Thoughts on Evans and Micciche

Can writing be taught? It’s a cliché question that comes up often in creative-writing circles. My own answer goes like this: Writing can be caught, insofar as teaching is largely the facilitation of situations in which new experiences are possible. A poetry class might not offer a blueprint to writing a good poem, but it can provide an occasion for making connections that might not otherwise be made. I’m interested in this week’s readings because they ask a corollary to this question: Can writing be taught systematically? And if so, what place do the rudiments—semantics, syntax, morphology—have in the process? Of course this has much to do with the meaning of a “system” and the taxonomy of values that underpin college writing. Argument is rightfully at the top (in my limited consideration), but I’m curious the relationship between “higher-order” concerns and the nuts-and-bolts that make them possible.

Evans, I think, provides tangible suggestions for substantiating certain commonplace assumptions about good writing. I’ve always struggled with the idea of the “active voice”—not because the concept itself is hard to grasp, but because it implies a kind of narrative position when really it refers to a grammatical issue. If there were a way to convey the effects of an SVO, and not just the structure, then students might better grasp the connection between mechanics and meaning. Evans is very good at presenting language as almost like a game, a puzzle with interchangeable parts. Linguistics can seem abstract, even disorienting, but I think the exercises she highlights might serve as points of access—brief interludes in a composition course that don’t derail the more essential focus. Even the terms—morphology, etc.—arcane as they are, might empower students. It’s always enjoyable to learn new words and be on the inside of a professional discussion, especially when that learning is grounded in applicable techniques. I’m not going to have the students in my class underline morphemes on Monday or anything. I will, however, consider how grammar relates to sociolinguistics, and sociolinguistics relates to rhetoric, and rhetoric relates to what we want to say, how we want to say it, and why.

Micciche puts a finer point on the social dimension of teaching grammar. I liked this quote particularly: “The chief reason for teaching rhetorical grammar in writing classes is that doing so is central to teaching thinking” (719). It’s a grandiose sentiment, but it imbues something so often conceived as drudgery with an ethical purpose. In this sense, Micciche sees writing as entirely systematic—the fundamentals undergird each and every structural layer, defining positionality from the linguistic ground up. I’m not sure I agree with this conception of language as structurally unified. I suspect there are aspects of communication that complicate the “ground-up” approach. But I appreciate the attempt at navigating between “the binary that defines grammar instruction in opposition to composing and thinking.” As Micciche points out, grammar seems especially significant when considering discourses of power and persuasion. If grammar is overbearingly rule-based, then it only stands to highlight the ways language invokes conformity, and its capacity for regulating public discourse. Looking critically at grammar, Micciche argues, offers a window into the subtleties of a system—political, this time—and a method for broadening what constitutes “acceptable” language.

I feel some degree of personal investment in this conversation. I worked for years after college as a copy editor at magazines, moving commas around and the like. I’ve never been much of a prescriptive-grammar person—seems stressful—but the job required an exacting set of standards. Glossy magazines are themselves case studies in rhetoric and the dissemination of texts, considering their reach and the precision with which they identify and address their audience. The role of “correct language” seems paramount to an authoritative posture. (I think I once heard the voice described at one of these publications as that of the average reader’s most impressive friend.) Having had this experience, I feel intuitively drawn to the discussion of rhetorical grammar, and arguments for the persuasive potential of the building blocks of speech.

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8 Responses to Thoughts on Evans and Micciche

  1. adouglass says:

    Thanks for this post, Nick — these are issues that I spend a lot of time thinking about, and the way you articulated your thought process here was very useful for helping me to better understand my own. Your suggestion that active attention to linguistic phenomena, and the terms we’ve invented to describe them, might be empowering for developing writers in some way is one of the things I was trying to get at in my post last week. Rather than risking a rehash of what I’ve already said, I want to just offer a little insight into the personal experiences I’ve had with that kind of instruction, which are at the root of my insistence on dealing with sentence-level issues when I teach.

