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College Writing: Key to the Kingdom?

College Writing: Key to the Kingdom?

        “No! ” My colleague breathes across the table.

        “Well, yes, actually, it’s common practice most everywhere in North American universities, and there’s a lot of research to support it,” I try.

        “Practice of what? Neglect?”

If this exchange sounds like two academics discussing some controversial protocol, it is exactly that. I’ve just explained to my incredulous colleague that college writing programs and writing centers de-emphasize grammar and focus more on “stylistic conventions.” That is, instead of teaching grammatical rules, we try to show students, which conventions—e.g. avoiding passive voice, maintaining parallelism, editing for concision—will help them write more clearly and convincingly.

        “Grammar? Stylistic convention? Isn’t that just a difference in disciplinary jargon?” He asserts.  “Are you showing them how to fix errors or just telling them anything goes?”

Such a conversation—or some variant of it—occurs almost every time I speak with faculty colleagues, whether from the humanities or from STEM fields, who don’t teach writing, but nevertheless have many opinions about how their students’ writing needs to improve, especially with respect to grammar and style. Professors want their students to write correctly, and when they learn that writing programs and writing centers largely eschew grammar instruction, they object vehemently. Students need “grammar” and “rules," so my colleagues claim, by which they variously mean understanding parts of speech, punctuation, verb tense, agreement. And they insist that college writing programs and centers ought to deliver it. 

Not anything goes, I rejoin. Nor is there a hard binary between style and grammar. The former requires knowledge of the latter. But there's a long disciplinary backstory to this claim, and in practice college writing teachers disagree how much style and how much grammar ought to be taught.  

The controversy over grammar teaching arises from conceptual doubt about errors and rules in the ever-evolving English language. The 1963 Braddock Report concluded that grammar was “useless if not harmful” to the teaching of writing; many others have also considered the lack of consensus about errors including seminal essays such as Joseph M. Williams’ "The Phenomenology of Error" (1981) and Robert J. Connor and Andrea A. Lunsford‘s "Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research” (1988). Although the trend has undergone several revisions, writing pedagogy remains wary of enforcing "grammar."  More recently, what used to be called “Standard English grammar" has become embattled in the increasingly diverse world of college writers. Familiarity with that so-called Standard English is not equally distributed throughout the population, so if I grade a student down for grammar errors, am I not penalizing her for her class or ethnicity? Moreover, agreement on what counts as a “serious” or “minor” error remains in a constant state of flux depending on one’s context.  Critics like David Mulroy in his combative “Losing Battles” (2012) remain the minority in pedagogical debates.

I recount these debates and try to explain current pedagogies for my critical interlocutor. By the end of the conversation, however, I find myself siding with my colleague to some extent: Students ought to be aware of conventions, some of which include “grammar" and "errors," if for no other reason than parents, professors and future employers expect them to conform to such rules. Still, deciding which content to teach and how to balance these with writing center and rhetoric program pedagogies remains a challenge for me.

In classrooms and writing centers, as always, things are a bit different: Many writing teachers gladly answer questions about grammar. I count myself among these. We read Williams' "The Phenomenology of Error" and discuss why there is no eternal set of

Dennis @DrGrammar Baron asks his students to think about Oxford comma?”

       “I feel good,” I offer, referring to what is also known as the “serial comma” or “Harvard comma” and was once considered an error. “But,” I continue,  “Some of your teachers may not, especially if they are old school or grew up in the former British Commonwealth. You need to know your audience.”

Andrea A. Lunsford’s long-term quantitative research considers the impact of errors, though she and her collaborators have been relieved to discover that student writing is no more erroneous today than it was at the beginning of the last century. Rather, with the advent of word processing newer kinds of errors have emerged, including the most common error in student writing today: using the wrong word, spelled correctly.

Pursuing questions about errors and their potential impact on students’ work and their future prospects, Lunsford lists the  “Top Twenty: A quick guide to Trouble-shooting your writing” in the 6th edition of The St. Martin's Handbook, a guide to writing conventions. Here, she clearly articulates the need for writers to proofread their work and avoid errors:

Readers judge your writing by your control of certain conventions, which may change depending on your audience, purpose, and context for the writing. Whether an instructor marks an error in a student assignment will depend on personal judgments about how serious the error is and what the writer should be focusing on in the draft. Some of the student writing patterns identified here may be considered errors by some instructors but stylistic options by others.

Lunsford identifies a clear dilemma here. On the one hand, control over conventions is surely a skill all students require for success at the university and beyond; on the other, she reminds readers that both grammar and audiences differ from context to context. Clearly she’s right on both points. Witness here the passive voice in Lunsford’s passage cited above. My computerized grammar checker has it highlighted in green, my own college teachers “back in the day” would have marked it as “wrong,” and even my own students pounce whenever they see passive voice. Some may argue that passive voice usage in English constitutes a “serious error;” others may say it remains “weaker construction,” which should be avoided; others may deploy it when a passage seems to warrant its presence, while STEM professors say passive voice is downright unavoidable in any lab report.  The jury is still out on passive voice and many other stylistic “errors.” But even if there is no hard and fast rule for passive—or other conventions—Lunsford recognizes that students should learn the conventions and how to use them. That’s a long way from eliminating grammar.

