Seeing Grammar

I like the idea of seeing error as seeing the text (and the writer) through a very specific cultural lens and interpreting it as error, even thought there really is nothing physically erroneous about it. Grammar “errors” are really just a culturally specific way of interpreting specific textual features. The same text can be interpreted or read, many different ways and seeing “errors” is a choice that could be made differently.

The example that popped into my head comes from the first episode of the new season of Modern Family. In it, a couple has just found out they won’t be able to adopt a new baby, and as consolation to their adopted daughter, obtain a very large stuffed gorilla and stuffed elephant. When they decide to get rid of the elephant and the gorilla, their car is too small and they must tie the stuffed animals to the roof. It gets pointed out later that the animals have been attached to the roof in a sexually suggestive position. When Cam, who tied the animals to the roof, placed them there, he wasn’t trying to be sexually suggestive. He saw the animals as cargo to be put somewhere to be disposed of. Only later does someone point out to him that the animals’ position could be interpreted that way. But the thing is, there was nothing inherently sexual about it. The view of the animals in this perspective was imposed on the animals outside of themselves. This of course is great for comedic events in the show, but in a very real ways shows what happens with students when they commit “ errors.” We say, “well they obviously didn’t proofread their paper because they would have seen these errors if they had.” These “ errors” are so obvious to us only because we have been trained to see them that way. If someone would have said to Cam, “If Cam would have just looked at the animals on his roof, he would have seen his error and corrected it.” But the thing is, I am one hundred percent sure Cam stood back and looked at the animals on the roof and, looking through his perspective of cargo on the roof, would have assessed that he had done a fine job of placing them there. In much the same way, our students are proud to have gotten words on the page, and arranged them into an essay. However, they don’t see it through the same lens as we do, because they haven’t had the same past experiences with the grammar as we have. In much the same way, the people that looked at the gorilla and elephant as being sexually suggestive have had past experiences seeing real animals (or themselves) in similar sexual positions, and these experiences inform their perception of the situation. However, a child, for instance, who has not had any experiences that would lead them to connect the positions of the animals with sexual intercourse, would never see the animals that way. They have to be taught that perspective. It’s not naturally occurring.

So how do we teach students that perspective? Well, just like what is required to see the stuffed animals as humping rather than simply as cargo on top of a car, they have to have had experiences in the past in which the connect misspellings, poor subject-verb agreement, cliches, etc. with error. Their innocence about words has to be lost. They have to learn that words on a page will never be seen as simply words on a page, but that the reader is going to bring with it all kinds of assumptions and biases, and these experiences have to be meaningful and salient. For me, I didn’ t really start to understand grammar until my junior year of college, after I had already taken all my other required English courses and had already decided to become a fiction writer and been through work shops where I had allowed others to interpret my writing and seen the limitations of my ability to translate my thoughts to the page and then into the minds of my readers. In other words, it wasn’t until I had been “primed” to see words on the page as something other than self-evident physical objects. Learning grammar is going to happen when a student wants it to happen and when she wants it to happen. Once she has lost her innocence about the straightforward nature of writing, then she’ll be able to see the gorilla humping the elephant.


My Speculations on the Use of the Word “Dialed” in the Fixed Gear Cycling Community

The first uses of the word “dial” start around 1430 as the name of a device used to tell the time of day and come from Latin for day and represented the circular path the sun makes around the earth in one day, or the device used to measure that path.

Around 1911, anything circular with one point of reference along its circumference used to precisely tune or measure something begins to be called a dial, like the knobs on a radio.
Don't touch that dial

Soon, the idiomatic expressions “dialed in” comes to be used to describe something that has been adjusted to a very precise setting. This is in reference to the need to turn knobs in order to make the adjustment. For example, in the world of photography, this person uses “dialed” as an adjective to describe a setting on a camera that is perfect for the situation at hand (The word “in” has recently been dropped from the phrasal adjective); “a dialed exposure,” then, is one that has been set to properly expose the film.

In the cycling community, a bike that is “dialed in” or “dialed” has been adjusted to properly fit the rider and perform optimally. Thus, the word “dialed” is used to describe a bike that is visually appealing for its ability to perform at a high level.

However, “dialed” has recently been used in many conversations in the fixed gear community to refer to a general visual appeal of anything related in some way to cycling, but not necessarily in reference to the proper fit or performance. In some ways it has become exclusive community parlance, and the use of the word represents identification with the fixed gear cycling community.

What I Know About the New Aesthetic (and Postpedagogy)

I’m into the idea of the new aesthetic and I feel like it has a lot of interesting pedagogical implications.