    When I think back on my own development as a writer, several phases of my career stand out in my mind as moments of both frustration with issues of grammar and also rapid progress. As a student, I had never been particularly interested in improving my sentence structures because I had the privileged position of coming from a family of lawyers, whose precise, “standard” use of language was a fundamental aspect of their ability to successfully operate in a system built on formal rhetoric. So, my grammar had always been acceptable to my teachers — I was totally comfortable with what I considered my mastery of those structures and was fairly uninterested in looking further at how I was building my sentences on an individual level because of that comfort.

    However, the times when I did pay attention to grammar, I was doing so in an extremely defensive way. I was always totally frustrated when teachers marked grammatical issues in my paper that were more complex than matters of “correct”/”incorrect” usage. So, Nick, I’m glad you brought up the active/passive voice issue. As an undergrad, I was extremely irritated every time a professor marked a use of passive voice on my papers because, according to what I knew about passive structures at the time, there was nothing actually incorrect about them, and no one had taken the time to explain to me the basis of a preference for the active voice — it felt like a totally arbitrary, nitpicky, individual-preference kind of complaint, and I was annoyed that I was being asked to pay attention to it rather than the ideas I was trying to convey. (I was also annoyed in a very nerdy way that I was being deemed deficient for something that no one could tell me was WRONG.) There were several other grammatical points that I had this experience with during my undergrad career, but I’ll limit to this one for our purposes.

    However, during my time in my Master’s program, I had several professors who were quite interested in sentence-level structures, and who took much more time than I had ever experienced before to address them, explain their functions, and enforce our practice of them. I’ve chosen passive/active voice as my example here because it was a sort of maniacal focus of one of these professors. I was prepared to hate that class because of it, and many people did, but my actual experience was much different than I expected. Because this professor had approached his instruction from a rhetorical standpoint (Look how much more clear and impactful this sentence is in the active voice! Look at how I’m forced to choose better verbs! Look at how I’ve cut out all of this empty roundabout language that got in the reader’s way!), I found myself being forced to pay attention to what my sentences were doing in a way that I had never done before. I think this was especially the case because a preference for the active voice is totally about the judgment of effectiveness rather than right/wrong, so I did feel empowered to ask myself critically whether or not I considered my sentences to be as effective as they could be, and to make an informed choice about whether or not a grammatical mutation would help. I don’t think before that time that I’d ever thought of my grammar as a tool for conveying meaning.

    These kinds of experiences opened up a new level of inquiry for me. They helped to move me past a desire to express my thoughts to a deeper consideration of how my thoughts were being conveyed and received, and that questioning in turn forced me to more carefully and recursively consider how I had constructed my thoughts in the first place. I’m aware that this narrative is very particular to someone with a socioeconomically privileged background, but I do think that if we don’t give our students tools to interrogate their sentences with, then we’re depriving them of instruction in an important part of their thinking processes.

  2. Kristi says:

    I’m glad you posted on Micchie because I really struggled with the idea that rhetorical grammar leads to thinking, and I understand the argument that teaching someone to build the grammar through sentences and paragraphs is similar to teaching them how to build thought. Hower, I struggle with this approach because it’s not how I learned to write or how I feel writing should be taught.
    Grammar is a life long struggle, and I think it’s something that you conquer over time. A lot of my students don’t understand some concepts of grammar, but they are still able to have these elevated thoughts, especially in group discussion. And I wonder if we teach them to think and then write, it would be more beneficial. Something I’m trying with a few of my students right now is to have them think because they have great ideas when they’re just talking to me and lose it on paper as they try to write in the proper form. As they’re thinking, they write as they talk and not focus on grammar; then, I want them to go back and try to edit it. It’s really working well for one of my students. She has to do a lot more leg-work, but I don’t think her inability to understand grammar rules is affecting her ability to think. It’s affecting her ability to express her thoughts in the standard way on paper.

    On the hand, I wonder if Micchie is right and if my student had been taught rhetorical grammar early on, if she would struggle less, allowing her to focus more on developing the thought. I see that side of the argument, which is why I try to teach, and comment, on some of the aspects Evans suggests. However, I worry that linking grammar and thinking can be a very exclusive ideology.

