How much does grammar matter?

A few weeks ago, I had a great consultation with one of my ID1 students: she had come with a really interesting first draft in which she unpacked how much of a badass feminist icon the antagonist of a graphic novel series was. She came into the session concerned about her balance between plot and analysis (and, like most first years, it was evident that too much space was given to plot). Through reading some paragraphs out loud and discussing what she cared about most in her essay, we were able to reallocate more space to her important analysis and create a revision timeline. I was happy with her enthusiasm for her essay and the reorganization plan we built. But in the last minutes of our session, she casually mentioned that she had a difficult time understanding verb tenses, as time is indicated separately from the verb in her first language. Yes, I had noticed that the verb tenses were inconsistent and awkward; however, those scattered errors did not prevent me from understanding and appreciating her original analysis. I had simply viewed those little mistakes as first draft typos that would be quickly corrected before the final draft.

How much does grammar matter? In this case, I had breezed over the occasional misuse of various tenses—they had not at any point caused me to stumble over or reread passages. As an ID1 intern, at what point should I provide guidance/strategies/resources for grammar improvement? If the ideas are still clearly communicated, would stepping in suggest that certain writers/voices should be privileged over others? As long as the paper communicates effectively, is there much value in putting value on “proper grammar”?

Also, mini-tangent on the literary present: last week, I went to a really interesting English department talk about the different forms of the present tense (literary present included). One of the points in favor of the literary present is that it gives the reader a sense of proximity to the work as it unfolds—the literary present is conveyed as intuitive. Yet to push against this notion of intuitiveness, I think of one of my ESL students. The use of the literary present was not intuitive to her at all: in recounting past events, the past tense was the more logical option (still not entirely logical, however, as time and verb were not inherently connected from her perspective). To what extent is the claimed intuitiveness of the literary present linguistically exclusive and not universal across cultures?

Where do they find all of these student authors?!?!

I apologize for this post as it is nothing more that a barely coherent (or perhaps that is too generous of a description) rant about Baker (ft. a throwback to Nelson). But as I hobble towards the finish line that is the end of the semester (or I suppose it is more accurately a water break… I am still far from graduation, if that even is the “finish line” of this metaphor anyways), I can’t help but express my shock and confusion about the tutoring program at University of Michigan—Flint that Baker describes.

WHY DO THEY HAVE THEIR TUTORS WORK WITH THE SAME STUDENTS FOR FOUR HOURS A WEEK AND GRADE THOSE STUDENTS PORTFOLIOS?!?! That is, from my perspective, an alarming amount of authority to give students. As English 109 tutors, they have more scheduled contact with the students than the teacher does. Moreover, by requiring tutors to grade student papers, UMich Flint is further giving the tutor the role of the professor. Even with more extensive tutor training I would still feel very unqualified to tutor in this way—being a professor requires AT LEAST an undergraduate degree and maybe a few years of experience! It seems completely inappropriate that the university would put students (regardless of how long they’ve been at UMich) in such a position.

I feel like this system is unethical on the university’s behalf: they identify students who are “basic writers” (Also what does that even mean?! I’m not really ok with that description…) and then leave them even farther behind by not providing adequate help. The students who need the most help in writing should probably be helped by the most qualified professors… not peer tutors who haven’t even graduated themselves. Just a thought.

And while I’m ranting, I figured I might as well throw some frustration towards Nelson. Because I am still not over the amount of time she was able to dedicate to a single paper. Who is this woman? Does she have a time turner? If so, where can I get one? I am certainly jealous of the time that she is able to spend writing—I would feel so much more satisfied with my college experience if I could actually realize my envisioned papers without the restrictive pressure of time. But beyond my jealousy, I am moderately resentful towards Nelson because of how un-relatable her experience is. As they are both writing as students, she and Baker should in theory write very relatable content. However, because their experiences of college writing are so different from mine, their similar position as college students just makes them feel even more unrealistic and un-relatable to me.

