I Wish it Was Just the Dentist

No, it is not just the dentist. Just too many people seem to define “writing”–even after I specify it as the teaching/learning of basic to advanced academic writing in the university–in ways that make me sad.

As she was about to start her work on my teeth last week, my dentist, a wonderful professional who works at a service provider two blocks away from where I live, asked me where I work.

“Stony Brook University.”

“Oh, you are a teacher? What do you teach?”

“I teach academic writing to undergraduate students in my department of writing and rhetoric, and I often teach science writing to graduate students in the Journalism department.”

“Wow. You know, I am a horrible speller,” she said, as she put a cleaning instrument alongside what I call a sucker in my mouth, “just horrible.”

At first I thought she was complimenting me for being a teacher of advanced/university level writing, but as she went on to explain her point, I realized that there was more to it than just compliment.

“Ugg,” I kept saying, “ugg,” with things in my mouth, more and more intrigued.

“I mean, it’s not just me, you know. Kids these days, I’m sorry to say, even those who go to college, don’t know how to spell. The computer does it for them. They’re always on their cell phones, wrecking the English language more and more every day. They don’t know how to write properly. You see what I mean.”

I couldn’t let her go on. I raised my hand when I realized that I was about to speak while she was still poking the middles of my teeth with the something whose name I don’t know. She took the something and the sucker out.

“I am sorry,” I said, cleaning my mouth, “but I don’t teach spelling.” Then I allowed her to continue with her work.

“Then, maybe you should,” she said, putting the stuff back in my mouth. “These kids must learn how to spell before they write anything.” Somehow it went from her to the kids as her monologue developed. I don’t remember if she even made any connection from the first problem to the second.

When she was done cleaning my teeth and as we waited for the doctor to come in, I went back to the conversation about writing. I told her that I teach students to read, evaluate, and build on the ideas of other scholars. I added that I teach them how to conduct research, how to use new media effectively, how to present their ideas and inform or persuade or build goodwill with different types of people. I also tried to tell her about the bigger picture of writing where during the past two decades (especially due to the advent of the internet and then mobile devices), young people write far more in volume and variety, that they don’t use the same text-ese for all contexts and purposes, that new media and modes of writing have added new dimensions to their linguistic abilities, etc. I said that the “bad writing narrative” is as much a  reaction to normal situations as (and it is everywhere), and even though auto-correct may have weakened spelling abilities in some quarters, young people write better overall today than perhaps ever before. And while it is easy to find patterns of errors in any age, it is also very hard to conclude that a whole generation is writing badly because “bad writing” is often the natural consequence of a language being rich and complex.

But the dentist was convinced that today’s kids are writing very badly. I gave up and agreed with her that, yes, spelling properly is a basic requisite for writing.

When I gave up, I really, really wished that this incident at the dentist’s was an isolated one. I wished that it was just my dentist who defined “writing” in one, simplistic, and outdated way. Unfortunately, it is not just someone who may have forgotten what she learned to do in her college writing course(s), if she had to do so.

Last year, I was at a university career fair when a colleague and I were introduced to the director of a non-profit organization that we were told employs a good number of our graduates. Same thing. What do you teach? Writing. Oh, kids these days are so bad in writing. Thank you for doing the hard work. Turns out, she too wants the kids to spell better as well as write more grammatical sentences.

Even worse, I’ve had professors in other departments who seem to define good writing as good spelling and grammar, revision as proofreading (editing at the best), and the whole profession of teaching writing as simply teaching correct spelling, grammar, and usage.

In fact, even writing teachers themselves often reinforce the limited/limiting view of teaching/learning to write. The view that every sentence you write must be grammatically and mechanically perfect, alongside the tendency to judge someone’s writing (if not the writer themselves) by the presence of a few errors in their sentences, is a condition that perhaps afflicts writing teachers themselves the worst. Most damning truth be told, I too often find myself itching to correct grammatical errors even when a student has just written a rough draft and has asked me to assess the strength of her or his argument. (I blame it on my being a grammar police, aka high school English teacher, for half a dozen years at the beginning of my teaching career in Nepal).

Of course, writing not many teachers define writing in very narrow terms, but still I think that we should start adopting much more realistic views about writing than what we rather instinctively fall back to. Too many of us, even us, are grammar-itchy all the time.