Many writing centers have followed the lead of college writing pedagogy and attempted to help students learn how to become better writers who can master stylistic conventions themselves and implement them as context demands—but without insisting on an absolutist right-and-wrong.  In his highly influential 1984 article “The Idea of the Writing Center,” Stephen M. North explains the misunderstanding that writing centers are a place solely where remedial writers or English language learners--or anyone else for that matter--may go to have papers “fixed.” 

This is precisely my daily dilemma at work:

An international student enters the writing center foyer where I work. I ask what kind of project he has and how I can help with his writing.

       “Oh it’s nearly done,” he smiles in heavily accented but fluent colloquial American English, “I just need someone to check the grammar.” This conversation often transpires with native speakers as well, particularly first-generation students, who are eager for affirmation that their writing meets university standards.

        “Well,” I sigh, about to launch into my oft-repeated statement of the writing center policy. “We don’t correct grammar here for you, but I’m happy to answer questions you have about your paper.”

       “You won’t proofread it for me?”

       “No, but we can look at it together.

       “But I’ve looked at it so much I can’t see any errors anymore.”

       “Read it to me and we’ll see what we find.”

This method of giving the paper back to the student is supposed to help the student better engage his or her work, and often as we work through the paper, the student indeed catches many errors without my prompting. Still, many remain, but by then our half-hour or even hour session is up and I haven’t provided much instruction so the student could learn to work independently. If the student needs more help then, he or she can make yet another appointment or, depending on the resources that have been available at the different universities, where I’ve taught, I’m required to direct the student either to an ESL department or to pay a private tutor. When I’ve tried over the years to explain that official writing center policy, students respond with a reasonable amount of dismay:

       “But this is a writing center, I’m a student here and need help.”

       Sometimes they let me know, “Well, ESL sent me here, because I’m too advanced for the remedial help they offer and they don’t understand the contents of my argument.”

When my only recourse has been to direct students to the list of private tutors, they remind me their hard earned tuition dollars have paid for this service, which is “free” after all so why should they have to pay for grammar help? That’s a good question.

Lastly, and the most common objection among English language learners and first generation students remains the simple need for suggestions because they are uncertain of the conventions. Such a plea remains difficult to fend off, especially when students have other teachers who hold them to grammatical standards, whatever they may be. Writing centers may want tutors to provide a more nuanced approach to learning grammar, but the result is much slower than their audiences would like. Professors of English or History or Chemistry demand a polished paper. Students want a good grade. Writing centers offer no such guarantees.

North has tried to clarify to a wider public the problem with using writing centers to "fix" papers. In some cases, students see the center as nothing more than a place to “drop off” a paper and retrieve it later. After explaining that a writing center is not “a proofreading-workshop-in-the-basement,” North elaborates his ideal of a public place of exchange in which writers can “talk” about their work with more experienced writers and engage in a Socratic dialogue of self-enlightenment:


If writing centers are going to finally be accepted, surely they must be accepted on their own terms, as places whose primary responsibility, whose only reason for being, is to talk to writers. That is their heritage, and it stretches back… in fact, to Athens, where in a busy marketplace a tutor called Socrates set up the same kind of shop: open to all comers, no fees charged, offering, on whatever subject a visitor might propose, a continuous dialectic that is, finally, its own end.


No doubt, Socrates’ “continuous dialectic” promotes enlightenment, against which no one argues.  Likewise, North rightly marshals the help of Socrates to describe a kind of student-centered teaching, where through conversation students can lay claim to their own discoveries and improvements of their writing.  But Socrates the gadfly greatly differs from North’s characterization. Ironic with his interlocutors to the point of deriding them to the audience (Euthyphro and Meletus, for example), Socrates was nevertheless open to everyone to talk about anything without restrictions.

Perhaps the difference lies in the transformation of both Socrates’ and university writing centers’ clientele. A far cry from the sons of wealthy Athenians, university students have developed into an increasingly diverse group with a myriad of new needs. When I read North from 1984, or Richard Leahy’s 1990 “What the College Writing Center is –and isn’t,” I consider the enormous change in the student population as well as the exorbitant costs of education, and I wonder how to accommodate these shifting demographic and economic realities.

Had we world enough and time, we could forever debate phenomenologies of error, as well as all the other epistemological issues of writing "correctly." But, time is short at the university—especially student time—and there are many important skills to be gained, especially for students joining the world of English-speaking higher education for the first time. Grammar, no matter how embattled and inconsistently defined, remains in steady demand. Some of my students even describe mastery of grammar in quasi-religious language: as one of the the "keys to the kingdom of higher education." Whether higher education is such a kingdom, whether such keys exist and what exactly these keys may be, remain questions open for debate. In the meantime, as a writing teacher and tutor, who has also taught other languages, I have some knowledge of English grammar and offer it in my courses.


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