Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Teaching "grammar" versus teaching rhetoric

It always makes me nervous to say that I agree with Stanley Fish, but he makes some good points in his recent column on teaching composition. (Standard Fish-related disclaimer: I deeply disagree with some things he's said previously on the subject.)
“If we teach standardized, handbook grammar as if it is the only ‘correct’ form of grammar, we are teaching in cooperation with a discriminatory power system” (Patricia A. Dunn and Kenneth Lindblom, English Journal, January, 2003).

Statements like this one issue from the mistake of importing a sociological/political analysis of a craft into the teaching of it. It may be true that the standard language is an instrument of power and a device for protecting the status quo, but that very truth is a reason for teaching it to students who are being prepared for entry into the world as it now is rather than the world as it might be in some utopian imagination — all dialects equal, all habit of speech and writing equally rewarded.
Of course, Dunn and Lindblom are completely correct when it comes to imputing moral value to different sociolects. You'll get no argument from me there.

But Fish is right to point out the problem with importing the concerns of one discipline wholesale into another. That's what happens when linguists (or, on occasion, people who took one linguistics class in undergrad) make it a personal crusade to eradicate "prescriptivism" not only within their discipline, where that label is meaningful, but in the entire wide world, where it is less so. (Please note: this is not a description of all linguists by any means.)

Fish's point is related to one of my fundamental convictions about teaching writing, which is that it's not about teaching morals (good grief) or about language-as-it-exists-in-the-world (as in linguistics, where "prescriptivism" versus "descriptivism" is a meaningful matter of methodology). Rather, it's about teaching rhetoric. And rhetoric means manipulating language in all its plasticity, not observing it like a creature in the wild. That involves mastering particular stylized linguistic patterns, sometimes informally known by the name of "grammar," no Chomskian implications intended.

I also quite like the exercises Fish proposes:
I have devised a number of exercises designed to reinforce and extend the basic insight. These include (1) asking students to make a sentence out of a random list of words, and then explain what they did; (2) asking students to turn a three-word sentence like “Jane likes cake” into a 100-word sentence without losing control of the basic structure and then explain, word-by-word, clause-by-clause, what they did; (3) asking students to replace the nonsense words in the first stanza of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” with ordinary English words in a way that makes coherent (if silly) sense, and then explain what they did, and how they knew what kind of word to put into each “slot.” (The answer is that even in the absence of sense or content, the stanza’s formal structure tells them what to do and what not to do.)

Notice that the exercises always come in two parts. In the first part students are asked to do something they can do easily. In the second part they are asked to analyze their own performance. The second part is the hard one; it requires students to raise to a level of analytical conscience the operations they must perform if they are to write sentences that hang together.
"Jabberwocky," by the way, is God's gift to teaching. I used it in a History of the English Language lecture last year. I can't tell you how my heart swelled with delight when a student proposed, based on the stem vowel, that "outgrabe" was a past-tense strong verb.

Listen up, NYT! More smart discussions of humanities pedagogy, please! Maybe someday if you work at it you'll even make it to humanities research...

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