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Stay up, LJ, stay up!
astronomers, stolen from bellatrys
ann_leckie
So. If you haven't already, read this post of Rachel's about assumptions regarding the decline of writing education.

IMing about the discussion, I recalled the inescapable (in my college) Freshman Comp. Funny thing about Freshman Comp--at the fairly prestigious school I attended, you had to take Freshman Comp pretty much no matter what. I had, for instance, already taken Freshman Comp in my senior year of high school--I took it as an AP class, for which I paid a fee to have it count as college credit at the institution my high school dealt with. That wasn't going to get me out of Freshman Comp at the college I actually attended. I asked.

Because, see, I'd taken what was essentially Freshman Comp my freshman year of high school, and then taken the AP Freshman Comp my senior year. So actual Freshman Comp felt kind of remedial to me--surely we did this already in high school?

That led to my asking myself the question, was Freshman Comp "remedial" and then, when had colleges started requiring Freshman Comp? "Self," I said, "Google is your friend."

Turns out, in 1874 Harvard started using a written entrance exam--and half the candidates flunked. Which led to a lot of hand-wringing over the state of education (ah, the more things change!). The end result was Harvard instituting a remedial freshman course in composition. Other schools followed suit, and this course is still with us today as....Freshman Comp.

So folks who argue that in their day universities and colleges didn't offer remedial writing classes cause everyone who made it in was prepared are...well, let's say, charitably, victims of assumptions they haven't bothered to question.

Talk to me again about "modern" teaching methods skimping on the writing and grammar?

I also definitely want to thank Rachel for posting on this while I was done with cognitive functions for the day. Because I think it's an important piece of information. I think it's important to know actual history, and not just assume that "common sense" dictates and supports whatever thought rises to the top of your mind, and your anecdotes are precious, precious data.

I'm sorely tempted to ask why so many people are so invested in the idea that humiliating children and hectoring them is the Only Way They'll Learn, that somehow kids feeling positive about themselves, feeling good about making progress, is somehow the Enemy of the Good, that self-esteem and learning are mutually exclusive. Or the insistence that a child's every written exercise or utterance needs to be carefully, obsessively corrected for errors lest they fall into perdition and Doom Us All. I mean, seriously? What's behind that? Some of these folks seem to actually know some kids in real life, but it never seems to be their own kids who need this, who need, say, to have their papers taped on the wall for display at open house covered with red ink for everyone and their pet monkey to see--just other people's.

I think there are a few things going on--one of them, of course, is that "Proper English" is a class marker, and it's human nature to patrol the edges of that. You can spot the imposters! Your manager (I worked for this man) knows good and well that "correct" grammar contributes to his prestige, and violating any of a number of shibboleths will show him for the fraud he is--so he gets anxious when he speaks formally. Hearing him speak to the chancellor's wife was comedy gold--he used big words he didn't quite understand and tried to construct long, complicated sentences on the fly, but they'd just end up tangled all around his tongue, him wandering lost in his verbal mazes. The amount of between you and Is that came out of that man's mouth was unbelievable.

But he'd been to college, wasn't a stupid man, wasn't uneducated. It's just, that was hard for him, and he knew it, so he was trying as much as he could to imitate the thing he knew was essential but he didn't quite get. He knew, very clearly, that it was a class issue.

I admit I laughed at him, privately, because that was something that did come easily to me. But sneer at him, call him stupid, blame his teachers? No. He was caught in a situation that he was managing as best he could, with the resources he had.

So. Class is part of it. The other is the fact that pretty much everyone can manipulate language. Pretty amazingly--the least deft of us does all kinds of intricate verbal work on the fly, every day, all day. We're all experts in our native dialect. Of course, some of us are more expert than others, some of us find it easier than others, but that common proficiency, plus Dunning Kruger, means a lot of people think they're experts, see no reason why anyone of reasonable intelligence couldn't also be, and so anyone who isn't is either lazy, stupid, or the victim of Modern Teaching.

It doesn't really matter who you blame, you get to sneer all the same. So possibly some of "self esteem! I walked uphill both ways in the snow while being whipped with barbed wire whenever I made a spelling error!" is sneering. Some of it is anxiety--will no one think of the children, who will doubtless be condemned to a future of "between you and I" and people thinking they aren't educated? But sometimes I wonder if it's just plain dominance display. "I'm better than they are! I will prove it! Oh, and I am also better than their teachers!"

In any event, unquestioned assumptions--the recency illusion, for instance, backed by some class and/or generational prejudice--are great for supporting sneers.

I'd like to add, by the way, that I totally agree with Rachel's analysis of who's being left out, when we demand that college not have any remedial writing classes or resources. The other half of the sneer is "if you didn't learn this in high school you don't belong here in college with us smart folks," but what if you didn't learn it because your school had very little money, hardly any resources, and was putting out other fires daily? And then lost what little money they had because of test scores (which, don't get me started)? "Too bad, honey, you weren't one of the lucky kids who got to attend an affluent school. Hope you can get a job dropping fries. If not, oh well." Funny how the kids who already have money end up with better schools, and a better chance of college, isn't it. And then someone's going to wonder aloud if maybe poor people are that way because they're just born not as smart or not as industrious, and I'm going to pick up my board with a nail in it and they're going to get the hell out of my way if they know what's good for them.

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You're beautiful when you're angry, nadi-ji.


You and Rachel are both awesome.

I placed out of Freshman Comp -- they gave us a test on orientation weekend.

Yeah, some places let you. My school didn't! I wished they did, because, seriously.

I placed out of the entire first year of English, but I admit there was some chicanery involved. (It's hard for them to insist you take ENG 101 and 102 when, in addition to top scores on all the standardized tests, you got an A in a 400-level English course as a nonmatriculated student. It surely also helps to be 24 instead of 18.)

I taught remedial--truly remedial--composition courses at a community college in the CUNY system. We were teaching the students to pass the standardized composition exam. Most of the students were ESL, who seemed as if they would be quite literate in their own languages, but were making basic English errors because the rules were different from their native languages. The students with origins in Romance languages had problems with noun/verb agreement, and tended to comma-splice. The students from Asian languages (including Russian) had endless trouble with articles and auxiliary verbs.

The American kids who had come up through the NYC public schools were very different. Many were functionally illiterate...but picked up the formal rules very, very quickly. They knew these rules on some level; simply no one had ever connected the application and the result for them.

It's worth noting that the American kids were invariably from less affluent backgrounds, whereas the ESL students were usually from upper middle-class backgrounds in their own country (which explains how their parents had the money to get to the USA).

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