Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Basic Writer's Perspective

I found the chapters “Syntax” and “Common Errors” from Mina Shaughnessy’s Error and Expectations to be perhaps the most enlightening reading assingment yet this semester. Although I’ve been teaching writing in a variety of contexts in high school classes for five years now, I got a bit of a wake up call when I visited with a student from English 100 a few weeks ago. When I sat down for the tutoring session and began to look over his paper, I suddenly realized how inadequate my approach to basic writing has been. Sure, I could have shredded his paper like some kind of grammar ninja, but the truth was that 1) There were problems that went way beyond grammar and punctuation 2) I had no idea how to decode the complex system of errors he was making. Heck, at the time I didn’t even have a name for half of them. In other words, I didn’t really know what to do to help him because I couldn’t see beyond the chaos of errors. The result was a sort of generic session where I gave him tips that would help pretty much any young writer, but didn’t necessarily get to the heart of his problems.

These chapters presented me for the first time with a detailed look inside the mind of the basic writer. Shaughnessy not only details the types of errors that basic writers tend to make, she explains why they make them as well. On the one hand, it was all sort of overwhelming: that means not only teaching students the standard rules, but also disassembling the personal logic behind their nonstandard forms. On the other hand, it was reassuring because it showed a method behind the madness.

While Shaughnessy maintains that basic writers can be taught the rules to the system we call Standard English, she also does a good job of keeping teachers’ overall goals in perspective. Our goal is not necessarily to produce writers that write perfectly, but to “help students reduce their errors to a level that is tolerable to their readers” (128). Shaughnessy points out that “…many of their problems with written English are obviously linked to the accidents of transcription in an unfamiliar medium, others seem to be rooted in real differences between spoken and written sentences…” (51). So if it is “their inexperience with writing rather than with the language itself” that leads to many of the errors, naturally a lot of practice is going to be in order—so much so that the “new” standard system becomes an unconscious part of the writing process (90). She argues that “…composing requires the writer to forget about the details that a proofreader must scrutinize” (128). Therefore, not only must the new system be learned, but also it must eventually become so engrained that they are no longer inhibited by their “code-consciousness” as they write (45). This can probably not be accomplished in a single semester—definitely not in one afternoon tutoring session—but Shaughnessy seems to imply that it is the long-term goal that each basic writer should be working toward.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations. Oxford University Press: New York, 1977.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

The Refrain of the Basic Writer: "I lose again."

In this entry, I wanted to revisit Bartholomae’s handing of what he has called the “Fuck You” paper (I’ve bothered to type it below in yellow) and comment further on his assertion that in places it resembles something from Whitman or Ginsburg (173).

I suggested during the discussion in our English 621 class at Missouri State that I thought the paper, while obviously rejecting standard conventions for a beginning writing course, effectively and poetically conveyed the deep-rooted frustration of the basic writer in a situation where the teacher intended to merely enforce the status quo. Bartholomae clearly states his intentions: “I knew from the first week I was going to fail them; in fact, I knew that I was going to preside over a curriculum that would spend 14 weeks slowly and inevitably demonstrating their failures. This is what I (and my school) were prepared (by “English) to do” (172). The piece seems to recognize this--or more likely a larger trend--and responds in a way that indeed catches Bartholomae's attention. (In addition, the piece seems to reflect a fair understanding of Sartre, so far as I understand his work myself, which is admittedly not that well.)

I also went so far as to suggest that one approach that may have been successful (at least as successful as putting it away in a file folder for 18 years without comment as Bartholomae did) would have been to present Pierce’s work for class discussion. (This drew a number of eye-rolls, gasps, and even a few half-stifled guffaws from some of my classmates—a hodgepodge of aspiring writers and teachers.) I further justified this strategy by pointing out that, while it would definitely be necessary to discuss the way in which the piece fails to meet the conventions of an essay and the expectations for such a class, the piece did poignantly respond to the assignment.

By failing to discuss the issue face to face with his student or at least validating his frustration with a few written notes on form, he ignores a young man who has likely had teachers looking the other way his entire academic life. As I said before, this reads as a farewell letter to the life of academia, yet he doesn’t even get the dignity of a reply. Likely, the young writer could have predicted his response (or lack thereof). Perhaps bringing this piece to the attention of the entire class would be unnecessary— even counterproductive if the praise didn’t come across as sincere or if the criticism came across as too harsh*—but one has to admit that the potential for a lively and frank discussion about the writing process is there—not to mention what is suggested about Sartre.

Furthermore—I’m preparing myself for the eye-rolling this time—I would argue that, while it clearly doesn’t surpass Whitman and Ginsburg at their best, it is at least as good as they are at their worst. (It certainly lacks the pretension that can pervade Whitman and stops far short of Ginsburg’s pedophiliac doggerel.) I’m not saying that it belongs in the Norton Anthology of Literature, but I am saying that, if—as Bartholomae seems to suggest—we view basic writers as a subculture created and kept down by the system, Quentin Pierce might have been their Langston Hughes. (To be fair, I should probably note that much of what "works" for me about QP's piece may very well have been unintentional--accident, rather than intent.)

As someone pointed out, there is also the possibility that if you did not make your expectations very clear, sharing the work could encourage others to emulate its style--vulgarity and all.

The following is Quentin Pierce’s response to the prompt "If existence precedes essence, what is man?" I apologize for any inadvertent corrections or other typing errors.

If existence precedes essence main is responsible for what he is.

This is what stinger is trying to explain to us that man is a bastard without conscience I don’t believe in good or evil they or meanless words or phase. Survive is the words for today and survive is the essence of man.

To elaborate on the subject matter. The principle of existentialism is logic, but stupid in it self.

[Then there is a string of scratched out sentences, and the words “STOP” and “LOSE” written in caps. Then there is this:]

Let go back to survive, to survive it is necessary to kill or be kill, this what existentialism is all about.

Man will not surivive, he is a asshole.


The stories in the books or meanless stories and I will not elaborate on them This paper is meanless, just like the book, But, I know the paper will not make it.


[Then there are crossed out sentences. At the end, in what now begins to look like a page from Leaves of Grass or Howl, there is this:]

I don’t care.

I don’t care.

about man and good and evil I don’t care about this shit fuck this shit, trash and should be put I the trash can with this shit

Thank you very much

I lose again.

(Qtd. In Bartholomae 172)

"[Grammar] is not defined by the number of its victims, but by the way it kills them.**
-Jean-Paul Sartre

**It may be of interest to some existentialist scholars that the original quote actually reads "Fascism is not defined by the number of its victims, but by the way it kills them." BTW, doesn't Sartre himself look a little confused in that picture? Either that or something smells funny.

Also, things Sartre really did say:
"A lost battle is a battle one thinks one has lost. "
"Words are loaded pistols."

As an afterthought, I’m half tempted to present this to my high school classes for their reactions, but the vulgarity (and their predisposition to despise poetry almost indiscriminately) makes me weary. I’ll let you know if I decide to carry through.

Bartholomae, David. “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001.

(Added Sat., Feb. 10): Check out this post at Syrup of Wahoo for further discussion.