Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Lu: "Don't Throw Out Shaughnessy with the Bathwater!"

In her article “Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A Critique of the Politics of Linguistic Innocence,” Min-Zhan Lu sets out “to critique an essentialist assumption about language that is dominant in the teaching of basic writing,” specifically that “the essence of meaning precedes and is independent of language, which serves merely as a vehicle to communicate that essence” (57). Her approach is clever enough, if not entirely fair, claiming that: “According to [the aforementioned] assumption, differences in discourse conventions have no effect on the essential meaning communicated” (57). Words and punctuation are little more than symbols used to construct meaning, so it is only logical that the influence of discourse conventions on the writer’s choice of symbols and the way in which they are combined would change the meaning somewhat. By first taking the liberty of defining the essentialist position in her own words and then presenting her argument reductio ad absurdum, she presents the essentialist viewpoint as not merely inferior, but illogical.

She also spends a considerable amount of time discussing Mina Shaughnessy, playing a bit of tug o’ war with her legacy, wanting neither to condone Shaughnessy’s adherence to the essentialist view that language can be taught independent of meaning and politics, nor surrendering the legacy into the hands of Hirsh and his cronies.

Lu’s approach to Shaughnessy is revisionist, and she is ultimately interested in claiming her rightful portion of Shaughnessy’s legacy on her own terms. She seems to assert that Shaughnessy’s adherence to the essentialists assumptions were not fully conscious or entirely purposeful, stating: “If…some of [Shaughnessy’s] own pedagogical advice indicates that an essentialist view of language could impede rather than enhance one’ effort to fulfill these tasks, then the only way we can fully benefit from the legacy of Shaughnessy is to take the essentialist view of language itself task” (58).* And that’s just what Lu is attempting to do here. She is salvaging what she finds useful from Shaughnessy’s pedagogy, which when left in its original context, she believes “enacts a systematic denial of the political context of students’ linguistic decisions” (65). This is inexcusable to Lu who is not only interested in improving students’ writing but also wants to change “their thinking and their relationship with home an school” (63). So she spends a good deal of the article confronting, in her words, “issues that need to be addressed if we are to carry on [Shaughnessy’s] legacy: a fuller recognition of the social dimensions of students’ linguistic decisions” (66).

Overall, Lu reminds me a bit of the churches that synchronize their Bibles with their modern beliefs by literally cutting out or marking through certain passages.** Lu has the benefit of approximately four decades of additional research, yet she seems desperate to reconcile her own personal philosophy to partially outdated theory. Despite her own strides in the field of basic writing theory, Lu seems hesitant to surge ahead and forfeit her explicit communion with the ever-divine Mina Shaughnessy. However, I assume that this need to maintain this connection in order to feel validated says as much about the strength of Shaughnessy’s legacy as it does of Lu.

*Isn’t this an example of the logical fallacy of false dilemma? It is not a way or the best way, it is "the only way.”

**Disclaimer: I sincerely mean no disrespect to those congregations, nor to those who wish to view ancient religious texts as "living" documents, nor to any other religion for that matter. But I think the comparison is valid and illustrates my point about Lu quite well. Hopefully, I haven't offended anyone out there in cyberspace.

And now E.M. Forster provides the answer to that burning question:

Which came first, the meaning or the language?

"How can I know what I think till I see what I say?"
E.M. Forster

Stay tuned next week when Forster answers:
Who's the father of Anna Nicole's baby?

Lu, Min-zhan
. “Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A Critique of the Politics of Linguistic Innocence.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tips for Setting Up a H.S. Writing Center

I think I have convinced my fellow English teacher in my district to work with me to organize and set up a writing center for next year. Great, right? The only problem is we're not really sure where to begin. I thought if I posted this here some of you might have some great tips. (A particular concern is how to train tutors from among the student body and how to attract tutors. We could do the tutoring ourselves--it might be easier--but everything I've read so far suggests that this is sort of missing the whole point. What do you think?) I intend to read a few books on the subject over the summer and do a lot more digging around on the internet, but any feedback or advice in the meantime would be greatly appreciated.

