ESH: Episode 10: The Case of Critical Literacy

Episode 10: The Case of Critical Literacy

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The Universal Lie

Education and journalism often are similar windows into the power of bias in the U.S.

Consider first a somewhat innocuous media report about sports:

Much more disturbing, also consider the media coverage of the Las Vegas mass shooting:

As the news broke, major outlets across the country wrote headlines that humanized [Stephen] Paddock…

Past mass shooters who were nonwhite or Muslim have been depicted quite differently ― and so have people of color who were victims of gun violence.

“There’s a clear difference in the way this kind of incident is treated and the way it would be treated if it were actually associated with Islam or Muslims,” Ibrahim Hooper, spokesperson at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told HuffPost. “It would be instantly called an act of domestic or even international terrorism; it wouldn’t be individualized, but collectivized to the entire Muslim community or faith of Islam.”

The seemingly harmless report about U.S. soccer and the mainstream coverage of Paddock expose how the media works in ways that establish men and whiteness as the norms, the given, and thus somehow the most important (or only) statuses.

As many noted, U.S. soccer has had tremendous success in the women’s team—essentially rendered invisible by the coverage of the failure of the men’s squad this year. Paddock, as white man, floats above corrosive myths about Muslim terrorists and violent black men—both of which are statistically far more rare than violent and abusive white men, who constitute the largest percentage of mass shooters.

Now, let’s consider education.

Sarah Donovan, who blogs at Ethical ELA, posted a question on social media: “Teachers, scholars, authors, please weigh in. What is the value of the plot diagram in literature instruction? Is the language of rising action, etc. relevant, important?”

My first response to Donovan’s question was to point to Kurt Vonnegut’s mostly satirical but also illuminating “Shapes of Stories”[1]:

Vonnegut is an interesting and contradictory steward of both the modernist and post-modernist periods of so-called “Great Literature”:

Instead, the female characters [in his short fiction] are furniture or bouncing, pink operators. Of course you can’t blame Vonnegut for society’s sexism (in the 1950s, or now) but if these are indeed moral stories, it’s a male, white, affluent morality. Vonnegut himself, as Wakefield writes, puzzled over his inability to “do women well.”

Similarly, the dialects of some black waiters and soldiers and the poor will induce groans. As for the five stories from the archives, “City” has a lovely back-and-forth alternating point of view between a boy and a girl meeting on a bus, but the rest might have stayed lost.

As a white male, Vonnegut was afforded gender and race privileges that likely allowed him to be a somewhat rebellious writer who flaunted and broke the rules handed down by the New Criticism gods, blurring fiction and non-fiction as well as making himself a primary character of his genre-defying narratives.

Since I have examined before the power of mechanical evaluations of literature, often about New Criticism, and how the canon is mostly a white, male mythology, I next turned to a recent examination of the Nobel Prize in literature, awarded in 2017 to Kazuo Ishiguro:

The Nobel is the premier institution of elite literary prestige, conferring authority on what is already taken to be worthy of acclaim within the literary field….Conferring the Nobel also solidifies Euro-American cultural power (members of the adjudication committee often have American graduate degrees), as the Nobel institution positions itself as naturally authorizing and emboldening, in its own dispassionate assessment, what is inherently worthy of commendation. It’s a classic case: an institution of elite cultural power that hides its biases in claims to universality.

So if we consider plot diagrams as “dispassionate assessment,” we can begin to unpack how the concurrent concept of universality is, in fact, a lie—a sort of god creating “man” in “his” own image.

Like the flawed five-paragraph essay template that induces both bad writing and bad thinking in students, mechanical scripts for how fiction (or poetry, or any form) works are misleading but also perpetuate the inherent biases of the formulas.

The fathers of New Criticism were in many ways self-serving—arguing for prescriptions and structures that they themselves then followed in order to create the circular reasoning of “Great Literature.” Along the way, of course, mechanistic traditional education—mostly in English courses—provided a powerful ally in that process.

From plot diagrams to the literary technique hunt, mechanical approaches to texts are reductive and thus fail the critical literacy test: How is this text positioning the reader and in whose interest is the text working?

