whatever is distracting for the student and preoccupies them with stuff that, in the end, would get corrected by a copywriter (who might herself be wrong, depending on which edition she’s working from) if they were publishing on a professional level.

The students who get shaky when they forget to bring the right color pen to a test make me shake my head, but the most distressing part of this emphasis punishing people for stuff that really doesn’t matter that much (other than maybe a slight annoyance or inconvenience) is the thought that there are probably some kids who don’t even make it into a college classroom for these very reasons.  There are probably kids who, in the second grade, were shut down because Mom and Dad were working 100 hours a week at minimum wage and couldn’t think about making sure that their kid had the right kind of writing implement or properly ruled notebook paper (OH MY GOD when I think about how hysterical some teachers I had in middle school got about “college-ruled” vs. “whatever-I-can’t-even-remember-ruled”).  There are kids who have enough trouble paying attention to the content itself–for any number of factors ranging from undiagnosed disabilities to hunger–to remember the myriad arbitrary details pertaining to how their notebooks are supposed to be organized.

I mean, yes, teach kids how to get themselves organized.   Teach kids to be punctual.  Teach kids to pay attention.  Teach kids to read the directions, but let’s at least make this stuff transparent.  And let’s quit doling out academic punishment–which has distressingly real implications for students’ long-term opportunities–for non-academic crap.

How to Get a Better Grade

Back when I wrote these posts on grade grubbing, I had every intention of writing a companion piece or two directed at students (I know some students read this blog).  Then I got distracted.  Basically, I wanted to give students some advice about how to potentially improve their grade by improving their relationships with instructors, by not being “that guy”–you know, that guy that teachers rip to shreds on their blogs.  And while July seems like a strange time to be writing about school, I figure that some students are winding up their first session of summer school, and, you know, it’s never too early to start thinking about the Fall term.  So here we go:

“She just doesn’t like me. She gave me a D on my paper.” I used to hear this statement a lot from the guy I dated in high school. Throughout our four years at Evangelical High, he cultivated academic persecution fantasies that would put David Horowitz to shame. Then, I would take a look at his paper, point out that there wasn’t a single complete sentence in the entire first paragraph, and he would turn on me. We did not date long.

“My teacher doesn’t like me” is a ridiculous excuse, folks. First of all, what does “like” even mean in this case? What do you consider to be a sufficient level of affinity here? Do the two of you need to be so close that you stay after class to talk about your feelings? Does the instructor need to be willing to walk your dog and drive you to the airport? The truth is that students and instructors can have wonderfully productive relationships regardless of whether or not you want to go have a beer together. You can even have productive relationships when you are entirely indifferent toward one another as people. Yes, there are some instructors out there in serious need of a personality transplant, even a few who are inappropriately punitive in their grading policies. But let’s just start from the assumption that the VAST MAJORITY of secondary school and college instructors are just pretty decent people, people who want to do their jobs, people who took those jobs because they are in some level interested in working with students, whether or not they feel super close to each individual.

So, starting there, how do you build a working relationship with an instructor that is likely to get them interested in helping you, in letting you make up or redo work, in maybe listening to a petition for a better grade (that last one’s a tall order)? How, in short, do you get an instructor on your side, whether or not they actually “like” you, whatever you think that means?

The answer is actually pretty simple and actually goes beyond just performing well in their class. I’ve had plenty of smart students who drifted through my classroom turning in great work without seeming to try, but I wasn’t ever interested in bending over backward for them. The key to getting an instructor on your side is to show a sincere investment in their class, whether you are “good” at that particular subject or not. Note: this does not mean sucking up and telling the instructor how brilliant they are and how much you want to major in this topic. In fact, it’s possible to build a good working partnership even if you are open about your ambivalence or historical difficulties with that subject. Showing investment means actually investing your time, your effort, and your focus. Here’s what that looks like in a practical sense.

Cover the basics. Show up on time. Observe the attendance policy. Don’t ask questions that can easily be answered by looking at the syllabus. Turn in assignments according to schedule. Put forth an honest effort on each assignment. Study. Respect the class rules. Policies are usually there for a reason, and habitually disregarding them is a sign that you don’t respect the instructor’s time or effort in putting together the class. If you have trouble with any of the imperatives in this paragraph, it’s time to take a steady look inward. Barring extraordinary circumstances, which I’ll discuss in a moment, your instructor is not the reason you are doing poorly. No, not even a little bit.

Be up front about any accommodations you need. If you have a disability, your instructor is required to provide the accommodations listed in your Disability Services letter. Beyond that, if you have a particular issue, like a scheduling catastrophe that may make you late on occasion, it’s better to get out in front of it on the first day. Don’t just assume that your instructor will figure it out. In the absence of other information, he’ll probably just assume you’re a jerk.

Don’t wait until the end of term to address a bad grade. For one thing, waiting til the eleventh hour to try to manipulate your way from a B+ to an A just reeks of grade grubbing. For another thing, any time you want to talk about your grades, it should be in the context of your performance on individual assignments. Furthermore, your performance on a particular type of assignment and your mastery of content will improve if you seek extra feedback in a timely fashion. This means that the day you get a test or paper back with a grade that was less than what you were expecting, you seek out the instructor within a week. Don’t just walk up to her after class. Take some time to absorb any written comments. Then, a day or two later, send an email that looks something like this:

Dear Professor X,

I was really disappointed with my performance on the last test. I studied the entire week beforehand, but I guess I did not understand the material as well as I thought. I’d like to talk with you about how to improve for the next test and make sure that I understand everything. Could we meet during your Tuesday office hours?


Or something like this:

Dear Professor Y,

You probably noticed that I did not do so well on that last paper. I had three exams last week and did not anticipate the amount of time it would take to study for them. As such, I did not do my best work on that assignment. I was wondering if we could meet some time to talk about my thesis and how I might improve it. I know you allow us to do one revision, and I want to make it count. Unfortunately, I work my shift at Chipotle during your office hours, but I am available to meet any time on Friday or after 1:00 on Thursday.

Once you have a meeting set up, it is imperative that you keep it, especially if you need to ask for time outside of office hours. If you need to reschedule, make sure you get in touch with the instructor ahead of time. Most teachers are not inclined to schedule extra meetings with students who blow them off.

