Essay: “Voices in Error: Counting against Competence”

Today the Disability Rhetoric blog published my essay, “Voices in Error: Counting against Competence.” In this essay, I describe an ongoing conflict in my teaching practices – counting errors and standardizing student voices. Here is how the essay begins:

“Before I begin teaching in any classroom, I must tailor the environment to my specific needs. I secure my guide dog to the sturdy teacher’s desk, turn off three of the four lightswitches, and run my hand along the chalk tray to find the eraser and black dry- erase markers. I shuffle the blue and green markers to the end of the tray where I won’t confuse them with the colors I prefer. I move the desk chair from behind the bulky computer table and place it near the short, unadorned desk – careful not to disturb my dog, who lies underneath with a toy.

After the first course meeting, the novelty of my daily accommodations diminishes. Students welcome the dimmed lighting and rarely forget to submit assignments in large print. Only two features of the routine elicit regular comments – the guide dog and the whiteboard.”

Read the full article here.

Total Revision: Conversations in the Red

This semester, I am living out one of my long-cherished dreams: teaching a series of intensive grammar workshops for multilingual learners and struggling student writers. On Friday afternoons, my colleague and I face a group of students who willingly admit their bad relationship with grammar. So far, we’ve had four sessions, teaching anywhere from 2 to 16 students each time.

In our first class, I introduced the difference between grammar and style—a distinction often conflated even by literature teachers. The principles of grammar describe the inherent structure of a language; they explain how a language behaves and help speakers and listeners understand the text. Style encompasses how we use the language in a given situation—whether we dress it up or dress it down. Where grammar entails certain rules—though not as many as most people think—style is created through a person’s choices.

A few weeks ago, a student came for writing tutoring to improve her grammar. Handing me her essay, she explained, “My professor says my grammar is terrible.” As I looked over her work, I noticed a handful of grammatical mistakes: one issue with pronouns, a forgotten apostrophe, and a typo that Spell Check wouldn’t catch. However, her writing was far from appropriate for the formal assignment; she frequently slipped into second person, using lots of “you” and “your,” and she chose informal words, like “kids,” “guys,” or “great.” I noted, too, that she used contractions, which are usually discouraged in formal academic writing. Her writing displayed stylistic issues, not grammatical mishaps: her paper was trying to wear a bathing suit to the opera.

Because this student was writing for a sociology professor, I was unsurprised by the misinformation she received. I don’t expect instructors beyond the realm of composition or linguistics to handle writing feedback with such nerdy precision. Still, I am irritated by this mix-up. I cringe when I hear about comments that are critical and erroneous; I know how damaging professors’ feedback can be. As a writing tutor, I often hear students say, “I’m an awful writer” or “My teacher says I have the worst grammar,” and I hear similar sentiments from my own students.

Even positive feedback reveals students’ lack of confidence: after I praised one of my students for her excellent summary assignment, she said, “I’m just so glad you don’t think I’m dumb!” This student emails me with questions, comes to my office, tries her best on all assignments, but, like countless others, she has been labelled a bad writer. Her years of teacher-centered education have taught her one prevailing lesson: the teacher-authority will always judge you more accurately than you judge yourself. If she believes in herself but her grades don’t confirm this belief, then she defers to the grades. She lets the letters and numbers assess her gifts and learns not to trust herself. Thus, even though she claims to enjoy creative writing and journaling, she insists, “I’ve always been a bad writer.”

Of course, “bad writer” is an umbrella term that catches all kinds of writing struggles: grammatical confusion, misinterpreted assignment instructions, late-night drafting, learning disabilities, the influence of other languages, procrastination from serious writer’s block, lack of coherent grammar instruction. Some of these issues can be handled directly in the classroom while others require special one-on-one attention. In my courses, I address process issues like writer’s block by devoting an entire class session to planning for an upcoming paper. Students claim that they don’t know what to write about, so I design activities that help them gather quotes from their text. Once students have collected enough evidence, they feel empowered to write the essay.

Too many students are intimidated by the challenge of producing “good” writing, so I encourage students to think of grammar and style as “final draft concerns.”* Because of my passion for grammar, I can’t easily suspend my grammatical awareness when drafting. However, I recognize that my best work comes when I have a clear idea of where I want to go—even if all the components of a piece are drifting lazily through my conscious mind like the globules in a lava lamp.