Let me close by nudging a bit beyond the narrow question about plot diagrams for fiction (usually the short story), and ask that we consider how the universal functions to mask and distort through W.B. Yeats “Leda and the Swan” and Adrienne Rich’s “Rape.”

In most traditional English/literature courses, Yeats likely is taught far more often than Rich, and then, his poem retelling a classic myth carries the heft of being a praised structured form (sonnet) and by an oft-anthologized white male Great Poet.

Rich, however, tends to be swept aside as a free verse poet who is too political, often code for “just a woman” (see Anne Sexton).

Yeats’s poem uses rape as a plot element, seemingly “dispassionate,” while rape in Rich’s poem is a confrontation about the physical terror women face in a man’s world (is that not universal?) and the concurrent metaphorical assault women must suffer to seek justice for the actual rape.

Ultimately, there is something insidious about allowing the normalization of the powerful to sit beside the marginalization of the powerless—calling the experiences of one (white men) “universal” and the experiences of the other (women), “political.”

So what do we do with Donovan’s question?

Critical literacy guides us here as we must be diligent in making our students aware of traditional structures and approaches to literature and writing, but also we must go beyond that awareness and invite them to unpack critically why those structures exist—again, in whose interest do they work?

 


[1] See also Vonnegut’s essay included in Chapter 3 (“Here is a lesson in creative writing”) of A Man without a Country.

Florida Education Reform: “It’s a Trap”

In his stand-up comedy days, Steve Martin had a routine about a TV evangelist. This character had, he believed, stumbled across the perfect TV evangelist sale: He announced that he had spoken to God and God had assured him he was the only person God was speaking to—so viewers should not listen to any other TV evangelist who claimed to know the word of God.

Yes, this was a stinging satire of religion, but at its core, Martin is unmasking the scam grounded in claims too good to be true—the “miracle” claim.

Writing in support of South Carolina’s Read to Succeed legislation, Oran P. Smith makes this claim:

Read to Succeed was indeed a success in Florida. Since the year before the retention policy came into effect, the percentage of Florida students scoring low enough to qualify for retention has fallen by 40 percent. More Florida children are learning how to read during the developmentally critical period. The students at the bottom proved the biggest winners from Florida’s no-nonsense reforms.

Setting aside that the Florida policy is actually Just Read, Florida! (Read to Succeed is SC’s version), reading policies based on standards, high-stakes testing, and grade retention (very much a Florida model) are a subset of the Florida “miracle” scam driven by Jeb Bush—a set of policies grounded in rhetoric and ideology but regularly refuted by careful analysis.

Between leaving office as governor of Florida and running for president, in fact, Jeb Bush shuttled around the U.S. selling his education reform—not unlike Martin’s TV evangelist: “These reforms include assigning letter grades to schools, high-stakes testing, promotion and graduation requirements, bonus pay, a wide variety of alternative teacher credentialing policies, and various types of school choice mechanisms.”

Many Republican governors simply adopted the rhetoric and pushed these policies while entirely disregarding substantial evidence refuting the practices. As I have noted, SC has been on the Florida “miracle” bandwagon for some time.

Like all “miracle” claims, however, the Florida “miracle” must be confronted simply: “It’s a trap!”

The allure, now, reaches beyond the states and into the federal Department of Education headed by Betsy DeVos, who is a one-trick pony for school choice.

Yet, as Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post reports Florida’s education system — the one Betsy DeVos cites as a model — is in chaos.

Public schools now have been besieged by this scam for decades—the Texas “miracle,” the Chicago “miracle,” the Harlem “miracle,” and the Florida “miracle.”

Political careers and horrible education policy have been driven by the power of showmanship and snake-oil sales pitches.

For well over a decade, education “miracles” have nearly all been fully debunked. The need to continually refute claims that are too good to be true is part of the strategy in fact since the media are a willing customer to these lies and then the careful analysis needed to show the claims to be false is simply lost in the shuffle of the next “miracle” story.