Once there, focus the conversation on your performance on that particular assignment/exam and try to avoid talking about your grade as something that the instructor assigned arbitrarily or something that was done to you. After you have done all of these things, you may then broach the subject of do-overs and extra credit. Respectfully ask if you can make up the quiz you failed or do an extra credit project or revision. Then accept the verdict respectfully. If you want to be a real star, you can revise the paper anyway and then hand it in again and just see what happens.

Get on top of emergencies. Did your computer catch fire over the weekend? Have you been struck down with bubonic plague? Did you wind up in a magical scheduling vortex and have 14 exams and projects due the same week? Believe it or not, this is not the time to throw in the towel, nor is it the time to hope the entire world will stop until you get sorted out or to assume that people know that something horrible must have happened to you. This is the time to Deal With It.

Folks, I have had students with emergencies that make your 24 hour flu look like a day at the spa. I have had students lose their parents, find out mid way through the semester that they need to go home while their mother undergoes chemo, require an emergency appendectomy, discover that they are pregnant and need to divert their emotional and mental resources to figuring out what to do about it. I have had students whose roommates poured Dr. Pepper over their laptops. I have had students with painful chronic illnesses that sometimes kept them in bed. All of these students made it through the semester, some of them with excellent grades, even after missing two consecutive weeks of class. All of these students got on top of their emergencies. In a timely fashion (i.e. while it was happening, not a week after they re-materialized), they let me know what was going on and–even more importantly–how they planned to deal with it. Some have deputized their parents or friends to find out what they were missing and to get homework. Some have met with me to discuss the possibility of taking an incomplete and getting work done over the summer or to map out a schedule for completing all their work by the last day, including regularly scheduled check-in appointments with me. All of these students required special accommodations and leniency, and I was happy to give it to them. Under no circumstances would I require someone to email me from the recovery room after surgery or write papers when they ought to be sleeping or doing physical therapy. But at the bare minimum, even if your emergency is just a particularly bad cold, have some kind of a plan and share it with your instructor.

Be a presence. Speak up in class.  You don’t have to be the most talkative person in the room.  Just chime in two or three times a session whenever you have something to share in order to show that you are engaged and interested in making a contribution.  Also, be a presence in your instructor’s office hours and in their email inbox.  Don’t harass them or anything, but feel free to ask questions about things that aren’t immediately obvious from looking at the syllabus or assignment sheet, and show up in office hours when you legitimately need help.  It shows that you are interested in improving.

Be humble. Be accepting. Even if you do everything I recommend here, in order to cultivate a relationship with your instructors that is based on respect, you need to recognize that even if you show up every day, even if you try your hardest, no one actually owes you an A. Ultimately, your final grade is always based on your performance on the tasks you were given.

Does all of this sound more or less like,  you know, work?  Because it is.  If you were hoping for a solution to your grade problems that didn’t include doing everything a good student is supposed to do, then I’m not sure I can help you.  I certainly would raise your grade.  Sorry if that’s not what you want to hear.  But the simple truth is that investing time and effort in what an instructor is teaching is more likely to make them want to invest substantially in you, more likely to make them go out of their way to help you, make them more sympathetic when you need them to be.  The simple truth is that instructors are human, and you will get really, really far by showing that you respect what they’re doing.

To be continued.

Future posts:  How to petition a grade if you absolutely must.  What to do if your instructor really is a total human fail.

Tales From the Writing Center: The Clueless TA

Tales from the Writing Center is a Shitty First Drafts Feature that celebrates the thankless job of staffing a writing center or working as a writing tutor, coping with panicky, half-crazed students and trying to translate incoherent assignment prompts and instructor feedback. You may send your war stories and heartwarming anecdotes to sfdrafts@gmail.com and possibly see them included in this feature.

In two years of working at my university’s writing center, there was only one consultation that I was not able to finish, where I actually had to call a colleague over to calm the student down and complete the appointment for me. I made some critical mistakes in that consultation, but ultimately (and I’m really not trying to dodge responsibility here), I believe source of the tension was the very poor feedback given to this student by his instructor, in this case a TA.

The student in question was a non-native English speaker with a Korean background. I am fairly accustomed to dealing with second language students at varying levels of mastery, so I wasn’t necessarily thrown by the language problem. I also wasn’t surprised to discover that the student’s mastery of written English was quite a bit stronger than his spoken English. That’s actually pretty common. I’m sort of wired that way myself, where I can learn another language best through writing but have difficulty with conversation. Nevertheless, we were able to communicate with one another pretty effectively.

I was semi-thrilled to discover that the class he needed help with was a class that I had TA’d for my first year in grad school. I was familiar with this professor’s assignments and the way he instructed his students to grade. So, I tried to set the student at ease by passing myself off as an “expert” about how to succeed at this particular assignment. That was probably a mistake. I’ll explain why in a second. As we began looking at the essay and the instructor’s previous feedback (he had received a very poor grade on the first draft), I noted that–no real surprise here–most of the comments related to grammar and readability. So naturally, that was what the student wanted to talk about. The thing is, usage was the least of this kid’s problems. In fact, there weren’t a whole lot of true mistakes. Sure, the writing was meandering, and the point was unclear, but those problems were related to very different issue: The paper lacked a clear thesis, and it wasn’t analyzing the selected text so much as it was summarizing them. Reading the instructors comments, it was clear that the TA had read a problematic, difficult to get through paper and chalked it all up to language. In short, this instructor had done the student a disservice, and while I don’t have clairvoyant insight into his or her thought processes, I wouldn’t be shocked if the student’s mastery of spoken English had subconsciously made it’s way into his or her diagnosis.

So, I as the “expert” tried to help him out. In the Socratic, conversational manner we are trained to use, I asked him what the point of the overall paper was and tried to talk him through the reasons why that point wasn’t coming through. Once I finally got him to realize that what he needed wasn’t editing but a whole new argument, he started to freak out a bit. Looking back, I can’t really say I blame him. These were the final two weeks of the semester, and while I knew this student would have up until exam day to revise, it’s probably a shock to discover that the essay you’ve been working on for the past 8 weeks has to rebuilt from the bottom up. Plus, he had probably spent the entire term being told to work on one (wrong) thing, and now another “expert” was revealing a whole new problem for him to tackle. I would probably start panicking a bit myself. Instead of speaking to him as just one among many possible readers, I positioned myself as an authority figure, which is problematic in a tutoring situation, since you now have two authority figures asking for very different things. So yeah, I fumbled that play.

