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Of Rules, Principles, and Coffee

mimmoore
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This morning, I set a travel mug of coffee on top of my car while I grabbed the rest of my belongings for class. It happened to be raining, and the umbrella I had so carefully balanced over myself and the open car door caught the edge of the mug just as I picked up my book bag. I got a hot coffee bath down my shoulder and back—followed by quick cooling relief: having dropped the umbrella, I was drenched by rain.

All in all, not a great start to the morning (and the odor of coffee lingering on my blouse constantly reminds me of my folly). I chided myself, of course, as any teacher and parent would: what was I thinking? Why didn’t I leave that travel mug safely in the cup holder?  My typical routine (mug on car) generally works effectively, but not so much in a downpour.

So, the obvious lesson is to be cautious when dealing with bookbags, umbrellas, and coffee mugs. Perhaps this should even be a rule: never put a travel mug on top of the car when it’s raining. But of course, that rule might not protect me from all possible mishaps. Maybe I should revise my rule: never put a travel mug on top of the car, period. Or maybe I should just give up coffee.

This is ridiculous, of course. In certain contexts, a travel mug waiting on top of my Chevy Blazer makes perfect sense. And there’s no reason to abandon my morning caffeine altogether. Why would I create and enforce a quick-fix rule, when a context-bound principle is needed?

In my FYC course (a section combined with corequisite support), we have been discussing citations and the process of building a works cited list. When I asked my students what they already knew about these research practices, they articulated two rules: never cite Wikipedia (in fact, don’t even look at it!), and always put a parenthetical citation after a quote—or at the end of a paragraph. I probed a bit: why not cite Wikipedia? “Because it’s not reliable and usually wrong… and my last teacher said not to.” Why do you need a parenthetical citation after every quote, or every sentence, or every paragraph? “Because. . . that’s the way they said we have to do it.”

The students confused principles (check for the reliability of the information, practice ethical attribution of sources) with specific rules (Thou shalt not consult Wikipedia; thou shalt always put something in parentheses after sentences in research papers).  The problem, of course, is that neither rule adequately captures the purpose of the principle—at least not in all situations. In fact, each might inhibit potentially productive research or documentation strategies. Wikipedia, for example, can be effective for what I call topical “toe-dipping”: just as we stick our toes in the water to assess temperature and depth, we can get a sense of a topic from Wikipedia. So, for instance, when I encounter something new to me, perhaps an esoteric school of linguistic analysis, a Wikipedia entry can give me key names, dates, associated institutions, or seminal works.  It can be a point of entry to further investigations.   

All complex activities require some rules and boundaries: football cannot be played without clear borders to the field and some ground rules, nor can we drive safely without an agreement to adhere to road signs and traffic signals. But as a teacher, particularly at the threshold between high-school and college, I need to resist the urge to replace complicated considerations (constructing and managing an ethos, engaging a variety of readers, assessing contexts, deciding parameters for success and completion) with a rule that may later be applied without the exigence of the original context. Such rules ultimately make choices for writers; principles, in contrast, give writers a basis for making those choices for themselves.

I’ve encountered a steady flow of social media posts purporting to offer “Ten Rules for ________” (saving money on groceries, writing stronger introductions, giving more inclusive feedback, losing baby weight or menopause pounds, simplifying daily routines, engaging neurodiverse learners, detoxing, eating locally, boosting metabolism, managing difficult colleagues, etc.). I suspect my students see the same thing. All of these activities are valuable. All are worth our consideration. And all are complicated, nuanced, contextualized endeavors that cannot be reduced to a set of quick and easy rules. Writing, teaching, living a healthy life, building relationships, doing research—there is no formula for these which, once mastered, allows us to check off a completion box. We can’t say, “I follow these ten rules; I’m a good teacher now.”

Today I’m pushing myself to think about where I’ve shortchanged myself or my students by offering pseudo-rules as a shortcut for the tough work of applying principles to contexts in order to make decisions (as a teacher or a writer). Where have I said, “Just don’t….” instead of asking students about the choices before them and talking through their options with them? Granted, students don’t always make the decisions that I would, nor are the decisions always successful. Sometimes, we get covered in coffee. But that’s ok.

So, I’ll brew another cup in the morning, fill my travel mug, let it rest on my blazer while I get my bags together, and head into the classroom. We’ve got writing to do.

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.