Links: Grammar, science: 20 Feb. 2013

1. A post at Smithsonian called “The Ten Most Disturbing Scientific Discoveries” is from a couple years ago but still seems valid. In light of some of my experiences with feeling my creativity is not an intentional and/or consciously controlled, I enjoyed reading how much else that we do is also at least influenced by other non-rational, sub-/unconscious things:

6. Your mind is not your own.

Freud might have been wrong in the details, but one of his main ideas—that a lot of our behaviors and beliefs and emotions are driven by factors we are unaware of—turns out to be correct. If you’re in a happy, optimistic, ambitious mood, check the weather. Sunny days make people happier and more helpful. In a taste test, you’re likely to have a strong preference for the first sample you taste—even if all of the samples are identical. The more often you see a person or an object, the more you’ll like it. Mating decisions are based partly on smell. Our cognitive failings are legion: we take a few anecdotes and make incorrect generalizations, we misinterpret information to support our preconceptions, and we’re easily distracted or swayed by irrelevant details. And what we think of as memories are merely stories we tell ourselves anew each time we recall an event.

2. A post illustrating the wrongness of some grammar proscriptions, that infinitives can be split, that it’s not such a crime to end a sentence with a preposition, and that it’s OK to start a sentence with a conjunction (like “and”). I spend a good portion of many of my teaching days instructing high school sophomores is the basics: not confusing their, there, and they’re; finding subjects and verbs so as to avoid writing sentence fragments; and how to use semicolons between independent clauses (and series that contain sub-series, like this sentence).

A bright student asked me today why we study grammar, and I said, basically, that correct grammar is the way that smart people talk to each other and that if one wants to sound smart, one has to learn to use correct grammar (in at least those situations where one wants to sound smart). In retrospect, I should have said “educated people” instead of “smart people,” since of course there are many smart people who do not have formal education, but otherwise I’d stand by my explanation. My student seemed to enjoy what I said — perhaps it sounds cynical, but I can’t honestly come up with a better justification. David Foster Wallace, in his essay “Authority and American Usage” (a version of which is here), says

“the real truth, of course, is that SWE [Standard Written English] is the dialect of the American elite. That it was invented, codified, and promulgated by Privileged WASP Males and is perpetuated as ‘Standard’ by same. That it is the shibboleth of the Establishment, and that it is an instrument of political power and class division and racial discrimination and all manner of social inequity” (page 107 of the paperback of Wallace’s book “Consider the Lobster”). Wallace also says, “In this country, SWE is perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige, and anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE” (pg. 109).

Wanting my students to have the ability to code-switch to SWE, I hope to teach them the standards, however arbitrary, of standard English. I do not want to argue that students don’t need to be taught these standards — although I suspect that some of my students pick up these standards unintentionally by immersion in language-rich households and/or by the self-directed decoding-processing of great quantities of texts (that is, reading for pleasure).

What often troubles me about teaching grammar in a writing class is that it seems altogether separate from teaching the writing — as if I were teaching fluid dynamics physics to beginning swimmers: it’s something to think about, but doesn’t really accomplish the goal. Writing, like most skills, improves through practice and repetition more than it does by theoretical analysis. The biggest thing I had to let go of as a creative writer was letting go of theories about how my stories should be, and just write.

As a teacher, I’m not sure how to really incorporate the students’ theoretical-grammar knowledge into their actual writing practice. I don’t know where the words I write come from, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never gotten writing done by thinking, “First, I’ll put a noun — no, wait, an adjective, and then a noun, then a verb — maybe an adverb sprinkled in somewhere?” Along these lines, I was in a meeting today where a special education teacher asked my opinion about whether a student was using too few or too many adjectives. I didn’t know how to answer that.

Writing is holistic, and in my case, my writing has gotten better over years and years of doing it, very little of which involved abstractly theorizing. Using language is an immediate experience, not far removed from other “automatic” brain activities as recognizing faces, perhaps. I love about teaching writing that it is holistic, that I’m asking students to create works, rather than just asking students to return some facts or solve some problems, as other disciplines do. But maybe the best any writing teacher can do is provide students formulas and techniques until students can create their own habits, process, mental models, etc.

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