What’s so bad about correcting grammar anyway?

Reading Moussu’s piece made me think about how I would react if my Spanish professor tried to critique the content of something that I wrote without giving me suggestions to improve my grammar. I’m taking a Spanish class because I want to learn how to communicate in Spanish, not because I would like to learn how to structure an argument. Because what is the point of learning the latter if my argument is incomprehensible or unclear? At the end of the day, the biggest obstacle in the way of communicating in a language that one is not proficient in just might be something lower down on the writing center’s hierarchy.

Moussu speaks of “the ‘cultural’ gap that existed and still exists today between practices in ESL programs and those in writing centres.” I think this gap is important to point out because it indicates the audience, and therefore the priorities of that audience, that writing centers typically cater to. The hierarchy that places the depth of ideas above mechanics should not be taken as universal; it simply is the case that most non-ESL students who attend the writing center don’t have trouble communicating their ideas relatively effectively even if there are grammatical mistakes, so it makes sense to focus more on improving what the paper is actually saying. But many of these readings have spoken about a writing center “philosophy” that universalizes this hierarchy; this philosophy in fact rigidly centers the writing center around proficient English speakers and therefore dismisses the needs of ESL students as secondary.

At the end of the day, the classroom itself is where ideas should be developed and interrogated. The primary job of the writing center is to help students with writing, and though that may mean helping students with ideas (since, after all, what is writing if not the communication of ideas?), as far as I know there really is no other place that students can go if they need help with mechanical problems. Additionally, I am suspicious of objections by writing centers to heed to grammatical errors in student writing, especially concerning ESL students, because to me such objections appear to be grounded in an elitist conception of writing—”we’re too good for grammar”—where it is assumed that students are proficient enough in Standard Written English that it does not make sense for them to prioritize instruction in mechanics. It is important for writing centers to be equipped with the tools needed to aid all students of different abilities and backgrounds, which means undoing the universalization of writing center philosophies of prioritization.

What really constitutes “domination” in a tutoring session?

“Instead of having her decide what to work on, I used my authority as a tutor to choose what we worked on,” Mara Brecht writes (305). According to her, this was a mistake that “left Kathy out of the process” (305) and simply imposed her own dominant ways of thinking. I found it interesting that, despite this self-critique, there was not a solution offered. The way it is written, the implied conclusion seems to be that, rather than deciding themselves, tutors should ask their students what they would like to work on.

But that solution would pose a problem as well. After all, Brecht did not reach the conclusion that she focused incorrectly on punctuation and capitalization because of something that Kathy said; she did so after witnessing Kathy’s progress, noticing that there were more pressing issues that hadn’t yet been addressed, and self-reflecting about how she picked capitalization and punctuation because it was easier than other issues that would have been more challenging to address. Furthermore, Brecht writes herself that she asked Kathy what she wanted to work on, and did not receive an answer. Kathy may not have known what needed improvement in her writing, so it wouldn’t have necessarily made sense for the direction of the session to have come from her.

In my view, Brecht deciding what elements of writing Kathy should work on is not “domination” (or, for the sake of avoiding being challenged over semantics, if it is “domination” then domination is itself not the problem). At the end of the day even if Kathy were forced to make a decision about what to work on, she would have had to consult information external to her that she had previously encountered about what is most important about writing (and as we all know, nine times out of ten someone in Kathy’s position will have said “grammar”), and as such the idea of an authentic, student-led direction is a mere illusion.

What in my opinion is important insofar as how the power dynamic between tutor and student is shaped is the input of purpose from the student. For some students the purpose may be to get a good grade, and as such the tutor’s job is to examine the teacher’s criteria and give the student suggestions in order to meet the teacher’s expectations. For other students it may be to become a more versatile writer, for example to be able to write in an unfamiliar field. Some students may decide that their purpose is to fit better into academic discourses by developing their ideas and shifting their use of language. Some students (like myself when I decided to take this class) may just wish to “become better writers”, in other words to be able to better communicate their ideas in different contexts. After determining the student’s purpose, however, the tutor will generally have a much better idea of what the student should do to improve their writing for the sake of that purpose.

“I realize more and more that there is no neutral zone,” Mara Brecht writes (306). There is no neutrality and if the tutor wants to help the student as much as possible then they shouldn’t be weary of taking authority in some respects, but should also give authority to the student when it comes to determining the purpose of the session.

