Issues of Correctness

Joseph Williams’ essay resonated with me more than any of the others for a few reasons. First, I taught one of his books in my class this semester—a shortened edition of his Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. I first read Style six years ago, and I still believe the words that opened that book: “It is good to write clearly, and anyone can.” But I also know that style rubs up against grammar and correctness on more levels than I’m comfortable with. Does a student need to master grammar before she can have a style? Is correctness objective, or does it float on the hot air coming from grammarians and linguists?

In “The Phenomology of Error,” Williams tries to understand why grammar errors arouse so much excitement. Error, he says, is hard to research because when we ask someone what they think about correctness, that person often responds with a desire to protect some standard of usage, to flaunt their knowledge of “the rules.” Even worse, by asking these respondents about correctness, we passively affirm that they know something about it. Williams says there is a dangerous tendency to believe these people because they ought to know. After all, if we cannot trust the experts, who can we trust?

William Zinsser provides an example of this in his book On Writing Well. Zinsser was one of 104 scholars asked to help decide which words should be included in The American Heritage Dictionary. Zinsser describes the panel’s difficulty in coming to any unanimous decision. More often, words like impact (as a noun) met with both vehement rejection and happy approval. These are the people who decide correctness on some levels, and they don’t even agree on what’s right because they are concerned with protecting some sense of the integrity of English. The rule makers enjoy this, I think. “It simply feels more authentic when we condemn error and enforce a rule,” Williams writes. “After all, what good is learning a rule of all we can do is obey it?” (Williams).

The lesson I take from Williams is that language is highly individualized. Everyone has a unique vocabulary, so we should not be surprised when our students use language uniquely. The problem with individuality in language is that it may not efficiently communicate ideas. This crops up again and again in composition theory. Whenever I read about a BW student who is unable to communicate his ideas, it is one of those cases where personalized language isn’t effectively communicating meaning.

Yet Hartwell shows that basic writers know how to communicate their ideas to others—in speech at least. Hartwell believes that students see writing as an intermediate step between thought and speech (Hartwell 224). When asked to read their writing to others, students naturally translate their ungrammatical writing into perfectly passable speech.

But this is not enough. Writing hinges on the author’s absence, not her presence to explain their word choices. So in an effort to get students to write clearly, compositionists teach students to use a “specialized discourse” and to appropriate the authority they need to take control of their writing (Bartholomae 644). Most importantly, Bartholomae says, students learn to emulate other styles around them. They are not creating new texts; they are learning from texts and discourses that already exist. As such, it is only a small step to requiring a knowledge of how that extant system works, i.e. its grammar.

This formal grammar is not theirs. It is an outside system that has confusing rules that may not click with the way the students already understand English. And if they break the rules, we pounce on them with gallons of red ink, bleeding on their papers as if the students had wounded us along with the language. The focus becomes form and correctness, and we tend to read student papers with an eye for error, not concepts. In so doing, those of us “in the know” remain the rulers of grammar and keep students where they belong: writing in the classroom instead of writing with the rest of us.

But “the rest of us,” Williams points out, break as many grammar rules as our students do, but this has been covered up with a Technicolor coat of style. Expert writers understand the rules and can therefore break them and bend them to their hearts’ content. When students have mastered the rules of grammar, then they can innovate and form their own styles (Lu 491) (Lu does not believe this, but her wording helps my point). As long as we use correctness as the key to higher education, we reinforce this power pattern.

So a unique style can only come about when students have mastered grammar … Grammar can only be mastered when students learn all the rules … The rules are more or less unnatural attempts to regulate a highly individualized system … One big subjective mess.

The damnable thing is this: we need a language to talk about writing if we are to teach it. Grammar provides that shared language. So long as we take writing instruction as a given, then students must know how to use grammar and talk about writing. I don’t think anyone can “master” grammar, and I don’t think mastery is a prerequisite for a clear style.

Nevertheless, I also think students need to “understand” grammar. There are enough basic terms and concepts to fill a small book—terms that span all of the proposed theories of English grammar—and these are the ones students must know. They need to know what nouns, verbs, predicates, and complete sentences are. As teachers, we need to point out the errors we notice; but we do not need to search for error. The grammatical goofs that stick out are the ones that hinder communication and need to be addressed. The others are folklore.

