Category Archives: grammar

When Do Students Become Adults?

Growing Up

Academe is abuzz with discussions on how or whether to minimize students’ use of technology during class. Some professors cite studies they say disprove the notion of multitasking; others worry about the students who might be distracted if their classmate logs into his Facebook page during a lecture. I find this discussion disingenuous on several fronts. The real worry here has deep roots.

There was a time when students revered their professor, in awe of her status, intellect, and breadth of experience, but culture has shifted both inside and outside the academy toward more emphasis on student engagement. For better or worse, students now expect their college classes to be interesting and interactive. The days of long lectures are over, and the truth is they never worked for many students anyway, marginalizing all those who couldn’t write notes quickly enough or who couldn’t put the puzzle pieces together outside class on their own. We can debate the value of self-motivation in study habits or whether learning styles exist or not, but what this comes down to is shaping our classrooms around what’s best for students and not what’s easiest or most comfortable for us as instructors.

Speaking of discomfort, let’s return to the technology debate. It’s uncomfortable — no it’s annoying and rude — when a student brazenly texts in front of you when you’re teaching. It’s uncomfortable when a student has his laptop open facing away from you and you can’t see what has him so enamored on the screen. And it’s beyond frustrating when a student who had her headphones on during instruction asks trivial, basic questions about an assignment. I understand these discomforts. I share these discomforts. I don’t, however, believe the answer is hyper-regulation of our students’ use of technology tools. At some point, we have to treat them like adults who make decisions based on their own awareness of how they learn best. Will some of them wake up too late to pass your course? Sure, but that will be a lifelong lesson learned now, where there is a chance for a re-do, rather than later in a boardroom where her family livelihood might be at stake.

Furthermore, are you sure students aren’t listening when they aren’t looking right at you? When my middle child was in fourth grade, his teacher noticed that he was constantly playing with something in his desk and not looking at her while she was teaching. Even though his performance was exemplary, this annoyed her, so she set about trying to push him to conform. At first, she would say, “Sean, pay attention,” but he would look up only briefly and then return to fidgeting with whatever had could touch in his desk. Then, in an effort to help him see that this practice was hurting him, she decided one day to pause when he seemed completely detached for a while and ask him what she had been explaining. He told her verbatim everything she had said. That’s when it dawned on her that visual stimuli distracted him, so he had developed his own method of navigating lectures. I know this story because she called me so that I would be aware and give his future teachers a heads-up. This is a lesson in trusting a student and giving up a bit of power over them.

Finally, look around in your next faculty meeting. Make it a point to be observant of who and how your colleagues are using technology during committee meetings. Monitor your own usage for a while. Would you want your department chair, during faculty meetings, to forbid you from checking for that text message letting you know your wife’s flight landed safely? Would it be demeaning for your dean, during a retreat, to call you out for pulling out your iPad to google curiously about something he’s discussing? Should we establish a university-wide policy of no technology when listening to guest speakers even though you’re passionate about following a hashtag feed discussing Alzheimers or GMOs or a beheading in Syria? We wouldn’t dream of it … because we are adults.


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Filed under first-year writing, FYC, grammar, Higher Ed, teaching, Writing

Gaming Revision“I tried to leave some things so that I would have something to revise.”

This is what I heard as I walked through a group of students congregating in the hall outside a classroom. They were waiting for the room to empty so their class could begin.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard this, but it is the first time it resonated. Let me explain.

At a faculty retreat a couple of weeks ago, I got into a discussion with two colleagues about whether or not students should be required to write multiple drafts in our first-year writing program. They both firmly believed that some students didn’t need to create multiple drafts to produce quality writing.

“No one sits down and produces a final draft without revision,” I boldly paraphrased Ann Lamott.

“Sure they do. What about Tweets?” One of them responded.

“I proof all my Facebook posts and Tweets,” I said, which is true even though I still perform errors fairly regularly, much to my dismay.

“Well, you’re the only one,” she said.