So just as I have pointed out about charter advocacy, those pushing the Florida model for education reform and reading policy are trafficking in mostly rhetoric in the absence of evidence.

Smith’s jumbled plea to give Read to Succeed a chance is yet another trap; these claims fail his argument, and ultimately, students and teachers in SC:

  • Florida education reform and reading policy simply have not succeeded. And what is more troubling, key elements such as standards and high-stake testing, grade retention, school  choice, and charter schools have all been strongly discredited as effective reforms by dozens of studies over more than a decade. The big scam in promoting Florida reading policy is that grade retention based on high-stakes testing does bump test scores short term (which benefits politicians and their rhetoric), but that bump fades and the negative consequences of grade retention remain (see Jasper, 2016).
  • SC has no reading “crisis,” or education “crisis” for that matter. Crisis rhetoric is one of the most corrosive aspects of the education reform debate. First, low literacy test scores in SC are strongly correlated with high poverty rates; our state’s high poverty is not a crisis, but an on-going reality with deep historical roots nurtured by political cowardice and lingering racism. SC’s literacy struggles are cousins to our political failure to address race and social class inequity in our state. Shouting “reading crisis” is yet another distraction from the political will needed to address poverty. Simply put, education is not the great equalizer, and thus, education reform will not eradicate larger social problems.
  • Smith touts teacher buy-in for Read to Succeed—a dubious claim about legislation and policy that are imposed on teacher certification programs, schools, and teachers who have no option accept to comply. But the bigger issue about buy-in is worth a moment, again about Florida. In the early days of Florida reform, a school receiving multiple years of failing report card grades triggered parental school choice; however, only about 3% of parents took that choice, and then within a couple years, about half of those parents chose to return to the failing schools. So here is my challenge: Talk to current SC teachers when they are free to share their opinions and find some actual parents of school-aged children and teachers from Florida. The messages you receive about buy-in, I suspect, will cast a dark cloud on the claims by Smith.
  • The final, and maybe ugliest, trigger is framing reading policy as an either/or prospect—grade retention or “social promotion” (an outdated but powerful term that certainly spurs the All-American hatred of giving people anything—especially if we believe those “people” to be black or poor). Either/or thinking is always misleading since the research on grade retention also addresses what best serves students other than retention or simple promotion, and since grade retention based on test scores can and often retains students who have achieved passing grades for the academic year. Grade retention as the antithesis to “social promotion” has some really ugly roots in ignoring how grade retention has and will disproportionately impact negatively poor and black student.

While we may agree that Read to Succeed is “in its infancy,” as Smith concludes, we must also confront that it is a clone of policies and programs that have already failed; Read to Succeed is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig, while shouting platitudes you hope can be heard by those choosing to avoid falling into the same trap once again.

SC Fails Students Still: More on Grade Retention and Misreading Literacy

But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

Oscar Wilde (1891), The Soul of Man under Socialism

Bells will certainly continue to signal class changes in public schools all across South Carolina this fall, but there is a much more serious (and unwarranted) bell of doom for many third-graders because of SC’s punitive Read to Succeed legislation.

Paul Hyde’s Furman professor: Read to Succeed retention policy ‘a disaster’ offers a primer on the politically and publicly popular move across the U.S. to retain students based in part or fully on third-grade high-stakes tests of reading.

Once again, literacy policy often fails to address valid literacy practices or to acknowledge that literacy proficiency is strongly correlated with systemic conditions beyond the walls of the school or the control of teachers.

Worksheets on literacy skills, test-prep for state assessments of reading and writing, linking teacher evaluations to students’ test scores, and retaining children are simply not only flawed literacy policies, but also negative influences on children’s literacy and academic achievement.

And decades of creating ever-new standards and then purchasing ever-new reading textbooks and programs have utterly failed children and literacy.

For about a century, in fact, we have known what is needed to help students develop literacy—but the political will remains lacking.

A robust literacy strategy for schools must include instead the following:

  • Addressing access to books in all children’s homes.
  • Insuring access to books in all children’s schools.
  • Providing all students ample and extended time in class to read by choice.
  • Guaranteeing every student balanced literacy instruction based on each student’s demonstrated literacy needs (not the prescriptions of literacy programs).
  • Discontinuing the standards and testing disaster dominating schools and classrooms by providing teachers the materials, time, and professional autonomy to teach literacy in evidence-based ways.