But people are responsible for their own reactions, and this student reacted…poorly. The student questioned my competency (though in the context of that appointment, he may have had a case) and my knowledge of W.E.B. DuBois and got so loud in doing so that heads were starting to turn. I finally called a male consultant over to tag in and went to the restroom to calm myself down.

There are two lessons to learn from this one, both for tutors and instructors.

Instructors: If an essay has readability problems, make sure that you note where they are occurring on the hierarchy of writing concerns. Also, don’t make assumptions about second language students, whose mastery of spoken English may be quite different from written English (also, cultural conventions regarding essay construction vary, but more on that in another post).

Tutors: Always position yourself as an informed reader among many possible readers (with many possible readings and reactions) rather than an authority figure or expert. And try to work within the parameters of an instructor’s feedback, even if you think that feedback is terrible. You don’t have to lie about what the issues are, but you can use what the instructor says as a jumping off point: “Why do you think a reader might have issues discerning the point of this section?” “Why do you think your instructor said this?”

But also, don’t hesitate to call on a colleague if a student just isn’t hearing you any longer, especially if they become belligerent, insulting, and scary. Learn what you can from the situation and do better next time.

Tales from the Writing Center: The Engineering Group Project

Tales from the Writing Center is a Shitty First Drafts Feature that celebrates the thankless job of staffing a writing center or working as a writing tutor, coping with panicky, half-crazed students and trying to translate incoherent assignment prompts and instructor feedback. You may send your war stories and heartwarming anecdotes to sfdrafts@gmail.com and possibly see them included in this feature.

Remember group projects? Yeah, I hated them too. If you are a regular reader of this blog, I am just guessing that you were probably the kid that wound up doing all the work, because everyone else was perfectly willing to allow that to happen and let’s face it, you’re a bit of a control freak. I get that–particularly for engineering and business majors, who are about to enter a workforce in which teamwork is sort of the norm–doing group projects is an important educational experience. To me, it seems like part of the educational experience is figuring out whether you are going to be one of the high functioning employees who routinely covers for your co-workers or one of the sponges. The best group project designs that I have seen have the work already pre-apportioned in some way (Person A does B, Person B does C, etc.) or contain some kind of mechanism for peer evaluation, but those are kind of rare.

You can tell that a group project has been well-designed when the entire group shows up in the writing center at once to talk about their work in a holistic fashion. Less encouraging is when each student comes in separately to have their pieces of the project checked–so you can’t really address continuity or flow. But at least everyone seems to be more or less doing their share. No, the real bummer is when one student is appointed as the “writer/editor” of the group (read: the one who does the majority of the work) and is therefore responsible for having the entire project “checked” (read: copyedited) by the writing center. In cases where students have divvied up sections and paragraphs, I tell The Editor that I will just go over her sections, since I’m really only supposed to address the work of the person in front of me, but it’s truly sad when The Editor can’t really tell me what’s his and what’s everyone else’s, because it’s sort of clear that everyone else decided they were “big picture” people or just did tables or something and let this kid do, you know, most of the project.

I suppose this isn’t a nightmare tutorial situation so much as it is a situation that always gives me sympathy shudders in solidarity with the go-getter in question. However, it also gives me pause to consider the status of writing in the egghead professions, those to which the self-labelled “bad writers” tend to gravitate because it seems unlikely that they will have to deal with comma splices and metaphors in those fields. They aren’t lazy, not by any stretch of the imagination(I know how hard it is to get into business or engineering at my university), they are just occasionally writing-phobic just as many humanities grad students I know get heart palpitations during tax time (despite the fact that most of us qualify for the 1040-EZ form), because MATH.  This is where I think our cultural tendency to separate the humanities and language arts into one category and the “hard sciences” into another does a serious disservice to our students. I know many middle aged adults who went into engineering or medicine or computer science because they hated English class only to find out that a good portion of their job consists of writing reports or articles. As one chemical engineer recently said to me, “Given what I do all day, I might as well have been an English major.” That’s not to say that we should be funneling all budding biochemists into English classes, just that in terms of “real skills” that have immediate application to on-the-job situations, writing is way up there on the list of “stuff I ought to be pretty comfortable with before I enter the work-force.” One of the reasons I think that one student winds up in front of me in the writing center, having been delegated total responsibility for writing up the project is because the other four have self-selected into the category of “was terrible at writing in high school and am not comfortable with this stuff.” But I’m generalizing pretty ferociously here, so perhaps that’s not most people’s experience. I just feel a bit bad for the kid that gets stuck with all of that work because he supposedly has a “natural gift” for it.

Tales from the Writing Center: “There are Four Errors” OR That Goddamn Bird Project

Tales from the Writing Center is a Shitty First Drafts Feature that celebrates the thankless job of staffing a writing center or working as a writing tutor, coping with panicky, half-crazed students and trying to translate incoherent assignment prompts and instructor feedback. You may send your war stories and heartwarming anecdotes to sfdrafts@gmail.com and possibly see them included in this feature.

It was the final week of the semester, and the writing center was packed to the gills, bleary-eyed students crowding the waiting area whilst world-weary front desk admins intoned–over and over again–”
no, you can’t just drop your paper off here for editing.” End-of-term is simultaneously that time when triage is most necessary–due to the difficulty of getting a walk-in appointment–and that time when the filter system falls apart, due to the mayhem. In other words, that’s when the really weird shit turns up.

The student in question was an unassuming young man bearing a heavy burden. As we walked to the computer terminals, he informed me that he was working on his final project for biology class, an ornithology class to be specific, in which he was supposed to record his identifications of over 200 local bird species observed throughout the semester. What a nightmare, I thought to myself, though I had no idea how bad it was going to get. At the computer terminal, he pulled up a gargantuan Excel file. Each entry described a bird, where it was sighted, the characteristics used to classify it, and the Latin name.

