Scraps from the Old Professor's Desk



There are some things (as Aristotle observed) which can be taken of face value and discussed without factual authentication. The deterioration of student writing in the last thirty years falls into this classification, everyone seems aware of it and we can start with that as a reasonably secure given. When colleges now have to devise remedial Freshman writing courses at considerable expense, we can be sure that something has gone wrong down the line.

But one administrator I know has insisted that it is necessary to inquire into research as to whether knowledge of grammar helps writing skills, which I find a most peculiar question. This is like asking whether knowledge of addition helps Algebra, or if understanding the use of a saw helps cabinet making. There are some things which I am sure do not have to be asked.


About the "student writing problem" I may cite my own experience in over thirty years of college level teaching. In my first teaching position in the Pacific Northwest, I required two pages of writing twice a week at class from each of thirty students who had apparently never had practice writing in high school and in two terms produced such a fine crop of fluent and interesting writers that (when the English Department compared my work with theirs) I almost lost my job. When I came to Middlebury I taught a course in Ancient History, again demanding a 3-4 page paper each week from about twenty five students. With detailed correction the students improved quickly, so my work correcting was much easier at the end of a term than at the start. But there were still some 1500 pages to go over at the end of each term and I finally had to ask the administration for a reader to help me. The administration was cheap and refused a reader, so I dropped the course since I was carrying a heavy overload in my other work. By l985 colleges everywhere were heading toward larger classes, in which it became impossible to read weekly papers from 75 or 100 students, so for most courses written work was curtailed to two 5-7 page "terms papers" per term. Many teachers began to feel that pencil correcting l was below their dignity and justified their practice by claiming that after all it was the content they were interested in. By l990 none but the best students at Middlebury could write a verbally correct or stylistically interesting page, at which point a Freshman remedial course was instituted to straighten up things which should have been taken care of years earlier. Remedial English courses do help, but nothing can substitute for learning the art of clear writing when entering high school.


Older school teachers will probably have some sympathy with a return to the traditional English grammar, but many of them will not realize what pertinent and vital work Structural Linguistics has done since their school days. Abstracting the essential meaning from the sociological lingo of Linguistics writing is necessary before much of this material can be used in the classroom. On the other hand old-fashioned "Grammar" which is largely based on literary Latin and lacks the multi-faceted character of real languages, is not a good thing to go back to in nostalgia. A linguistically based New Grammar can fuse a traditional grammar approach with the relevant basics of modern Linguistics and get this into a shape usable in a lively manner in a middle school classroom . But I have not found linguists who face adaptation of their professional materials to Junior High use, or school teachers who have much interest in learning how Linguistics can help with a English school program.


Hearing the sound of good spoken English is probably the first requirement for learning to write good English prose. The parallel in music education is clear: First the student must learn to hear sound, after that the ordered sounds which we call music. Then come the laborious lessons at piano or cello, which demand great and often painful attention to fingering or bowing, The overall grasp of what music is about and the disciplined attending to detail, go hand in hand to produce a musically educated person.


The Art of Music has many things in common with what we call the Language Arts, which stress learning how to read, understand and relish good writing and then to put something of one's own thinking into a clear and hopefully interesting composition. Skilled reading and skillful writing are the best evidences for skilled and pertinent thinking, which is after all what the whole process of education is really about. The musically educated ear is clear about a what makes a good voice line; and the English writer's ear must have the same attunement to sounds, their concord and also discordance in the shape of a well phrased verbal sentence.


Correcting student papers in detail is hard work and takes time. But Math teachers, French and Spanish teachers take home exercises to be corrected nightly and it is not unreasonable to expect English teachers to do the same. Using a standardized icon code for corrections can make the job easier, but it will still take time. Perhaps the ultimate responsibility for getting English correction done rests with the Principal, since this should not be an elective effort on the part of the more energetic teachers but a requirement part of the teaching contract. Some teachers correct everything assiduously, others hardly touch the traditional red pencil. There may well be a laziness-factor involved in the case of teachers who have never had to correct papers over the years. If the requirement correcting comes as a surprise, that shows the work has not been properly supervised for a long time.