Just as education policy ignores a rich research base, political leaders and the public refuse to address how public policy directly and indirectly impacts student achievement; the following would create higher student achievement and literacy:

  • Eradicating food deserts and insuring food security.
  • Providing universal healthcare to children and families with children.
  • Creating job security for families with children.

Finally, we must acknowledge that grade retention fulfills a cultural negative attitude about children and people in poverty among the U.S. public—one grounded in individual blame and punishment.

But decades of research has shown (yes, even with the failed Florida policy that serves as a template for many states such as SC) that grade retention may raise test scores short term, but that gain disappears in a few years and the many negative consequences of retention remain.

As the National Council of Teachers of English detail in their position statement on grade retention and high-stakes testing, grade retention fails in the following ways:

  • retaining students who have not met proficiency levels with the intent of repeating instruction is punitive, socially inappropriate, and educationally ineffective;
  • basing retention on high-stakes tests will disproportionately and negatively impact children of color, impoverished children, English Language Learners, and special needs students; and
  • retaining students is strongly correlated with behavior problems and increased drop-out rates.

Of course all children need and deserve rich and rewarding literacy experiences and growth, but third grade literacy is both a manufactured metric (by textbook and testing companies) and a misleading emergency.

Grade retention and skills- and standards-based literacy instruction and testing have failed and continue to fail horribly the students who need authentic literacy instruction the most—black and brown children, English language learners (who may need a decade to acquire a second language), students in poverty, special needs students.

These populations are a significant portion of the students served in SC public schools; our hateful and misguided policies are created and tolerated by a more white and affluent political leadership and public who have racist and classist biases against “other people’s children.”

In fact, failed literacy policy in SC can be linked directly to how the U.S. demonizes and fails the impoverished:

It all starts with the psychology concept known as the “fundamental attribution error”. This is a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behavior based on circumstances.

For example, if an unexpected medical emergency bankrupts you, you view yourself as a victim of bad fortune – while seeing other bankruptcy court clients as spendthrifts who carelessly had too many lattes. Or, if you’re unemployed, you recognize the hard effort you put into seeking work – but view others in the same situation as useless slackers. Their history and circumstances are invisible from your perspective.

Struggling students in SC are viewed as lacking or broken, in need of repair and/or punishment to correct.

If you think this is harsh, compare how mostly white and more affluent students learn literacy in advanced and gifted classes in public schools (a dirty little secret about how we have maintained segregation) and most private schools.

Like No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Act, Read to Succeed is an Orwellian name for a horrible way to view, treat, and teach children.

SC continues to be a morally bankrupt state, calloused and driven to punish instead of offering our citizens, especially our children, the compassion and opportunities all people deserve.

For Further Reading

At Duke, I realized how badly many South Carolina schools are failing students like me, Ehime Ohue

Grade Retention Research

Executive Summary: THE EFFECTS OF MANDATED THIRD GRADE RETENTION ON STANDARD DIPLOMA ACQUISITION AND STUDENT OUTCOMES OVER TIME: A POLICY ANALYSIS OF FLORIDA’S A+ PLAN (9 January 2017)

THE EFFECTS OF MANDATED THIRD GRADE RETENTION ON STANDARD DIPLOMA ACQUISITION AND STUDENT OUTCOMES: A POLICY ANALYSIS OF FLORIDA’S A+ PLAN, Kathleen M. Jasper (2016)

NCTE: Resolution on Mandatory Grade Retention and High-Stakes Testing

Retain to Impede: When Reading Legislation Fails (Again)

Confirmed: SC Implementing Retain to Impede

Beware Grade-Level Reading and the Cult of Proficiency

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Florida Retention Policy a Blight on Literacy, Children across US

 

Reformed to Death: Discipline and Control Eclipse Education

An enduring gift of being a student and a teacher is that these experiences often create lifelong and powerful personal and professional relationships. Reminiscing about these experiences, however, is often bittersweet because we are simultaneously reminded of the great promise of education as well as how too often we are completely failing that promise.

