Information Sheet #118


by Gina Hausknecht

Two events in my early writing life which made a lasting impression on me are, in retrospect, oddly related. The first was one of the signal events of my education. My sixth-grade teacher, Miss Annamarie Goetz, gave me a thesaurus as a gift; it was an old, beat-up paperback, very second-hand, but I treasured it as an emblem of her confidence in and encouragement of my writing. The other event occurred when my father, himself a teacher and writer, did something my upbringing in our book-crammed apartment left me entirely unprepared for: he threw a book away. It was a thesaurus and he was opposed to them on principle because, he said, they make us lazy. I tell the latter story when I talk with my own students about the important difference between connotation and denotation, and about the adventure, creative and wonderful if often maddening, of seeking out the best word for your particular purpose. In their different ways, Miss Goetz and my father taught me the craft of shaping words into sentences and paragraphs from which meaning, my meaning, emerges. I understand I'm luckier than some. I know the stereotype of the grammarian, strict, humorless, unpoetic, dogmatic, who humiliates others for deviating in the slightest from The Rules. If you were educated by such tyrants, the word "grammar" probably connotes all that is narrow and loveless about writing.

My training in composition pedagogy stressed that teaching grammatical rules in isolation from the conceptual processes of writing was difficult (for us), discouraging (for our students), and ultimately futile. The writing process itself is an essential, irreducible element of analytical, creative thought; it is in the attempt to write about a subject that we discover what we think and develop our capacity to think deeply. An over-emphasis on product--polished, sophisticated, sparkling prose--fosters in students the belief that good writing simply involves getting the mechanics of a sentence right, as opposed to exploring ones' own ideas with complexity. I hold to these basic tenets, and I see them as more or less foundational to our writing program at Coe as shaped and kept afloat by the remarkable efforts of Bob Marrs and his staff.

I think we make a serious mistake, however, when we fall into the trap of polarizing process and product, as if they were really separable. It is not accurate to claim that the focus in a given course on disciplinary rhetoric ("this is what makes for a good history paper") necessarily neglects process. Rather, by opening up to students how to write like a historian, we invite them into an intellectual community that is constituted precisely by shared writing processes. And process-focused writing would become empty and solipsistic if it were to renounce any interest in an outcome that others can comprehend and engage with.

Over-emphasis on process can be as damaging as fetishization of flawless prose. I regularly see students with serious writing problems who tell me that they're only good at personal writing; they can write well when they write about themselves or about a subject they care about, they say. These are impoverished students who have been led to believe by well-meaning, encouraging teachers that they can only do well at tasks with which they feel comfortable a priori. Such students have, implicitly, given up on learning. Very talented students, used to being rewarded for "perfect" performances, are also often hesitant to venture outside of their comfort zones. It is essential that students feel empowered--that we convince them they can succeed at the tasks we pose. Discomfort, however, is part and parcel of intellectual growth; it's only by confronting our limitations that we move beyond them. Excess zeal on either side of the process/product divide--the very existence of such a divide--fosters comfort zones. Good writing integrates creative, exploratory thinking with concentrated attention to effective, competent use of language. We know this; we condescend to our students if we withhold this knowledge from them.

I'm not advocating re-tooling our writing program to increase our attention to grammar. What I am advocating is that we not enshrine a false distinction between process and product, between a "discovery" model and a disciplinary model, so that we disparage or abandon attempts to talk to our students about the particulars of what we consider good writing.

A recent edition of the Word Shop points out that grammar as we know it is a relatively recent phenomenon, codified in the eighteenth century, along with spelling, by Dr. Johnson and others. The formal rhetoric which preceded the eighteenth century mania for dictionaries and grammar books was much more arcane and demanding, ideally requiring a university education and years of attendance at court. Johnson attempted to democratize good writing. In fixing its rules and methods, he sought to make them accessible to a far vaster range of people than ever before. That grammar now seems to us a prison of incomprehensible and irrelevant niceties has much to do with attitudes projected by the professional gatekeepers of the English language, and I think that the ardent on both sides, the grammarians and anti-grammarians, are equally responsible for this perception. Using language well is liberating, and a great pleasure; this is the heart of the matter which we must not lose sight of in quibbles over what “well” means.

We can each teach what we value in good writing by naming those values in a fairly precise way. It’s often hard to talk about writing because it feels like an extension of ourselves, the boundary of who we are and what we know. When we talk to our students about their writing, we have a responsibility to explain ourselves and our expectations clearly, to communicate information in a way that illuminates rather than punishes. If you can't talk about comma splices or prepositions without a shudder, don't. But very often when we specify what we care about in writing--concision, say, or natural-sounding word choice, or a well-structured sentence--we will stumble into the realm of grammar, mechanics, and style. To do so is not necessarily to be a rule-bound pedant. We need to be honest with our students about what we believe makes for good prose. That each of us will tell our students something different is the beauty of a writing-across-the-curriculum program. That we will each choose to talk about writing in different idioms is what will prepare our students best for the myriad writing tasks they will face when they leave Coe. This multiplicity of voices need not be contradictory; Miss Goetz and my father both conveyed their belief in the value of words.

Bob Marrs once cited to a group of us a semester-long study showing that writing instruction had no measurable effect. I thought of Miss Goetz and felt surprise. Then Bob went on to say that the study showed no change in students' writing abilities at the end of that semester. If we measure success solely by performance at finals time, we are in for severe disappointment. But surely we all understand, whether we like it or not, that teaching is an act of faith. We hope that some fraction of what we've tried to communicate will eventually mesh with what our students learn in other classes and other aspects of their lives; we assume that what we do with them will "take" somewhere, sometime down the road. As we implement our college-wide assessment plan, I hope our enthusiasm for quantifiable data won't weaken our faith in the rich, multi-layered process of accretion by which we become educated. What test would have revealed the influence of Miss Goetz' gift? What study could have calibrated the effect of my father discarding our household thesaurus? And what measurement could be used to gauge how these two events intersected to deepen my understanding of how to value language?

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