It takes a long time for my students to understand that grammar and style are not priorities of the planning stage. I suspect that their undue apprehensions about these features stem from previous classes, where their grammar errors earned them the label of “bad writer” or “careless student.” I’ve heard of nefarious practices that colleagues use to assess students’ grammar: some calculate individual deductions for every error while others remark on the quality of the grammar without offering advice. These techniques only intensify grammar’s reputation as a fearsome and mysterious power—flaunted by instructors and withheld from students.

I do believe in grammar as a kind of magic. In classical and medieval education, understanding the grammar of an object meant that you could have power over it: if you wanted to fix a broken horseshoe, you had to know the grammar of iron. My students think I’m stretching the truth here, but the etymologies of grammar and glamor are connected.** Therefore, understanding English grammar gives people the ability to weave magic with words—to have an influence. Effective texts can breed empathy and awareness: miracles worthy of sincere faith.

When I think of grammar as a kind of magic, I realize that my expectations change. I don’t expect everyone who picks up a violin to become a world-famous musician. I don’t expect everyone who can walk to have a masterful or confident gait. I realize that my grammatical understanding is a privilege fostered by my personal interest, solid education, and leisure time—which I fill with the reading of grammar books.

If grammar is magical, then the study of grammar cannot be remedial. Like the mastering of any other craft, grammar skills require lifelong dedication and practice. When we free grammar from the realm of the remedial, the slow, the sloppy, we begin to understand that we can all be bad at it, and we can all be good at it. Then we lose the need to punish without empathy those who break grammatical rules—to destroy the confidence of student writers because of a dangling modifier and a misplaced comma.

So my series of workshops are a dream come true. They offer me the chance to teach the magic of effective writing to those who want and need to learn. In these classes, deliberately placed outside courses where students focus on a grade, I can create a safe and mirthful space for exploring the structure of language.


* Though I practice this advice regularly, I did not invent it; Peter Elbow and Nancy Sommers articulate higher-order concerns  in their texts on the writing process.
** This discussion of grammar can be found in David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words.

An Unlikely Pair

This semester, I teach my three courses in two different classrooms, located on a back hallway crowded with benches, recycling recepticles, and lounging students. I enter the building, veer left, and travel down a long, wide hallway—dodging drinkers bending over the water fountain and near-invisible columns guarding arbitrary places. Just where the hallway begins to expand into a windowed sitting area, I take a left. Now traveling this narrower space, I keep to the right, listening for the sounds of shuffling papers, sloshing drinks, and zipping backpacks that indicate the presence of students.

Between the doors along the hallway, people sit with their legs stretched out. Students sitting on opposite sides will find themselves locked in games of inadvertent footsie; the hallway’s width won’t accommodate two pairs of outstretched legs. As I move closer to my classrooms, my cane tapping and sliding scratchily along the carpet, I hear pairs of legs retract—students attempting to slide themselves out of my way. Occasionally, when a student fails to move, I must say, “Excuse me,” in a voice of battlefield cheerfulness. My volume and inflection rouse the absent-minded, and the legs draw up quickly.

Occasionally I piece together an unconventional narrative from the sounds I hear on the hallway. As I walk, I notice the sound of fabric sliding on carpet: students are yanking their feet out of my way. Today I travel along the hallway, which is only half-occupied with students. As I near a girl whose legs seem longer than average, I don’t feel like saying, “Excuse me.” She should be able to hear my approach, but she doesn’t move her legs. My cane taps lightly against something hard—her leg? her foot? I have no way of knowing. I move beyond her and approach my classroom. While I reach for the classroom doorknob, a guy on the opposite side of the hallway addresses her:

“Did that hurt?”

A mumbled response renders no words. Ambivalence on the part of the afflicted.

The guy continues, “Yeah. She’s hit me before.”

I stand maybe two or three feet away from the conversation, easily within earshot.

What is my problem with this brief exchange? I will bring my literary training to bear.

