[Joe Weinberg is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota in the Writing Studies department. He has has a Bachelor's degree from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a Masters degree in logic and philosophy from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and a Master's degree in English and Composition from Western Illinois University. He has a blog where he ruminates on his research (cogitas.wordpress.com).]
“I have terrible grammar.”
I have been teaching students how to write for about a decade now, and I have heard students say this hundreds of times. And I have yet to find one of them that actually means it, with the possible exception of ESL students. Not to say that all of my students have had perfect grammar; while that would be wonderful, it’s still a dream. What I mean is that they do have good grammar, they just don’t know it.
When I tried to figure out why that was, I decided to look back on my own life. I know it well, so that was pretty easy research. What do I think of when I hear the word “grammar”? The first things that come to my mind, and that seem to come to most students’ minds, are Nouns, Verbs, Gerunds, Prepositional Phrases, and Sentence Diagrams. And those are scary concepts.
I used to tell my students that I didn’t know grammar. I said that I had no idea what a Gerund even was, and I didn’t expect them to know either. I can’t say that anymore; enough people have corrected me and told me what a Gerund is that it finally locked in my memory. But the point was that while I did know grammar, I didn’t know the specific terminology.
That realization opened a door for me. Maybe everyone else already knew this, but I had to figure out that my students weren’t saying they had bad grammar, they were saying that they didn’t know the terminology of grammar. It was the word that scared them, not the concept. I tested this theory, telling them that I wanted them to be clear. I meant that I wanted them to be able to communicate what they wanted to say in a readable way. That, I think, is what we all mean when we say grammar.
Telling them I wanted clarity helped me with comments throughout the entire semester. I could underline a sentence and say that it was unclear, and they would fix the grammar.
Is it wrong to lie to students?
Some will argue that the student-teacher relationship is based on trust. Without trust, there is no learning. There is some truth to that. But there is also some truth in the idea that deception can teach more effectively, precisely because the students are trusting. They trust their teachers to be honest, and hence have a blind spot when that teacher is tricking them. This isn’t bad; it means they will learn better and more without realizing it. It’s a moral question. Kant’s categorical imperative makes this a definitively wrong thing to do. It is wrong to ever lie, so it is always wrong to lie. But Utilitarians, like Locke, say that the ends justify the means. That is, the greatest good for the greatest number is what’s important.
For myself, what matters is product not process—an odd fact, since I feel the opposite way when it comes to writing—what matters to me is that the students learn. I don’t much care what it takes to make them learn. Thus, deception. Or, more specifically, misdirection. Any good magician will tell you that misdirection is the most important part of their act; if they tell you otherwise, it’s because they’re trying to distract you.
There is a lot of commonality between magic and pedagogy. By pushing a student’s focus one way, they won’t notice that they’re learning something else. Playing games can be used to teach virtually anything. Scrabble teaches vocabulary and chess teaches mathematical thinking. Applying this to composition pedagogy takes a bit of finesse. It’s difficult for students to see writing as a game. But so long as they don’t know the purpose of the game, there are still ways this can be effective.
Take, for example, the idea of the story written in parts: one student writes an introduction, then the paper passes to the next student, who writes a second paragraph. This continues through the rest of the story. Students think it’s fun, think that maybe they’re supposed to be learning how to maintain a narrative. But really they’re learning to write transitions. Running a simulation where the students are pretending to run a company seems like a great way to learn how business works. But it also teaches them how to communicate in business settings.
[Image by Flickr user SMB College and used under Creative Commons License]
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