Joseph Williams deftly minimizes the subject of grammar in his book Style, assuming as I do that students should understand how their language works before attempting to write anything as complex as an academic essay. I do not believe that the rules are set in stone, but I do believe that students must know how to talk about their writing in at least rudimentary terms if they are to approach writing as a serious opportunity for discourse and not as simple homework.

Works Cited

  • Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing-Process Problems. Ed. Mike Rose. New York: Guilford, 1985. 134-65.
  • Hartwell, Patrick. “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.” College English 47.2 (1985): 105-27.
  • Lu, Min-Zhan. “Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone.” College Composition and Communication 45.4 (1994): 442-58.
  • Williams, Joseph M. “The Phenomology of Error.” College Composition and Communication 32 (1981): 152-68.

Interchangeable Students

USA Today contributor Patrick Welsh wrote recently on the plight of the “average student.” Welsh claims that these students, who fall between “gifted and talented” and “learning disabled,” are often ignored by schools because those schools can gain more prestige by dealing with students at the extremes. Welch criticizes this tracking system, and harkens back to the 1970s when some schools had up to five tracks for students. The problem with those systems, and Welsh acknowledges this, is that they became forms of de facto segregation.

Welsh’s solution is for the parents of “average” students to “band together to bring pressure” to their schools to create “a middle track for average students” with a name that will please those parents who have a hard time calling their children average.

Welsh makes some damaging assumptions in this article. First, he assumes that students are victims of institutional tracking. Second, he assumes that there is a class of students who could be labeled as “average.” Lastly, he implies a plot on the part of administrators and teachers to improve their schools’ reputations as quickly as possible, student well-being be damned.

Students may be victims of institutional tracking, but this does not account for the students’ ability to learn and improve their condition. If they find themselves on one track, it is not their destiny to stay there. Their own initiative to learn should propel them off of that track and on to something — if not better, then different.

As for there being a class of students called “average,” Welsh needs to open his eyes. His definition of which students are “average” is just as limiting as the tracking system he decries. Labeling students as “average” does nothing to liberate them from tracking or from being as pigeon-holed as the “gifted” or “remedial” students who supposedly surround them.

Finally, what sort of selfishness does Welsh assume is in place in academia? The way he writes this article makes it sound like teachers are out for their skin and CVs only, caring nothing for the students they teach. As an English teacher at T.C. Williams HS, Welsh should know better. If he thinks this is the dominant mood in the academy, then he needs to get out of Virginia and get a sense of perspective.

These kind of theories irk me. Welsh tells us that the students are victims of the teachers’ selfishness; but rather than propose that the students take their own education into their hands, he falls back on the parents who should rescue their helpless kids from the harsh hands of the school administrators.

Students must be held accountable for their own educations. If they are not, then we are faced with a reality I don’t want to look at, one in which school is not a privilege but a mechanically followed stage of life. Students need to realize that a formal education is an opportunity, not a rite of passage into adulthood. And it must be students who see this and take up the power to change their own lives. Parents cannot rescue them, should not rescue them, not if we want to instill values of hard work and self-sufficience into students today.

Theory and Composition

Writing occupies a singularly difficult position. At its core, writing is communication. It moves information between people—moves it more reliably than speech because it freezes words and transmits them as the author wrote them. Writing should therefore be a tool of immense practical possibility. But writing also lives somewhere between thought and interpretation. While the tool itself, the alphabet and grammar, may be neutral (debatable), writing does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. A text carries with it its entire history and context, as well as the contexts and histories of both the author and reader(s), a lesson Patricia Laurence makes clear: “All words are not equal: some are the fashionable pebbles of a day; others, rocks formed deep in the substrata of culture and history” (105).

Teaching writing, then, involves more than just the “neutral” system for writing. Most critics assume that the writing taught in schools is the form accepted by mainstream culture. They also assume that the people learning to write are from a different culture than the teachers, one that is entirely their own and that is distinct from the mainstream. Given these conditions, Pierre Bordieu reminds us that “the school and other social institutions legitimate and reinforce through specifics sets of practices and discourses class-based systems of behavior and disposition that reproduce the existing dominant society” (quoted in Giroux 54). By teaching writing, the “gatekeepers” to mainstream culture (Lu 891), ask/force their students to join/assimilate with the dominant culture.