After writing about my two years as as a co-lead instructor for a local Writing Project summer institute, the former student I discussed called me, and we found ourselves wading deeply into the bittersweet.

She has in the intervening years been a co-facilitator in the same workshop where I taught her now more than 15 years ago; she also has worked in many capacities providing teachers professional development and serving as a mentor to pre-service teachers completing education programs and certification requirements.

As we talked, the pattern that emerged is extremely disturbing: the most authentic and enriching opportunities for teachers are routinely crowded out by bureaucratic and administrative mandates, often those that are far less valid as instructional practice.

In my chapter on de-grading the writing classroom, I outlined how the imposition of accountability ran roughshod over the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP), which embodied both the best of how to teach writing and a gold standard approach to professional development.

What is best for teachers and what is best for students, however, are mostly irrelevant in the ongoing high-stakes accountability approach to education reform, a process in which discipline and control eclipse education.

Local sites of the NWP are crucibles of how the reform movement is a death spiral for authentic and high-quality teaching and learning as well as teacher professionalism.

At the core of the NWP model is a charge that teachers must experience and become expert in that which they teach; therefore, to guide students through a writing workshop experience, teachers participate in extended summer writing workshop institutes.

While NWP site-based institutes and other programs thrived against the weight of the accountability era, that appears to be waning under the weight of accountability-based mandates that are in a constant state of reform; teachers are routinely required to seek new certification while they and their students must adapt to a perpetually different set of standards and high-stakes tests.

That bureaucracy is often Orwellian since “best practice” and “evidence-based”—terminology birthed in authentic contexts such as the NWP—have become markers for programs and practices that are aligned with standards and testing, not with the research base of the field. The logic is cripplingly circular and disturbingly misleading.

This erosion and erasing of teaching writing well and effectively is paralleled all across the disciplines in K-12 education, in fact—although how writing is particularly ruined in standards- and testing-based programs and practices remains our best marker of accountability as discipline and control, not as education.

I want to end here by staying with writing, but shifting to the sacred cow of the reform movement: evidence.

High-stakes testing of writing has been a part of state accountability and national testing (NAEP and, briefly, the SAT) for more than 30 years since A Nation at Risk ushered in (deceptively) the accountability era of K-12 public education in the U.S.

What do we know about high-stakes testing as well as the accountability paradigm driven by standards and tests?

George Hillocks has documented [1] that high-stakes testing of writing reduces instruction to training students to conform to anchor papers, template writing, and prescriptive rubrics. In other words, as I noted above, “best practice” and “evidence-based” became whether or not teaching and learning about writing conformed to the way students were tested—not if students had become in any way authentic or autonomous writers, and thinkers.

My own analysis of NAEP tests of writing [2] details that standardized data touted as measuring writing proficiency are strongly skewed by student reading abilities and significant problems with the alignment of the assessment’s prompts and scoring guides.

And now, we have yet more proof that education reform is fundamentally flawed, as Jill Barshay reports:

“(T)he use of the computer may have widened the writing achievement gap,” concluded the working paper, “Performance of fourth-grade students in the 2012 NAEP computer-based writing pilot assessment.”  If so, that has big implications as test makers, with the support of the Department of Education, move forward with their goal of moving almost all students to computerized assessments, which are more efficient and cheaper to grade.

Not only does high-stakes testing of writing fail the research base on how best to teach composition [3], but also the pursuit of efficiency [4] continues to drive all aspects of teaching and learning, effectively contradicting the central claims of reformers to be pursuing seemingly lofty goals such as closing the achievement gap.

Writing instruction and assessment are prisoners of the cult of proficiency that is K-12 education reform, and are just one example of the larger accountability machine that has chosen discipline and control over education.

Reform has become both the means and the ends to keeping students and teachers always “starting again,” “never [to be] finished with anything,” as Gilles Deleuze observed [5].