Poetry read aloud and with sensitivity is a good start for middle school students' reading, since poetry tends to be compact and usually requires some interactive effort on the hearer/reader's part. There are lots of light verse which are easy to work with initially , Walter Hard is fine for Vermonters, Robert Frost good everywhere, and there is a wide range from limericks to E.E. Cummings to sonnets from many periods. And if read carefully there is poetic art in finely tuned prose like Twain, Kafka and Faulkner and the moderns. Read just a page at a time getting the full savor of the language. Reading aloud is essential since auditory comprehension is different from eye-reading, yet the two work strongly together. If this sounds at first like "too high a level" for average students, remember that average people have a full set of esthetic sensibilities, given exposure and a chance to participate; and a common sin among American teachers is still "talking down to the class".


b) Tuesday. This might be a good day to devote to close reading technique. Starting with bits from the newspapers, the literature of ads, instructions for operating a gizmo, etc....... all these give an easy introduction to the exact process of scanning written material for details. Are the words used correctly? Do they say what they seem to mean? Do they trick us into something unsaid? These are great springboards for class discussion, since so much of our information about the world we live in comes from the written word. And a great deal of what we read is unclear, ambiguous, even deceptive and fraudulent. Who reads all the stuff on the printout which comes with prescription medicine? Who reads the small print at the end of a legal document, or the footer at the bottom of a TV advertisement?


A classroom analysis of TV shows is well worth doing in high school, not only the storyline but the way visual and verbal are used and often abused together . This is a topic of great importance, but it can probably only be studied with a teacher who has made this a serious study. Perhaps an outside critic could be brought in to focus on TV both performance and the possibilities for a serious workshop exposition. Whether we like it or not, TV is going to be the "book" of the future and if we do not develop with our students a set of standards for judging it, we abdicate a major educational responsibility.


A new topic for classroom study: Careful examination, with word by word study, of printed directions: "How to put together a complicated mechanical device." or "How to install a new computer program as a desk accessory. ". Directions for hooking up a computer and especially directions for diagnosing a computer program, are absolutely prime for study because their English is often so completely incomprehensible. Why is this so? Can the directions be rewritten to make better sense ? Can we rewrite some of this stuff to make it clear and perhaps even elegant? That is good work for a class and no easy matter for the teacher as well. Just try it!


Idea for a school class: Study a legal contract, a form for a bank loan, an loan application for a car, a mortgage, a home-purchase. Many Americans have no idea about reading "fine print" , are continually fooled in their purchases and bilked many times through their earning years. Learning to pay strict attention to the language and meaning of the little paragraphs of technical writing which adorn contracts, credit applications, mortgages and loans is not only good for the mind as an intellectual exercise. It is good for the pocketbook as well.


We still study in the Algebra course problems which ask which train will arrive in Chicago first if two are traveling at different speeds from different cities, all in the name of precision thought and calculation. But we don't think of writing as involving any degree of precision, although not being clear and exact can get us a bad purchase, a bad mortgage and a bad political candidate. It is not only in math that we find Variables, words have this characteristic too and our business is to find the right value for words in the kind of Equation we all use throughout our lives . I am speaking of Sentences.


School students can learn much from carefully examining an involved legal paper. A complicated will. A divorce. Even better a contested divorce. . Analysis of some few pages from a law book. A visit from a lawyer would be important at this stage to (try to) explain why lawyers use such odd and stilted language and what are the reasons for this. Must precision always be recondite, or is this just a social habit among our learned professionals, the lawyers and doctors and the professors ?


Next week, go to court to see that same lawyer who just explained the Law in your classroom, see how he performs in a court session. His comments afterwards about the case should be pertinent and a transcript of the proceedings from the court stenographer (if it can be secured) should shed light on the importance of the written word. Why do they have that funny little court stenographic typewriter when we know it is all being tape recorded anyway? Because it is the written word on paper which counts, even if the clerk has to expand it later into a typed court document. Law has to be done in black on white to be legal.


