Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Composition Conundrum

The other day, TM brought home a stack of grading. As it was sitting on the kitchen table, I glanced at the top paper, as one does. It was written by a student who passed my Comp II class last year (with a C, as I recall). I read a couple of lines.

Boy howdy.

This guy has some writing problems. For reals. Grammar, spelling, even spell-check; we're talking "the"/"they" and "be"/"by" errors, not to mention your run-of-the-mill run-ons, frags, and subject-verb agreement problems.

Now, I wouldn't be surprised if this particular student had a learning disability--not because of anything else in his performance, but because I do remember that he really struggled with precisely those kinds of very basic issues. (Dyslexia? I don't know.) But I remember, too, that he was very engaged in class, had always done the homework and spoke up frequently, offered interesting insights into nearly every discussion, worked hard, revised often, researched energetically, and had great ideas for his papers. I remember that he knew he had writing problems and struggled to improve. And this, of course, is how he got a C when his writing itself was so poor: he did everything that I asked him to. He completed the assignments and developed the skills (thesis statement, citation, research, revision) that I taught him.

What I didn't do was teach him grammar. Or spelling. How, then, could I fail him for the course?

Comp is not a grammar course. We say this up front, on Day 1, and on our syllabi. We declare that we expect our students to come in with the basic skills that they need to write sentences, and that we expect them to seek additional help as they need it. Now, of course I do some grammar teaching--things like dangling modifiers and pronoun-antecedent agreement, the scourge of my life--but we do not teach subject-verb agreement, and frankly I don't know how to teach basic grammar. Besides, most of our students at least mostly don't need that. But the fact of the matter is that many of our students do need basic spelling and grammar help.

So where does that leave us? Passing students who cannot write sentences, that's where.

Now, I could, of course, fail these students (and I seem to get at least one a semester--one who actually works hard enough to pass the other tasks that we assign, anyway). But there are two problems with that. First, it seems totally wrong to fail a student for something that I am not teaching him, and that I will not teach him (because of course I figure out his problem right away, and try what I can, and send him to the writing lab, but I don't spend the semester teaching him how to spell. How do you even teach spelling??). And second, another semester of comp would do him no good, as far as I can tell. He's learning the things that we teach in comp (insofar as one can, without the basics).

What we need is a developmental or remedial course. But we don't have one, and we don't have any way to screen students for one, and we don't have anybody to teach one.

I don't know what to do.

I'm not teaching comp this semester, but I had a student who (nearly) fit this description last semester, too (he was less...accomplished in the higher-order areas than the first student I mentioned), and he got a D because he did improve a great deal and learn a lot about citations, theses, research, etc. But he can't write.

What should we do? What do you do?


Fretful Porpentine said...

I never know what to do in these situations either (and I do teach remedial comp, despite having zero training or qualifications to do so). Most of the students with pervasive mechanical problems end up with mercy Cs, except for the ones who simply quit in mid-semester (a significant number, as it happens). They're trying, and they're doing some things right, so it doesn't seem right for them to end up with the same grade as the student who never turns anything in. (There are no Ds in our comp program -- the C- is the minimum passing grade, and I find myself using it a lot.)

Also, I feel like some of this stuff is unteachable -- or at least, unteachable to students who haven't already learned it by the age of eighteen. (ESL students may be an exception, but I figure they'll learn by pure osmosis if they stay at an American university.) And on the one hand, maybe that means students who haven't learned this stuff don't belong in college. But on the other hand, for all I know some of these students could be brilliant at math or culinary arts or vocal music or any number of other fields in which my university has degree programs, so maybe they do belong here. I don't know what to do either.

the rebel lettriste said...

I think that grammar is important, especially in comp (and remedial comp) courses like the ones I teach.

Grammar matters because, if you are poor/black/brown/ESL or in anyway "other," then you are judged harshly when you hit the job market on your ability to use grammar "correctly." Grammar mastery is a skill that students DO need to have.

Teaching grammar is another thing entirely. I think that with a LOT of reading, revising, reading, thinking, writing, writing, freewriting, and writing some more, that grammar can sort of take care of itself. Via building written fluency, which most students just don't have.

Remind yourself and your students that they DO know grammar--they wouldn't be able to speak and be understood without it. But that written SAE grammar is kind of another bird, and that there are some things that they need to master.

Some comp. profs just circle all the errors, and tell students to figure out what's wrong and fix it. I tend to mark errors and then discuss them in class.

And I DO end up seeing marked improvements across a semester, especially when I make them just write til their hands fall off.

heu mihi said...

I agree that grammar is important--for precisely the reasons that you mention, RL--and the fact that the vast majority of our students are white and middle-class doesn't let them off the hook, either (although I'm less concerned about their social integration or job prospects; most of them seem to do just fine--a disturbing fact in itself). Part of our problem, quite frankly, is that we admit a number of students for athletic programs who can't hash the academics. They typically don't make it to graduation. (This is not to say that all, or even most, athletes are academic under-performers; last semester, for example, I had a slew of very bright and hard-working football players. It's just that the more mysterious admits are generally athletes.)

The problem with teaching really basic grammar--because I definitely talk about the more complicated issues in class--is that a lot of students DON'T need it, or don't think that they do. When I review possessives, for example, the hostility from most of the room is palpable--of the "do you think we're stupid?" variety. (And no, I don't see any improvement in papers after these little crash lessons, nor does my correcting the problems in their papers seem to help.) So it might just be that *I'm* bad at teaching grammar--a possibility that I have no trouble swallowing--and I'm not sure what to do about that.

RL, do you fail students if their grammar and spelling isn't up to scratch? I'm curious...maybe, if grammar instruction is a bigger part of the course, doing so would make sense.

the rebel lettriste said...

I treat grammar as a local, as opposed to a global problem. If the grammar is so bad that I genuinely cannot understand what the writer is trying to express, then the paper must fail because the problems are global in their effect. If the paper is marred by "surface errors," I treat it as a local issue. I mark the errors; usually I comment that I can't understand what the writer is trying to express.

I think that what is useful is stressing that grammar aids in standardized communication and clarity. It's a way of reaching the widest possible audience and of making yourself understood.

I have colleagues who teach grammar whole hog, which I don't do--I focus instead on the specific problems I see in student papers. I'd kill myself if I had to teach grammar qua grammar.

I am struck by your reports of hostility! The turkeys! I wonder if you could do an endrun around that behavior by giving them incorrect sentences (taken from their own papers) and having them correct them in groups. And continue stressing the issue of clarity.

I wonder too if it'd help to talk about how grammar and punctuation are inventions, and change across time?

And yo, the athletes are ridiculous in their entitlement. At my uni, they write papers complaining about how they "coulda made it in the big leagues" and how disappointed they are to end up ... here. And their grammar sucks, across the board.

Liza Blake said...

One thing I do is try to correct one problem per assignment. I mark all the errors in papers and give the rule (pronouns must match antecents; these clauses need to be parallel), but if there is a recurring error I will explain the rule at greater length in the end comment. It helps to have a grammar manual you can point them to, so you can say something like, for the next paper you need to eliminate comma splices from your writing. My students turn in an average of 3 papers a semester, so at the least I've fixed 2-3 grammatical issues!

teridr said...

We do have a remedial course, but honestly, our regular freshman comp students and even our junior comp students are in need of some serious grammatical and mechanical help.

In the immortal words of one of my former students: "The poem is one of which, the sense of abuse among it." I mean really: where does one even begin?

I teach mostly the junior comp, and I do triage on one sentence every day in front of the whole class, so they get used to seeing multiple-error sentences in the wild. Sometimes it even works. :)