My experiences with a “non-hierarchical” study group

When I was first exposed to activist culture at Pomona College, I quickly jumped on the “non-hierarchical” bandwagon. I mean it seemed like a good idea. Power dynamics quite clearly exist in virtually every space, and we can see ways in which they cause serious problems and prevent many from participating. But trying to abolish power dynamics—trying to create a non-hierarchical space—proved more difficult than I imagined. For example, I “took part” in an independent study class where we resolved to basically decide on every single thing by consensus, from what we would read to how every single moment of every single class would be organized. I put “took part” in quotation marks because that’s the language I would have used back then; the reality was that I was leading it and had a lot more influence in what we did than any other person in the group. But we all pretended to be non-hierarchical, and eventually other students started to get angry that I was exerting far more influence on the group than anyone else.

Within the framework we had set up, that anger was very justified. We were claiming to be non hierarchical—perhaps as “little more than a rationalization of the frightened”, as Peter Carino puts it—while I was calling meetings, suggesting most readings, coming up with most discussion questions and leading most class sessions. My defense at the time was that, were I not to do those things, no one else would; and in fact the several times that I tried to just let it be and see if others would take initiative, nothing happened and things fell apart, so I couldn’t justify inaction on my end. But at the same time, some students weren’t feeling adequately heard in the group, and as a result were losing motivation.

What I realized later was that the main problem we faced was not hierarchy in and of itself but rather a confusion and beating around the bush when discussing the roles and structures within our group. A good piece I have since read called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo Freeman argues that there is no such thing as a lack of structure but that instead, there is “good structure” and “bad structure”. When we pretend that structure doesn’t exist, we merely adopt a de facto structure that is not likely to be ideal. The structure that we had for that independent study, which included having no real facilitator for most class sessions, didn’t work very well because it actually resulted in only those who were most comfortable with the subject matter contributing ideas. Furthermore everyone had to think about everything from the readings to logistical questions and it was too overwhelming and inefficient.

In contrast, this semester I am leading an independent study where another student and I are very clearly the organizers of the class and where every class is facilitated by one person but in a way that encourages good group discussion and participation. The roles are clear and the structure is suited to the objectives of the group, and as a result, we have had a far more effective class that everyone has been enthusiastic about throughout the entire semester.

I’ve plagiarized and I’m proud of it

At one point in my senior year of high school, I was tasked with creating a presentation for my English class on “the American Dream.” At that point, my grades didn’t matter to me, since they had already been submitted for college applications. But what did matter to me was politics. I had become increasingly frustrated with contradictions in my classroom: I had become more and more aware of how us students were being inculcated with curricula through a consistently reactionary lens while it was all being passed off as objective “facts”. I was especially angry with my English teacher who had unabashedly docked off a grade on my previous project because I used a “Marxist analysis.” As such, my one and only goal was to challenge the historical narratives that we had been taught so far in the classroom and to present an alternative outlook.

It was quite a big task that I was preparing to undertake. Unlike previous projects, this wasn’t something we were just turning into the teacher. For 15 minutes (it ended up being 20) the floor was mine. It was my chance—and since I was graduating soon, my very last chance—to influence the minds of my fellow high school students who so far had experienced little other than bourgeois propaganda. So I tried to think about what had inspired me, and I remembered a lecture I had watched on YouTube by Marxian economist Richard Wolf that attempted to provide a Marxist economic analysis of the history of the U.S. It was close enough that I could give it a little spin to relate it to the American Dream.

So what did I do? Did I use the video as inspiration and just “put it in my own words?” I thought of doing that. But what good would that have been? Anyone can paraphrase: look up some words in a thesaurus, maybe rearrange a few things, change active voice to passive voice or vice versa… in fact we were taught how to paraphrase in school, and when we did so it wasn’t considered plagiarism. But all the ideas would have been the same. The only difference would have been that—considering Richard Wolf was far more articulate, engaging and convincing than I would have been if I’d have tried to write the same speech—people would have yawned a few more times and possibly walked away less convinced. So yes, I listened to the video and literally transcribed the entire thing word for word, and then created a PowerPoint based off of it and passed it off as my own. And I don’t regret doing that. Despite that fact that I was literally presenting the work of a respected professor, I still didn’t even get an A, which only reinforced my case for an ethical entitlement to plagiarism.