Bruce Horner: Redefining and Rethinking

I thought Bruce Horner’s “Rethinking the ‘Sociality’ of Error” made some fine points about the way basic writing has been discussed in the past. I find it refreshing to read a growing number of authors who quote Shaughnessy without also breaking their arm patting her on the back—not that I don’t value Shaughnessy’s contribution, but conflict is a healthy part of discourse, I think. Horner also references Lu and a cast of others to essentially reiterate a lot of what has already been said in the readings for this semester (one of the disadvantages of being listed on the syllabus in March as opposed to January or February, I suppose). He emphasizes that just as history is written by the victors, so has the establishment of standards for language “favored the syntactic forms of dialects spoken by more powerful social groups” (172). He argues that the forms spoken by basic writers are just as valid in their own contexts, and therefore, colonial terms like “frontier” need to be replaced by terms that more accurately reflect the social situation that occurs in the basic writing classroom. Specifically, he recommends the term “borderland” be used so that the term no longer implies incivility, but the meeting or joining of two cultures for a negotiation of language. He explains that “definitions of error in writing must similarly involve what counts as an ‘error’ in some given social context” so that “the status of the form as an error depends largely on the relationship between a particular writer and a particular reader at a particular time” (174). Furthermore he points out that basic writers do not necessarily recognize their forms as errors and that an agreement on what constitutes an error must first be reached, not by “bully[ing] students into confessing the status of certain notations as errors” but “achieving” those notations as an “agreement reached between the writer and reader” (175). I think the most important point he makes about this negotiation process is that, although students may seem to have less power, power always works both ways. The teacher has the power to deny credit, but ultimately his or her job rests on his or her ability to teach, and therefore they must rely somewhat on their ability to negotiate with the students.

F.Y.I.: Other well-known Bruces: Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Willis, Bruce Lee, Bruce Banner, Bruce Almighty, Bruce Wayne, Bruce the mechanical shark, Lenny Bruce, and Robert the Bruce. Statistical analysis suggests that if all the Bruce's featured in this entry were involved in a celebrity death match style tournament--we'll call it the Battle of the Bruces--Bruce Horner would finish dead last. But his writing theory is still pretty good.

Above: Bruce Lee "negotiating" the martial arts with his students.
(I'm not sure, but I think that might be Bruce Horner on the left.)

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
-Bruce Lee

Horner, Bruce. "Rethinking the 'Sociality' of Error: Teaching Editing as Negotiation." Rhetoric Review 11:1 (1992): 172-199.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Spelling: How important is it reely?

Mina Shaughnessy, writing way back in the 20th Century before text messaging really got a foothold on our society, dedicates an entire chapter in her bible of basic writing to “Spelling,” but even today most elementary school classrooms across America still incorporate spelling into the curriculum as its own subject. So what’s the big deal? If I put e after i except after c, does it really matter? What’s the difference? Niece and neice—you can barely tell the difference. How about the email where you can read the whole thnig even thuogh the lettres are srcamlbed? In the not so distund passt minny peeple spelled wurds diffruntly and nobudy seamed to mind. Shakespeare has bene sad to sine his name morr than a dozen diffrint waz. Wasn’t it Andrew Jaxson who famously said "It's a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word"? Even Shaughnessy admits that “of all the encoding skills, spelling tends to be viewed by teachers and students alike as the most arbitrary” (161). So, aren't Shaugnessy and all these other English-teacher types just getting all uptight over nothing? I mean, who cares if Dan Quayle adds an e onto the end of the word potato as long as he doesn’t pronounce it?

THE READER—that’s who. It’s a matter of efficiency. If you stumbled even once over the spelling errors above—if it slowed you down even half a second per line—that’s unacceptable to most readers. Sure, creative spelling for text messaging is okay—extra letters take more time to enter and more money to send, so the reader agrees to do a little more work to decipher the message. And for individuals using chat rooms and instant messaging, speed is a major factor, so a system of shorthand was developed (“lol” for laughing out loud, etc.) and likewise its taken for granted that no one is taking time to run spellcheck. However, for the writer in the real world—as opposed to the world of digital conversations—the reader is typically a little harder to win over. If you’re texting a friend or emailing someone you know, the motivation to read is already there, but the author of an article or a book publishing to the public, whether in print or online, is essentially a stranger to their reader. If they don’t play by the rules, that means the payoff has to be pretty high in order to motivate the reader to keep digging and deciphering line after misspelled line. It’s true that wordprocessing has taken a lot of the guesswork out of spelling, but it is still an important skill that unfortunately many basic writer’s do not possess. Luckily for the teacher of the basic writer, this chapter outlines some very helpful strategies to help get spelling back on track a little at a time. I think there is a temptation to go, “Oh, Shaughnessy is writing from a caveman’s perspective—spelling doesn’t count anymore,” but I think that the problem is as serious as ever, particularly for the basic writer.

Just an afterthought in favor of standardized spelling: Can you imagine Googling the internet for information if spelling was not standardized? (There are actually sites and scripts for searching for misspelled entries because many collectors won’t see the auctions if the item is spelled wrong, so some people get great deals by looking through the misspellings.)

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