Anne Curzan’s article “Says Who? Teaching and Questioning the Rules of Grammar” reminded me a lot of the issues I discussed with my Linguistic Anthropology recitation section last semester, such as the importance of “proper” grammar and whether or not Standard American English was the only acceptable dialect in U.S. educational institutions. I was fortunate enough to have many English teachers throughout middle and high school who were willing to teach my classes grammar year after year, saying the only way we would be able to write cohesive papers was if we knew English grammar really well.
I never questioned my English teachers—after all, going to Catholic school for ten years conditioned me to never question anyone—but as soon as I started going to public high school, I found myself acting much like a grammar snob, correcting anyone and everyone who “incorrectly” ended their sentences in prepositions or used “good” instead of “well” when modifying verbs.
“Where’d you learn that from?” many of my classmates would ask me.
“I went to Catholic school for ten years—where they actually care about grammar!” I would snootily reply.
Why did it take me so long to question the rules of grammar I had long advocated for amongst classmates who probably thought my arguments to be useless without proper reference and evidence? One of the most effective roles of a tutor/teacher is that of being able to explain a student’s mistakes rather than just correct them. An effect tutor/teacher allows questions to be asked and does not create an environment where any question can be answered with a “just because…” response.
What I like about the Plangere Writing Center philosophy is that tutors are not to spoon-feed students the answers to their writing prompts—the job of a tutor is mainly to ask the right questions for the students to answer. They ask questions that lead the students to their own conclusions. Sometimes a tutor’s question may beg even more questions from the students, but that is good because it sparks fruitful discussion during the tutoring session. I never want to tell my students that grammar rules need to be followed “just because,” but it is hard to think of concrete explanations and histories of rules on the spot.
I really like what Curzan does with her students when reading their papers—“[circling] questionable constructions, adding a clarifying note or question, rather than [crossing] them out—which sends a very different message […] about making grammatical and stylistic choices” (875). If I am reading through a student’s paper and see that they have made a grammatical “error,” I have a tendency to circle the error but not leave a note as to why I saw something wrong with it. I try to leave it up to the students to review and identify the error for themselves.
I agree with Curzan when she says that “people who make these responses [about words such as ain’t or aks] are not judging the constructions—they are judging the speakers who use them” (873). In my Linguistic Anthropology class last semester, we inspected the stereotypes and attitudes associated with different dialects of the English language. Honestly, that class revealed to me my own stereotypes towards not only language and its users, but towards stylistic choices made by speakers and writers. Thinking about both Linguistic Anthropology and Curzan’s article is a good reminder to not let my students’ writing create conclusions for me about the student.