A New “Super Bad” Writing Habit

splitcap

I am known for my hatred of superhero movies and, frankly, the entire genre of the superhero comic book. The plot arcs are so often predictable, the attempts at stirring our emotions so bombastic. I do enjoy the occasional effort such as Kickass that subverts the conventions of the genre, but that sort of film sounds its yawp into the teeth of a hurricane.

Now our superpower-obsessed tastes, not being content with ruining popular cinema, are also dumbing down speech, even student prose.

This morning during my drive to work, I listened to an otherwise talented NPR reporter use the adjective “super” to describe aspects of a refugee simulation under way. Her sloppy use of the term undercut the seriousness of the story: an Iranian immigrant who had fled Iraqi airstrikes in the First Gulf War teaches others how the experience of fleeing one’s home might feel.

The reporter, speaking too fast as so many current NPR staff do, described a life-raft as “super cramped” and at about that point, I wanted to turn off the radio. It’s a lazy word, “super,” that slowly has been creeping into student writing. I plan to add it to my Pet Peeves list at Writer’s Web.

The usage illustrates what Joe Glaser, author of Understanding Style, decries as too much informal diction seeping into formal writing. I have yet to see a student in my “Space Race” First-Year Seminar refer to the Saturn V moon rocket as “super big,”  but I await that dark day with each written response.

My hunch about “super,” as with the even worse “totally,” comes from the increased orality and interruptive nature of informal speech. I hear students talk over each other, omitting nuance and forethought. Most of my students and even some of my peers are not doing as much serious reading–if any reading at all–beyond what a class assigns. When my students do read, they do not engage in any reflection on how a decent author crafts a sentence or uses language in surprising ways.

Thus non-readers are left with a small grab-bag of simple modifiers. “Super” has become the modifier of choice to replace other simple adjectives and adverbs:  “very,” “extremely,” “extensively,” and the like.

In my courses, all of them more or less based upon a 100-point scale, I plan to deduct 1 point for “super” used in place of a more descriptive word. And I plan to be super clear about that.

Possessives’ Apostrophes: Oh, What a Mess

If a reader checks the entry in Writer’s Web, our online handbook, the rules for using apostrophes seem simple enough, whenever a word ends in the letter S:

For words that are plural, such as “Joneses,” just add the mark.

Singular words are different. They take ‘s, as in “I ran into the boss’s car! What do I do?” or “Is that Thomas’s cat?”

Prediction: in 100 years’ time, the possessives of every word that ends in an S will take a simple apostrophe. That is, of course, if anyone still bothers to punctuate.

For now, however, the situation is hopelessly muddled. Our Writing Consultants try to adhere to the simple rules just given, yet in common usage and under “house rules” for various fields of study the matter of correct usage remains far from settled.  Consider this set of exceptions from the Grammar United site about the different house styles for AP and University of Chicago formats. Happy reading.

Back? Still sane?  Good. Now consider a few classic handbooks and the advice therein.

Diana Hacker, Rules for Writers (6th Ed.)

  • “If the noun is plural and ends in -s, add only an apostrophe”
  • “if the noun is singular and ends in -s or an s sound, add -‘s” (299).

Listen for the “S”? Why? I envision people reading their work aloud, no bad thing to do, to hear that “s” sound.

So let’s try the grandfather of all usage guides.

H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage (2nd Ed. Sir Ernest Gowers, Ed.)

  • “It was formerly customary, when a word ended in -s, to write its possessive with an apostrophe but no additional s. . . . In verse, and in poetic or reverential contexts, this custom is retained. . . .But elsewhere we now usually add the s and the syllable” (466).

Recent handbooks do a better job.

Patricia T. O’Conner, Woe is I

  • “To indicate ownership, add ‘s to a singular noun or to a plural noun that does not end in s. . .” (151).
  • “If the word is plural and ends in s, add just the apostrophe” (38).

Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of American Usage

  • “For most plural possessives, use the ordinary plural form and add an apostrophe to the final s” (509).

While I remain reverential to the late Diana Hacker, whose books have so long had an honored place in writing classrooms,  I am going to come down on the side of the living. American English tends to evolve toward simplicity; in this case, the simpler usage does not remove any nuance from our language, and our Writing Consultants have dragons to slay in student work. They do not have time for this particular gnat, let alone deciding how an S sounds or if the context might be poetic or reverential.

Thus, unless a house style dictates otherwise, our Writing Center and I hold with Garner and O’Conner: add an apostrophe only to plural nouns that end in S. Possessives such as children’s hospital or men’s room are different and easy enough. The plurals do not end in an S.

So there we have it, for even the worst possessive obsessive’s grammar notes.

Mr. Fowler, rest in peace, please. And I am so pleased that you began a sentence with a conjunction, as I just did. Hah.