It is very important to know something about Sound as communication, since speech is our ground level of thought and ultimately involves all other kinds of communication. I am thinking here of an introduction to Sociobiology and the remarkable work of Wilson at Harvard on this new field in the l980's, work which seems now somewhat neglected. We should know more about the characteristics of spoken sound, with some material from the sound-spectrograph where there are published accounts with photographs of the graphs. The more we know the more we will understand about the mysteries of human speech and the way hearing is processed in the brain. Sight is our main avenue of perception, but Hearing can do things sight cannot envision (pun), since it can operate on multiple separately discriminated levels. Vision gives a picture, sound creates an ambiance.


Things which are important to know about: Sound as the behavior of force-displaced molecules in a medium which exhibits elastic properties. Balls on strings in succession and similar demonstrations. As example of the necessity for a "medium", a bell tinkling in a thermos bottle!

Speed of sound, light vs. sound in a thunderstorm, perhaps a controlled experiment also. Speed of sound vs. light/ electricity. This stage should be fully documented...

Sound in various media,, leading to speed of transmission as coefficient of density. Helium in throat, railroad tracks, underwater sound etc.

Sound as measured in Herz = cycles per second. (Who was Herz? History of science is worth knowing.) The range of cycled energy from a thud to Angstroms. The color spectrum. The range of the auditory spectrum for humans, dogs, whales and bats...

Sound and Hearing, the biological side. The outer, middle and inner ear, with the neural tie-ups. The voice and the sound-organs. This must be done with cut-away plaster/plastic casts in order the be at all real. Beethoven, Keller, bats, blind dogs and people with canes.....


Music and the Pythagorean experiments (are they possible with the hammers as Greek legend says?) can be better done carefully with the monochord and oscilloscope, discovering the mathematical ratios for the diatonic "musical intervals", as well as intervals in other societies like the Oriental 5 tone, Indian partial tones, the Greek musical "modes". Learn to hear beats and what they mean. Use a spectroscope for this also. As we learn more about musical sounds, we find we have to go to other parts of the world for a better understanding of the available musical possibilities which leads us directly into ethnomusicology and the whole matter of societal variability. Music opens many doors in the auditorium of human generated sound.


We can't go far in the study of human speech before we meet the concept of the Phoneme, as well as the Allophone as a sub-significant variant. What are the relative values of a totally phonematic system of writing, a mixed system (Egyptian), or a pure idiographic system? Phonemic systems are easier to learn, perhaps more democratic? But are they easier to read at least by skilled persons when learned ? Does learning (as against using) the Chinese writing system account in part for the fact that Oriental persons score 6% higher in I.Q. tests than Westerners? But then we have to ask how much of a standard Intelligence Score, as against true Intelligence, is verbal?


The study of an ancient or "dead" language is interesting in several respects. First, it will be further removed from English and gives good information about the differences which languages can demonstrate. Second, it opens the door to a culture which is not only foreign, but also further removed in time from us, which can tell us much about the history of human social evolution. And the study of an old language has much of the fascination of archaeology and the examination of fossils. As it turns out, there seems to be a revival of interest in Latin with new books on amazon.com ranging from stuff of interest to intellegenciasts to manuals for everyday dummies. And there is even more creeping interest in ancient Greek, which appeals not only to those who appreciate the high culture of Greek drama, but also to the reader of the bible, where the Greek manuscripts are the only authentic source. What was once school-drudgery is now an exiting venture into another culture, which says again to the public: Watch out for the academicians who have a way of ruining everything in school. The adult amateurs who are coming back to learn are the best students in the world.

Before l960 most high school English teachers taught a plain version of old-fashioned "Grammar", which was styled after Latin Grammar of the l9th century manuals, itself copied from the ancient Roman grammarians of the 4th century AD. For some reason we got used to Roman style terminology in grammar, itself in good part mimicking the inherited grammatical terminology of the Greeks. Words were defined in traditional-ese, sentences were "outlined" with a pseudo-philosophical rigor, pages of students' writing were written over with the infamous red pencil and somehow the students (whether they understood the grammatical rigmarole or not) learned to actually write fairly acceptable English.