Sorry for the rant—I just felt especially disconnected from this reading because her representation of tutoring is just so far from my reality. I am still mildly in shock… Where do they find these people?!

I’ve Got the Power

This is somewhat of a disjointed rant/exploration of my own experience navigating the power dynamics of being a writing tutor for the past few months—and as Carino makes clear in his article, it is a complicated dynamic!

My favorite parts about being an ID1 intern are sharing my excitement for writing and empowering my peers. In this sense, I tend to shy away from establishing authority or enforcing a hierarchy during consultations. Though, on a certain level, I do have authority: I took the ID1 course that I am an intern for, so I am familiar with the assignments and the professor’s expectations (to a certain extent); I am passionate about my own academic writing and feel that I have energy to share; and through this class, I have read, discussed, and thought about a lot of different themes/techniques/aspects of writing (like audience awareness and metacommentary) that are very helpful when brainstorming for, drafting, or revising an essay. I have to keep this level of authority in mind when I tell students that their essay doesn’t respond to the prompt or it lacks a clear thesis/central idea or its final paragraph is really more of a body paragraph than a conclusion (this actually happens quite frequently! I will meet with students and they’ll say something along the lines of “I really like my conclusion because it says something important but it just doesn’t feel conclusion-y”). I sometimes feel bad about suggesting major structural or thematic changes because I don’t want to shoot my peers down or take ownership of their writing away from them… but that’s my job and it is ok to make comments instead of only asking questions. Essentially, I feel bad about coming on too strong because the hierarchy in and of itself is paradoxical: as peer tutors, we want to empower, yet difference in power is inscribed in the relationship itself. I love asking questions, but I also have a lot of ideas!

My comfort and ease in balancing the power dynamic during consultations varies from student to student. With some of my students, the meetings are very comfortable: we chat about our lives for a bit and approach problem solving in a back-and-forth, brainstorm-y way that feels very natural and balanced. With other students, however, the consultations can sometimes feel like I’m pulling teeth to push the meeting anywhere. In these consultations, I take more liberty in making suggestions because my questions don’t get much of a response. It feels more “Tell me what to fix” than “Let’s brainstorm ideas together to improve the paper,” which is frustrating. As the semester has progressed, I have had fewer of these consultations, a fact that has been reassuring. Though I was unable to change student’s understanding of the function of the Writing Center/ID1 Interns in our first meeting, I feel that I have been able to provide a sense of enthusiasm and ownership that shaped more recent consultations.

Angsty, Misunderstood Teen: The life of the Writing Center

North is very upset. And when I first started reading his article, I was upset, too… just at him, not English professors. How dare he feel entitled to attack such an awesome department of people?! (Yes, I understand his specific frustration was not directed at the Pomona College English department—I have a habit of assuming most English departments are filled with glorious people because that has been the trend throughout my educational experience).

BUT, after hearing him out (it honestly only took like a page or two), I understand, respect, and even share his frustration. In my personal experience, this is not true to the same extent that North emphasizes, but ultimately, faculty do not understand the mission of the Writing Center. In my English classes, the WC was encouraged only for those with “special problems.” In my non-English classes, WC visits were only encouraged for “polishing” (read: grammar/basic mechanics). None of my Pomona English professors have (in my memory, at least) actively encouraged the whole class to visit the WC for any part of the writing process. I have had professors meet with students individually to brainstorm paper topics, but a WC consultation was never encouraged for that part of the process. And, other than my ID1, my only Pomona class that encouraged the entire class to visit the WC was my econ class. And that was to ensure that after drafting our briefing memos, we had a final draft that was “polished.” Basically, my experiences with professors were pretty much aligned with North’s.

