Hubris is dangerous in the classroom.  The student that believes nothing can be learned that isn’t already known catches nothing.  The instructor that believes in an all-knowing prescience guarantees nothing worthwhile is cast for the capturing.  That battle between student and teacher can dangerously become a war between good and evil — and that fight leaves no winners on the field of learning.


It is incredibly hard to improve student writing without destroying the spark of inspiration that ignites one to place pen against paper or to press fingertips into keyboards.  We can require writing by rote, but we cannot force passion by routine.

Teaching writing can quickly become only about creating a false allegiance to a stodgy set of rules — that’s the “Superman Syndrome” and it happens when instructors believe they can save the world from bad writing by crushing a student’s criminal grammar instead of lifting the overall writing — and that adherence to grammar at all costs can, in many cases, discourage the student from the delight of a sifting thought process.

Are all students required to meet a standard set of writing rules?  Or are regional, spoken, dialects and habits fine to use on the page — even in formal, scholarly, writing?

Grammar is important, but structuring a sentence that also makes sense to at least one other person can be an effective way for learning how to stretch communication beyond the inner mind. 

If we do not allow students to test what they know against a rigid expectation, then they will never learn how to be malleable or creative.  We also tend to lose those on the lower end of experience by requiring a hard line for the toeing.  Those students quickly get lost in the weeds of belonging by trying to write to a communal standard they cannot meet.

Not every teaching method works for every student, and that’s why really good teachers are hard to find because those who are hired to know need to find a way to connect with each student and not just place an overlay of a theory across an entire classroom.

Defining, and then achieving, a standard of competence is important.  We need to be able to recognize ordered thoughts in each other and the clearest way to do that is through words.

We share definitions.  We recognize the methodical placement of verbs and nouns.  We become understanding of each other in the way we construct our sentences. 

We discover cogency through the rules of learning — yet I still wonder if there’s a danger in imposing social grammar rules on those who may be incapable of mastering them.

How do we handle the grammar-challenged — or even the functionally illiterate?  Do we blame them for their station?  Do we continue to forever teach them even if they are, through no genetic fault of their own, hopelessly unteachable?

Is intelligence found in perfect grammar or in the ingenious invention against expectation?

10 Comments

  1. My point, Anne, is that we certainly need to have standards for national coherence but how we get there is the key. Do we punish or do we celebrate students that need extra help in learning how to effectively write? As it stands now in many college and university writing programs, you either sink or swim and that, in my experience, leads to giving up on some students while other students drop out because they do not write “proper” English and never will. We can’t abandon those students. We need to find a way to remedially honor what they know and then help them to know more. Sometimes that might mean a more flexible standard for advancement.

  2. Well.. that was certainly a refreshing article.. which, I feel begs the question, “how valid do we feel as a people based on our ability to express properly? Do our attempts to standardize language and mold us in such a manner make us better interpreters of our own right? Or is it simply how we are able to interpret one another between the lines that is the key to our intellectual evolution?”

  3. I get that but if we have all kinds of standards we lose standard competency. Some students aren’t cut out to write. They fail as they should. The system did not work out right. They find something else to do.

  4. ks —
    It’s difficult to define the difference between what is appropriate expression and what is necessary communication. Some people feel great writing in text speak …
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2008/03/14/contextual-texting-ou812-prolly-153-2mr-4eva/
    … while others demand proper and perfect English at all times. Finding the zone of compromise is what universities and colleges try to create in basic writing courses and it’s a tough haul.
    Sometimes I think we’d better understand each other if we just drew pictures instead of relying on words that can be twisted and bent to serve personal purposes.
    I think we get into dangerous territory when we begin to rely on coded language that is required to be read between the lines in order to be fully understood. There’s a trick being played on people who may not culturally have the right tools to decipher the hidden meaning. I realize that’s the reason for the embedded message, but reading between the lines can be especially tricky unless you are an intimate of the author or the topic at hand.

  5. I understand your hard line on this Anne, and I have tended to agree with you on this matter in the past. As I reflect back on my freshman writing teaching history, it is a sad thing to remember some promising students that didn’t make it or were not appropriately encouraged to find a different way. Many of those students were lost to the system and, I fear, lost to the rest of us as rightfully excellent members of society.
    Sometimes the requirements for success are unfairly weighted to help one culture over another — much like some believe IQ tests are structured to culturally reward those in power that write the actual exams and to punish the minority power by keeping them out of higher societal levels of belonging…
    http://books.google.com/books?id=t9OdPPLIgMAC&pg=PA256&lpg=PA256&dq=iq+tests+discrimination&source=web&ots=LlrWCU460s&sig=qKF9fsVOStqu3YOYf9poOI7Fz2c&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=12&ct=result
    … when students are required to pass proficiency exams based on a common standard and fail, that causes me great concern because it presses the uncomfortable question” “Is the student failing the exam or is the institution failing the student?”
    I realize we need a base for understanding each other, but that base is ever-changing and non-standard beyond bound schools in a state system or affiliated private schools like Jesuit teaching.
    One college’s standard for writing can be much different from another university’s standard. Is that appropriate? Should an Ivy League English course be considered tougher than a similar course at a Community College? If so, why?
    Are Ivy League students thought to be “smarter” by default or by expectation when compared to a Community College student?

  6. I think of it as a sort of game: the first game most any child receives, which involves square bits and circular bits. Maybe the problem is that the problem students are circular holes that we are trying to teach using square pegs and we have to realize that and, on the side, use peg after peg with students until we hit the pegpot. So to speak.

  7. That’s a great insight, Gordon, and I think you’re on to something. Our cultures form our aesthetic and the values of our learning style. Let’s throw out the “no good lazy people” from this discussion because they are naturally incorrigible and uninterested in learning and we’ll focus on the eager student that wants to do well but is unable to find a pathway into the system to find success.
    The easy road with those students is to just dismiss them — give them an impossible task to meet and when they are unable to achieve that standard, you let them die on the vine. I’m not advocating moving students along just to keep their revenue stream alive for the institution. I’m talking about finding a way for the “different learner” to find the way into comprehending memes and values that they may not have ever been exposed to before in their world. There are all sorts of genius in the world, but we only wholly recognize a very few niches.
    By the time these students hit the college level they are usually well adjusted to expectation, but there is that rare student, bang-smart, but ill-equipped to manage their current demanding course study because they’ve been waived along and enabled without really pressing to the test. Then, when it’s their chance to shine — and they fail — they experience a system shock that can kill their entire intellectual life because they are forced to deal with the reality that they’ve been lied to before and that they’re not as smart or as talented as they were lead to believe and that is the recipe for a total psychic meltdown.

  8. Hi David,
    It’s probably never too late to learn grammar. and those who find that their quality of writing suffers for lack of an adequate grasp of grammar can correct themselves if they want. but often the quality of the ideas and thoughts expressed is more important.
    unless, one is in a writing course, in which case it’s also the perfect place to overcome these problems.

  9. That’s right, Dananjay. The rules are important, but sometimes the order shouldn’t overrule the validity of the expressed original idea. Some students are never really able to fully overcome their grammar challenges — usually, because, in their culture, they live by different communication structure rules — and it is hard for them to code switch between Proper Written English and Learned Spoken Conversation. Sometimes the home culture wins out because that’s where the matter of living and dying is decided.