  3. Sarah says:

    I think you’ve both identified in yourselves and in a broader context the resistance to grammar instruction or correction, also highlighted in the readings. However, Allison, you make and have been making a really relevant point, that I think Micciche also makes — that teaching grammar and sentence construction is foundation to teaching clarity of logic and thought. While I strongly agree with that point, I’ve struggled to find a way to teach that in a classroom context (as opposed to a conference context). Moreover, I’ve also been fighting the pedantic and sometimes orthodox side of myself that comes out as editor/teacher. (This despite my own play with grammatical structure in my writing, particularly the pointed use of fragments and repetition.) For that reason, I found two things really key this week in the readings: first, the necessity of framing “Standard” English as a dialect no better than others but contextually necessary, and second, the commonplace book exercise in Micciche.

    Beginning in structurally incorrect order, I was drawn to the permission to get personal in the Micciche exercise. This past week, as I introduced the third essay, the research essay, my students were palpably invigorated at being able to choose their own topic. Writing about something one like makes all the difference. Thus, students choosing their own passages seems to somehow cut the dryness of thinking about grammar and rhetorical moves. I am definitely stealing this at some point.

    In terms of the notion of dialect, Allison, you make it really apparent in your post your awareness of your ability as a kind of fluency in a dialect. That is likely to your students’ benefit! That said, I was left wondering after the Blaauw-Hara reading exactly HOW we can go about making that clear. HOW do we continue to contextualize instruction in said dialect rather than just saying it early on in the semester? What tangible exercises can we imagine to work both with a more common vernacular or specific dialects of our students ALONGSIDE the “Standard”? I’d really love to think about this tangibly as we begin to imagine our revisions of our syllabi.

  4. Giselle says:

    Response to Nick and Magen,
    Lik Nick, I like the quote: The chief reason for teaching rhetorical grammar in writing classes is that doing so is central to teaching thinking”. Indeed, the purpose of learning grammar or anything, for that matter, is training the mind, as in discipline. Also, teaching grammar is one of those activities that bridges the right (creative and artistic) and left ( logical and analytical) sides of the brain. This sentence, I think, clarifies this idea further: “The grammatical choices we make—including pronoun use, active or passive verb constructions, and sentence patterns–represent relations between writers and the world the world they live in.” This is the exciting part about grammar. If we are lucky, we can impart this enthusiasm to our students. From, this quote, can objectively describe an action but cleverly not ascribe a person responsibility for the action. This is both cool and naughty.This is part of the way that we can manipulate our communications with the world, essential professional and personal survival skills. This approach contradicts the stereotype of grammar instruction lacking sex-appeal and being school-marmish. (718)

  5. Daisy Atterbury says:

    Teaching in this classroom setting, I find myself attempting to mediate between two related approaches to grammar (both identified in the Mark Blaauw-Hara thesis and mentioned in the thoughtful responses above: sentence construction as a foundation for “critical thinking”; and (does a semi-colon go there? help!), “correct” grammar as one of many available dialects to be used with discretion in context. That said, I’ll admit that I’ve built my career, livelihood, sense of community and impulse to public action thus far around an investment in “error” in writing. Why? Because I do not think we can so easily brush past the history of writing instruction in this country, with its foundations in “socializ[ing] the new working-class student body into a bourgeois sensibility,” and worse. Blaauw-Hara alludes to this history, but does not “dwell” on what is honestly a much darker history than the management of class-affiliation. If we take US colonialism seriously, we might need to begin with a history that begins with stripping large groups of people of language, culture, sense of identity, and not least, land. Blaauw-Hara cites Tchudi and Mitchell in stating, “language instruction has been consistently linked to morality … with English teachers perceived as defenders of the language against the onslaughts of ‘barbarians,’ including their students.” Can we so easily brush by this quote to debate the merits of grammatical instruction? Beyond re-considering the distinction between “correct” and “incorrect” grammar and thinking in terms of dialect, how do we begin with an acknowledgement that the goals of teaching composition, beginning with grammar, may still be bound up in this ‘moralizing’ (‘civilizing’) impulse? To a certain extent, I know I’m preaching to the choir, but I’d like to push myself at least to think beyond the seemingly-clear aim of “teaching [our students] the linguistic landmarks of the culture of power, thereby enabling them to chart a safe passage through it…” (Blaauw-Hara). Is the critical thinking offered by the kind of instruction necessary to “chart safe passage” through power offering as much as it promises? Blaauw-Hara writes, “As Tchudi and Mitchell write, ‘correct’ grammar can ‘provide students with access to higher social levels’ (253). This gives us a rationale for teaching it, and it provides reasons for learning it students can understand–if they learn to influence readers positively, it can pay off with better grades, a better job, and a general improvement in socioeconomic status” (169). Perhaps other kinds of thinking are necessary for building networks that can resist power, beginning with different objectives.

