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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Let's not be beastly to the undergraduates

The Baltimore Sun

A few years ago, in “What we talk about when we talk about grammar,” I pointed out that most of the finger-pointing about trivial errors and affected distress at the supposed decay of the language usually looks like a bid to achieve superior social status.

I understand that. As I have said before, former English majors like me, unable to boast of physical beauty, great wealth, or high birth, must make the most of what we have, and what we have is grammar. As Dr. Johnson said in his life of Milton, “No man forgets his original trade: the rights of nations and of kings sink into questions of grammar, if grammarians discuss them.”

A remark by a composition teacher in an online discussion last week about students’ “barbarous” work put me in mind of a subset of the peeververein: the teachers.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published an excellent article in October by Rob Jenkins, “The Kids Are Still Alright,” on the “constant grousing about students.” I have been there. As a graduate teaching assistant at Syracuse, I sat in the graduate student lounge with colleagues and bitched about the illiterate undergraduates. Forty years later, I notice that the undergraduates have gotten no better at writing.

A fellow blogger once posted a link to an article that I can no longer find in which comments from faculty members about students’ work were sampled during four selected decades in the twentieth century. The comments were eerily the same no matter what pedagogy happened to be in fashion: The students were ill-prepared for college work, innocent of standard English grammar, unable to write a coherent sentence.

It sometimes appears to elude the grousers that students do not enroll in composition classes because they are already accomplished writers, but rather to learn how to write more skillfully. It seems to elude them that though we learn spoken language naturally, mastery of written language is a skill that takes many years to master—and most people never get much good at it.

I have been correcting the same monotonous errors—subject-verb agreement, formation of possessives, misplaced modifiers, you name them—of professional journalists for nearly forty years, and those who came through traditional pedagogy fared no better than those subjected to the scorned “progressive” pedagogy of the 1960s and later. Turgid academic prose and vapid corporate prose are as predictably regular and sunrise and sunset. Writing is hard; most people never get much good at it.

And so with editing. Of the seven hundred-plus students I have taught at Loyola University Maryland, a number have grasped the fundamentals of editing and the accompanying mindset. They have gone on to success, and I am happy for them. But I think often of the students who did not do well, and I do not sneer at them. That I was unable to reach them was my fault, not theirs.

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