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Review of “Grammar Rants” by Patricia A. Dunn and Ken Lindblom

Reviewed: Grammar Rants: How a Backstage Tour of Writing Complaints Can Help Students Make Informed, Savvy Choices About Their Writing, by Patricia A. Dunn and Ken Lindblom[1]

Dunn & Lindblom (hereafter “D & L”) present teachers with a novel approach to integrating grammar into the writing curriculum, a pedagogy focused on critiquing the critics who complain about other people’s bad grammar and mechanics. Such complaints form their own genre (grammar rants), and are cast from a common mold with a long history. For instance, D & L cite professors at Illinois State Normal University ranting about spelling and grammar mistakes back in the mid-19th century (3). The genre never dies. Today, the prototypical grammar ranter would be Lynn Truss, author of the supercilious Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Grammar rants, D & L argue, derive their power from the commonplaces assumed to be shared between writer and reader (26). You know them too: that having good grammar is crucial, that modern English is deteriorating, that kids these days are abusing the language, that liberal teachers have gone soft, and that we must return to the rigorous standards of an idyllic yesteryear.

Dunn & Lindblom’s annotations illustrate how they tear apart a grammar rant. (click for larger image)

D & L detail how these commonplaces can be scrutinized, how these grammar rants can be close-read, and how writing curriculum can be scaffolded to enable students to do the same. The grammar rants analyzed are picked from a variety of publications—most commonly, small-town newspapers. D & L unpack the questionable assumptions made by the grammar ranters, such as the implicit link between correct grammar and good morals (chapter 1), or between correct grammar and high intelligence (chapter 2). Grammar rants get torn apart line for line, and this is where the book excels; D & L’s meticulous, insightful close-readings provide rich models from which to teach.

Grammar rants, in D & L’s view, have little to do with the actual error in question or the clarity of the writing; grammar functions as a proxy. Through it, the ranter asserts superiority over the transgressor. In this analysis, D & L draw on Joseph William’s work on “the phenomenology of error,” which holds that “error” is a slippery thing, in part a product of one’s expectations: we expect and notice errors in the writing of amateurs, while we overlook similar errors in the writing of educated professionals (xi).

The pedagogy of Grammar Rants integrates reading and writing. It’s based on the belief that when students deconstruct grammar rants, they not only learn close-reading skills, but they also become less anxious and blocked up with their own writing. They learn to focus more on meaning and substance and obsess less over those who’d wag their fingers at the imperfections on the surface (xiv).

Some of D & L’s discussion touches on what grammar ranters imply about race and class (10, 26, & 27), but these topics demand deeper attention, especially since so many of us teach students from groups historically under-represented in higher education. Grammar rants easily slip into the realm of class and ethno-linguistic supremacy. It always pains me when my non-white and working-class students tell me they speak “incorrect” English, because it shows they have internalized the same value system as the grammar ranters.

Students will find the lessons on rants about spelling (chapter 3) especially engaging for their humorous content. Here D & L draw an analogy between spelling bees and reality TV shows: both focus on the spectacle of contestants’ very public failures (54 – 55). Also, D & L discuss lighthearted news articles about criminals who spell incorrectly and that imply the two are linked (58 – 62).

Chapter 4 is especially timely and relevant to today’s students. It deals with texting and emailing, and the common (yet questionable) complaint that they’re hurting the language of young people.

Chapter 5 deals with what D & L call “the grammar trap”—those perilous situations where a writer needs to make a grammatical choice, but all options will draw the ire of some grammar ranter. Instead of the teacher prescribing a correct option, D & L believe students should be given both a “close-up view and a bird’s eye view of language controversies” and all the possible options (96). With such a perspective, students are less intimidated by potential grammar ranters and more empowered to think through the implications each possible choice.

Will it work? D & L argue such an approach won’t leave students confused or overwhelmed. Instead, they will enjoy the “human drama” of grammar rants and they will gain confidence (96). I’m skeptical. I’ve found that most students at the basic level and many at the developmental level lack the patience for complex digressions into the many nuances of usage options. In many situations, they demand clear maxims that simplify matters, separating the correct from the incorrect.

D & L’s scope is both theoretical and practical. Each chapter ends with grammar rants for students to analyze, classroom activities, worksheets, discussion questions, and ideas for writing assignments. D & L’s  classroom materials thoughtfully guide students through complex issues and draw on students’ personal experiences with the English language.

I’ve wondered what level of writing class the curriculum is designed for. D & L state that “[t]hrough their imaginative use of our suggestions, instructors should be able to engage students at all levels of writing proficiency” (xv). Nonetheless, the difficulty of the readings, the complexity of the activities, and the knowledge assumed by the discussion questions all are most fitting for students at first-year composition level, or perhaps one level below.

Grammar Rants has an abstract, impersonal quality to it, as if the pedagogy and curriculum were fleshed out in a graduate seminar, but never tested out in an undergraduate writing course. I doubt that’s true, but D & L never discuss their experiences using their pedagogy with specific students, or how they’ve tailored their pedagogy to different student populations. Similarly, the answer keys for discussion questions provide D & L’s ideal answers, rather than discussion of how actual students have responded, and where they tend to go astray. As I read, I wanted to know what living, breathing students in D & L’s classes have said. How have the lessons played out? And, of course, what unexpected issues arose out of left field?


[1] Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary evaluation copy of this book from the publishers.