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.