This problem struck me like lightning when I read a comment on an essay I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education two months ago, on the subject of MOOCs. Instead of sharing his thoughts about the subject matter, a commenter who said that he is a writing teacher suggested that he would “flag” my writing for one long sentence in it. The writer first “appreciated” me as a nonnative speaker: “I applaud Sharma’s dedication to learning the rudiments of U.S. academic writing….” (Btw, I don’t know if I am a nonnative or not; I’m just happily confused about labels like this). But the compliment was, predictably, a preface for “flagging” my writing: “Regarding the quality of Sharma’s own writing today, I must confess, as a former college teacher of freshman composition, that I would have flagged this sentence for excessive length…” His actual “response” to the substance of my writing was just this: “On the subject of MOOCs, I repeat what I have stated in past postings: MOOCs represent the unavoidable future bearing down on stodgy, myopic, overpriced academe.” He didn’t respond to anything I said at the time; he posted another comment the following week in which he essentially questioned my intelligence and blamed the publisher for including what I wrote.

I find it sad that it is not just the commenters at the bottom of online news and commentaries who find what someone called “troll food” in the form of grammatical, syntactic, or semantic weaknesses in one place or two. Sometimes, writing teachers themselves question people’s intelligence based on grammatical/mechanical errors in someone’s writing!

The prevalence of the idea of writing as a mechanical skill (often leading to the belief that writing is just that) has many causes. One of those causes, according to David Russell (a Writing in the Disciplines scholar whom I admire highly), is the hyper-specialization of higher education. Because academic disciplines (and even professions) are too specialized, members of disciplines outside the humanities don’t bother to think critically about the nature, purpose, and process of writing; they believe that language is transparent and writing is a simple and straightforward translation of ideas into words. In this view, what matters is correctness and clarity, as if these qualities could be universal and set in stone. When I mention David Russell or the mechanical view about writing in academic disciplines, I’m not even scratching the surface of this scholarship here (this was one of the major areas of my theoretical studies for the dissertation, and I’ve come across truckloads of scholarship on the subject; just for a taste of it, see annotations of Russell’s works here or Bartholomae’s and Britton’s works here), but it is amazing how prevalent the writing-as-spelling-and-grammar view is both within and beyond academe.

But the mechanical, simplistic views about writing spread far beyond the non- writing intensive disciplines in the academe. In the minds of many among the general public, including the dentist whom I go to, writing is just the mechanical part of rendering ideas into the written word–ideas that exist independently of the medium and process of conveying them.

Sometimes, I feel like responding to the question about what I teach somewhat like this: “I teach writing to students at a university, which, by the way, doesn’t involve teaching spelling, and not even a lot of grammar, except in the case of basic writing courses, or incidentally, when explaining a grammatical issue that might help students understand a more significant rhetorical point about effectively communicating the message that they’re trying to convey.”

Something deliberately confusing like the above might help prevent the response from being this again: “Oh, kids these days spell so badly”–whether it is meant to be a compliment, or whatever it is.

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  1. Fast Read! And I concur about the way in which we are judged and DO judge others based on the basics of grammatical accuracy (or spelling, or somesuch), and it is a quandry. ON the one hand, we don’t want to toss it, and it likely does say SOMETHING about us when we make some errors or see errors in our students’ writing, but, like you, I try very hard to look at larger issues (which sometimes may link thinking with grammatical structures) first. I don’t know the solution, but it reminds me of a story recently told by someone on NPR (I’ve completely forgotten the general topic, but I think it was about memory or somesuch)….anyway, the speaker was discussing how, if we have record album, and we play the album all the way through, loving the music every minute as it plays, but then, the last 5 seconds of it, the album is scratched, we say that that album is ruined—essentially discounting all the enjoyment we have had from all the previous songs and minutes. I wonder if, for many of us, grammar isn’t sometimes like that. Something about it hits wrong, and we rush to condemn the entirety.

    • This was such a thought-provoking comment. Thank you!
      I think you are absolutely right about the impression issue. I tell my students that people judge writing (and even the writer if they don’t know them otherwise) by the surface features of their writing, regardless of the ideas. And I urge them to always spend 10-15 minutes for cleaning up any conspicuous errors that they can clean up easily/quickly (after they’re done writing and before they hit the submit button). That’s for the “product” of writing, even if the writing they’re submitting is not yet the final product/draft.
      But I’m also trying to retrain myself to be “bothered” by grammatical errors in pedagogically meaningful ways, especially when students are still exploring the idea. So, if a student is trying to write more polished sentences, I will stop to explain or underline syntactic and lexical/usage issues; if the objective is fixing patterns of grammatical or mechanical errors, I pause at examples of the patterns concerned; and if a students is trying to develop the thesis statement for a major paper, I will only underline/comment on content words or syntax toward rhetorically and semantically achieving the statement more effectively. It’s impossible to draw a line between process and product, but I’m thinking my challenge is to “not” worry about grammar and mechanics when students need to focus more on the “process” itself.
      So, in a sense, the blog entry was a confession about still being unable to suppress the dentist-like reader inside me. When I started writing the entry, I thought I would just “rant” about the dentist and all the people I’ve met who make me sad by their view of writing. But as I wrote, I realized that I too am in that sad world– more or less. 😀

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