Let’s examine the structure of the guy’s claim: “She’s  hit me before.” This sentence is a prime example of active voice, the grammatical pattern that sets up an “X does Y” relationship. In English, active voice is our storytelling voice. It’s the voice we use for quick-and-dirty explanations: “Rain falls in the afternoon,” “I go to college,” “Marcelle baked a cake.” This pattern assigns clear agency—the X is active, a doer with intentions.

In humanities courses, students are encouraged to write in active voice, rather than passive voice. Passive voice is the syntactical pattern used for scientific research. It follows the formula “Y is done by X,” and the “by X” is often omitted. There are several passive sentences in this paragraph. Passive voice finds its usefulness when someone wants to avoid blame: “Mistakes were made,” “A vase was broken,” “The data was collected.” We don’t know who the X, the agent, is, so there can be no agency.

So our hallway guy chose active voice, and with his active sentence comes an unconscious demonstration of preferences—he prefers the story to the study. But his story bothers me.

In his story, I am the attacker, the one who hits deliberately. He offers his sentence to the girl leaning against the opposite wall as a cocktail of bravado and consolation: “Don’t worry, girlfriend, I’ve been hit too. I am tough, but I understand your irritation. I’ve been there. We’ve both gone through something together.“

How do I know that all of this emotion was packed into just one sentence? Because he had to say it then and there—The blind girl hit me too! There was no humor, no wry smile, no “Isn’t that the worst? Well, what can you do?” There was a desperate reaching out, an utterance powered by empathy and a need to unite in the face of adverse circumstances.

Solidarity at the expense of civility.

I wonder if I’ll ever hear someone defend me during one of these exchanges.  Will I ever move a few feet away and overhear someone say, “Yes, she’s hit me before, too. But that’s what the cane is for. I don’t think she can see us.” At this stage in my experience, I doubt if I’ll encounter such perfect responses in the real world.

People are more likely to say, “No, she travels so well—I bet she isn’t even blind. She is just faking it.”

If we achieve human connection at the expense of others, what have we really achieved? How can we create a space for civil stories and inclusive explanations?

The Sensuous Semicolon—and Other Romantic Punctuation

If you are asked to dredge up the principles of grammar you learned in middle school, you might give voice to the following claims:

  • An independent clause can stand alone
  • A dependent clause can’t stand alone.
  • A sentence fragment is an incomplete thought.

When I hear these claims from grammar unenthusiasts, I notice two things. Firstly, these facts are easy to memorize but hard to apply. They don’t provide enough practical information to help the diffident writer navigate the churning whirlpools of grammatical variation. For example, an independent clause should be defined as “a clause that can stand alone because it contains a subject and verb and expresses a complete action.” But this definition is unwieldy—arming the reader or writer with a cumbersome and tedious checklist for examining prospective clauses. Any time the reader meets a new clause, she has to conduct the following tedious interview: “OK…do you have a subject? Where is it? And do you have a verb? Where is it? Oh, and do you express a complete thought?” Like most grammatical concepts learned by rote, this definition isn’t user-friendly, so users keep only what seems to be the essential idea—an independent clause can’t stand alone.

Secondly, these claims emphasize the inherently social nature of sentences. Certain sentence parts can’t stand alone—they need friends, cohorts, stronger companions to help them feel complete. Sentences just want to get together. That’s what writing is all about.

English teachers never want to talk about the secret romances of good writing, the elicit affairs of comma splices, the close-knit relationships enabled by semicolons. They want to discuss “subjects” and “main verbs”; they would rather pontificate on the principles of coordination and subordination. But the reality is that these terms are all part of a secret code, and every English teacher has sworn this oath: “I shall never reveal to my students the intimate social underpinnings of the words they use!” With true Victorian sensibility, they cover the sensuous material of language with elaborate and evasive terminology—grammatical jargon that effectively douses the expressive desires of most writers.

Well, I’ve decided to violate the oath and bring you the secret to syntactic harmony. All the time you’ve been reading and writing, you have probably noticed a certain chemistry among sentences—an inner music, a palpable cohesion. This is the sign of healthy grammatical relationships. So how do writers keep the romance alive?

The secret to syntactical bliss lies in punctuation. But first, let’s examine the power of independence.