Perplexed about what he expected to get from this consultation, I asked why for he had come. “Well, you see, my professor takes a point off for each typo, spelling, or grammatical error.” I looked around the room and recalled with anguish that the entire writing center is windowless, thus, there was nothing to jump out of. I politely reminded the student that we were not a copy-editing service and that while I could show him how to correct certain usage problems, it would be up to him to edit the project himself. “No problem,” he said. “In fact, the professor already looked at a rough draft.” I had no idea that this was the precursor to something even more horrible. “He gave it back to me with one note: ‘There are four errors.’ I need help figuring out what the errors are.”

In a small but very loud corner of my brain, a high pitched voice was shrieking obscenities. So, this was a freaking “Where’s Waldo” exercise with words and punctuation, needles in a goddamn haystack. What’s worse, the student had no clue what the errors might be. They could be the aforementioned punctuation or spelling errors. They could also be formatting errors. They could be misspellings of the Latin bird names, or mis-identifications of the birds themselves. In other words, about twenty minutes in, I realized that what we were dealing with was not really part of my job description. I am not sure which damn fool recommended he bring his unidentified four errors to the writing center, but I believe that there is a special place in hell reserved for that person.

While I have issues with the “one point off for every error” policy, I get the pedagogical point behind making students correct stuff if they want to get an A, and even getting them to figure out what’s wrong in the first place. But depending on the writing center (which at my university means people with MA’s in their field and full appointment books at the end of term) to help them correct this stuff is, quite simply, a waste of people’s time. I have no idea if this was a result of student laziness or instructor obliviousness, but WOW. Just wow.

I don’t think this is what Anne Lamott was talking about when she wrote Bird by Bird.

Beware the Charming Student

Your eyes met across the room on the first day of class.  He was conventionally attractive, tallish, probably an athlete.  His smile had that “I’m looking forward to your vote this November” sparkle, but in spite of his polished appearance, he had enough coltish awkwardness to make him seem approachable.  He came up to you to say how happy he was to be in your class and that’s he’s considering majoring in your field.   He looked alert and engaged the whole time you were talking, and even though his one comment wasn’t really apropos, he sure sounded like he knew what he was talking about.  When you went home that day, you carried with you the mixed sensations of excitement and trepidation.  This kid is either God’s Gift to teachers, or he is going to break your heart.  Probably the latter.

Fast Forward fifteen weeks, and this same kid has come right up to the edge of your attendance policy.  He has turned in work late (his team had an away game), and that work is C level.  He has made appointments with you and then “forgot,” full of apologies afterward.  He assures you that he is just having a really hard time transitioning to college, that he really likes your class but is struggling.  Won’t you please, please help him out?  Remember when you assured him that he still had a chance to get an A?  Did you mean it?

There is a particular kind of student.  I find he is usually, but not always, male, usually, but not always, white.  This is the student you meet once every few semesters (God help you if you have two in one class) who has always gotten good grades, not because they are excellent, hard working students, but because they are really, really good at playing the game.  This is the kid who knows how to get what he wants out of authority figures–grades he hasn’t earned–because he’s been doing it his entire life.

Here is what I think happens:  teenagers are, in the aggregate, sort of a motley bunch.  They sleep in your class, sometimes while drooling.  They refuse to make eye contact.  They mumble.  They try to text their friends when you think they are not looking.  In short, in a room full of average teens, the student who has mastered the nuances of adult etiquette really stands out and often looks like a much better student than he actually is.  We seem to be sort of programmed to equate social competence with competence in other areas of life.  I think this is why salesmen and politicians are so effective at hoodwinking us.  In short, this type of student is sort of a budding con-artist, even if he doesn’t realize it.

These students don’t usually understand the difference between working hard on the course work and working hard on you in order to get you to give him the grade he wants.  They are essentially the same thing to him.  This is the student who is most likely to use the language of personal betrayal if he doesn’t get an A and to say things like “I need an A to keep my scholarship/to get into medical school,” because they think their grade is reflective of the quality of your relationship, not the quality of his work.

How to deal with this type of student:

  • Do not, under any circumstances, no matter how much he looks at you with those puppy dog eyes and acts like the B- he just received is sending him spiraling into a major depression, reassure him that he can get in an A in your class.  I made this mistake my second year as a TA.  The student interpreted “it is still possible for you to get an A” as “I am going to give you an A.”  I’m not sure how his little mind made that leap, but it did, and it led to all sorts of late semester unpleasantness.  Say things like, “in order to get an A, you will have to do X, Y, and Z.  Make a list for him.  Preferably in writing.  And keep a copy for yourself.
  • ALWAYS speak in terms of what the student has to do, but NEVER make promises about what you will do (grade-wise) in return.
  • Be available but set boundaries.  Like I said, this is usually a student who wants to talk to you, because that’s the way he rolls.  You may be tempted to just ignore emails or refuse to meet outside your office hours.  I’ve known instructors who do that, and I think it’s their prerogative.  But sometimes going a little out of your way to be available prevents the student from taking on further ammo if they decide to go to your department chair.
  • Have a paper trail.  While actual litigation or formal grade challenges don’t always happen, it’s helpful to have a paper trail, especially if you are a teaching assistant.  That way you can go to your supervisor and show her the content of email exchanges, point to missed appointments, attendance records, your feedback on tests and papers, etc.  It also provides an effective way to argue with the student, if you have to.

The female incarnation of this student is, of  course, Alicia Silverstone’s character from Clueless.  There are no YouTube clips that I can embed here, so you may have to dig that movie out from under your Lisa Loeb CDs and re-watch it.  There is this montage in which Cher (Silverstone) goes to all of her high school teachers, charming the pants off of them and bargaining up her grades.  Then she goes to Wallace Shawn, her debate teacher, and he is the brick wall against which her perfect grade-grubbing record is dashed.  Your goal, when dealing with a student like this, is to channel Wallace Shawn (before he finds love and starts giving out better grades because he’s happy or some crap).  Be The Shawn.

I like to think that refusing to cede ground in these cases, that being fair but kind of a hardass teaches these kids A Valuable Lesson.  Of course, I don’t really know if that’s true, but giving in in these situations certainly doesn’t make your life any easier, and it definitely doesn’t make the lives of the future instructors this student will deal with easier.