There was a time within recent memory when American students came out of the school system with the ability to write clear and correct English. Anyone who has taught on the college level for two or more decades will remember the well written English prose which college students generally brought to their higher education. They will also remember the persistent slide downward to virtual incompetence which ensued, as our students veered into incorrect and often unclear writing, a process largely ignored by college teachers on the basis that the damage had been already done somewhere back in the school system. I had one student in the down-period who handed me such an excellent paper drawn up with perfect footnoting and a first rate bibliography, that I actually questioned him about the possibility of plagiarism. He explained that he had been working summers doing editing for a well-know novelist and was used to good writing, finally accepting my apologies gracefully. But he was really an exception to the rule, as I realized when I went back to the rest of the pile of student papers.


We should remember that certain things have to be learned by rote, for example the number of days in the months, the arithmetic tables, the basic formulae of plane geometry. As students ceased to be pressed to add digits quickly and accurately, a new generation of arithmetic-illiterates was quickly bred, saved only by the appearance of cheap calculators. Asians generally and Americans over fifty years of age can add a list of numbers as quickly as someone else can push calculator keys and possibly with less error. What about the A & P clerks who can't subtract an error reading visually, or even with aid of a pencil? Or kids adding 8 + 9 on their calculator? In fact there is nothing theoretically wrong with this, since the calculator in a rote-programmed machine exactly like a minor part of the brain. But the lack of "mind-training" is serious, since children who fail to learn things which they do not yet understand, have little chance of learning complex things later in our increasingly complex world, where a great many things have to be learned before they are fully understood.


Rote-learning is important, especially when it is counterbalanced by sensitive attention to the student's feelings and inner thinking. But to automatically throw out rote-learning is to throw out soap and then wonder why you have dirty hands.


Older school teachers will probably have the most sympathy with a return to the traditional English grammar, but many of them may not realize what pertinent and vital work Structural Linguistics has done since their school days. But getting the essential meaning away from the sociological lingo of Linguistics is necessary before it can be used in the classroom. On the other hand old-fashioned "Grammar" which is largely based on Latin and lacks the multi-faceted character of real languages, is not a good thing to go back to in a fit of nostalgia. I believe there a possibility of inventing a New Grammar which can fuse a traditional grammar approach with the relevant basics of modern Linguistics and get can be got into a shape usable in a Junior High classroom in a lively manner. The question is: Who is going to undertake this work?


A basic understanding of the field of Linguistics should help make students aware of the larger meaning of Language as a basic tool of human performance. What our own language consists of, what languages in general use in the world are like, how they works, what they can and cannot do - - - - these are things educated persons and educators should be aware of. Inevitably such awareness will lead to a greater respect for one's own use of language and thus raise our level of writing and speaking another notch. We are waiting for something to come to the surface.


In recent years the area we used to call English has been recast in the schools under the heading of Language Arts, which include learning to read and understand and relish good writing and then to put something of one's own thinking into a clear and hopefully interesting composition. The word ART is good news but the premises are much the same as before. Beyond a school approved program, skilled reading and skillful writing are the best evidences for skilled and pertinent thinking, which is after all what the whole process of education is really about.


The Linguistic Dominance Phenomenon: Hellenistic Greek in the Mediterranean world, then Latin for 1500 years, English now everywhere have come to dominate a global society. Why does this happen, is this cultural imperialism, or an economically based global convenience? Is it that we need a single language as a necessity for scientific research? For economics? But there are losses of ethnic individuality i the process. Remember the story of the Tower of Babel which was constructed with unfired bricks and asphalt cement by a motley crowd of workers drawn from everywhich bordering nation. The first reason for the failure of the Tower was the problem of communication among the various workers and that is the one which the historians claim to have been the basic problem. It probably was the reason for economic failure, but it was certainly the soft bricks and thermo-un-setting asphalt which caused the serious collapse. It is interesting the Roman architect Vitruvius states in 30 BC that hard fired bricks and the best quality volcanic ash mortar must be used for solid building materials. I their own towers the Romans handled the Babel problem much better with good building materials and forthe workers, the universal use of the Latin language.