We call a clause independent when it has a subject and verb that create a complete story. The story will be small, but the sentence makes sense on its own. If you run into a room and declare, “Albert went to the store,” your listeners will feel a degree of satisfaction. Curious bystanders may ask, “Which store?” or “What did he get?” or even “Who is Albert again?” but you have no obligation to answer these questions. You’ve given the necessary information. Someone did something. X accomplished Y. The story, however boring, is complete. We call this sentence a simple sentence—but we can also call it a sexy single. She’s a sentence who’s got it all. She can walk down the page, unhampered by awkward modifiers and unashamed to be solitary.

And sexy singles like to hook up with other sexy singles. So if our first gal, “Albert went to the store,” meets a kindred spirit, “Betty went to the park,” they can go on several kinds of dates. If they are just getting to know each other, they will go on the grammatical first date—using a comma and a conjunction. A snapshot of their date looks like this:

Albert went to the store, and Betty went to the park.

This first date is also called a compound sentence.

As they get closer, their dates will look a little different. How are they relating to each other? If they’re clicking on several levels, they may keep that “and.” If they’re feeling contrary, they’ll trade it for a “but.” If they’re agreeing to disagree, they might use a “so.” And when things really start to heat up, they’ll invest in a really romantic piece of punctuation…the semicolon.

Albert went to the store; Betty went to the park.

Look how close and cozy they are! That semicolon allows them to settle down together on a comfortable sofa in front of a dying fire with mugs of hot cocoa. That semicolon means that she’s wearing a soft floral perfume and he’s been working out. They’re staring into each other’s eyes and talking about their childhoods. They’re leaning over a book of poetry, and one arm slips around another’s shoulders. They’re dancing cheek-to-cheek.

But the variety of their dates is infinite. They can also go out for a nice em-dash, a long hyphen that changes the mood of the situation.

Albert went to the store—Betty went to the park.

This isn’t as cozy as the semicolon, but it’s a fun time. Perhaps they’re going bowling with friends—its a date for these two, but the friends are there too. Maybe they’re at an amusement park, holding hands on the Ferris wheel. They’re at the movies, and it was her turn to pick. They’re eating Fondue, and it’s not his favorite—but he’s still having fun because they’re together.

These are all scenarios where the date is going well, but what if the date goes wrong? What if he’s on his phone the whole time or she’s talking about her previous relationships? What if the restaurant is shabby and ill-lit with dirty plates? What if, at the last second, she refuses to pay for him or he for her? What if it’s their 5-year anniversary and he takes her out for fast food? How would that look?

Albert went to the store, Betty went to the park.

We call this cheap date, this uncomfortable situation, a comma splice. Neither sentence has invested enough to make the experience pleasant. This isn’t an unexpected victory over adverse circumstances. This is a lowest-common-denominator event. This is grammatical settling, and neither sentence will be happy about it.

And what about when partners become indifferent? We call that a run-on sentence, and it looks like this:

Albert went to the store Betty went to the park.

They’re too blasé to buy any punctuation for each other. And you can forget about conjunctions; they’re just waiting for the relationship to fizzle out. Semicolons, colons, commas, conjunctions—these love-tokens strengthen relationships. But in the run-on or fused sentence, nothing holds our two singles together. They’re not moving toward each other; they’re just existing in the same space.

And what about clingy partners? Well, we call them dependent clauses because they’ve got a subject and verb but they can’t stand alone. They don’t want to be alone. They’re looking for a curvy, strong, confident clause to curl up with. Here’s our lonely single: “While I was at work.” Read it aloud and you can hear the desire for social inclusion; this clause wants to be part of something bigger. If she gets a date with one of our sexy singles (whose previous relationship dissolved because of too many run-ons), it will look like this:

While I was at work, Betty went to the park.

She’s leading our independent clause across the page, but what if the sexy single wants to lead her new, dependent partner? Their interaction will look like this:

Betty went to the park while I was at work.

When the independent clause leads the way, the sentence doesn’t need to buy a comma. The independent clause effectively clears a path for the dependent one.