Barshay ends her coverage of the IES study on computer-based writing assessment with a haunting fear about how evidence drives practice in a high-stakes accountability environment, a fear I guarantee will inevitably become reality:

My fear is that some educators will respond by drilling poor kids in the QWERTY keyboard, when the time would be better spent reading great works of literature and writing essays and creative stories.

As long as reforming and accountability are the masters, we will continue to make the wrong instructional decisions, we will continue to be compelled to make the wrong decisions.


[1] See Hillocks’s “FightingBack: Assessing theAssessments” and The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning.

[2] See 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate?, co-authored with Renita Schmidt.

[3] See The Impact of the SAT and ACT Timed Writing Tests – NCTE.

[4] See NCTE Position Statement on Machine Scoring.

[5] See Gilles Deleuze, Postscript on the Societies of Control:

The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to barracks, from barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything.

Teaching Literacy in Pursuit of “a Wholesome Use of Language”

Because, in the final analysis, the language we speak constitutes who we are as a people.

“Yesterday,” Men without Women, Haruki Murakami

“Let us look at this English tongue with which, as English teachers, we profess to deal,” proposes Lou LaBrant in her “The Place of English in General Education,” published in English Journal in 1940.

As LaBrant’s biographer, I immediately pause at “profess” and recognize that a scolding is about to commence—one that is blunt, smart, and unlikely to achieve her goals because of her scathing tone and style as well as the recalcitrance of far too many who teach literacy at all levels of formal education.

During my interviews with people who had known LaBrant, one spoke directly to her essence: “She never suffered fools gladly,” he said.

And about language and their uses, we have always been and remain surrounded by foolishness about language—in William Butler Yeats’s trap: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

Among her many points addressing how educators teach literature/reading and writing, LaBrant makes a foundational demand:

Mental hygiene calls for a wholesome use of language. Schools do much to set up the opposite attitude. By the very nature of the school, its experiences become a standard of sort. Language used in school is characterized as “good” in contrast to language which cannot be used in school. By our taboo on sex words, on literature which deals frankly with life-experiences, and on discussion of love and romance, we set up inhibitions and false values. Only by discussing frankly and unemotionally vital matters can we develop individuals who use language adequately and without embarrassment….Our people use [language] timidly, haltingly. They fear to speak directly, call frankness vulgarity, fear to discuss love, beauty, the poetry of life. They ban honest words and prefer circumlocutions. The language teacher, the teacher of English, carries a goodly share of responsibility for the mental hygiene of young people. (p. 362)

Formal schooling, LaBrant confronts, creates an unhealthy attitude about language in young people—and thus, corrupting what young people believe, how they think, and ultimately how they navigate the world. These failures of formal schooling have roots, she notes, in misguided practice:

As training for independent thinking and clear self-expression, how appropriate is it to ask children to punctuate bad sentences some textbook-maker has written, or to write endless papers on topics chosen by a teacher or committee? (pp. 363-364)

And thus, LaBrant concludes: “Language is a most important factor in general education because it is a vital, intimate way of behaving. It is not a textbook, a set of rules, or a list of books” (p. 364).

Teaching Literacy in Pursuit of “a Wholesome Use of Language”

For about a decade now, my university has been offering faculty seminars focusing on teaching writing/composition to first-year students. The university switched from a traditional English 101/102 model (though we never used those labels) to a pair of first-year seminars with one being writing-intensive.

That shift included a commitment to inviting and allowing faculty across the disciplines to teach writing/composition—despite virtually none of them (included some in the English Department) having formal training in teaching composition or being writers.

More recently, we have created a year-long seminar, Faculty Writing Fellows (FWF), and appointed a Director of Writing who leads these seminars and all aspects of the writing program, which now includes the writing-intensive first-year seminar (the second one has been dropped) and an upper-level writing/research requirement.

This past week, the opening session of the upcoming cohort of FWF began their journey, and during one presentation, I sat listening to a colleague explore with the participants how to decide if and how to engage with students whose writing includes so-called problems with grammar, mechanics, and usage (a set of distinctions that most professors lump as “grammar”).

