Error, A Longer View

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.

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