More Than One Path

The debate about grammar in the field of composition is old, and it feels older every time I see a new entry. Stanley Fish’s latest NYT column is yet another public broadside, and yet the battle (accepting, for the nonce, that only two sides exist) always reminds me of the Merrimack and the Monitor, blasting away at each other to no real effect because they’re both too well armored.

Let me oversimplify the two sides (again, bear with me for a moment) to set the comic stage. The pro-grammar position holds teaching grammar (or “forms,” as Fish puts it, making a flanking movement into argument via progymnasmata-style imitation) is valuable and essential. Adherents look at the infamous NCTE statement on language (among many NCTE has made) as dangerous naiveté that ignores the more pressing danger of not learning, and compromising with, the dominant forms of English. They point out (Kolln, Mulroy, etc) that the countless empirical studies that find grammar is useless or even detrimental to teaching writing are either too short-term (they really should start around grade 4 and go to the college years, see Mulroy) or have other methodological flaws.

The anti-grammar (who is anti-grammar, really?), orthodox, party-line, contemporary, or relativist position has several angles to it. The first is that the empirical studies are enough evidence that teachers of writing have better things to do than grammar drills; namely, they need to be teaching reading, writing a thesis, summarizing, doing research, etc. There is an element of desperate triage to many of the arguments, as if the teacher was a medic in a field strewn with bleeding, screaming near-corpses; those with non-critical wounds (grammar and usage problems) must grit their teeth as their fellow soldiers, numb to argumentation, are on the verge of bleeding to death first. The second angle to the anti-grammar position is power. If we teach students the dominant standards, all we’re doing is reinforcing the standards – in fact, even if we point out what is an arbitrary standard and what isn’t, by noting one is dominant, we play into the hands of the elite because students will note the imbalance and conform to the standard rather than subverting it. The third angle is a disciplinary push against current-traditionalism, assuming that what was done in the past is, by necessity of age and the necessity of instruction always improving, bad.

I have suspected for awhile that the arguments on both “sides” of this question are more convenient than correct, by using the commonplace that teachers teach like they have been taught. Namely, I suspect that the pro-grammar folks hold their position(s) chiefly because they were taught grammatical forms early in their educational career; they then assume (or suspect) that their current writing skill (far higher than average) is due to this early, rigorous instruction. Alternatively, they did not have this instruction, and became strong writers later in life, and wish they had it to begin with. Furthermore, the anti-grammar folks hold their position(s) due to having achieved a high level of writing skill without such instruction, or even in spite of it, if they had it and disliked it intensely. Theoretical arguments are then piled on top of these two lore-centered, subjective epistemologies.

The elephant in the Burkean parlour is that no one knows with a reasonable degree of certainty whether or not early instruction in grammatical forms leads to great writing skill later in life. There is only lore. There are four-year studies, but none that stretch from, say, age 8 to 20, that I know of. It is incredible we don’t know this as a discipline, and at the same time, it’s not surprising. The writing study at Stanford has gotten some worthy coverage lately, but it largely only looks at Stanford students (which are NOT typical college students), it doesn’t dig into their HS and elementary education, and it’s not concerned with this question anyway.

There is also a second, smaller, but probably more important elephant; no one knows (as Fish points out in his article) if a rhetorical approach to grammar in college pays off in the long run. Really all the evidence we have is Mulroy’s admonition that the ancients thought a rhetoric and grammar-based education was good enough to keep around for hundreds of years, like other worthy, empirically tested goodies like slavery, oppression of women, dictatorships, and religious-based warfare. That’s not to say imitation and attention to forms is not a good idea; I use assignments not dissimilar to Fish’s in my classes, and I do so without theoretical shame. Like most teachers, I try different things consistently to see if they work. If the students are engaged and appear to be learning (which is always a hard thing to measure, even with constant assessment), then I keep it in the toolbox.

But here’s another shy elephant – there just might be multiple paths to a high level of writing skill. In fact, my musings here presuppose such a situation. It just might be possible for a student to become a powerful, rhetorically viable writer without explicit instruction in forms and grammar – and with it. It’s a truism now that people learn in different ways and having come from different backgrounds. For myself, I believe most of my writing skill comes from two sources – countless late-night online roleplaying sessions in my early twenties, where typing speed and spur-of-the-moment creativity were de rigueur, and draconian grammar teachers by the 6th grade. Those are two completely different writing environments. Of course, my experiences may be clouding my judgment here; if I did not have such a strange hybrid educational experience, then I might not be postulating multiple paths to writing success. But I have gotten to the point where I am very suspicious when someone tells me they know how to teach writing, as if there is only one method, everyone else is misguided, and all students are the same. The spirit of the NCTE statement has a ‘teacher, learn from your students’ aspect to it, to which the pro-grammar forces (and Fish) can be tone-deaf.

My students come from such interesting and diverse backgrounds by the time they reach my classes, and while it would be nice, even comforting, to know that they all passed under the stern gaze of nuns hunting down comma splices (note again Fish’s admiration of Catholic schools), they haven’t. So I share Fish’s imperative to accept the challenge of dealing with a possibly inadequate secondary education; behind this lies the reason for the rhetoric & composition discipline, after all. Note that accepting this imperative requires – demands, even – recognizing different paths to learning.

But the question remains – what do we do? That there is a curious lack of agreement on this, still, after 40 years of conferences, books, and journal articles since the heyday of composition in the ‘60s, is peculiar. And I do not talk about agreement within the discipline, as there is a weak party line of sorts; I’m talking about a consensus outside the discipline of rhetcomp–in the English field, in academia, and in the general public. The biggest, most pressing task facing rhetcomp is to convince others that we know what we’re talking about, and the biggest reason that this has not happened, I think, is not from a lack of rhetorical skill, a lack of sound arguments, or even a lack of public intellectuals like Fish.

It’s that the product we (or some of us, rather) are selling – a complicated mixture of relativism, linguistics, academic politics and labor issues, freshmen still struggling as writers after two or three semesters of writing instruction – just isn’t that hot a property. Rhetcomp is not a solution, but a set of problems, and our audience wants a solution. That’s why many rhetcomp folks, I think, retreat to theoretical rhetoric because philosophy (which is, cough, theoretical rhetoric) isn’t as intimately connected with the practical, day-to-day aspects of teaching writing.  We need to redesign the product before we design the ad campaign. This will involve a fair amount of deception, of course, as I see no path where rhetcomp will be a solution, unless we all decide collectively to adopt Genung’s 1887 The Practical Elements of Rhetoric as the nationwide undergraduate textbook. Right now, culturally, a fair amount of America can’t handle the educational questions rhetcomp asks, as they already possess perfectly acceptable answers;  grammar is good, grammar is bad.

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