However, I probably don’t have the best perspective of what faculty do or don’t understand because I don’t spend my free time talking to them (I just get a few hours of discussions or lectures a week). I do, however, have the pleasure of being surrounded by awesome peers, so I feel like I do have better understanding of my friends’ perceptions of the WC. And yeah, my peers don’t all really understand the WC very well either. While it is mostly freshmen who think they are “above seeking help,” SOOOO many of my friends didn’t realize you could have a consultation for brainstorming. There is such a strong perception that you can’t go to an appointment without a draft (even though there is plenty of information out there emphasizing that the WC is helpful “at any stage of the writing process”!!!). I do not know for a fact if I fell under the “too cool for skool” or “false understanding” categories last year—no, I didn’t visit the WC specifically, but honestly, I’m pretty sure that is because I suffer from chronic procrastination and usually push assignments off for so long that I scramble to write them up until the last minutes, sometimes seconds before the deadline (or sometimes I just hand stuff in late… whoops…). I did meet with my ID1 Intern, but I never thought to brainstorm at the WC to overcome (or even slightly reduce) my procrastination problem. North focuses his roast on the faculty; however, I feel that the students’ misconception of the WC is more significant. Ultimately they are the ones who determine whether or not they will use the resource, so their appreciation for the WC is what will lead to better papers and ideas at Pomona.

Feedback is not simply margin comments

I was really struck by the emphasis Sommers put on the physical margin notes of a graded essay. Of course a lot of them are minor and about the reader’s thoughts/draw attention away from the writing itself! I feel like those comments are not supposed to act as feedback on the essay as a whole—instead, they provide the writer with a glimpse into the judgments that are instantaneously running through the readers head. Many of the comments may not be central to the quality of the essay and some of them may even be nearly negligible. Nevertheless, they allow the writer to step away from their work and look at it through the eyes of someone else. That said, margin comments ARE NOT A SUFFICENT METHOD OF FEEDBACK BY THEMSELVES.

Also, I, too, was disappointed by Sommers’ lack of studying other media of feedback (especially in her original essay). In my experience (both as a writer/student and a reader/ID1 intern), meetings and discussions have been the primary methods to give and receive feedback. I talk with most of my professors after a few essays each semester to better understand the overall points for improvement and my reoccurring weaknesses as a writer. Because these meetings allow me to ask questions and are not physically constrained by the margins of a paper, I feel like I have more control over the feedback process and a better understanding of what my professor is trying to communicate to me. Also, on the other side as an ID1 intern, the consultation is the primary way we provide feedback/support to students. These meetings allow us to bring the attention back to the writer because we can focus on their concerns and discuss until they are comfortable. Reading the essay before hand is valuable because it allows me to prepare a loose framework for the upcoming consultation, but any margin notes that I take are more or less unimportant. I usually just point out physical errors (typo, lack of citation, punctuation issue) that do not pertain to the content of the essay or quality of thought at all.

Sorry Sommers for being so harsh! I really do appreciate the work you have done, as you’ve put a lot of time and thought into a (in my opinion) very important sector of writing pedagogy. Feedback is the primary mechanism that has pushed me to grow as a writer, so I really value that you’ve taken the time to try to understand it. I just feel like a lot of your analysis (especially the first one) was so out of touch with how students read and understand feedback. As a student myself, I was kind of shocked by how focused you were initially on the professors’ role as opposed to the relationship and dynamic between the student and professor. Feedback is for students, so it was mindboggling to me that you originally excluded students from your research.

A Letter to the Audience

Dear Audience,

I would very much like to thank you for taking time out of what I imagine to be a very busy life to read my thoughts. I would guess that by now, you have perhaps read close to 100 of my pieces over the past decade or so. You have hovered over my shoulder, watching, reading, and responding to my work, time and time again. You have always been there for me.

But here’s the thing—I didn’t know you were out there for most of life.

