Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Lessons from English 101
For four years, Nathan Bierma wrote the "On Language" column in the Chicago Tribune, covering English-language issues from etymology to usage in a highly engaging style. He has also taught courses in writing and speech as an adjunct professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In this essay, reprinted from his new collection of columns, The Eclectic Encyclopedia of English, Nathan reflects on the lessons he learned teaching English 101.
I taught English 101 for the first time in spring 2005. Here are six things I learned on the other side of the desk at my alma mater, Calvin College, a liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, Michigan:
1. It only takes a few weeks to be able to identify each student's individual writing voice. Word choice, sentence length, comma use, vocabulary range and choice of topic all bear the fingerprint of the author. It helped that I had only 22 students, but I thought it would take all semester to recognize their distinct styles. When I could, I told them so, both to discourage plagiarism and to make the point that a discernible, seemingly audible voice can emerge when you put words on paper.
2. There's no good way to talk about grammar to a generation that hasn't been taught it. Anytime I diagrammed a sentence or talked about relative clauses, I felt I was speaking a foreign language. Luckily, grammar was just one of four things I graded in assignments, along with content, structure, and style.
I could never go as far as former University of Illinois at Chicago dean Stanley Fish, who wrote in The New York Times in 2005 that his freshman writing course focused entirely on sentence structure. He assigned students to invent a language of their own and explain its grammar in terms of tense, singulars and plurals, subjects and objects, and so on. But that's not a writing class; that's a linguistics class. On the other hand, I'm not convinced, as are some English teachers I talked to, that the relationship between knowing grammatical terms and writing well is distant.
3. Practicing what you teach confronts you with your own hypocrisy. No sooner did I scoff at my students' whining about their deadlines than I would start whining about my own deadlines. No sooner did I warn of excessive passive voice in a student's paper than my editor would tell me I was doing the same thing. I kept thinking to myself, "Writing would be so easy to teach if only I didn't have to do it myself."
4. The comma is the most dastardly punctuation mark there is. In my students' work, commas were overused, underused, inserted superfluously, and omitted conspicuously. Sometimes explaining comma placement was straightforward, but other times I almost had to apologize for the density of the rules I was trying to teach: Put a comma after a conjunctive adverb ("However, it is reasonable ...") but not, as some students did, after a coordinating conjunction ("But, it is reasonable . . .") You try to explain that one. And after a while, I gave up pointing out that book titles are not considered appositive phrases enclosed by commas. I constantly came across constructions such as, "as it says in the book, Cross-Cultural Perspectives." I knew the comma didn't belong there, but I wasn't positive why it wasn't an appositive.
5. It's hard to be a descriptivist and an English 101 teacher at the same time. Descriptivist linguists say — and I'm convinced — that commanding people to write and speak in a certain way is an ill-intentioned and ineffective way to stabilize or change a language, and it usually is condescending. So while I was determined to enforce the writing rules of English 101, I explained this enforcement in the context of dialects.
Standard English, I said, was a dialect, appropriate in some settings (a college classroom) and inappropriate in others (a dorm room). And it's standard not because it's morally superior or more logical (it isn't always), but simply because it has been standardized, or agreed upon.
At times I wondered if this disclaimer dulled the students' response to my insistence on particulars — subject-verb agreement, dangling modifiers and so on. But I remain convinced that presenting Standard English as a dialect among other dialects is the best way to show the purpose of teaching it. We follow the rules of Standard English not to please the picky and pedantic, but to be intelligible and taken seriously in the settings where people speak it and write it.
6. Reading student papers can be rewarding as well as tedious. Some students' writing displayed good insight and fresh wording, and many seemed to engage and enjoy the readings I assigned them. That made the whole experience worth it.
Every time I teach English 101 I do with my course what I kept telling my students to do with their papers: revise, revise, revise.
Update: My professor Jim Vanden Bosch faithfully wrote me to say that in the ending example in #4 above, "the book title is an appositive, but it should be seen as a restrictive appositive because it provides essential identifying information. That's why the comma doesn't belong there."