Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ben Yagoda's The Elements of Clunk

This little column by Ben Yagoda (professor of English at the University of Delaware), The Elements of Clunk, really rings true for me. Although Prof. Yagoda is more meticulous in his worries than I am (the difference between the spelling "gray" and "grey," for example, is not something I worry about), he identifies the basic problems that I find in my students' writing also. Consider this observation about punctuation:
Punctuation is a train wreck among my students. I have no doubt as to the root of the problem: Students haven't spent much time reading. Punctuation, including the use of apostrophes and hyphens, is governed by a fairly complicated series of rules and conventions, learned for the most part not in the classroom but by encountering and subliminally absorbing them again and again. Students have a lot of conversations and texting sessions, but that's no help. You need to read a lot of edited and published prose.
Here is the question I keep asking myself, and which Prof. Yagoda does not really deal with in his essay. Given this "train wreck" (great metaphor), what can we really expect to do about this? If students have not learned about punctuation by doing lots of reading in the past, and if they are probably not going to be doing lots of reading in the future, then what can we expect to accomplish by teaching the rules of writing directly, without the reinforcement of reading...? I worry that the answer to that question is: we cannot accomplish much.

By working with students on revising their writing, I can usually make sure that the final version of their writing for my classes is in decent shape, but with many (most?) students, I cannot really say that they are able to proofread their own writing effectively, even after 15 weeks of regular practice in my class. For quite a few of the students, the motivation to learn how to proofread their writing is zero; they just don't see it as important, except insofar as they are willing to make an effort in order to secure a good grade.

This is a question that I ponder semester after semester, and it is still something that really confuses and frustrates me as a teacher. In the next week, I'll be brainstorming some ideas to see what new strategies I might try this semester. Maybe I can come up with some good new ideas! :-)

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