Why I’m Not Proud of You for Correcting Other People’s Grammar, Part Deux

Yesterday, I wrote a 3000 word post about grammar that some folks seemed to like. The point of that post was that grammatical correctness is often confused for facility with words, that the former is a step toward the latter but not the entirety of it. I argued that it is more important for writers, be they students or professionals, to say what they mean. In that post, I used a sample from Lionel Tiger’s new book–a sample originally posted on The Sexist–to show how grammatically correct writing can sometimes become unreadable. Amanda Hess evidently saw the trackback and liked it, because she devoted a whole post to it! And traffic on this blog has increased by like 2000%! And I’ve had to delete some trolls who didn’t actually read the post, which is, I think, a blogger rite of passage!  So, thank you Amanda Hess!

Today, however, I am going to offer up an example of how language can be used beautifully, how a writer can use sophisticated sentence structures and even non-standard grammar to great effect. I just finished teaching Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to my Literature and Religion class, so I might as well go with that. When students first encounter Rushdie’s prose, they often find it difficult to wade through, but as I will show, the complexity of it–the way he piles images and motifs onto one another–actually enhances the ideas he is presenting without obscuring them. In other words, it’s challenging in a good way. It immerses you in the ideas instead of pulling you out of them.  Let’s start with the third paragraph of the first chapter, which begins with two men falling from the sky:

Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity. Now he rolled happily towards the sardonic voice. “Ohe, Salad baba, it’s you, too good. What-ho, old Chumch.” At which the other, a fastidious shadow falling headfirst in a grey suit all the jacket buttons done up, arms by his sides, taking for granted the improbability of the bowler hat on his head, pulled a nickname-hater’s face. “Hey, Spoono,” Gibreel yelled, eliciting a second inverted wince, “Proper London, bhai! here we come! Those bastards down there won’t know what hit them. Meteor or lightning or vengeance of God. Out of thin air, baby. Dharrraaammm!Wham!, na? What an entrance, yaar. I swear, splat.”

Ok, first of all, let’s get one thing straight. This is not stream of consciousness narrative. My students are quick to toss this term onto the table, but it isn’t accurate. One of the Amazon commenters on Tiger’s book referred to it as “stream of consciousness,” which has come to mean, I think, “prose I don’t understand.” Stream of consciousness narrative attempts to replicate the thought processes of an individual mind and reads the way it does (not easily) because when we think, our thoughts jump around. Perception and cognition aren’t coherent or linear. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is representative of stream of consciousness because we never leave the mind of the protagonist, Stephen Daedalus. The first two sections of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury are stream of consciousness because they occupy the minds of Benjy and Quentin, and they are difficult to read because neither of these two characters are neurotypical.

No, The Satanic Verses employs a straightforward omniscient narrator, and omniscient narrator who turns out to be Satan actually, but we don’t know that at this point in the novel. The terms that best describes Rushdie’s prose are non-linear or surrealistic, though magic realism is the generic name for this type of fiction. Magic realism is where the narrative clearly inhabits the “real world” (i.e. this isn’t Narnia or Middle Earth) but crazy supernatural stuff happens. However, you also have to account for the fact that Rushdie often uses the speech patterns of Central Asian English speakers in his prose, and that is part of what de-familiarizes it, though in an intriguing way, I think. There is an aural quality to his writing that makes for great out-loud reading. As an Indian man who grew up in the wake of the British Raj and inhabits a globalizing society, he is interested in how linguistic groups from the former colonies have adapted the language of their colonizers. But he isn’t exactly doing dialect, which has historically been used as a kind of literary black-face. He isn’t trying to convey a character’s accent through non-standard spelling. Instead, he reproduces the idiom and cadence of those speech patterns, which is really effing cool.

In this paragraph, he is introducing the two main characters of the novel and showing us that they are complete opposites, “levity against gravity.” Though Gibreel’s banter and his mode of falling, we get a sense of his exuberance and wonder. Then we see Saladin Chamcha with his buttoned up suit, bowler hat, rigid posture, and hatred of nicknames and immediately understand that he is a grouch. Gibreel is sort of loving this unlikely and surely terrifying experience, but Saladin is clearly hating it. If you got nothing more out of that paragraph than what I just said, you would be perfectly capable of grasping what happens in the rest of the chapter and the rest of the novel. In other words, it is possible to have a purely straight foward, non-symbolic understanding of this paragraph if that’s your thing.  But there is actually more going on here, and one of the beauties of Rushdie’s prose is that it rewards you on the second and third and fourth reading. Having read this book something like five times, I now know enough about what is about to come to appreciate how Rushdie uses these early paragraphs to set up all of his themes.

In traditional sonata format–the compositional structure that informed a lot of the classical music you hear–the first section is called the Exposition. This is where the composer introduces the tonal key and musical ideas he plans to explore in the rest of the piece. That’s essentially what Rushdie does here. For one thing, there is actual music here.  Gibreel falls while singing, an activity that presages the significance of “verses,” namely the verses of the Qu’ran later in the book.  We are also about to learn that Saladin Chamcha, an Indian expatriate who lives in London, has shunned his past and family history. His fractured relationship with his father, his embarrassment about coming from the “third world,” and his desire to impress the British have led him to become, well, T.S. Eliot or something. He has reinvented himself and become more British than the British, adopting a stereotypically “proper” mode of dress (the grey suit and bowler hat). Furthermore, the nickname that Gibreel uses–“Spoono,” which is a play on Saladin’s Anglicized last name, which used to be Chamchawala and is now Chamcha–translates to something like “sell-out.” Saladin’s truncated name is a derogatory word for Indians who collaborated with the British under the Raj, and Gibreel is mocking him for it. Conversely, Gibreel, a Bollywood film star, is the pop culture icon of his nation. He is exuberant in his Indianness, and that is partly why Saladin finds his nattering–so different from Saladin’s, due to his attempts to erase his linguistic past from his speech patterns–so irritating.

But it gets even more trippy than that. Rushdie slyly sneaks in many of the leitmotifs that will become significant in the rest of the novel. The big theme of this book is transformation. He is exploring the way the post-colonial experience has metamorphosed not only individuals but entire cultures, the way in which it is in the process of transforming both colonizer and colonized in frightening and unintended ways. Gibreel and Saladin are about to be changed into the forms of the angel Gabriel (Gibreel adopts “heraldic postures” in the air) and the Devil respectively (there’s that whole magic realism thing) following this fall from the sky. The first sentence of the book is “‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.'” So after metaphorically “dying” by falling from an airplane that was taking them from India to Britain and was blown up by a suicide bomber, they emerge from the English Channel bearing these new forms, which will symbolize the divergent fates that await immigrants on the shores of a new country.