Do I still “plagiarize” in college? Yes and no. I’ve never plagiarized for a paper because I think it defeats the purpose of the exercise, which is to practice writing and formulating ideas on our own (well, sort of on our own—that doesn’t really exist). But even just this last week, I literally borrowed an entire PowerPoint from someone else for a class session that I was facilitating. The only difference was that I explicitly said at the beginning that it wasn’t my PowerPoint. And it was totally fine, because we were all there to learn—not to praise me for being an intellectual dipshit—and the PowerPoint was made by someone who has far more experience on the subject than I do.

The fact is that our understanding of “plagiarism” is rooted in the concept of intellectual property, which is rooted in the concept of private property, which is rooted in capitalism. Just consider folk songs or old adages and it becomes pretty clear that the notion of intellectual property isn’t a trans historical concept. It didn’t always exist and it doesn’t have to exist in the future. Because at the end of the day, who are we kidding to think that we come up with ideas completely on our own? Ideas are themselves products of experiences and material realities. And considering how ideas also have the capacity to guide us and help us alter the material world for the better, ideas should be “owned” collectively by and for the people. I am confident that there will be a day when “plagiarism”, both as a word and as a concept, will become a mere vestige of the past.

The role of the student in this exchange is to be open to an instructor’s comments, reading and hearing their responses not as personal attacks or as isolated moments in a college writing career but, rather, as instructive and portable words to take with them to the next assignment, across the drafts.
Nancy Sommers

 

A lot of the time, even while we value and anticipate feedback, somewhere deeper we are crossing our fingers to be told that our paper was exceptional and flawless. But when that actually does happen, we gain little out of the experience.

I once wrote the exact same paper for two different classes and received very different feedback for each: the first professor told me that it was a fantastic paper and filled my margins with check marks, while the second wrote that, though my ideas were interesting, I had not really engaged with the texts that we had read in the class. Upon reading both of the responses, I instinctively thought that the second professor just hadn’t gotten the point of my paper, and that her feedback was based on a formulaic assessment that required “engaging with the texts” whereas my paper was the presentation of an original idea that was inspired by and related to the texts, even if they had not been explicitly referred to. Consequently, I took a similar risk with future papers where I would make a “new” argument or draw a theoretical abstraction without making it clear how it necessarily related to the texts of the class. I eventually realized that these were always my worst papers, as whenever I wrote them, I consistently received feedback that encouraged me to engage more with the texts of the class.

In some ways, one could say that the overly encouraging professor had pushed me in the wrong direction by encouraging me. Because he told me my paper was excellent, I ignored the other professor’s feedback, and continued to ignore similar feedback for future papers. But professors will never be perfect in their feedback: some may even be skimming through quickly, just trying to get the job over with so that they can get to other more meaningful things in their life. As such, I would consider my own role and the mindset towards feedback that I held at the time to have been even more important in determining the progress of my papers in the future.

What was my mindset? Broadly speaking, there are two different approaches to criticism, although they more accurately represent two extreme ends of a spectrum. One approach is to take criticism personally: to either become immediately defensive and respond as if our very integrity as a human being has been questioned, or to absorb the criticism as a justification for self-deprecating thoughts of worthlessness and unequivocal failure. The other method is to do our best to gain the most out of the criticism: to separate out the constructive aspects and determine if they hold within them the seeds to a new way forward and, if not, to determine that new way forward ourselves.

Had I used the second approach, I would have investigated more deeply why it was that my professor had offered her critique of my paper. I would have put myself in the shoes of my professor who may have been confused about why I was making my argument, where it was situated amidst other arguments, and how it was related to other texts that we read for the class. More generally I could have learned what I did not fully understand until reading They Say/I say: that an idea does not exist in a vacuum, and the discourse in which it is situated is just as important as the idea itself.

