Information Sheet #137

October 2, 2002

AN OCTOBERT MEDLEY ON SPELLING, PUNCTUATION, PEDAGOGY, AND WRITING CENTERS  

[What follows are some bits of tid from summer reading and recent e-mail messages.  No intelligent logic to this collection–just stuff I found appealing.  Thanks to Nükhet Yarbrough for this first item; this amusing spoof has been around for awhile, but I had never seen it with this particular story frame. –Bob Marrs]

Wonderful English

The European Commission has just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the European nations rather than German which was the other possibility.  As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty's Government conceded that

English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a 5-year phase-in plan that would become known as "Euro-English".

In the first year, "s" will replace the soft "c".  Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard "c" will be dropped in favour of the "k". This should klear up konfusion, and keyboards kan have one less letter.

There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year when the troublesome "ph" will be replaced with the "f".  This will make words like fotograf 20% shorter.

In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible.  Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horibl mes of the silent "e" in the languag is disgrasful and it should go away.

By the 4th yer peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing "th" with "z" and "w" with "v".

During ze fifz yer, ze unesesary "o" kan be dropd from vords kontaining "ou" and after ziz fifz yer, ve vil hav a reil sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubl or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech oza. Ze drem of a united urop vil finali kum tru.

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Punctuation Ruminations

This spring Michelle Eodice, Director of the Writing Center at the University of Kansas, sent me an e-mail message containing a summary of an article on punctuation published in the journal Literary Imagination.  Ramsay MacMullen, emeritus professor of history and classics at Yale University, examines the roles of punctuation and voice in expository writing. Two main schools of thoughts have historically dominated explanations of punctuation practices. The oldest faction has argued that the marks should stand for how a speaker would articulate the words--and at what pace.  According to MacMullen, "Our thinking about how we write should properly begin with how we speak."  In the early 20th century, at a time when composition instructors were seeking ways to separate themselves from programs committed to speech communication, pedagogically inclined grammarians insisted that punctuation should offer only visual and grammatical guidance: "Writing is . . . a visual thing; and it is the logic of grammar that writers must invoke to help them out with commas and so on, not how they speak." 

In the 1970's the pendulum began to swing back to the older view and speech began to recover its “primacy over writing."  Supporters of such an approach included many professional writers such as the novelist Eudora Welty.  "Ever since I was first read to, then started reading to myself, there has never been a line I didn't hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. . . . I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers--to read as listeners--and with all writers, to write as listeners." Indeed, human physiology reveals that there is an "inner ear":  speech organs are stimulated during reading, as are what MacMullen terms "the mind's eye, the nerves and muscles of gesticulation." Science has proved what 17th-century literary scholars believed: "Readers inwardly turn writing into speech, so far as they are able."

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New WAC Ads

We would be remiss if we did not thank the following corporations for lending their slogans to our WAC Program’s efforts to inspire better student writing:

General Electric: We help you bring good drafts to life.
Coca-Cola: I'd like to help the world to write.
Alka-Seltzer:  Cut, cut, add, add, oh how much better it is!
American Express:  Don't submit your draft without it.
Maxwell House:  Good to the last word.
Nike:  Just write it.

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Faculty Cliches on Student Papers

 Here are two passages from a listserv exchange between Jeanne Simpson (Eastern Illinois University) and Nick Carbone (Marlboro College) discussing why college faculty’s marginal comments do not often prove very helpful to most student writers. “One of the important roles of writing centers, something I am not at all sure how to explain to administrators or other faculty without getting into hot water, is to serve as a translation service, bridging these enormous and apparently unrecognized gaps in understanding [the gaps between the instructor’s marginal comments and the student writer’s interpretations of those remarks].  How do we tell our colleagues that writing things like "coherence" and "comma splice" in the margin of a paper is probably a complete waste of time without the intervention of a writing center tutor?  It seems to me that writing center intervention may be more than a convenience for students--it may be a necessity. Explaining that reality presents a challenging rhetorical problem, doesn't it?”