So this paragraph is laden with images of transformation. Among Gibreel’s many mid-air stunts, he performs a “butterfly-stroke,” and butterflies will become an important metamorphosis image later on. We also have the exploration of liminal space. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word for threshhold and means the space in between spaces or states of being. Victor Turner applied the term to religious rituals he observed in his ethnographic research.  In the space of the ritual, social boundaries evaporated and roles were reversed. One might say that it is in the liminal space of the Eucharist that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Liminal spaces are where things pause on the way to becoming other things, where the magic happens. When Rushdie speaks of “the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn,” this is what he is talking about–the in between time where these people are no longer what they were but not yet what they are going to be, no longer night, but not yet morning.

There are multiple liminal spaces in The Satanic Verses, but the two important ones in this paragraph are water and air. the air part is obvious. That’s what they’re falling through. It is the medium they inhabit between the wreckage of the airplane, carrying their past lives, and the new life ahead with all of it’s uncertainty. Thin air is a dangerous place, but it is also a spiritual place. Gibreel himself refers to “thin air” at the end of this paragraph, and that phrase gets repeated twice in the next paragraph. (Ok, how cool would it be if it turned out that Jon Krakauer’s book title was a reference to this?)  That paragraph also references Mount Everest, the obsession of British mountain climber Allie Cone, who sees ghosts and angels after ascending the highest mountain in the world without supplemental oxygen. High spaces, where the air is thin, are spaces in which we face mortality, in which the barriers between life and death, earth and the afterworld are rendered permeable. This is also true of water, which is the space of birth but also of drowning, the space of baptism and ritual cleansing but also of destruction (later we are introduced to a desert city made of sand, where water represents a threat). Rushdie is playing with these two mediums by having Gibreel literally “swim” through the air as they plummet toward the sea.

These are profoundly religious images. Angels, demons, baptism, rebirth, judgement. Rushdie mines the myths of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism for metaphors and narratives that help him explain how post-colonial migrants experience this new world. In doing so, he is giving that story dignity, but he is also commenting on the role that religion itself plays in public life. Gibreel alludes to this when he mentions “meteor or lightning or vengeance of God.” Rushdie is concerned about what happens when these religious myths and metaphors cease being metaphorical and start structuring our lives in potentially scary ways: when religion is used to justify oppressing people or blowing up planes. Gibreel will ultimately style himself as the instrument of God’s vengeance upon the unfaithful (namely, people he does not like or trust), and that brings him to a bad end.

And all of that stuff is expressed within that one dense paragraph. As I said, even without knowing all that is foreshadowed here, you could get the major point. The complexity adds meaning to the text rather than obfuscating it. It’s difficult to say the same for Tiger’s “enchanted puzzlement.” No words are wasted here.

Yet two weeks ago, one of my undergrads moaned, “Why can’t he just use proper grammar?” This happened. I’m not making it up. It’s at times like these when I wish my classroom came equipped with trap doors under each chair like at Dr. Evil’s conference table. First of all, this student and his ilk clearly did not recognize that most of Rushdie’s prose is grammatically correct. He does deliberately use things like sentence fragments in dialogue because that is how most people talk, and most novelists since the Victorian era have felt free to break that rule. What they seem to be reacting to is the non-linearity and complexity of it. And I’m actually ok with that. Occasionally, good writing doesn’t bottle-feed you. This is why we have English class.

When you were a snotty teenager and first saw abstract art, wasn’t your first reaction something like, “Feh, I could do that.” The truth is, no you couldn’t. Most abstract and surrealist artists had to learn how to do photo-realistic drawing and painting before they moved on to paint splatters and blocks of color. Grammar is sort of like that. You have to learn how to play by the rules so that you can selectively break them when it serves your purpose. As a former Washington Post columnist, Rushdie has proven time and time again that he is capable of writing lucid expository prose. Here is what he says about the stories religion gives us, the stories that inform alot of his fiction, in a 1997 letter to the “Six Billionth World Citizen” and reprinted in the non-fiction collection Step Across this Line:

Many of these stories will strike you as extremely beautiful, and therefore seductive. Unfortunately, however, you will not be required to make a purely literary response to them. Only the stories of “dead” religions can be appreciated for their beauty. Living religions require much more of you. So you will be told that belief in “your” stories, and adherence to the rituals of worship that have grown up around them must become a ital part of your life in the crowded world. They will be called the heart of your culture, even of your individual identity. It is possible that they may at some point come to feel inescapable, not in the way that the truth is inescapable but in the way that a jail is. They may at some point cease to feel like the texts in which human beings have tried to solve a great mystery and feel, instead, like the pretexts for other, properly anointed human beings to order you around. And it’s true that human history is full of the public oppression wrought by the charioteers of the gods. In the opinion of religious people, however, the private comfort that religion brings more than compensates for the evil done in its name.

Okay, I chose this passage on purpose, not only because it speaks to the themes of The Satanic Verses but because it says something rather similar to what the Tiger example says. It’s talking about the intractability of public discussions about religion as an evolutionarily and aesthetically important part of human history because the enemies and champions of religion essentially have nothing to say to one another and don’t want anyone else to talk about it either. But look what we have here: modifiers, some of them even arguably extraneous, but none of which impede the flow of the writing. In addition, we have poignant metaphors, sentence variety, neat shifts from lofty to vernacular language, from “pretexts” to “order you around.” The meaning of this paragraph is transparent and well-said. It’s quotable, even. I can read it out loud to my class (which I did) and maintain their rapt attention.

That’s what language, in the right hands, can really do. Rushdie is capable of using both standard and non-standard grammar because of that fluency thing. He commands the English language. Every word does what he wants and needs it to do.

