Grammar FAIL, Part One

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Soon after I started teaching, while still just a Graduate Teaching Assistant, I realized no one knows what I really do for a living. You’ve probably experienced it, too.  It goes something like this: “So what do you do for a living?” “I’m an English teacher.” “Uh-oh. I better watch my grammar!” My standard reply is “It’s OK. I’m off the clock.”  The more complete answer would be something like “Well, actually, grammar is the least of what I do.  I teach students to think critically, to make connections between complex ideas, to express those ideas to others, and to do so in a way that conforms with the particular quirks of academic writing so that they can go on and succeed in whichever discipline they choose.  I also try to teach them a set of adult skills, ranging from managing time, to completing tasks on time, to asking for help, to communicating when there are problems.”  But I could say all of that and still, in my heart, I know that “they” expect me to be teaching grammar.  Indeed, in some quarters “they” demand it (“Students can’t write!” they screech).  And so I try. In our program, more specifically, we teach students to recognize and track their specific patterns of error.  If a student doesn’t understand how to use a semicolon then that error is going to happen again and again.  If they come to understand they have an issue with semicolons, then they can focus their attention on that one issue, master it, and solve it. With each paper I grade, I identify the prominent patterns, note them for the student, and ask them to track them for the next paper using an error checklist.  The checklist asks them to list the error, to review it in the handbook, and to identify how they addressed it in the current paper. It doesn’t work. Well, I should say, it only works when students choose to use this tool.  More often, I get error checklists hurriedly scribbled before class.  Errors are dutifully listed and checked, handbook pages are references, but the paper itself remains filled with just the same error. Frustrating.  More frustrating are those students whose errors just don’t have a pattern—errors that are random, careless, syntactically complex.  The tools I offer them seem woefully inadequate. Grammar is not my job.  It’s my bane.  It’s hard enough getting students to invest in a course they’re forced to take, task enough to get them to care about something their systematically disinclined to like at all.  To get them to care about grammar is a goal still outside my reach. Grammar?  FAIL.
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.