This colleague teaches history of the English language and upper-level grammar courses; she was very patiently and kindly—unlike LaBrant—making a case for descriptive grammar and stepping back from focusing in an unhealthy way on correctness in order to begin with student expression, while also carefully unpacking what students do and don’t know about conventional uses of language (instead of rules).

I could listen to this colleague all day; she is a measured and gifted scholar of language who embodies how linguists talk about and think about language (it is more about marveling at and wondering about than preserving some arcane and misguided rule).

Then the inevitable happened.

A participant asked about a rule, concerned that we professors have an obligation to maintain the rules of the language but also worried that she may be addressing a rule that no longer applies.

My colleague was steadfast. Instead of making a declaration on the said rule, she walked the point back to our overarching obligation to address the ideas of students as expressed in their writing.

Despite her kindness, patience, and authoritative reply,  I fear that she had no more success than LaBrant did with her abrupt mannerisms.

Far too many teachers charged with teaching literacy as their main obligation and teachers who necessarily engage with literacy anchored to what they would call teaching about disciplinary knowledge/content remain trapped in thinking that correctness trumps all else in teaching writing/composition and speaking in formal settings.

In the session about responding to student writing, then, we were derailed into chatter about splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, and the use of “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

My colleague’s message, I regret, was lost in the feeding frenzy, the language itself left bleeding and battered in the wake of the grammar police circling and attacking like sharks.

And here is what was lost.

First, our obligations with teaching literacy must begin with two primary goals: fostering an accurate and healthy attitude about language (descriptive grammar grounded in the history of language development) concurrent with initially addressing the ideas expressed by students (accuracy, originality, complexity) through coherent, clear, and concise language use (diction, style, organization).

Next, nested in that first dual obligation, we must raise student awareness that conventional uses of language, although always shifting, carry status marking in many circumstances. Language use, then, impacts directly and indirectly a person’s credibility as well as the effectiveness of the ideas being expressed.

Here, let me emphasize that this obligation allows any of us to teach directly to students that people continue to function under the rule mentality, but along with that, we should make them aware of several important caveats:

  • Prescriptive grammar often fails in the context of historical patterns of language, and many so-called rules are illogical in that historical context: not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions both sprung from imposing Latin grammar onto English in order to raise its status as a language; rejecting double negatives the result of garbling mathematical and linguistic concepts; and constructions such as “Aren’t I?” highlighting the often foolish pursuit of rules over naturally occurring usage (the latter being how “they” has become a singular pronoun).
  • Teaching students about a rules approach to language must include pulling back the curtain, sharing with students that many so-called rules are in fact the topic of heated debate among experts on language (again, the “they” debate).
  • Language use cannot be divorced from discussions of power; the standard dialect versus non-standard dialect dichotomy is about who has power and how those in power manipulate language correctness to marginalize and silence some groups (LaBrant addresses this in her 1940 essay quoted above). Despite many who call for no politics in teaching, to teach standard English in a rules-based way is a blunt political act itself. Instead taking a false objective stance about rules, invite students to read, for example, James Baldwin on black English, or Silas House’s “In My Country.”

Finally, and I am making a sequential case here, once a student has presented an artifact of a quality that deserves it (after purposeful drafting and conferencing), we must wade into editing, where we do have an obligation to address conventional grammar, mechanics, and usage. But even as we confront conventional language use, we must know the status of the language ourselves, and we must also continue to focus on issues that are status marking for the student’s attention in editing.

Dangling and misplaced modifiers are likely to garble meaning while split infinitives, not so much.

Subject/verb agreement (common when students are ambitious, writing longer sentences with subordinations that separate the subject and verb) can scar credibility while pronoun/antecedent agreement or a comma failure, not so much.

Ultimately, no teacher can do everything in any one course. We are all forced, then, to make priorities.

In terms of literacy and language, we must first do no harm—foster and honor “a wholesome use of language” that cannot be separated from the autonomy and agency of our students as purposeful, ethical, and informed people.


LaBrant, L. (1940, May). The place of English in general education. The English Journal, 29(5), 356-365.