Why I’m Not Proud of You for Correcting Other People’s Grammar

When my father is interacting with people who find out he is a doctor, he often hears, “I have a medical question for you.” My sister, an accountant gets, “I have a tax question for you.” I feel particularly bad for my brother-in-law, who is both an accountant and a lawyer and who probably not only has to field general tax and legal questions but the questions of people who are in legal trouble because of their taxes. But when people find out I’m an English teacher, they often say, “I have a grammar question for you.” Asking someone to give you free professional advice when they are not at work and just looking to enjoy casual conversation with their dry martini is, of course, total etiquette fail. But it gets even douchier when people want to tell me all about how they go ahead and correct other people’s grammar every chance they get. This happened with my new dentist, who, while digging around in my mouth with metal objects, regaled me with stories about how he calls people out–family members, friends, patients, probably also panhandlers with poorly copyedited signs–for using adverbs incorrectly. Adverb usage: apparently one of the Big Problems Today, along with oil rigs asploding in the Gulf and poverty and such. It’s like these people are part of a Douchebag Club and think they have recognized me as one of their own. To which I have this to say: I am not. I am not, in fact, proud of you for being a dick to the people around you. Now don’t get me wrong, I am sort of a dick sometimes, but this is one area of dickery I just don’t touch. I equate it to going around at a party criticizing everyone’s food and drink selection. No one likes that guy. We edge away from him and talk about him behind his back. Like food selections at parties, speech patterns are both a function of personal taste and what’s available to us. Not only is grammar correcting just plain rude, it’s soaked in classism, regional chauvinism, and privilege.

It bothers me that some people think that this is what I do all day: copyedit my student’s documents and then take my work home with me by copyediting conversations with family and friends. That sounds joyless. And stupid. What I really do is research American literature and religion because I find it fascinating. Then I teach my students about literature and religion and try to find ways to make it fascinating for them. I also attempt to teach them to do fabulous things with words, things that are full of joy, as well as insight, nuance, and gravitas. In short, I love my job, but grammar has precious little to do with it (“it” being both my job and why I like it).

Then I work a shift in the undergraduate Writing Center and remember why people think this. Students come in, red-eyed and care-worn saying stuff like, “I just want to talk about the grammar. My professor takes off a point for every grammar mistake, so it’s really important that you look at the grammar. Grammar grammar grammar.” That’s when I want to put my head down on the desk, or maybe set fire to it so they’ll have to evacuate the building and I can avoid talking about grammar. I realize that these professors still exist, and I kind of think they are akin to the devil. One came to talk to the Writing Center staff a couple of years ago. She was from the business school, not the English department, mind you. After she basically insulted us for half an hour by implying that this room full of people holding Master’s degrees were essentially there to corral wayward commas and semi-colons and intoning that–unlike writing in English–writing in Business is supposed to be clear and readable, a friend of mine said, “So basically my entire job is grammar and obfuscation.” So frantic business students pour into the Writing Center so that people with Master’s degrees can catch whatever got through Word Grammar Check. Get me some lighter fluid and a match. (I am being FIGURATIVE here, kids. I do not condone arson.)

This explains another reaction I often get from people who know I’m an English teacher: they tell me all about the horrible, loathsome teacher they had in high school and college who perpetually handed back papers covered in blood red ink and killed their confidence when it came to writing. Many of these people are old, lots of them quite successful in fields like engineering and computer science and medicine. So, I kind of want to say to them, “Ummmm, get over it already? Why do you feel the need to unload this decades-old experience on me?” But for real, some people have deep psychic scars associated with their high school or college English teachers, teachers who made them hate their native language thanks to a promiscuous red pen and a vendetta against split infinitives.

A big part of the problem, in my estimation is that we as a society–even the most overeducated among us–have a poor grasp of what grammar actually is and what role it plays in writing. So here it is: grammar is a set of standards that we as a linguistic group have agreed upon to help us understand one another. Those rules tend to be culturally and regionally specific and change over time. No one descended from a mountain with two stone tablets reading, “Though shalt not use a preposition at the end of a sentence.” Adhering to grammar guidelines is about making sure that you are understood. It’s also about self-presentation, but it’s not about adhering to some sort of moral code.

Grammar too often gets confused with what it is designed to produce, which is fluency. Fluency here is defined not just by your ability to speak or write in a particular language but by a certain facility with that language, the ability to make words do exactly what you want them to do, to make them sparkle and titillate and inspire, to not just say the right thing but to sound good doing it. And that may or may not include utilizing proper grammar. Often fluency means learning precisely when to follow the rules and when to break them, to tune the correctness of your usage to the expectations of your audience (idiom!). Or to use non-standard constructions for effect (Iseewhatyoudidthere). Fluency is the ability to say exactly what you mean exactly how you want, which is harder than it sounds.

Story time: yesterday, while I was in the midst of drafting this post, I had an encounter much like what I describe above, in which an acquaintance discovered that two people in our social gathering (myself and a middle school teacher) taught English. Suddenly, he was frothing at the mouth about how people who say “irregardless” are awful, horrible human beings. Apparently someone killed his cat while saying “irregardless” alot. To my surprise, other non-English teaching members of the group piled on, ranting on and on about the split infinitive in “to boldly go where no man has gone before” and how it peed in their breakfast cereal. Amused by the coincidence, I casually mentioned that I was writing a blog post about how much I don’t give a flying frack about whether or not people use proper grammar in casual conversation. The instigator then backtracked and said that it really wasn’t grammar that bothered him so much as people not saying precisely what they mean. Ok, I thought, that’s valid.

But now I’m having one of those moments in which, twelve hours after the fact, I’ve managed to formulate the perfect response, so I wish I had this guy’s phone number so that I could call him at work or something and say, “Then why didn’t you say exactly what you meant?!” That would show ’em. Because here’s the thing: when we talk about problems with grammar, we’re often actually talking about problems with clarity or, to use the term I suggested before, fluency. I see this a lot in the Writing Center, when students bring in papers with negative grades and lots and lots of red ink. Instructors (often TA’s but sometimes professors too) will just write “grammar” in the margin next to an awkward or unclear sentence, sometimes next to a grammatically correct sentence. That’s the problem with talking about grammar all the time. Grammar is only one of the tools in a pretty big toolbox that helps us express ourselves effectively. And grammatical correctness is never a guarantee that we have done so. Academic writers (even writers with tenure) are often guilty of this. Yesterday, Amanda Hess of The Sexist, one of my favoritest bloggers, posted the first page of God’s Brain, a book written by the founder of “Male Studies,” who is named, I kid you not Lionel Tiger. You can’t make this stuff up. Here is how it starts:

The first impulse animating this book was simple if enchanted puzzlement about the remarkable difference between what the brain created about religion and the vast and long-lasting social systems that were the result. This is obviously an extraordinarily important aspect of human behavior that has to be understood as skillfully as possible. But we were troubled because so much of the public dialogue on the matter was beset by acidulous hostility from those opposed to religion on one loud and clamorous side. On the other, there was a self-confident certainty of both people and even governments about the need to quarantine the modes of faith from questions and from doubt.

