My quest for empathy has slowed its roll as the stress of school, work, family, and the state of our nation has taken its toll on my mental state. I know that I am not alone in feeling this way, and I take a strange comfort in the collective suffering we are all going through, both because it puts my own worries in perspective and because it reminds me of why I am pursuing empathy in the first place. This quest for empathy is for the purpose of moving out of my little world, made even smaller by COVID-19, so that I can keep my eyes on the bigger picture; sadly, it is incredibly difficult for me to see your suffering if I am overly consumed by my own. This doesn’t mean I ignore my own suffering or that I invalidate my experience, but it does mean I try to keep myself open to seeing outside myself when all I want to do is clam up and hunker down within myself.
So, what does all of that have to do with the readings on grammar this week? In truth, it has very little to do with it, but in a round-about-way there are some salient points that can be taken out of the readings this week on grammar to help inform the quest for empathy. I will save these observations for the end of this reflection for the sake of setting the scene first, so, with that in mind, lets dive into Robert Connors’ article “The Erasure of the Sentence” and Patrick Hartwell’s article “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar”.
Robert Connors essay “The Erasure of the Sentence” explores the mystery of the disappearance of sentence-based rhetoric from the composition field (97-98). In the 60’s and 70’s, several techniques for teaching grammar and syntax emerged from the Darwinian swamp of rhetoric’s past to be reborn into three distinct techniques: Christiensen’s rhetoric, imitation exercises, and sentence-combining. Connors proceeds to take the reader on an Unsolved Mysteries-like exploration of the seemingly sudden disappearance of these techniques from the classrooms and research, and reveals an even larger mystery around the development of the field of composition.
Now, if you have ever watched an episode of the strangely intriguing but dissatisfying show Unsolved Mysteries, you know that the whole premise of the show is that what you are about to watch is unsolved. I repeat, you will not find out what happens by the end. And yet… there is always hope that maybe, this time, there will be an answer. The show further enforces this irrational hope by stringing along the watcher and planting findings here and there that point towards resolution; a missing body is found, a murder suspect is identified, a clue not found before is discovered when the case is reopened, etc. As I read Conner’s essay, I felt like I had entered into a literary episode of Unsolved Mysteries that strung me along with choice background information and clues, but by the end left me deeply unsatisfied by the lack of answers.
Where this analogy stops is in the fact that we do get answers about what happened in the disappearance of these syntactic rhetorics, but in solving one mystery, we are faced with an even bigger one – how did composition come to be built around ideologies that create an atmosphere where techniques like the sentence-based rhetorics cannot thrive? As Conner explains, these sentence-based techniques were booming during their heyday, with research to provide the empirical evidence needed to show they were working (120). The mystery of how the techniques disappeared is pretty straight forward; simply put – they were seen, explored, and then, in a somewhat apathetic way, cast aside when it was found they couldn’t stand up to the critiques leveled at them from critics in the composition field (109). So the body has been found, the clues are in place, but now we are left with a brand new ‘body’ and even more questions in the case of how the milieu of composition studies developed to the point that it could crush these techniques and the evidence that supported their use in the classroom.
It is through exploring the criticisms against sentenced-base rhetoric that the reader begins to get that sinking feeling in their stomach that the discipline of composition might have been part of a strange ‘cover-up’ scheme. Connors lists the three types of criticism that were the final death blows to these syntactic rhetorics as “anti-formalism” (110), “anti-behaviorism”(113), and “anti-empiricism” (116). By look at these, we see that the discipline of composition had imbedded in it a natural suspicion towards any theory or practice that a) placed form over content (110), b) trained students to develop skill-based behaviors over creative exploration (114), c) and that was founded on social science practices as opposed to humanistic (118). The three techniques that were developed all stood in direct contrast to these principles and so it is no wonder they couldn’t survive the slow suffocation of composition’s suspicious nature.
I say all of that not to side with the author in a kind of wistful longing for the sentence-based rhetoric to be restored, but to simply capture the energy of this article. I don’t actually know what I think about this issue because I don’t yet have the foundation I need to make up my own mind. What I can say is that I feel very suspicious after reading this piece about the way composition as a discipline has been formulated.