John Rouse and Gerald Graff are proponents of this cultural assimilation theory, though neither critic calls himself a believer in its righteousness. Rouse thinks children acquire social identities when they learn the language of the culture they live in, a lesson that promotes the hegemony of the ruling class (1-2). To learn writing, students must give up their cultural backgrounds and conform blindly to the powers that be. Graff sees the same process in a less sinister light. Conforming is “part of an attempt to prepare these young people to get a decent job and thus have a chance at a decent life in American society” (Graff 852). Graff says that Rouse’s culturally-aware, student-centered pedagogy denies students the opportunity to learn the analytical language that can be a powerful tool for starting social change (Lu 899).

Theories like these, according to Bruce Horner, routinely linked writing students with activism and composition studies with minority concerns (202). Horner writes that in order to combat this image, compositionists began producing success stories, usually in the form of before-and-after portraits. Instead of activists, “the students were portrayed as well-adjusted and well-placed citizens” (Horner 206). This practices accomplished two things. Firstly, it certified the open-admission students as “nonthreatening” “outsiders” who wanted nothing more than to join the mainstream (Horner 208). And secondly, it ensured that the entire Basic Writing movement became lost in its own discourse.

In proclaiming their successes, the compositionists tended to make light of or ignore their real-world constraints, like budgets, class sizes, and salaries (Horner 215), entrenching the notion that composition is a field always already struggling to survive (217). “As a consequence,” Horner writes, any practical examinations of how a composition program was faring came across less as demands for improvement and more as pleas for sympathy (218). Composition had “naturalized” its position as a struggling field.

“Conflict and Struggle” became not a reality that needed to be addressed but rather a theoretical stance. The problem lies with theory and with the nature of writing itself. Theory takes over where reading ends. Rather than examining a text directly, theories abstract and generalize those texts, using those texts as tools for describing a larger condition. The text is absent from theory because the text is so widely conceived that it loses its meaning as a coherent unit while theory itself loses its literary grounding. This parallels writing, where the gap between author and the reader is always there—the absence is always present, in Derridean-speak.

This metanarrative serves to show that when written subjects like composition are released into the realm of theory, it becomes incredibly hard to separate practical concerns from theoretical concerns. In fact, once we have taken but one step down the road to theory, it is impossible to go back—the Paradise is lost, so to speak. Since we cannot return to the innocence of composition studies without theory, we must be aware of how that theory informs not only what we do in the classroom but also what we write, lest we become even more entangled in our own discourse.

Works Cited

  • Giroux, Henry. “Critical Theory & Educational Practice.” The Critical Pedagogy Reader. Eds. Antonia Darder, Marta Baltodano and Rodolfo D. Torres. New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 1983 (2003). 27-56.
  • Graff, Gerald. “The Politics of Composition: A Reply to John Rouse.” College English 41.8 (1980): 851-56.
  • Horner, Bruce. “Discoursing Basic Writing.” College Composition and Communication 47.2 (1996): 199-222.
  • Laurence, Patricia. “A Comment on the Symposium on Basic Writing.” College English 57.1 (1995): 104-5.
  • Lu, Min-Zhan. “Conflict and Struggle: The Enemies or Preconditions of Basic Writing?” College English 54.8 (1992): 887-913.
  • Rouse, John. “The Politics of Composition.” College English 41.1 (1979): 1-12.


I’ve read several books now where the author tells me in the introduction that he or she has spent the past several decades writing in the margins of books. This author then proceeds to tell me about looking around his or her library the other day and deciding that, by God, it was time to write a book based on all those years of careful annotation.

Then I think back to my youth. I remember being told earnestly throughout school not to write in the books. This was so deeply ingrained into my brain by second grade, that I remember when our teacher began to read us The Hobbit. I happened to see inside the book and glimpsed all her marks. When I asked her about it, she told me that it was her book and she could write in it if she wanted to.

This was a shock to me, because the possibility of writing in a book had not yet crossed my mind at that early age. In fact, writing in books would elude me for the next decade or so until I graduated from high school. The years between were marked with a year-end ritual, as regular as May Day. We all gathered on the last day of school and mechanically searched through our books, looking for any scrap of paper or any bit of pencil mark left between the covers. Those marks had to be eradicated before we could pass on to the next grade, lest our parents owe the school district a great deal of money.