Oh, you want me to stop now? There are four lights, you say? Okay, okay. That paragraph is technically grammatically correct, but it is excruciating to read because it is committing a number of other stylistic sins that have nothing to do with subject-verb agreement or the placement of punctuation.

1) Wordiness: Tiger is piling modifiers upon modifiers upon modifiers here. It’s like the man swallowed a Thesaurus and vomited it onto the page or like he was getting paid by the word and thus needed an adverb to modify every adjective. And I’m not just talking about “acidulous hostility” here. (Though in all seriousness, how great is that?) No, there are a lot of super boring modifiers in here too: “extraordinarily important” (Oh, well if it’s just important then I don’t care. Wait, extraordinarily important, you say?), “as skillfully as possible” (Can you understand something skillfully? I don’t think so.). He’s also redundant. Why does something have to be both “loud” AND “clamorous,” when clamorous by itself says exactly what he needs it to and is a perfectly interesting word on its own? Why is his “puzzlement” both “simple” and “enchanted?” Doesn’t “enchanted” on its own express the ironic bemusement he is trying to convey?

2) Cadence: Try reading this thing out loud. I am of the belief that reading is a kind of syn-aesthetic experience, that what we read with our eyes ought to be appealing to our ears as well. This is not. Cadence is what the kids these days would call “flow.” It’s what gives prose the quality of poetry or music. Ever read something that made you go, “Wow, that’s really beautiful?” Chances are it had something to do with how the writer establishes a rhythm and uses the tonal quality of words to enliven her point. The above paragraph is like a linguistic abortion. Instead of flowing, everything feels choppy, stopped short, disconnected. Instead of building on one another, these short modifying phrases actually stop the progress of the sentence and sort of bend it backward in some kind of syntactical contortion. You sort of lose track of where the sentence was going before it detoured from “simple” into “if enchanted” before finally arriving at “puzzlement.”

3) Parallel Structure: Tiger shuns parallel structure, so in addition to not sounding very pretty, relationships between ideas are lost. At the end of this paragraph, Tiger is presenting two opposing sides in a controversy and talking about how extremism on both sides stymies productive dialogue. Here’s how that starts: “But we were troubled because so much of the public dialogue on the matter was beset by acidulous hostility from those opposed to religions on one loud and clamorous side. On the other,” Okay wait. On the other what? Oooooooh, side. I see. The first few times I read this, the fact that he was comparing two sides of an issue sort of floated past me unnoticed. That first sentence suggests that public dialogue is being shut down due to angry, angry people who hate religion. The fact that this represents only one side of an entrenched debate is buried in there in another sea of adjectives. Thus, by the time we get to “On the other,” we’ve sort of missed the antecedent of “other.” In Ancient Greek, there is a word that essentially means “one the one hand…on the other hand” that has to be used in specific syntactical ways. This is so that each element in the comparison is given equal grammatical weight and the relationship between them is clear. Also, it just sounds better if you do it like that.

4) Clarity: What the hell is Tiger even saying? I recognize that academic prose is necessarily dense. We’re talking about complex theoretical ideas here. My point in this little digression isn’t that Tiger is using too many big words. I am totally going to use “acidulous hostility” in my next conference paper. It isn’t even that he is resorting to professional jargon. The problem is that he is allowing the overuse of mundane language to make the reading experience torturous. The stuff I just mentioned pulls us out of the reading experience and by focusing our energies on decoding the sentence rather than contemplating the ideas. Remember Pig Latin? It wasn’t at all difficult to translate, but your brain still had to work a little harder than usual to figure out what the precise words were, so it took you longer than usual to arrive at what the person meant. That’s sort of what this paragraph is like.

And what are the ideas? Carping on about how someone said something is often a way of refusing to engage with what they actually did say. It’s a derailing tactic that gets leveled against feminist bloggers all of the time. I won’t do that here.* Tiger is talking about the cognitive theory of religion, which states that religion is at least partially a product of neurological processes, a psychological “need” for faith that is programmed into our very DNA. It’s a fascinating theory. I actually work for a professor right now who does this stuff. In this first paragraph, Tiger is saying that it is difficult to separate religion as a product of our brains from the social institutions that influence the way religion is practiced. He is saying that broaching this topic is challenging because people’s opinions on religion, even in academia, tend to be very polarized. There are those who do not want us to talk about religion at all because they sort of wish it would go away, and there are those who want religion to be immune from academic scrutiny, which might call the truth claims of religion into question. He goes on to say, in the next paragraph, that many scholars and even academic presses shrink from engaging with or publishing this sort of work because of the controversy it engenders. Now that’s something I might be interested in reading about, if the prose weren’t so weighed down with stuff that usually gets excised from shitty first drafts.

As one of Hess’s commenters suggests, some of the reviews on Amazon are telling. While the book has a few positive reviews, the negative ones cite the ponderousness of the writing as a serious disappointment. In other words, they were all excited about reading this book until they encountered “enchanted puzzlement.” I can’t say much for Tiger’s theories on gender, but he seems to have important things to say in the field of the scientific study of religion. And that’s what makes this infuriating: not that Tiger has committed some atrocity upon the English language but that provocative ideas have been lost in a sea of extraneous fourth grade adjectives like “extraordinarily” and “loud.” It’s just all so unnecessary. And that, for me, is far more aggravating than “to boldly go” or “irregardless.” At least those words fairly effectively capture what the speaker means to say.

*In all fairness, Hess isn’t doing that either. She has repeatedly engaged with the way “Male Studies” has been framed as an answer to “Men’s Studies,” and if attacking his style is sort of ad hominem, then it’s merely in response to Tiger’s ad hominem accusation that she just hasn’t read his stuff. One shouldn’t have to read the entire body of someone’s scholarship, especially for someone as prolific as Lionel Tiger (still a funny name) in order to be qualified to critique their ideas on one particular subject.