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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Postgraduate Diary: Teeching English

Thursday, October 05, 2006

I remember being horrified by the amount of red pen scrawled across the first university essay I handed in, correcting basic grammar and sentence construction. If the technicalities of my writing were not up to scratch when I started university, I could blame my teachers and (probably more significant) a flimsy A-level system which allowed me to score high marks without being able to write grammatical English. Seeing red, both literally and figuratively, I was shocked into action, and I am happy to say that by the end of my first year my essays were being commented on more for their content than for their syntax.

Having taught last year, and having hovered and plunged my red pen above and into numerous essays, regular as a sewing needle stiching the holes in English usage, I was clearly not alone in being unable to construct an essay without splitting my infinitives or, worse, leaving a comma hanging mid-sentence when there should have been a full stop. I only hope my red pen electrified my first year students into corrective action, as it did to me.

With term now underway, in a couple of weeks I can expect to meet my new tutorial groups. So it is by a happy coincidence that our local, parochial Parish News dropped through our letterbox the other day, with the following helpful advice that I can give to my students when I first meet them:

I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it's weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.

You know you have an English degree when you are confident in telling your Word grammar checker that those squiggly-underlined sentences really are perfectly constructed, and that contrary to the spelling advice you really are practising (not practicing) good English in your essays.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:31 pm

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello.

Last night I submitted my essay on defeatism, the first required paper for my English class. The essay will, in all probability, be graded and returned to me resembling your description – full of corrections and red ink.

I actually thought the paper was decent; better, perhaps, than anything else I had ever written. But then this morning, I let my wife read it. After she read the paper, she rolled her eyes and sighed, and then asked me just exactly what it was I was trying to say. I then proceeded to tell her the main points, filling in details here and there until, interrupting me she said, “Stop—why didn’t you write what you just told me?”

Why didn’t I? Why is it so difficult to transfer ideas from the mind onto the paper? I could talk to someone about defeatism, WWI, or many other subjects for hours on end without interruption, but to write it instead…Lord, what a difference!

I tried to make each sentence in the paper perfect – but worrying so much about grammar, syntax, and style caused me to produce many sentences that made no sense and the entire flow of the essay became erratic.

I think you have identified one aspect of the problem: poor primary education. When I was in school (in the 1960’s) the methods and philosophy of teaching children English, as well as other subjects, changed dramatically. It was a time of educational freedom and radical theories that, unfortunately, I don’t think worked well with teaching English. We had to write papers and essays, but the grammar was never as important as what we wrote. The teachers would always say something about how it was the message that mattered, not the style.

My brother, three years my elder, had to diagram sentences and all the “old school” ways of learning grammar. I did not, and I think the lack of studying grammar at that point in the educational process has had a major effect in my writing skills. Now, I’m not entirely putting the blame the schools, because I could very easily have learned grammar on my own; I certainly have learned much about history, programming, and math outside of the educational system.

Well, I geuss the only thing to do now is to keep trying.

6:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oopps. geuss?

Where did you say I could get one of those "spelling checkers"?

6:25 pm  
Blogger Ishmael said...

Why is it so difficult to transfer ideas from the mind onto the paper? I could talk to someone about defeatism, WWI, or many other subjects for hours on end without interruption, but to write it instead…Lord, what a difference!

I know exactly how you feel. As you probably know, I have been struggling over the last couple of weeks to hack out a chapter on A.S. Byatt. Part of the problem has been trying to decide what to write on, as her (lengthy) novels cover so much intellectual ground, and as with anyone who has been writing over a 40 year period there are often changing patterns of thought in evidence. Trying to pick one or two coherent themes to focus on was difficult. But yesterday I had a meeting with my supervisor. She asked me what I my thoughts were on Byatt and, suddenly, I spoke in a couple of minutes of clarity and structure about what had seemed, on paper, a mess/mass of disjointed paragraphs.

I don't know how your teaching process works in the U.S., but over here a typical English course consists of about 6 hours of lectures a week, with perhaps 5-10 hours of discursive seminars over the course of a year. But I feel in English studies there is perhaps too much isolated study, with the emphasis being on individual reading and essay writing, and not enough teaching through discourse, debate, and not enough value placed on the ability to think and argue "on the fly," orally rather than on the page.


I think you have identified one aspect of the problem: poor primary education. When I was in school (in the 1960’s) the methods and philosophy of teaching children English, as well as other subjects, changed dramatically. It was a time of educational freedom and radical theories that, unfortunately, I don’t think worked well with teaching English. We had to write papers and essays, but the grammar was never as important as what we wrote. The teachers would always say something about how it was the message that mattered, not the style.


It sounds like, as in the U.K., it is the ideology of English teaching, rather than the individual teachers, which is at the heart of the problem of declining standards in rhetoric and grammar. I once read a high school English paper my mother took about 30 years ago. The questions on literature basically involved being able to paraphrase a text, putting in lots of quotations and well-structured sentences. We do not want to go back down that route - the ability to think critically and argumentatively is the key skill employers identify in English graduates. Equally, however, when the new exam system gives just 5 percent of the marks to Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPAG), it is entirely understandable that teachers spend 95 percent of their time teaching about how to argue, rather than discussing the use of the semicolon.

When I was learning to drive, my instructor was excellent. He used to have particular phrases and highlight mistakes in such a way that when I drive now, six years on, I still hear his voice nagging in my ear. I think, dull though it may be, there needs to be some form of teaching that drills home the technicalities of writing, so that whenever later in life one is tempted to get sloppy, the nagging voice kicks in at the back of one's head.

I am glad that, at universities, there is still a great emphasis placed on the ability to write correctly, as well as critically. I once worked out that as an undergraduate I wrote around 250, 000 words in essays and dissertations. So I wouldn't worry at all if you find it difficult to get both aspects right simultaneously; you are going to have a lot of practice!

10:58 am  

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