    Charting safe passages through power may not make anyone any safer, it seems, and in the meantime these objectives are producing the kind of back-to-work mentality that keep all people, including instructors, from actions beyond their circumscribed circumstances.

  6. Sophie says:

    Like many of the comments above, I have a mixed relationship to the necessity/utility of academic writing. As Kristi mentioned, there isn’t a one to one correlation between a student’s ability to think and their ability to express themselves on the page. However, the inability to express themselves in the institutionally accepted way can in a way erode their capacity to think, in the sense that it impedes others from fully understanding/engaging with their ideas, and consequently entering into an academic dialogue with them and broadening their thoughts on the topic. In recent years I have started, like Sarah mentions, to think of academic writing as a “dialect” that enables engagement in this particular context, in the same way that you wouldn’t use academic rhetoric in casual conversation, since this would impede interactions (people would presumably be turned off by your snobbishness). When I taught in Chicago, I used the term “code switching” a lot to reinforce this idea that no dialect is inherently superior to another, but that different contexts require different modes of expression.

    To further that end, I wonder if we should be providing students with more diverse writing assignments in the classroom, so that they have opportunities to deploy multiple dialects. I think we mentioned an example of such an assignment last class– I think it may have been Daisy referencing an oral report students are doing as a final assignment. Opportunities such as that would allow students to continue exploring academic thoughts, but within a format they’re more comfortable in; I think it would also reinforce the notion that writing is a dialect, and thoroughly depends on the context within which it is produced, and the aims it seeks to address. And of course it would valorize non-academic dialects, which is an important social justice goal I think we’re all interested in achieving.

    Kristi, I really like how you really capitalize on the drafting process to target different aspects of their papers, i.e. thoughts first, then grammar (once students have their thoughts down). However, I’m curious how the peer review process helps or impedes the correction of grammar, because I’ve found that my students tend to focus on the paper’s ideas, not the grammar, and that often this is because they themselves don’t have the knowledge necessary to correct it.

  7. Stefano says:

    Last week in class I pointed out some retiring mistakes that my students were making in their writing. When it came to excessive quoting and to citing their sources in the text (e.g. “In Elizabeth Kissling’s article “I don’t have a great body but I play one on tv” she discusses…), I was surprised that a number of them responded that they had been taught to do so in high school. I read Evans article the following day – and his idea of implementing a more aware teaching of grammar in high school resonates with the questions I stated to think about concerning the disconnect between English the high school and college curricula – I mean MLA is not exactly quantum physics. So one of the questions I wanted to raise in classs (and connect it back to my comment from last week) – isnt there anything that the institutions could do to fill this divide and develop a better synergy between English departments in college and secondary education? My experience as a high school student in the United States is quite limited, so I’m eager to hear from all of you in class and especially those who teach/have taught high school students.
    As for the other approaches – they all sound compelling (especially micciche’s, albeit it may stand as too ambitious for some) but my biggest concern is time – fourteen weeks already seem a short time to teach the basics of academic writing – how are we supposed to fit anything else in our syllabi?

  8. Stefano says:

    Sorry about the typos, I’m on my phone from a plane 🙂

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