The Great Grammar Debate

First, collect and list commonplace grammar or style conventions (what we call in composition and rhetoric “sentence level” or “lower order” concerns) in your discipline. Then examine these commonplaces, both from your perspective as faculty, and from the perspective of a student. When/how do you remember being introduced to this commonplace? What helped you “learn” it? When a student asks why we write in a certain way in Biology or History, for example, can we move beyond “We just do it that way” mindset? How might our discussions with students also involve such writing concepts as audience, purpose, message, medium, genre, effect, rhetoric, so that we might demystify academic writing processes for our students?

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3 Replies to “The Great Grammar Debate”

  1. I remember reading scientific journal articles for the first time in my masters program but I didn’t really dissect them until participating in journal club with my lab group in my doctoral program. I remember getting very good at “being critical” of research in that I could almost always find problems with methodology. During this process though, I also learned about the nuance of scientific language and that certain words like “significant” and “prove” have very exact, special meanings in science and are reserved for times when you intend to convey those special meanings.

    While scientific writing has not been difficult for me, I have learned that the rhetorical nature and the precision of scientific writing is difficult for most of my students. This observation was made crystal clear when I taught a WIC class for the first time at OSU. Many students struggle to form a cohesive argument using the literature to support their argument. They also struggle with the style of scientific writing in that words like “believe” or “feel” are out of place. Similarly, they struggle with the use of qualifiers like “more,” “increased,” and “greater” without an accompanying value that explains “how much.” I actually compiled a list of “don’t do’s” for my students based on the frequency of the errors I was reading. If my students are anything like me, however, they many not fully understand scientific writing until they engage in serious critique or scientific writing of their own. It takes practice!

    In terms of how to have these conversations with students, I think it has to happen in more than their WR 121 and WIC classes. This is why I a such a staunch proponent of changing the way we teach at OSU-Cascades to truly include a writing across the curriculum approach!

  2. This post begins with a response to the article you posted for this topic and then moves on to some of the questions you posed for us to consider. It is possible that I make spelling and/or grammatical errors as I write, since I am not reviewing and revising this post, nor using spell/grammar check.

    I appreciated the Cole article you posted in the syllabus/work plan for our WAC, Jenna. I could see myself in many of the quotes from discipline-specific faculty expressing frustration about students’ grammar. I also identified with their annoyance at how much time they spend on grading students’ writing, and with their desire for more direct guidance from writing faculty in providing students with effective feedback.

    I would love for us to create some sort of writing list (see Appendix to the article) for campus-wide consistency in writing expectations and guidance! If we give students consistent expectations and consistent feedback on basic grammar issues they will gain those skills before showing up to senior-level WIC courses, where they really need to focus on the more discipline-specific conventions. I encounter students struggling with some of the same conventions that Kara mentioned in her post. I see those as appropriate topics for discipline-specific writing in upper-division courses. My most fundamental concern with student writing at OSU-Cascades is that many students struggle with the basic conventions of writing in the English language when they show up in our upper division courses. This lack of the basics makes it nearly impossible to effectively teach discipline-specific writing, which I see as being layered on top of the foundation of effective written communication of the English language.

    How did I learn sentence-level conventions? I recall many red pens and an ongoing process of revision. The red pens belonged first to my father (when I was in high school), and then to my college professor whose feedback I came to appreciate so much that I asked her to chair my thesis committee.

    How did I learn discipline-specific conventions? This is actually harder for me to pinpoint. I suppose I was explicitly taught some of them in Research Methods courses, but I believe that I mostly learned them from a) reading a lot of research articles, and b) writing, receiving feedback, and revising. I also frequently consulted the APA Manual. The expectation, even as an undergraduate, was that we could – and would – learn to use APA style by consulting the APA Manual and reading research papers. This expectation seems unreasonable within my discipline at OSU-Cascades. It seems to me that one main reason for this is that students are also still struggling with non-discipline-specific conventions, and it is too much to also learn discipline-specific conventions at the same time.

  3. I concur with Kara and Shannon regarding the need for campus-wide writing standards and a writing across the curriculum approach, especially since students are taking multiple classes across disciplines here at OSU-Cascades. As an instructor and Learning Lab Coach, I’ve discovered that not only are students across the board in their writing, but instructors are as well in terms of their expectations.

    As to when I was first introduced to commonplace grammar or style conventions for history, I can’t pinpoint the exact moment. I believe that I learned from reading history, as well as feedback from my professors in college. (My high school English teacher certainly drilled grammar into me, however!) Realizing that none of my students are training to be historians, I have adapted my assignments and expectations to allow students to cultivate skills that will be more relevant for their chosen majors and careers. I’ve allowed “I” statements to creep in, for example, and I allow them to choose between MLA, APA, and Chicago for citations. I remain firm that History should be written in the active voice to show agency, however, and stress analysis over personal opinion and judgement.

    I also sympathized with some comments in the Cole article. Although I realize it was not Cole’s main point, I wonder how I could be more efficient in commenting on students’ grammar. However, I feel it’s easy to get trapped into correcting grammar, rather than identifying larger concerns, such as critical thinking, argument, analysis, etc. Which is more important, being able to write grammatically correct sentences, or being able to think critically to construct an argument using evidence and analysis?

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