Carbone responded: “What's ironic is that often teachers write comments that are as cryptic and sometimes cliched (awk is a margin cliche, in this view) as the writing students hand in. The comments are classic types of writer-based prose [i.e., writing that meets the needs of the writer, in contrast to reader-based prose that meets the reader’s needs]. And here's where . . . the idea of the comment as a genre of essay helps sometimes.  The comment is an essay; it's written for a purpose to an audience in a context. What's the best way for that audience--the student writer--to understand the purpose of the comment? What do they need to know and to see?  Or in the context of awk, can you explain why the passage is awkward rather than merely labeling it awk?  Can you show instead of tell?  Can you offer options for alternatives to help the writer see past it?  Usually the answer is yes.  But writing those longer comments takes time. And that's the ultimate point. How do you want to spend you time during  response? What's important and why? You can't cover everything, so what can you do usefully?”

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Coe Alum Motivates Writers

A recent correspondent reminded me of the stirring quote from Marv Levy, Buffalo Bills head coach of the early nineties, who before every game asked his players:   “Where else would you rather be than WRITE HERE, WRITE NOW!"

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Faculty Adopting Writing Center Practices

Faculty adopting Writing Center practices for handling the paper load?  One significant aspect of working in a Writing Center is that the consultant rarely sees the paper before the student arrives for the writing conference.  Everything will be handled “on the fly,” created while in dialogue with the student writer.  What if faculty dealt with papers in 15 or 20 minutes conferences, not reading anything in advance, just working with what the writer brings in at that moment?  Perhaps such a practice would increase the likelihood of the paper remaining in the hands of the student writer.  The point of the conference becomes the instructor finding out what the writer wants to work on–and to have the writer jotting down notes and ideas for revision as the conversation evolves.  According to Prof. Nick Carbone at Marlboro College, this approach might help “teachers get away from the preconference reading of the paper . . . where often the conference is coverage of a list of things the teacher wants fixed/changed/revised. The idea is to make the conference more student driven (at least to start).  I do this kind of thing in lieu of written comments as the semester rolls on, so that all my comments are oral over time and the only written comments are from students.”

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Writing Center Practices: Whose  Expectations?

The following message, posted on a listserv last spring by Chris Ervin at the University of Louisville, raises some intriguing issues about what faculty and student writers expect from a Writing Center–and how those expectations might differ from the staff’s expectations.

“I just read Malcolm Hayward's "Assessing Attitudes Towards the Writing Center" [in an issue of the Writing Center Journal]. Hayward looks at what teachers considered the most important goals for classroom writing instruction and what consultants considered the most important goals for writing center instruction. 

“In the second part of his study, Hayward examined the primary reasons teachers and consultants gave for students being referred to the writing center. Hayward found that teachers and consultants reported similar goals for writing instruction (organization, language awareness, cognitive development, and syntactic development). However, he found that teachers' goals and teachers' reasons for referring students to the writing center did not match. Specifically, teachers saw higher-order concerns as important goals for classroom writing instruction, but their primary reason for referring students to the writing center was instruction in grammar and punctuation. However, consultants' goals for writing instruction ‘matched’ what they considered primary reasons for teachers to refer students to the writing center. Consultants ranked organization and paragraphing as the most important goals for writing center instruction and as the top reasons for student-referrals to the writing center.  ‘I have found that the problem does not lie in a difference in [teachers' and consultants'] goals.  Rather, the differences are found in assessing the competency of the Writing Center to reach those goals.  Tutors feel they are able to work with primary objectives [Higher Order Concerns], while many faculty feel that the Writing Center should work with secondary goals.’

“Do students ‘really’ list their own goals when they visit the writing center, or do they list goals that their teachers have suggested to them ‘when referring them to the writing center’?  If students are being referred to the writing center by their teachers, and if Hayward's conclusion still holds true, then I would expect a tension between so-called student goals and consultant goals for writing center sessions since the students' goals may reflect what their teachers consider legitimate reasons for visiting the writing center.”  Relevant to what happens at Coe?

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A proposed motto for Coe’s WAC Program:  “Not to teach writing but to teach with writing.”

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Thanks to Valerie Sowell, a Coe alum now living in Philadelphia, for sending me this quote from the playwright Tony Kushner:

"A gush of ideas or words absolutely has to be reexamined and reread and worked on. Is it a breaking through of a muse's song, or is it just noise that you generate to distract your terror?"

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