I like to think that on some level, this was an exercise in protecting the text; but that is me looking back with a degree in English literature and a keen interest in textuality. I know that the decision was economically motivated. The district had to make those books last as long as possible because there was damnably little money to buy new books. But you can’t stop a literary critic from dreaming about theory-minded high school administrators protecting the sanctity of the text for future readers.

Annotation has been on my mind today thanks to an article on by Scott McLemee. In the piece, McLemee describes his personal experience with annotation and his secret system — a few hash marks and some clever abbreviations. He also reminds us that annotation used to be a practiced art, something that was learned formally. There were certain annotations to make in the classics, like Aristotle, annotations that were fashionable and considered standard. Books were even published on the proper way to annotate a book.

Since then, annotation has devolved into a strictly personal preference habit. Most of the textbooks my students read encourage them to read with a pen in hand at all times. I happen to think this is great advice that most college students ignore. They ignore it for the same basic reason why we had to spent those ritual days erasing all pencil marks in our high school texts: the college students want to sell those books back to their bookstores and recoup at least a fraction of the fortune they spent on the texts in the first place.

Okay, so there are monetary reasons why young people want to keep their books pristine, but then there are also adults and scholars who shy away from annotation. In the movie Finding Forrester, Sean Connery’s character scolds his young padiwan for dog-earing a few pages in his book. “Have some respect for the author!” Connery spits at the teenager. His attitude is not without precedent.

A book is a magical thing. Disregarding theory for a moment, a book is the physical result of a lot of time and effort on the author’s part. There are those who believe that the book should be protected and preserved as a kind of rite or offering to the author-god. In less grandiose terms, keeping a book in mint condition shows respect for the author. People who think this way believe deep down that the words and ideas belong to the author, so the physical manifestation of them also still belongs to the author. Buying the book is just another way of buying access to those ideas.

Then there are people like me, who believe that the paper and glue I just bought are now my property, to have, to hold, to tear, to dog-ear, to coffee-stain, to bend, to annotate as I see fit. I don’t see this in any way as disrespect to the author. Those words are bigger than my copy of the book because I do not possess the only copy of the book — unless I’m very lucky. I also see the commentary I make in the margins as my dialogue with the author, my physical manifestation of my thoughts.

They are also helpful reminders for when I write. I mark passages that are useful or especially bad. It helps the review process, to be sure, especially when you didn’t have time to review before you have to teach the book!

Do I worry that I’m changing the reading for the next reader? No. I value the annotations I see in the used books I buy. I picked up a copy of Eagleton’s Literary Theory at a used bookstore the other day, and it fascinates me to see someone else’s reading process. It is a little glimpse into their minds, just as much as reading their writing would be.


Through Google’s blog search for “hypertext theory,” I found this post by A White Bear on the subject. First of all, this person got together with other grad students in his/her master’s program to discuss HT. Why is no one in Bozeman interested in this enough to get together in our spare time and talk about theory? Okay, that’s just a personal beef.

The main reason I point to this article is because it follows, in some ways, some of the idea I believe in. The author thinks of the Internet as a site, not of free play, but of limited play. The experience a reader of the Internet has is always mediated, through browsers and Googles and Web designers.

The author also compares the Internet to print in the sense that you can jump from one text to another — the Web just provides an infinitely faster jump. On this point, I must disagree. In the post, the author compares reading the Web to reading a book. With a book, you can quit reading and go on to read other things like cereal boxes and dictionaries. True, you can do that with the Internet as well, but here’s the key difference: the book that you read does have a linear order that the author asked you to follow (whether you follow or not is a choice). There is an order to follow for the book to make sense as the author intended it.

The Internet has no such order. Rather than providing a linear plot or logic, the authors of the Web provide a set of choices to the reader. The reader then has the choice of whether to utilize those options or not. There is no central text or plot. That is key. That is damn-near Derridean! In fact, I will argue that it is precisely the kind of thing Derrida was talking about when he wrote on language and presence. The plot of the Internet, the logical order of the Internet, is always deferred. We believe that at some point and on some level it will one day make sense, but we can never get to that point because a) the Internet is not present in any sense of the word and b) the Internet is constantly expanding in all directions. Every point is as much a center as any other point.

Perhaps this is rambling, but I don’t have time to polish this. More to come.