When you speak with older persons who have had a traditional English course sequence, you find that they have still a firm grasp on what Grammar means. In their school years they wrote and re-wrote essays on a weekly basis, their teachers red-lined everything from wrong spelling and wrong words usage, to lack of general clarity in sentences and paragraphs. Sentences were diagrammed in a cumbersome but understandable fashion, which may have been a heavy-handed technique for both teacher and student to work with, but it did produce clear and sensible writing. It is probably the result which counts in the final analysis.


In the l950's a new philosophy came into the American educational system, with a fear that learning facts and especially learning by rote was to be avoided. The catch-words for this reform movement were DRILL AND KILL and this point of view has persisted through teacher-training programs to the present time. As a result our standard SAT examinations have a minimum of factual questions and have shifted to what might be called Intelligent Guesswork as an index of ability. Of course there is value to knowing how to guess, which is a good part of our human intelligence, But guessing without a base in factual data is a dangerous operation and one of the shortcomings of the present SAT system. I think many people have become aware of this situation by now, but the SAT's are in place as a working program and a solvent business enterprise, so the questions is: What is to come next and who is going to do it?


There are many things which you have to learn by rote and the earlier you learn them in the formative years , the better they will serve you throughout life. Clear examples are the arithmetic tables. If you don't imprint the details of addition and multiplication early, you will be at a disadvantage forever. Some feel the ubiquitous handheld calculators take over this function for you, but anything you do in your head is FAR faster than punching keys and reading the little numbers with your eyes. And when there is no calculator at hand, for example when clerking at a cash register and entering discounts or coupon subtractions, the clerk is often at a loss for mental calculation, even has trouble doing the figures with pencil and paper. I think of a 80 year old man in the lumber-years, who calculates linear feet of board, board feet, square feet of coverage and costs with the ten percent cash discount, all in his head, then checking it with incredible speed on a scrap of board with his pencil. Many older people can run down a long list of addition mentally, as fast as an Oriental shop clerk can do it with the fastest tool of all --- the Abacus. But this requires learning things early and learning them well. Without the old saw " THIRTY DAYS HATH SEPTEMBER...." nobody can plan his calendar correctly. There are things you simply have to know.


I maintain that the irrational fear of DRILL AND KILL has produced a generation of unfortunate ignoramuses, that improvement of our writing skills will again require a detailed and factual knowledge of Grammar as a framework for discussing written materials. It need not be the old-fashioned Grammar of a century ago. Fused with the new world of Linguistics we can make it much more pertinent and far more interesting. But there has to be a framework for dealing with written materials in a world where information is still written, whether quill and ink on paper or zeros and ones in an electronically coded sentence. And written documents eventually trace back to the human phenomenon of Speech, which is the way the human brain thinks, so it may be up to some new branch of Cognitive Linguistics to open doors for new approaches to both information and knowledge.


I would like to note that a return to "Grammar" does not mean a return to tediousness and the stiff schoolmaster-like attitudes of half a century ago. Teachers have changed, they are more responsive, more psychologically aware and much more broadly trained. Bringing back Grammar and even some of the rote learning which modern educators have disenfranchised, can make good sense if done with intelligence and perception. We have to ask first what it is that we really needed. Then we can deliberate if things like "Thirty days hath September. .. " and "eight times eight ... " will be examples of rote learning which we really cannot do without!.


If teachers have changed, the students have also changed, and Grammar too has changed enough to involve itself with the work of modern Structural Linguistics. Old-fashioned grammar, in the void of the present "New Illiteracy" might be better than nothing at all, but a New Grammar based on relevant traditional Grammar, now inter-fused with Linguistics is much more likely to be intellectually pertinent and educationally valid as a usable teaching tool.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris