After this week’s readings, I went back to my favorite essay on grammar and usage—the first one I read—“Authority and American Usage.” It immediately helped remind me of the term that should really be framing this week’s discussion, which is Authority. Elbow was the only one of this week’s readings to hint at it, and each time only to point at some other, outside person of authority rather than the student as Authority. I’m sure that in our teaching philosophies, we’ve all committed ourselves to a “student-centric” classroom or some variant thereof. So, I suppose the question we have to answer, even w/r/t grammar and usage, is What is best for students? What’s really good for them with regards to grammar? Elbow admits that his dedication to establishing “safety for the mother tongue” is broken by a necessary giving in to what he calls “correctness” that serves students’ academic needs (7). The words he uses to describe what he wants to give students are “power” and “control,” words that ultimately have to do with the Authority inherent in grammar. Grammar is Authority, so how flexible is it and how much will it give under pressure? Elbow’s bind is very real—as much as we want to, and should, honor a student’s language, we feel it’s our responsibility to teach them something, a grammar, that will inevitably reek of prescriptivism and homogenization. To some extent, we’ll have to bully them into grammar and into a certain set of rules.
So, how do we deal with this in the classroom? I’m a huge fan of putting Elbow’s dedication to grit & toughness in conversation with preserving the “safety of the mother tongue” but, honestly, I still don’t understand how this addresses the sticky question of how we present (SWE) grammar in the first place. It still seems like kind of a cop-out. Thoughts?
I can’t help but feel that being honest and open about this is better for both students and teachers. (Kolln points out that “We have produced a generation of teachers whose philosophy is based on the notion that grammar is for teachers to know, but not for students.” I do not want to be one of these teachers.) I am not a linguist, I’m definitely not confident in its terminology, and don’t feel it’s right or even useful to put such an emphasis on “correctness” in the classroom—but I don’t think it has to be this dangerous. If writing is about communication and understanding, isn’t this dependent on understanding what words and sentence structure mean, which is impossible without coherent and agreed-upon grammar and usage rules? I’m not so afraid (anymore) of usurping and vanquishing students’ creativity with rules and regulation; I realize now that creativity not so easily vanquished. And the only real way I have to relate to students’ experience of language is through my own experience, and I hold on tight to grammar—but in understanding it, and continuing to try to do so, I am more able to let it go, play with it when I need to.