Before college, I was unable to see all of you. Yes, I saw you, teachers. Yes, I saw you, Mom. Through my younger eyes, you were only visible in the select few people to whom I physically handed copies of my work to read and evaluate. Your voices, opinions, and responses were inaudible to me outside of this closed group. My broken perception saw my writing and the reading of my writing as an isolated line (I was inclined to say “closed loop,” but I did not actually see writing and reading as cyclical and looping): A. Kate writes paper according to prompt, B. teacher grades paper according to rubric. Yes, I had my papers returned to me with a grade; however this step did not really close the loop, as the graded papers were most often shoved into a folder for the comments to rot and die. Audience reception was not looped back into the original paper, the discourse was not updated for the readership, and thoughts were not re-thought once the paper made it to Stop B.

But Audience, I am starting to see you now. Maybe you flung off your Invisibility Cloak or maybe I updated the prescription for my glasses. Regardless, I am now able to see you as a greater body of listeners and myself as a member of a larger dialogue. We can work together now that I know you’re out there!

Also, as Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford make clear, I too am one with you, Audience. Moreover, by joining your group, by playing the roles of both writer and reader, I can better reevaluate, critique, revise, understand, and improve my own thoughts and the communication of my ideas. You are not necessarily the exclusive and intimidating set of people I imagined you to be—I am one of you!

So thank you, Audience. Be you addressed or be you invoked, I am grateful for you. Thank you for listening to me. Thank you for informing my discourse. Thank you for including me in your group. And thank you for helping me realize that I have something to say that matters. Sorry it took me so long to notice you.

Sincerely,

Kate

Get Over It

Last week’s Elbow reading made me mad. He was so definite and so absolute about his two distinct, completely separate types of thought. I did not appreciate that he treated the two orders of thinking as so binary, as I definitely do a bit of both at the same time. I also did not appreciate that Elbow painted such a rosy picture of first-order thinking, as I find it to be a miserable and unnatural process. Elbow, listen up: NOBODY JUST SITS DOWN, CLEARS AWAY THEIR FILTERS, AND LETS PERFECTLY UNADULTERED THOUGHTS FLOW EFFORTLESSLY AND NATURALLY ONTO THE PAGE. THAT JUST DOESN’T HAPPEN!

So thank goodness for Lamott.

This week’s Lamott reading is a much-needed and incredibly refreshing revision (get it? because this week’s topic is revision?) to Elbow’s aggressive and, in my very aggressive opinion, idiotic claims. She still emphasizes the importance of first-order thinking—she calls that thinking the “childlike part,” the “shitty first draft.” HOWEVER, at no point in time does she make it sound easy and natural like Elbow does. Lamott embraces the gut-wrenching, terrorizing near-impossibility of sitting down and writing, even when it is horrrribbllleee writing. Her wit and reliability far outshine the Elbow’s perhaps unintentional superiority complex.

I read this piece in middle school, and Lamott’s emphasis on writing a shitty first draft stuck with me. That does not, unfortunately, mean that I have actually followed her advice. While her overall message of just write something stayed with me, the equally important message of it is really freaking hard for everyone kind of slipped through the cracks. For years, I have built up this notion in my head that writing first drafts and just getting shit down on the page is just sooo much harder for me. That is not true. Lamott says so. First drafts are sooo hard for (almost) EVERYONE. I need to get over myself, stop making excuses, and just write words on the page, regardless if it physically feels like pulling teeth. I can write first drafts just like everyone else, struggle like everyone else.

Now, I really like rules. I like to follow unspoken social rules, Student Handbook rules, grammar rules, and even my own set up made-up rules, which I have devised unnecessarily for most occasions. Elbow’s language for drafting scares me because he condemns the security blankets and familiar faces provided by rules. Fortunately, Lamott gives me a new rule: no matter what, just get over yourself and write some damn words down. Since I like rules so much, I think I can follow hers.

Thank you, Lamott. Thank you for telling me that my struggle is not unique. Thank you for making me laugh. And thank you for informing me that the worst thing that could happen is I could get hit by a car before revising my shitty first draft, causing people to believe that it was a suicide spurred by my lacking talent and literary incompetence. Because really, having a shitty draft (even if it’s the second or third one) is not that bad.