Tuesday, September 8, 2009

the vorpal blade went snicker-snack

Stanley Fish has been writing a series of articles in the New York Times about the teaching of writing. The third one appeared yesterday, and it's worth reading.

He makes several good points. First, we should stop moaning about how poorly prepared college students are, and how their high schools failed them (which they did), and get on with the job of getting them up to speed. Second, yes, it's true that a lot of reading makes people into good writers, but good luck persuading eighteen year olds to do a lot of reading. And, while theoretically everybody is entitled to write in their own dialect, it's not the best way to get ahead in the world: you have to learn standard English, as a second language if necessary.

Fish's main point is that college students today need a lot of help understanding something very basic: what a sentence is. We may think that we writing teachers should be teaching researching skills, or complex argument skills, or organization skills in writing. But a great many students have a lot of trouble with the basic unit of writing: the sentence. (Ok, the word is a more basic unit, but most students know what a word is.) I have found it to be true that the most common errors in student writing revolve around the problem of not knowing what a complete sentence is: this misunderstanding underlies the sentence fragment, the run-on sentence, the comma splice, etc.

How does Fish remedy this misunderstanding? He has some great ideas. He writes a sentence like "Jane likes cake" on the white board, and challenges students to elaborate this simple sentence into a Proustian one of a hundred words, explaining how they did it and why it's still one sentence. He gives them the famous Lewis Carroll nonsense poem "Jabberwocky" and has them replace the nonsense words with "real" words, explaining how they know, for example, what you could write instead of "Oh frabjous day!" (Unfortunately anything you might write instead would be worse.)

I was amazed by his final assignment: he divides his class into groups and tells them to invent a language! With a lexicon, and a grammar. Wow. Budding Tolkiens must love this class. Then they have to present this language to the rest of the class and explain how to translate its messages into English. Presumably they use the Roman alphabet? Or not?

Sometimes he writes a boring sentence on the white board--"The first year of college is full of many challenges"-- and then the students add to this sentence in a kind of linguistic Exquisite Corpse game, but where you can see what everybody else did.

Fish provides some useful links to other teachers' books and methods. I recognized one: They Say/I Say, which is about the scholarly debate that we're trying to get students to join. Only problem is, there are some things about this debate that are kind of stupid, such as the requirement that we start our papers with propositions like, "Everybody that has ever written about Faulkner and environmentalism up to this point has been wrong. I'm the one with the goods."

I'm sure Fish's methods work great with students who have a basic command of English. But in many community colleges, we are teaching students who are not only unsure about what a sentence is; they are unsure about what a lot of English words mean. I wonder if ESL students could do that Jabberwocky exercise. To them, everything sounds like, "the vorpal blade went snicker snack!"

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