We decided at this point to agree to disagree and move to a different topic, but three days later I heard the comment above from the student in the hall, and then two days after that a different colleague expressed frustration that her students go through two revisions before she sees their drafts yet they still turn in writing that isn’t where she’d expect it to be.

This is where I sit today — confused and rethinking how I’m approaching revision in my own writing class. We all see the drafts that seem to have been written the night before, even from students we know are diligent and detail-oriented. Why? It’s because revision has become one of many games students have become masterful at playing.

Think of it this way: when revision is part of assessment, students feel compelled to revise … a lot. But what about those students who can do effective self-assessment? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking that we turn the clocks back on first-year writing praxis and approach writing as product rather than process, but I do think we should entertain the idea that some students just might produce something very close to a final draft the first time, and we should relieve those students from the unnecessary stress of fabricating revisions just to satisfy our own misguided need to see distinct difference between drafts. I don’t claim to have the answers as I’m still working through this, but one thing I recommend is to simply read your students’ first drafts as if they’re final drafts and encourage peer responders to do the same. Just ask questions and offer reactions rather than actively seeking areas that need revision. Most of us are already doing some semblance of this, but if we shift one more notch and tweak just a bit more how we’re approaching feedback, we could see our students begin to offer us higher quality drafts, and that means we can genuinely push them ahead in their writing development.

Another interesting sidenote for anyone who cares: I’m in the beginning stages of conducting research into response methods. I’m curious to see how the movements through peer and teacher response impact student learning. Thank goodness I didn’t decide to repeat what has been done too much already in our field — measuring the quality of revisions.

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Filed under first-year writing, FYC, grammar, Inquiry, teaching, Writing

[__] Mice and Men: The Case of the Missing “Of”

When I first became a university writing instructor, my biggest challenge was overcoming my obsession with correctness. It’s not that grammar isn’t important; it’s just that teachers of writing understand that content is where the good stuff is, and over-emphasis on grammar stunts developing writers, stagnating their growth in any area but correctness.

Having offered that disclaimer, I’m noticing that the preposition “of” is increasingly being neglected. This isn’t new in speech, but I don’t recall seeing so much of this in writing before. Why am I reading “couple weeks” instead of “couple of weeks” or “couple times” rather than “couple of times”?

Let me explain the grammatical ins and outs of this. The word “couple” is a noun so pairing it with another noun like “weeks” or “times” is akin to saying “flock seagulls” instead of “flock of seagulls” or “time day” instead of “time of day.” It’s just … well … wrong.

Now I frown upon correcting everyone’s speech. For one thing, it’s just rude to interrupt a person’s thoughts to arrogantly point out what usually amounts to a pet peeve and almost never has any bearing on the content of what’s being said. Not to mention that anyone who’s done transcription knows that speech is never centered around punctuation or grammar — it’s a freeform blending of syntactical and non-verbal cues that convey meaning in a very different way than written language.

Having said that, as a teacher who values reflection and freewriting, I have no problem with slang woven into low-stakes prose, but when it seeps into formal places like journalistic or academic articles, my feathers get a bit ruffled (yes, I did just use a cliche and did so with full rhetorical awareness of its impact, something I doubt those who neglect “of” consider).

I’m not sure what this says about me, being bothered by this simple error, especially considering the fact that I view so many other rules as anachronistic — like the rule that says you can’t use contractions. An observant reader will notice that I use them frequently as you can see throughout this post — simply because Standard American English needs to evolve just like every other form of language, and contractions help writing flow in a more natural way, so why not use them? Many would answer “because that’s too informal” (notice that his/her answer contains a contraction), but anyone who’s converted an essay into a presentation knows that one of the first things you do to make the verbiage smoother is make the language more conversational, i.e. adding contractions.

Maybe this trend of missing “ofs” has roots in creative writing. I know Twain liked to experiment with nuances in dialects, and I’ve seen many southern characters’ accents riddled with shorthand and apostrophes (ex. bag ‘o flour), so perhaps this is the next step in the evolution of Standard American English, in which case, I need to get on board or be out __ order (see, it just doesn’t sound right without the “of”).

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Filed under first-year writing, grammar, Inquiry, Writing