When I think back to my high school writing instruction, I remember red ink, error codes, rules written by hand (it was the early 1980s) ten times in an effort to earn back half the points deducted for rule violations on initial drafts. By my senior year, I had great confidence in my ability to deploy semicolons correctly, avoid phrasal verbs, and resist the urge to write a fragment for effect. I could generate error-free writing with very little trauma. But I was terrified to say anything creative or unexpected, because the secondary lesson of my instruction was that writing presents a million ways to make mistakes, and mistakes should be avoided above all.
It’s difficult to explore ideas and meaning—doubting and then believing yourself in turn (Peter Elbow had not yet made an impact on secondary writing instruction at that point) when you edit each line as it appears before you, even before a proposition has reached its final punctuation, to ensure that subjects and verbs agree.
I had not yet understood (or could not verbalize) that writing concerns meaning—and identities, relationships, and social expectations, among other things. Implicitly I must have known something of these concerns, for I recognized that writing “correctly” would open academic doors for me, as it eventually did – doors that bypassed first-year composition courses. But “correctness” for me entailed writing without a number of language resources that could have been helpful in clarifying meaning for different audiences and purposes: passive voice, phrasal verbs, first and second person pronouns, some sentence-initial conjunctive adverbials, and there is/are constructions.
My current composition classes are working on revisions to literacy narratives, and I am working to create classroom spaces for metatalk about writing and grammar, encouraging students to consider their language and writing resources, the choices they have made in this particular paper, and how they are assessing the effectiveness of those choices. Similar to my own concerns in high-school, much of their talk revolves around rules and errors—and the fact that I have told them they can violate “rules” they learned in previous courses, as long as their decision to do so fits the purpose and evolving meaning of the paper (which requires them to think about purposes and meanings and how language might either align with or work against them). I am trying not to restrict their writing or language resources in any way.
But an upper-level student challenged me on this “no linguistic restrictions” policy during a discussion in my advanced grammar class recently. We were looking at the functions that be plays in English, particularly in the progressive aspect and the passive voice, as well as in there is/are constructions. Students were exploring the rhetorical and discourse purposes of these constructions—backgrounding/foregrounding, creating cohesion, denying or reducing agency, introducing topic shifts, etc. I casually mentioned that I hated to hear that be verbs were restricted in some composition classes, given what be-based constructions can accomplish within a text. Why would we ever want to restrict students from using legitimate linguistic resources, especially when avoiding those resources might lead to less than optimal prose?
One of my students suggested that he had found a restriction on using be verbs helpful to his development as a writer. When not allowed to use be in a paper, he became aware of the extent to which he did use be verbs. And in the course of our conversation, it became evident that not using be might help a student develop skill at using other structures—just as an athlete or musician might restrict the use of a dominant hand in order to strengthen a weaker or less-practiced hand. When assignments are framed strategically, as exercises designed to target a particular linguistic “muscle,” then such restrictions might make sense.
Indeed. I have done such exercises—framing them as ways of playing with language, especially at the paragraph level. To the extent that these exercises highlight and illustrate language-meaning relationships and the ways in which language choices can affect a reader’s experiences, they also support my goal to expand and explore metatalk in developmental and first-year writing courses.
The student’s comments challenged me to consider yet again the way I frame instructions for assignments—both major papers and smaller classroom exercises; the nature of the framing language can either make my purpose clear or leave students bewildered, sensing that they’ve just encountered another idiosyncratic and arbitrary rule. The advanced student’s comments—and the lively metalinguistic and pedagogic discussion that followed—also reminded me of the value of opening spaces for first-year writers to talk about their writing with each other, not just with me.
What language restrictions do you give student writers? Are these restrictions part of a specific assignment? What is your purpose in restricting linguistic choices in that assignment? Do you explain that purpose explicitly to students? How?