Right now I am having some server migration issues between the old blog ( and this one. It looks like I’ve only been blogging for a few days, when in reality I have yet to save my last 3 years’ worth of posts from the ether. It is a work in progress, and the results, if successful, should be self evident.

The “Student Writing Problem”

“Something is wrong with student writing.” Composition teachers encounter this phrase often. Sitting in our graduate office last semester, which the English department shares with History, I overheard a history student talking with his TA about a paper. The student said he had written in a certain way because that’s how he’d learned it in writing class. To that, the TA responded, “They don’t even know how to write.” Apart from the minor cold war this caused between the sides of the room for the rest of the term, it made me think. Apparently, there is something wrong with writing instructors too.

I’m not alone in this thought. Mina Shaughnessy agrees that something needs to be done about composition instruction. In her sarcastic essay “Diving In” (1976), she presents four Piaget-like developmental stages for writing teachers. Shaughnessy does two things with this essay. She forces teachers to examine their own habits and see how dangerously out of touch they are with students. The essay also implicitly blames academic selfishness for the student writing problem. Her staged imply that composition teachers are trapped in the nineteenth century, still looking for essays written by students who grew up learning with Homer and Cicero. Any issues with student writing are there because instructors fail to see the complexity of basic writing tasks performed in class and because teachers underestimate students’ value as thinking human beings.

But it is too much of a simplification to lay the blame solely on instructors. Accordingly, the researchers working in composition studies answered Shaughnessy. Critics like Andrea Lunsford (1979), Linda Flowers, and John Hayes (1981) point to brain development as an answer. Because students’ cognitive abilities are not yet fully developed, they cannot easily perform the tasks that academic writing requires. Lunsford in particular believes that “basic writers” have trouble forming abstractions. Students are “able to formulate spontaneous concepts, but not able to remove themselves from such concepts” (300). As students mature, she writes, they develop a less egocentric view, continuing the process of “de-centering” throughout their lives (301).

The cognitive model is as simplification as well, and it smacks of the scientific fetishism that Mike Rose writes about in “The Language of Exclusion” (1985). Schools and universities, he says, are notoriously fond of efficiency, and it if far easier to account for composition when it is reduced to statistics in spreadsheets and explained with medical rationales. And composition students are complicit in this trend because it is easier to win money from budget committees with statistics than it is with testimonials. Like the students who Lunsford says fall back on their familiar modes of discourse, it seems universities also fall back on their own favorite mode: statistics.

So if the blame can neither be placed wholly on students nor entirely on instructors, where does it belong? Further, is the “problem” of student literacy a chimera (the “myth of transience” as Rose dubs it (562)) or is it really solvable?

First of all, blame is a political word, a retrospective word. Blame demands accountability for a past or extant problem. So long as instructors and theorists of composition seek to lay blame for the student writing problem, we will never move closer to a solution (if one exists). Moreover, blame is a chameleon. It often hides in research under the names reason and cause. In Flower and Hayes, the reason for poor writing is a lack of cognitive development. In Shaughnessy, the cause of poor writing is inflexible pedagogy. What these writers want to show is that someone or something is responsible for the problem, and there is something positive to be said for that approach. Blame allows us to put a name or face on a problem. Once it’s identified, it can be dealt with.

In composition, though, despite all the blame that has been laid, we are no nearer to understanding just what is wrong with student writing, the face of the problem. Instructors could name specific errors, such as tense shifts or pronoun confusion, or vague errors, like a lack of commitment or poor idea development; yet no matter how the problem is described, it cannot be stated completely.

So what is to be done? I don’t suppose to answer that in two pages, but the essays I’ve referred to here offer some solid advice. To begin, we must follow Rose’s advice and do away with terms like remediation and any other medical metaphors that imply something is curably wrong with student writing. As long as instructors think something is wrong, they will search for a solution—and there just isn’t one to find. Instructors also need to follow the spirit of Shaughnessy’s paper and be aware of their students as thinking human beings. All of them have something valuable to communicate in writing, and they must be given the chance to do that without feeling like they are unwelcome invaders who have scaled the ivory walls of Fortress Academia. Finally, we must follow Lunsford’s advice. Students need to learn by doing, and composition courses should center on student writing. When students take the initiative and see themselves as functional writers, there will be more room for fair dialogue between composition students and about improving student writing. All the theorizing in the world means little when it comes to students putting pen to paper or fingers to keys and actually practicing composition.