Reflective Practice

Out of WAC: Teaching How to Write in the “Covfefe” Era

Photo by Mike Haw:

By Tom Ribitzky

Until the end of May, it would have been nearly impossible to single out Trump’s most ludicrous tweet.  Each seems to eclipse the previous one in its deranged, rabble-rousing, and misleading content. But then came this line of prose: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.”  

I think what astonished me more than this actual tweet was how initially unfazed I was when I first saw it. I don’t expect much more competence from a man like Trump than whatever it is this tweet conveys (or doesn’t). But what’s more troubling is that I’ve grown so accustomed to these kinds of linguistic errors in the classroom.

The tweet came out on May 31st, after I had concluded a year working as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Fellow. In my first training session, I learned about WAC principles: student-centered learning, low-stakes assignments, scaffolding, etc. As an exercise, we had to grade a short essay for a film class, and then compare our grades with each other. The essay turned out to be about a film no one in my training session had seen but me. I noticed that certain plot points were just incorrect. In addition, the student wrote that the story took place before the First World War (not the Second) in 1936.  Every sentence was either a run-on or a fragment. The syntax of Trump’s tweet, even “covfefe” itself, could have easily found its way into that essay without standing out.

Because of these grammar errors, as well as the inaccuracies in synopsis and historical setting, I gave this essay a D-, which I thought was generous. Everyone else in my group marked it with grades ranging from a B+ to an A+.  Their justification was that they perceived the student’s effort in the work and didn’t want to discourage them.  This could have been the work of an ESL student. Others considered grammar itself as an artificial, classist, racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic construct aimed at oppressing minorities. I was told not to “obsess” over technicalities.

All of these arguments are valid. As a former ESL student myself, growing up in an immigrant household, I know what it’s like to have this struggle with language. I still make some grammar errors myself, but I’m eager to fix the mistakes once I recognize them. Whenever I finish teaching Homer’s Odyssey, I always pair it with the final pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses so that I can show students what language can achieve outside of the constraints of grammar.

A key difference between Ulysses and the essay we had to grade—or, for that matter, anything Trump writes or says—is a matter of rigor and precision. As a teacher of literature, I’m training my students to pay close attention to language so that they can communicate sophisticated thinking clearly and effectively. Grammar and diction are cornerstones of that goal. If they depart from grammar rules, I want them to do so consciously. If they are struggling, they can see me during office hours, go to The Writing Center, and check out grammar textbooks from the library. It’s tedious, yes—but necessary.  

My stance on this issue is clearly not popular.  It has even raised ire from my colleagues, but I don’t discount their objections. Who gets to decide what’s grammatically correct? Isn’t language something that is constantly changing? These are fair and necessary questions to ask, but the point is that we should be actively discussing them instead of downplaying the role of grammar altogether. It’s difficult to explain to my students how to strengthen their writing when they have no concept of the difference between a subject and a predicate. Native speakers in my classes cannot correctly identify parts of speech, let alone the passive voice. As much as grammar can and should be criticized, we mustn’t forget that it facilitates communication.  

Knowing grammar also helps students as readers, as well as writers. When I’m trying to teach students how to identify fake news stories or work that shouldn’t be cited as scholarly sources, the first red flag I tell them to watch out for is faulty grammar. But if they don’t have a strong background in grammar, how are they supposed to identify legitimate sources? Shouldn’t a college education endow our students with the tools to express themselves with precision and sophistication, to write cover letters without run-ons so that they have a chance to work at the jobs they want, and to be informed citizens who are sensitive to nuance and not easily duped?

I’ve come across many academics with a Rhetoric & Composition background who aggressively insist that teaching grammar does not improve writing. (Maybe they just haven’t taught it well?). What improves writing, I’m told, is just the repetitive act of writing, itself—which, theoretically, could also be a Sisyphean exercise in replicating the same mistakes over and over again without anyone to identify the errors. This philosophy is anchored in the Protestant work ethic of our country—produce, produce, produce. The idea is that the quality will catch up if there’s enough quantity to be doled out. Just keep the students busy, and have them relate the subject matter to themselves, to make it “relevant” to their own personal experiences. This, supposedly, is “engagement” and “active learning.” In my mind, that’s just busywork.

I’m not doubting that, in the hands of a good teacher, a number of low-stakes writing assignments can be helpful. But there is also something to be said for the skill set that’s lost in this practice, one that is crucial—especially today, when everyone feels like they have something to say, even without knowing what they’re talking about. Namely, the ability to sit back, listen, and concentrate on an argument that may take an entire class session to unfold in the form of a lecture. There is an ethical benefit in not making everything about you, in shifting the focus away from your own narcissism to the material you’re studying, in opening yourself up to someone else’s articulated experiences.

The straw-man argument is that this kind of education model praises an antiquated “sage on the stage,” the kind of lecturer who talks at students rather than to them for the allotted time. But, as with all forms of pedagogy, there are good lecturers and bad ones. And there is nothing passive about attending a good lecture by someone who is an expert in the field. I’ve never felt more “active” or “engaged” than when I would attend electrifying lectures about works I had just encountered, in which all I had to do was sit and listen. I’ve never felt more infantilized than when I had to write diary-entry “responses” to works I would read—luckily, I only had to do that once as an undergraduate. If that would have been the norm, I would have dropped out of college.

My style of teaching and learning is certainly not for everyone, but neither is WAC’s. Given WAC’s presence within CUNY, I think it would be necessary to address its blind spots, and not in the self-congratulatory way I’ve seen in the training sessions. Lecturing certainly has its blind spots, as well. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a place in the classroom.

We’re living in a time now when Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders try demeaning the media for “obsessing” over “every period” in Trump’s tweets. Obviously that’s not what the critics and detractors are responding to, but the point is clear: they are trying to avoid accountability by shutting down opposition on the grounds of technicalities. Maybe we can use this cue as a source of radical potential.  The most anti-Trump pedagogical practice is one that teaches students how to hold their leaders accountable, how to articulate what’s wrong with their policies, their behavior, their tweets. Maybe obsessing over every period—and every semicolon, comma, and apostrophe—will actually do us some good and give us the training we need to be precise.

While Trump’s errors emerge from a total disdain for language, and my students’ errors come from a more understandable set of circumstances, including not having been taught properly (thanks, Republicans), the result is the same: language is becoming an obstacle rather than a tool, and the standards of what is now appallingly acceptable in higher education are approaching the third-grade level of our President. It is the responsibility of higher education to do just that: go higher. It is our responsibility to fill that gap between his level of discourse and the level that should be expected of anyone with a college degree. The discourse we learn and teach in college ought to enrich public life, accounting for nuance and insight rather than slogans and zingers.

As much as grammar has been criticized for the reactionary politics that have produced and maintained it, maybe there’s nothing more reactionary now than dismissing its importance in pedagogy. Grammar is not going to save our democracy, but under an administration that has little awareness or care for it, maybe teaching the rules, for a change, can be an act of resistance.   

Tom Ribitzky is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and a contributing writer for Visible Pedagogy.

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