Wednesday, November 7, 2012

I don't want to be a grammar Nazi

Wow. I really like this idea of writing in one's on version of English, "Taking ownership of English, or appropriating the language by confidently using it to serve one's own interests according to one's own values, helps develop fluency in English" (Canagarajah 592). It made me think that in low stakes assignments, like this blog, I tend to use my own way of speaking and talking about things and often, they're very rambling and roundabout and weird and probably confusing (and I apologize for this) but they resemble my thoughts more rawly, more closely, than academic writing. In my academic mode,  I take pains to avoid idioms or other odd figures of speech, even metaphor or anything 'overly poetic,' (AS IF!) and they tend to be very planned out (contrived, perhaps) and straightforward (and thus, many of you readers of my blogs are probably thinking, OK. So maybe he deserves to be in grad school). Anyway, I'd like to discuss here my own experience of a phenomenon I have observed in the classroom regarding English language learning students who seem to want to be normalized.

Beat my papers! Beat that non-standard shit out of them! Maybe not in those specific words, but I have been explicitly asked by two of my English language learning students to point out more grammar and syntactical problems in the paper and I am quite reluctant to do this for several reasons. 1) I don't like to focus on grammar and syntax but their argument, it's rhetoric and logic. 2) Many of the conventions are essentially arbitrary and I can't really explain them in a manner that feels, well, factual or honest. Also, they're continually changing. For instance, split infinitives (and I never understood this term --the infinitive is already 'split' --it's two words, for Heaven's sake, unlike infinitives in most other languages) are lately receiving more acceptance. It seems to be a matter of style --a writer's individual style.

Few things irritate me more than when some cretin points out that one of the most famous lines in cinematic history contains a split infinitive. Shut up. Because Star Trek is awesome.
 3) I can't. I simply don't have the time to mark all the missing commas, misplaced articles, hanging prepositions, and split-infinitives, although I have actually tried it and realized, HOLY CRAP! How can my student even read his paper under all my ink (err, word document comments)?!

I think the key lies in somehow having them re-evaluate their own sense of what English is --which English --whose English and what kind and  what time of English. One way of doing this is very inefficient and a bit unoriginal but I can't emphasize enough the fluidity of the English language in history. Old English is unreadable for most people! Middle English is one step closer in understandability (oh my God! I can't believe that's a word according to MS Word!) but even Chaucer, one of my all-time favorite writers, was torture for me in Middle English. Something that screams of hypocrisy is what happens when certain academics bitch about the language being corrupted by anything from 'non-standard' dialects ('Ebonics' or 'Spanglish') to text-messaging yet they teach Shakespeare, whose version of English no longer the 'standard!' And that's one of the reasons it's so important to read Shakespeare and other versions of English --to see the way the language changes --its fluidity and mutability and extendability (Hamlet) --and in many ways, these same bitching academics are cheapening the literary works they seek to uphold as super-texts (this status I don't support either). I think I may try to find an article which discusses the history of the English language which won't put my students into a coma.

But how else might I get them to rethink their own understanding of one, standard English through, for instance, my own evaluation of their writing? I can't help but feeling like they want me to 'fix' their 'broken English.' It's a weird reversal of what one of my beloved undergraduate professors once said, "We bleed their papers" with the red ink pen. But it's like these students want me to bleed their papers. It all feels very prescriptive/surgical/colonial, even. Even colonial. In a word, or a couple of them, Grammar Nazi. I don't know --I take it too far, perhaps, but it makes me feel very uncomfortable. Some of my ESL students seem to see their language as inferior and not a way in which they can access information and attain success in a Westernized world. I try to emphasize their creativity, their improvisation in their struggle to express themselves in this medium of the English language and I will continue to do so but I can't help but feel they are dissatisfied. "I want my writing to be professional," said a Chinese student on during conferences. "I want you to tell me what I need to do to make it professional." What does professional even mean? I don't really know how to teach this. And I don't want to. I want to teach them how to express themselves and to communicate with others creatively with their writing. AND THIS SOUNDS SO ABSTRACT AND TRITE! How do I explain this to a chemistry student who has already been inculcated into the doctrine of the primacy of the English language, one English language? Am I really setting him up for failure in a system in which the dominant system that often does not emphasize improvisation and other modes of creative expression --where his word choice would be strange or 'other'? Am I not really being hard enough on him? I feel like Batman --I want to give the students what they need (whatever that is), not just what they want. But they won't learn what they don't want to. And maybe like Batman / Christopher Nolan, I'm just confusing everyone:S

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