In relation to this suspicion around the discipline of composition and its development, what stands out the most, due to my background in the social sciences, is how much it distrusts empirical evidence and research. I don’t yet fully understand why this suspicion exists, besides a vague sense that – just as is the issue in psychology – to quantify the qualitative is quite difficult and apt for error and false positives/negatives. Even as I read the description of some of the methods of researching the effectiveness of the techniques, such as having a group of English teachers read and rate essays, I found myself questioning the generalizability of the findings of the studies. Do I think this difficulty should mean that there should be no use of empirical research? In my lay opinion, no. There has to be some way to test theory and not just create it and assume it works. But again, I only have a surface level understanding of these issues and am open to being educated further on this topic. With that, the mystery of sentence-based rhetoric is complete and I am left casting out a plea to the public to send more information if they have any on the further mystery of composition studies.
Unlike Connors mystery filled essay, Hartwell’s essay is a bit more straightforward, despite the fact that there is yet again little resolution. In Hartwell’s essay, he also picks up the issue of focusing in on the smaller elements and form of writing by exploring the argument around grammar being taught directly as opposed to being taught through practice by trial and error in writing. Hartwell lays out the issues in the field between the anti-grammarians and the grammarians and why each interprets the evidence available on teaching grammar in ways that serve their purposes. The issues he focuses in on to explore this topic are a) how to define grammar, b) how to get at the real issue of teaching or not teaching grammar, c) how to understand the findings around studying learning, and d) identifying what theories exist that inform our understanding of language (108). Hartwell then proceeds to explore each of these by breaking down grammar into five distinct definitions and shows how they inform theory development.
I am not going to spend much time discussing Hartwell’s thoughts, but one part of his piece that I want to draw out is that of grammar and the way an understanding of where it comes from can cultivate empathy. I think this part stood out the most to me in terms of a practice of empathy because of the implications of adopting a pedagogy of ‘proper’ grammar. I am currently taking a Linguistics class and it has helped immensely in understanding where language and the rules of language came from and just how arbitrary much of it is. I think having an understanding of the arbitrariness of language opens up the door to see that the way people talk – bad grammar vs good grammar – has nothing to do with their intelligence or worth as a human and that anything that says otherwise is part of larger systems of oppression. Hartwell defines grammar 1 as the rules that we learn when we are babies learning our native language (111). So, though we may not be able to articulate the rules of our language, we can naturally display understanding through our use of our language (111).
This gets tricky because, though English may seem like one language, it has many dialects which results in different understandings of how it should be spoken and how the rules of grammar work. For instance, English in the South will be somewhat different from that of the Midwest. When this comes out in writing in the classroom, and the student is suddenly faced with the more prescriptive rules of a ‘proper’ grammar, there is possibility for prejudice. This isn’t to say that there can’t or shouldn’t be rules for a formal grammar, and that people can write in whatever form they wish in any context; but it does mean that grammar is a tricky subject that can lead to some people being further marginalized because they don’t have the natural grammar of the ‘majority’ – which is often the rich, privileged, and white majority. Therefore, with any development of theory or pedagogy around grammar, I think it is vital to keep the more descriptive understanding of grammar at the forefront of development. These are very simple thoughts on a very complex issue, I know. I don’t have the knowledge to further the conversation at this time, but I do have a sense of the importance of incorporating equity into any further research or conversations about the teaching of grammar, especially if it is a primary marker for success in writing.
This blog was as sidetracked as my focus on empathy has been in the last weeks. I continue to struggle to know exactly how to apply all that I am learning and where to take it in my own education and career aspirations, but I find that being able to ramble about the thoughts that come to me when I read in these blogs does help to process the information in a big picture way.
Connors, Robert J. “The Erasure of the Sentence.” CCC, vol. 52, no. 1, 2000, pp. 96-128.
Hartwell, Patrick. “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.” College English, vol. 47, no. 2, 1985, pp. 105-127.