Here’s what I understand about the new aesthetic; when I interact with technology, say take a photo of my wife with the camera on my phone, if the picture turns out “normal,” meaning that looking at the image produced by my phone very closely resembles the image created with my eyes and brain when I look at the same scene, then I think nothing of it. There is no tension between my camera phone and I. I am it’s commander and I have told it to do something and it has done it. However, say I take a photo of my wife with my camera phone and it turns out like this: Glitchy Wife  I have a few options of what I can do. I can curse my camera phone for not obeying my orders and see it as an obstacle that is failing to represent “reality.” Or I can accept that my camera phone and I worked together to create this image–accept that neither of us are ever completely in control– and that this image has a beauty in it’s own right. This second take on the image is the New Aesthetic.

The best part about the new aesthetic is that there isn’t anything new about it. There is very little difference between when I take a photo with my camera phone and it turns out “right,” and when it doesn’t. However, the tension created when the image doesn’t match my preconceived notions only makes it more obvious that the camera always has a say in the matter. Every creation mediated by technology, which encompasses just about everything I can think of, including this blog post and the language I use to tell my wife I like her headband. All the new aesthetic does is allows us the chance to embrace the distributed quality of the creation among me and the phone and countless other factors (the windows that the light came through altered the light that was captured by the phone for instance) instead of dismissing it as error or failure.

I feel like there is power and beauty to be found in the act of humility required to move from saying that the image above is wrong to basically saying “it is what it is.” My camera phone didn’t fail to recreate reality because no camera ever actually recreates reality. Accepting this allows me to relinquish the delusions of control I have and start allowing myself to explore the possibilities available to me in a camera that creates these primary colored squares and swirls. I get to be surprised my our creation. Instead of upset that my own creation failed.

So, pedagogical implications… I feel like teaching a class is much the same way. If I think I am the one who is teaching my students and that they are learning solely because I stand in front of them and give them knowledge, I am deluded. I am one small part of their learning process. I need to allow myself to step back, get out of their way and stop tricking myself into thinking I am changing their lives. I am only there to help them figure out that they are capable of changing their own. And the sooner I recognize the distributed quality of their learning process, the sooner they can figure that out.

How Do I Teach My Students How to Figure Out What a Sentence Is Doing?

The little moments I hate about teaching happen when I am trying to get my students to understand what I think is a fundamental principle of writing, and then, in my efforts to illustrate it, or have them learn it themselves, I realize that I have not only missed the mark, but I have no idea what I am talking about. Case in point: today I was teaching them about connecting sentences and making transitions. I had them play the game in groups where one person writes a sentence and then passes the paper, the next person writes the next sentence and then folds the paper down so that only their sentence is visible, and then passes it to the next person and so on. My thinking was that they would be able to focus on reading the sentence, coming up with what they wanted to say, and then using the best kind of transition to phrase the next sentence that would not only add more information but show how the information is connected. We did the activity; it was fun. One group wrote a story about a bear who gave himself the Heimlich maneuver with a rock and then he stubbed his toe on the rock and a fox stole his honey. Pretty funny. But at the end, I started to ask them questions like, “How can we apply this to our writing?” All I got back was vague answers like “Flow,” and “Make transitions.” So then I started to push them to elaborate. Still more empty answers, and not even much to build on. So I took over and explained what I was thinking. In order to make transitions, you have to first determine what the two sentences are doing and how they build on each other in order to choose the most appropriate way to transition. For example, These two sentences. “I am writing this blog to figure something out. I figure stuff out better by writing.” I would have to see that the first sentence is justifying an action, and the second is another justification. So the best way to “transition” between these sentences I would be better off combining the sentence or using “because,” “I am writing this blog to figure something out because I figure stuff out better by writing.” But then I can see that it’s not additional information, it’s a cause and effect relationship, but I couldn’t see that until I tried a transition. Then I realized that I have no idea how to “figure out what a sentence is doing.” The worst part is, most of the time I kept telling them, this is something that feels natural and we do it without thinking. So there I was up there telling them to think through something that they do naturally without thinking. But I didn’t know that yet. I knew the lesson had gone poorly, and that they got very little out of it (I didn’t get anything out of it either. In fact, I left more confused as you can see.) I wrote on my hand the title of this entry.Image

I was miffed that the lesson had gone poorly. I hated that I didn’t know how to teach what I wanted them to do. I am starting to be very aware that it was a stupid conceit for a lesson anyway. Teaching transitions by themselves is like asking a guitar player to practice moving from an F chord to an A chord. It just doesn’t make sense outside of the context of when you actually do it.

Long story short, I gave them crappy advice. I taught crappily.

It doesn’t help that I spent much of yesterday reading Hillocks Teaching Writing As a Reflective Practice and reading about awesome teachers like the McCabe guy he describes in Chapter one that just has the students teach themselves. I still have a long way to go.

The answer to the question in the title is, you don’t. Either they teach themselves, or it isn’t necessary.

First Entry

This blog looks sad, but you have to start somewhere.