Of course, it is obvious that as a person receiving feedback, we should take criticism as constructively as possible. But on the flipsideas a tutor, a professor, or a student giving another student feedbackwe could all benefit from taking this into mind as well. When we give feedback, we can anticipate a student’s defensive or overly self-deprecating reaction, and create an atmosphere to combat it. We can do this first and foremost by being friendly, by using meta-commentary to ease the student and make it clear what exactly we are critiquing and why, and even by talking about the importance of criticism in their development as a writer. For example, my music theory teacher recently told our class that one of the greatest obstacles that we students face in improving our compositions is when we take criticism personally. The class was set up as a workshop where we would each take turns playing the first part of a “Theme and Variations” that we were working on, and then proceed to give each other feedback. Because of her introduction that stressed the importance of criticism, everyone was far more willing to give critical feedback than I had expected, and no one took the criticisms personally. As such, I find that a simple discussion of the role of criticism and self-criticism can play an instrumental role in the feedback process.

Writing to Yourself

Have you ever written something that you absolutely knew that no one else would read? Perhaps you scribbled it by hand in a font so illegible that not even the most adept linguist could decipher it, or you locked it away in a safe under your bed and buried its key under the ocean. Or, it could be that you didn’t bring it upon yourself to go through all that trouble, because no one other than you could be bothered to read it anyway.

Who was your audience, then? Yourself? You were just writing to yourself? For what purpose? Why would you write something that you knew no one other than you would read?

You’re not sure?

Well, hold on, why do you write something at all, when you are expecting someone else to read it? You would like to communicate something to them? You would like to convince them of a point, or to evoke their sympathy to an issue that you have brought to light? You’d like to impress them, mesmerize them, bewitch them until they find their way into your home and embrace you like a long lost friend? You’re hoping that one day someone will fall in love with your words, perhaps even fall in love with you, and tell you that you are perfect?

But why? You and your reader alike must be aware that your connection is only transient. I am confident that with every word you write, you are considering its ephemeral nature, that one day on the horizon every word you have written will be forgotten for eternity… am I wrong? But you still write, don’t you?

You do not write merely to communicate an idea. You write because without your words you would be even more lost amid the seas in which you are already drowning. You write to impress the earth with your words, like a signature in wet cement. You write because you are waiting…

But what if that person is you? What if you are waiting for you, waiting for the day that you can read your own words like a majestic lion gazing at her reflection in the water, getting closer and closer to realizing your solipsistic condition? What if you are writing because you are not even so sure yourself about who you are?

Who are you, anyway? It is true, yes, that you are you. But what about to me, as I read my own piece? You is me. You are me.

And yet, how could it be that you and I are so far apart?

Confronting the Marketplace of Ideas

Today’s readings have challenged the notion that authority should be a result of one’s familiarity with “standard” english, but what hasn’t been adequately confronted is the transcendence of rhetoric, of one’s ability to present and defend an argument in conversation with others. What about the content of the argument itself? Especially in the context of a discussion about academic “authority”, it can be easy for us to relegate the actual purpose of any act of writing to our subconscious, and to simply discuss the strategies for making our writing more effective in accomplishing that predetermined purpose.

I must say that I was shocked when I read the passage in chapter 6 of They Say / I say that reasoned: “you need to do your best to make sure that any counterarguments you address are not more convincing than your own claims. It is good to address objections in your writing, but only if you are able to overcome them.” To be fair to Birkenstein and Graff, they later assert that it is a good idea to revise one’s argument entirely if there is a counterargument that could tear one’s thesis apart. But these two statements cannot coexist: either we should intentionally omit counterarguments that we can’t address, or include them such that we actually need to revise our argument as a whole.

Even if Birkenstein and Graff give more weight to their second statement than to the first one, the line of reasoning of their first statement is common enough that it is worth addressing. Ultimately, it stems from not only a capitalist conception of knowledge, but a capitalist reality: one where we are not producing knowledge for collective benefit but rather for individual gain. Gaipa’s reference to a “marketplace of ideas” isn’t so figurative after all. If ideas were produced for collective benefit, we would, without fail, include objections that we can’t overcome—because we would know that there is a good chance that our argument is actually wrong. Our argument may also be spot on, and we just haven’t quite figured out how to overcome that one lingering objection even though there exists, in reality, a good response to it. The point is that, until that objection is overcome, our argument has a weak spot, and it is in everyone’s collective interest for that weak spot to be exposed if our goal is actually to reach closer and closer to understanding the truth. Because even if we don’t have an answer, someone else might.