It’s important to notice that these dates look different from our compound sentence dates. In these scenarios, called complex sentences, one clause gets most of the attention while the other becomes subordinate, less important. But since sentence parts love to be together, the subordinate clause doesn’t mind. Life is all about give-and-take, right? Sometimes we get to be the main clause; sometimes we have to be the subordinate clause. Sometimes we’re in the first paragraph, and other times, we’re in the footnotes.

I can’t end my description of cohesion, or sentence romance, without tipping my hat to that grammatical maverick, the sentence fragment. Edgy, unconventional, and occasionally irritating, this rule-breaker doesn’t worry about labels, dates, or promises. Fragments are just there—sitting in the corner in a beret, smoking a foreign cigarette, and reciting obscure poetry. Sometimes they breeze across your page, leaving you with only a faint hint of their exotic cologne. Sometimes you hear their husky inflections from around a corner—but you round that corner and they’re gone. They’re unpredictable. They won’t be pinned down. And most rule-following English teachers won’t even allow them in the classroom.

We call them “incomplete sentences,” because they may lack a subject or a verb. But they’re only “incomplete” if we elevate those self-reliant, intoxicating independent clauses as the gold standard for sentences, the complete package. Fragments have their place. Even if we can’t always say what that place is.

Overall, these numerous and varied sentence dates—these instances of cohesion—create a more stable relationship among all sentences. We call that larger harmony “coherence.” Coherence is when everyone is getting along, when each sentence is feeling connected and supported on all sides. Coherence is what we call the best grammar party you’ve ever been to, where the food is perfect, the music is not too loud, and the conversations are so riveting that, before you know it, you’ve spent seven straight hours talking to the same people.

I Only Have Eyes for…Grammar: Creating a Multi-Sensory Method for Teaching Writing

As a writing instructor with low vision, I spend my life trading between a large white stick and a small white stick. The large one, of course, is the cane that helps me navigate my work environment. I open my classroom door, cane in hand, and proceed to my desk. At the desk, I fold the cane and it disappears – a quick sleight of hand for the students present. Students who enter the room after me and leave before me will not know I use it. I trade the cane for a small white stick with a black cap, the dry-erase marker that enables me to convey my thoughts in visual language on the large whiteboard behind my desk.

Despite my blindness, vision occupies the central role in my classroom. In each class session, I trade one tool of vision for another—oscillating between the cane that compensates for my low vision and the marker that relies on the sight of my students. Even when I am not using my small white stick, my students complete primarily visual tasks.

In my first class, I guide the students through an exercise called Flash Peer Editing (FPE). FPE is something I created on the way to class, but I’m sure that the idea isn’t really mine. When you study, teach, and tutor writing, you forget who invented which pedagogy. However, I try to put my own spin on this exercise by incorporating aural and visual processes.

Flash Peer Editing works like this. Students bring two copies of their paper to class, keeping one in front of them and passing the other copy to their right. At this point, I use my little white stick to write a series of “rules” on the board, each brief rule corresponding to a round of rapid editing. At the end of each round, students pass the papers to their right. In Round 1, students should mark 3 things that are well executed in the paper, such as graceful sentences, apt word choice, or logical arguments. In Round 2, students should mark 3 sections for improvement—like awkward phrases, misspelled words, ill-defined concepts. They do not have to correct the problem—they just have to draw attention to it.

Round 3, another visual exercise, offers students the chance to search the paper for words from my Banned Words and Phrases list. The list contains 40+ words and phrases that tend to weaken student writing—phrases such as “The writer does a good job of X” or “The writer is just trying to Y.” Words like “very,” “utilize,” “totally,” and “huge”—and phrasal verbs like “talk about,” “back up,” “point out” and “go on to say”—are also on the list. My goal here is not to make students afraid or ashamed of using these words. Rather, I hope to show them that there are more descriptive words out there (and “out there” is also on the list). In Round 3, students readers circle any banned words that catch their eye as they read. They do not have to complete a meticulous search for every banned word in the paper.

Finally, in round 4, students experience their paper in a chiefly aural way. Students pass their papers to the left until each has his or her own work again. Then, they keep the marked copy of their short paper and hand the clean copy to a partner. Turning over the marked copy so that they won’t be tempted to look at the text, they listen to their partners read their work aloud. As the partner reads, students note any observations  they have about the sound of their work. They repeat this process twice, so both partners can hear their work aloud.

