Thursday, December 04, 2008

Correctness and Style

I teach writing. I enjoy the work, though I wrestle every semester with the gravity that teaching correctness exacts on my instruction. I just can't find my way past a sense of responsibility for teaching punctuation, sentence structure, or grammar - particularly a few of those "rules" commonly held to measure right and wrong use.

Students struggle with this aspect of writing, the imposition of "squarish, by-the-numbers, objective, methodical," and pre-scriptive requirements.

Continuing to read Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I find Phaedrus' description one most of my writing students would echo:

"Hundreds of itsy-bitsy rules for itsy-bitsy people. No one could remember all that stuff and concentrate on what he was trying to write about. It was all table manners, not derived from any sense of kindness or decency or humanity, but originally from an egotistic desire to look like gentlemen and ladies. Gentlemen and ladies had good table manners and spoke and wrote grammatically. It was what identified one with upper class.

In Montana [or Indiana, or Minnesota, or Alaska, or wherever], however, it didn't have this effect at all. It identified one, instead, as a stuck-up Eastern ass."
Phaedrus names it "prescriptive rhetoric" - the itsy-bitsy rules, and I regularly witness the imposition students experience when they are called to account for the "good table manners" that one English teacher after another since the second grade has overlaid on writing. Is it all about "Eastern asses" or "egotistical desires"? Is there any place for correctness when teaching writing?

For now my answer includes a sense of accountability to a commonly held social/workplace expectation for attention to the recognizable "itsy-bitsy rules" - a surprisingly high expectation if the 2005 National Governor's Report on writing is to be believed. So I teach at least a basic package of style and continue to level some expectation that my students attend to these "rules" in the work they complete, but I do all I can to pull students from their own compulsive sense that abiding by the rules = "good writing." Students rarely find a measure for their own work beyond the measure of table manners. I offer the measure of ideas, the unique synthesis of thought with which a student responds when she stands at the intersection of rich and diverse reads, conversation, and critical argument. Oh yeah ... delicious times can be found there.

Writing begins with the ideas you mean to chase down, parse out, and push into language. My rule? ... get good ideas to the table and only then (maybe) share a few of the "manners" that might make sharing a meal a more pleasant experience. ... all the while remembering that pizza, corn on the cob, s'mores and the like need a "mess" to best enjoyed.

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