The content is not hard. It should probably embarrass me to admit just how much fun identifying all of those verbs, adverbs, nouns, and prepositions can be. I truly enjoy explaining the comma rules for subordinating and coordinating conjunctions. I love the places where grammar feels set and the places where the rules make no sense. I'm a grammar geek. It's fun!
Teaching grammar is still hard for me.
It's hard because I don't know how to feel about it.
My students, for the most part, know exactly how to feel about it. It is to be feared and revered. I ask early in the semester what they want to improve about their writing. They are quick to list off their past grammatical transgressions like sins in the confessional: "subject-verb agreement," "tense shifts," "comma splices." They know the words, and the know that they've erred, but no matter how many worksheets full of sentences I give them, no matter how many comma rules I go over, no matter how many interactive grammar games I devise, that knowledge doesn't translate into clearer grammatical writing.
So, for a while, I throw grammar aside. I teach the higher order concerns. I talk about organization and introductions, transitions and thesis statements, conclusions and avoiding wordiness. Sometimes, my students get frustrated. Why can't I just teach them where to put the commas?
I tell them they're worrying about hanging up curtains when they haven't even built any walls.
I meant it. They have held onto grammar errors far too long. They have told themselves that if they could only figure out the commas, they could be strong writers. They have used grammatical flaws as a scapegoat to mask incomplete thoughts and poorly organized arguments. They needed to learn to build walls.
But now the semester is almost over, and it's time to hang up some curtains.
The problem is that my metaphor holds true a little too well. There's a fairly objective way to determine if a wall is properly constructed. We can measure whether it stands up straight and if it's stable. We can check for its strength and see if it holds up to the weather. Just as there are different materials with which one can construct a wall, there are different ways a student could organize a paper, but just like I can tell when a wall isn't standing, I can tell when the organization isn't working. Grammar, though, like curtains, is often a matter of taste.
I've written about this before, but I'm caught in a space where I have to evaluate my students' work by standards that I recognize as unfair.
My instinct (and what I attempt to do) is to put it all out on the table and just be honest with my students. I want to explain to them that grammar isn't as cut and dry as they may have been led to believe, and I want them to know that there is no such thing as "proper" grammar. I also want them to know that there are, however, different discourse communities and that access to many of them is determined through grammar.
To help demonstrate this, I have them read "Grammar: A Matter of Fashion." This article does a great job of comparing grammar choices to fashion choices. It looks at historically accepted grammar conventions and how they change over time, just like hemlines and button sizes. It helps me explain that there is, in fact, no one "proper" grammar, but rather a shifting set of grammar conventions that we choose depending on our setting. I tell my students that, just as they wouldn't wear their pajamas to a job interview, there are certain grammatical conventions they wouldn't use in a cover letter.
That, of course, doesn't tell the whole story. It's a great starting point for discussing how different uses of grammar are interpreted in different ways, but that particular article stays away from discussions of identity politics in grammar choices. The fashion metaphor holds, though, so it's one way to enter into the conversation. Most of my students are familiar with certain places banning sagging pants or do-rags as a coded way of banning the people most likely to be wearing them: black people. It's also no coincidence that the grammar rules that my students get told again and again are most important are the ones that point out the difference between Black Vernacular English and "Standard" English.
Most of my students are black, and I am white. It puts me in a weird position of strained ethos to discuss the prejudice surrounding grammar discussions. I have authority in the front of the room, but I have no authority in this experience. I've benefited from the privilege of having my grammar--for the most part--match the "standard" my whole life. So, this semester, I broached the subject by having my students read this Washington Post article on how the American Sign Language used by white people differs from that used by black people.
The students really enjoyed the discussion and shared a lot of great experiences and insights into how grammar is used to make assumptions and draw lines. By the end of the conversation, we'd examined some of the prejudices involved and had clearly established that there is no "proper" grammar. My students were involved and energized by the conversation.
Which is why I'm at this hard place. I loved the conversation that we had, and I'd love to let it stop there, but I can't. These are developmental writing students. They have already been singled out as needing extra help with their writing, and I think we've come a long way in building the walls, but I also know that they're going to be judged by which curtains they put up.
I don't want to tell them what those curtains should look like, but I do want to make sure that they know how they're going to be viewed.
This week, then, I'm having them read "I Won't Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here's Why" by CEO Kyle Wiens. He says he gives every potential employee, regardless of position, a grammar test. Those who don't pass aren't hired. He says that grammar is important because it shows professionalism and attention to detail.
It feels a little mean to throw this at them after we've had this great "all grammar is good grammar" discussion, but I think that I'd be irresponsible to not discuss not only the way they can make grammar work for them but also how others can use grammar against them.
I don't know how well the conversation is going to work, but I feel like--at the very least--I'll have been straight with my own misgivings over grammar. They'll have it all on the table and can make an informed decision about how they want to handle their own grammatical choices. And once we get that established, we can get down to the fun work of discussing parallel construction and semi-colon placement.
Photos: shinyredtype, haglundc, Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimusem