Pluses Instead of Minuses

Finishing up this fall semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is about writing that makes some students want to bend the rules. I should set some context. I teach basic composition and research writing. In both these classes, but especially with research writing, there are a lot of rules to follow. There are rules of grammar, mechanics, punctuation, and then of course rules associated with the dreaded APA and MLA formats. There are rules about margins and fonts. There are rules about page numbers and running heads. There are rules about titles and in-text citations and references pages and works cited pages. I get it. There are a lot of rules. But they are, unavoidably, rules that must be followed.

So, why the pushback from students?

Let’s spin this and consider it from another angle. Let’s say I’m a mathematician. Let’s say I’ve just asked a student to add 2 + 2 and give me the answer. The student looks at the equation, and says, “Nah, I think I’ll subtract instead.” Or perhaps I ask the student to solve for both x and y in this equation: 4x+2y=98. The student shrugs and asks, “Do I have to?”

Of course this is hyperbole, but what I’m getting at is this: that would never happen in a math class, so why is it happening in a composition class? Why are the rules something to be sniffed at? And more than that, why am I always fielding questions about breaking those rules, as though following them were only optional?

When I look more at this math/composition juxtaposition, I see fewer differences and more similarities between the two fields. Math has its symbols: +, -, =, ÷, ×, and so on. Composition, too, has its symbols: , : ; ( ) — . Used appropriately, those composition symbols do what they are supposed to do, which is convey meaning. And more than that: convey the intended meaning. And they do it quickly. How often have you spent undue time deciphering someone’s meaning, whether in a text message, email or essay, because the punctuation was used incorrectly or missing altogether, or the spelling was wrong?

Consider this:

Is the essay do on T do we half to site, sources or its ok w/o.

To get at the actual meaning, it would take me some time to wade through the verbal muck this person has created. Does the writer mean “do” or due? Is this sentence a question or not? Does the “T” represent Thursday or Tuesday? “Half” or “have”? And why is that comma there after site? And why is it “site” instead of cite? In a culture that values speed and quick access, you’d think we’d place a little more importance on the correct usage of punctuation or correct spelling.

Ultimately, for me, it’s a question of value. Why isn’t value being placed on following the rules of writing? Why does a student write, “I’m going to right about the book into the Wild by jon krakowr”? Why does that student care so little for right/write, for giving the title its deserved capitalization and italicization, for respecting the author enough to not only capitalize both his names, but to make sure the name itself is spelled correctly? Sometimes, it’s merely carelessness, which can happen to the best of us. But since I like to really depress myself when thinking about these things, I’ll go a bit deeper. I’ll call it disrespect. I’ll call it the opposite of valuing.

Lest I come off as a complete curmudgeon, I’ll admit that I break the rules all the time when I write poetry. I use sentence fragments and run-on sentences. I play around with punctuation. But I like to think I break those rules for effect and for a reason. A reason that is premeditated and has, to use my own word, value of some kind. To break the rules without reason, or to refuse to learn the rules without reason, is beyond me—it’s as silly as refusing to acknowledge what a minus sign does, or simply not caring.

I should say I don’t mean to paint all students or all fledgling writers with the same brush. In other words, I don’t mean to say that because a student doesn’t use a semi-colon correctly it means he/she places no value on it. There are, of course, other factors at play. Many students simply didn’t learn the rules correctly or at all to begin with, and they come to my class as blank slates, not as disrespectful flouters of all things grammatical. I have had a handful of students say, with not a little wonder, that they never even knew what a semi-colon or an em dash was until I told them. And then they’ve gone on to use them in their essays, and use them correctly!

So, there’s certainly hope and many angles from which to look at all this.

The semester is winding down, final grades are due, and these are the things on my mind as I wonder if I’ve taught anything to anyone over the past four months. If anything will stick. If there will be more things learned than forgotten. Pluses instead of minuses.


9 thoughts on “Pluses Instead of Minuses

  1. Enjoyable post!

    I get frustrated with grammar at times, too. To me it seems the rules of grammar changed along the way from what was taught when I was in grade school, let alone the differences from US vs Int’l formatting. I haven’t seen such discrepancy happening in the field of mathematics.

    In college I was corrected for the “wrong conventions” I was taught in HS, and likewise in HS for the “wrong conventions” I was taught in elementary school.

    Above you mention APA and MLA formats. I don’t know what those are, but clearly there are two formats instead of one. Are they closely-related standards for the same purpose? Until there’s a single global standard for grammar, I fear there will always be ambiguity.

    • I agree, Matt….there are so many versions of grammar and punctuation taught. What is required of a student depends on the teacher and how detailed he/she wants to be in grading. APA and MLA are just two of the handful of ways of formatting a paper. APA is typically used for the sciences, and MLA is used for the humanities. But their differences in rules have less to do with grammar and punctuation and more to do with citing sources, setting up the title page, reference page, etc.

  2. I think I’d add an assessment grade for informal communication. Make it half their final grade…

  3. This is such a great post. I love it, and the comparison to math is really effective. This topic is one of the things that depresses and scares me anytime I consider becoming a teacher.

  4. I’ve been asked to teach an “Introduction to Academic Writing” class next semester. I may be looking to you for pointers.

  5. Dare we talk about the entitled generation? Those who learn to communicate from Twitter shortcuts? The parents who defend lazy children? The teachers who bend to demands or face losing their jobs? There will be no true adherence to standards until the standards are free from unfair influence.
    An excellent article, Prairie.

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