This round is undoubtedly my favorite because my classroom suddenly fills with the sound of self-conscious students reading aloud. Sometimes they adopt funny accents or pretentious voices to cover their unwillingness to read another’s work; other times, they read the writing faithfully and seriously, without attempting to alter pronunciation or inflections for comic relief. Invariably, the students listening to their own work begin to giggle and squirm. They seem to say, “Did I really write that?” Occasionally, the listeners express delight and surprise at the sound of their well-constructed sentences.

While this version of peer editing does incorporate aural and tactile elements—students hear their work aloud and mark another’s work—I am disappointed by its primarily visual nature. I want students to understand the importance of hearing their work aloud. Often, we edit as we read visually—our brain runs a sophisticated “autocorrect,” transforming hastily mistyped words until they resemble what we intended to type. Reading aloud thwarts this process, especially if you choose an unsympathetic reader who will stumble and stutter over your awkwardly worded phrases. Even if your reader can guess at your meaning, this guesswork takes some time; it will not occur within the first read-aloud.

I am spoiled by the text-to-speech software on my computer. During all the stages of my writing process, Alex, the obliging voice on the Mac OS, reads my work aloud—and, though he is remarkably expressive, he is also unsympathetic. He stumbles over my misspellings and convoluted sentences just as any human reader would.

In my second class, I again pick up the dry-erase marker to begin a highly visual explanation of sentence parts. I scrawl three sentences on the board:

  1. Today I got an umbrella.
  2. Sandra was driving to the store.
  3. Ms. Michael loves pumpkin spice lattes.

My students are having trouble with be-pattern sentences: sentences that use forms of to be as the main verb. These sentences look like this: Jane is sad, Andrew is in the car, Cecilia was angry, Marvin was the winner. Often, my students confuse these types of sentences with sentences like #2, “Sandra was driving to the store,” calling “driving to the store” an adverbial, a phrase that describes the verb was. I explain the difference in words, gesturing with my hands, but I am met by complete silence or the sound of a student tossing a pen aside in frustration. So I must illustrate the difference visually

I turn back to the board, searching for where I wrote my sentences. It is not always easy to find my own writing on the huge white surface. I ask students for the main verb in the sentence, and some courageous voice says, “Driving!” I draw a squiggly line underneath it. Then I point to “was” and ask, “So what do we call this?” Another brave participant says, “A linking verb!” and a student who has done her reading says calmly, “An auxiliary.”

I illustrate the incorrect labeling of sentence parts by drawing brackets around the sentences. I draw huge swooping arrows to convey which parts modify, or describe, nouns, verbs, or phrases. I draw boxes around subjects and squishy brackets around direct objects. I break up the sentences and write them in passive voice, drawing arrows to show how the subject is no longer doing the action.

As I scribble my version of grammatical geometry, I literally face the highly visual nature of my own grammar knowledge and instruction. I understand grammar in a visual way. Like many of my peers, I was forced through countless hours of diagramming sentences—plotting sentences on long horizontal lines and relegating modifiers and less important phrases to the space beneath the lines.

As I teach these lessons, I cannot help but think, What if I had a totally blind student? What would I do? How can I translate my visual understanding of grammar and my sight-based editing techniques to a nonvisual thinker? I harbor secret dreams of taking a braille essay and cutting out every individual word, so that the words could be plotted and rearranged on a large surface. Perhaps I could teach diagramming sentences in the way that I was taught the basic templates for street crossings. A mobility instructor arranged bright yellow strips of velcro on a large black felt board, making T and plus-shaped intersections and asking me to navigate the “route” with a finger. I felt like I was in kindergarten again, but I enjoyed this tactile approach.

Though my current methods are proving effective, I continue to strive for a multi-sensory approach. I cannot love the sound of poetry and feel of editing without wanting students to experience these sensations for themselves. When I draw complex diagrams on the board, I am visually representing what I believe to be the anatomical structure of living language—a structure that could easily become three-dimensional with the right tools. My task now is to find these tools and implement them. I want to make students take writing into their own hands, to feel their words in their fingers and break and remake sentences at their natural junctures.