 

 

Making Pronouns Inclusive By Making Them Plural

Faculty members’ ideas vary on this, and our Writer’s Web page about pronoun usage provides the canny advice to ask a professor.

The author of this post is far from “politically correct” in many areas, but it has always made good rhetorical sense to avoid gendering language when an audience includes men and women.

In a pinch, I can rewrite any sentence to keep it both grammatically correct and inclusive. Every summer, we edit our handbook for Writing Consultants, and I am surprised that three female editors still kept in sentences like this one:

“Have the writer identify his main point by asking…” when it is easily broadened to “Have writers identify main points by asking.” This revision has the virtue of brevity.  Using “his or her” seems awkward.

I invite readers to come up with a sentence that cannot be revised by making it plural, save when an obvious gender-specific reference must be made.

Spinning the Plates in a Writing Center

Like Spinning Plates

Image credit: used under rights permitted by Jameson Gagnepain at Flickr

This post began as a reply to Jared Odd, the Writing Center Director at Lindsey Wilson College. Professor Odd wrote to the national e-list for Writing Across the Curriculum, asking for advice about managing a Fellows-based program at small colleges. At times, such as our current semester, I feel like one of the performers who keeps about 30 fragile plates spinning on the ends of skinny poles.

Richmond’s program for what we now call “Writing Consultants” now enters its 21st year.  How we have managed has become a little more daunting recently, with only 3,200 undergraduates and the need to staff 50+ sections with Writing Consultants while keeping a Writing Center open. My post covers a few bedrock principles and recent challenges.

  • The Training Class Must Be Strong: We don’t shortchange Consultant training at Richmond. All of them must complete a semester-long course, Eng. 383, that is by invitation of our faculty.  I could rush through 100 new Consultants in a couple of weeks of basic training, but I fear they’d be unethical editors, fixing writers’ problems but not making them better writers. Faculty would consider the help intellectually lacking, and I’m not about to dumb-down our commitment to fundamental ideas of peer work, long established in the field and tested well in our program. I find that recruiting my 36 new Consultants each year, 18 trained each semester, can staff the program. This has worked well at the similar-sized program at Swarthmore, long a model for WAC at Richmond. Except…
  • The Busy Student Body Must Notice Us: It is hip to be stressed out and over-committed on this campus. Strike one for staying on student radar, as a program or potential employer. Study abroad, a wonderful opportunity that I want every student to experience, has gradually become nigh universal for our first-semester juniors.  Strike Two. Then there are internships, independent study, summer research, the hum of non-academic but seemingly essential social obligations…Strike Three. For these reasons, over time, more and more students delayed taking Eng. 383 until their third or even fourth years. Having sown this wind for a few years, in May 2013 I reaped the whirlwind, finding about 20 of our trained Consultants walking across the stage in their caps and gowns. Then, this term, another 15 went abroad. Thus we are scrambling to staff 50+ sections and keep the Writing Center open with 37 Consultants. Usually, I employ 50.
  • The Director Must Appeal to Potential Consultants Early and in the Right Way: My doubling-down on recruitment began early this semester. I notified faculty teaching first-year seminars that a crisis was at hand; I would depend upon them to bring me more first-and-second-year recruits. So far, a few are drifting in, but I will appeal as well to the students directly. Paying Consultants well helps, but students want more than a job today. Students at Richmond want a path to a post-collegiate career or graduate school. Working as a Consultant here means a better chance of landing a graduate assistantship or job with a communications focus. I count EBSCO, Penguin, and The National Archives among the employers of recently graduated Consultants.
  • Faculty in all Fields Must Become Partners: I have never felt that putting a writing program in a “silo” works well. First of all, writing has historically been under-staffed and under-underfunded. Susan Miller’s “sad woman in the basement” was more than a brilliant metaphor in her book Textual Carnivals. It was the fact on the ground (and beneath the ground) for a long time. Now that the Humanities themselves are in national crisis, writing programs cannot necessarily count on English departments with diminishing institutional clout for support. Program directors will need to sit down with Mathematicians and Economists and Sociologists, too, to determine local needs, priorities, and resources. These faculty will also serve as recruiters for those new student employees to keep WAC efforts vital.

I remain convinced, after more than two decades doing this work (with some very pleasant side trips into educational technology, the design of simulations, and more) that writing programs will thrive because our colleagues and administrators share our concern, if not necessarily our values, about writing instruction. The Director’s job, as the public face of writing on campus, is to be certain that the “center remains in the Center,” or wherever else writing instruction is housed currently. My greatest fear is that other units of a college or university, hungry for influence and budget, could gobble up WAC and Writing Centers.

We should not let that happen, since with merger may come a pedagogy we have worked so hard to avoid in our teaching and tutoring.

A 2011 Graduate on Writing in the Workplace

By Megan Reilly, WC 2011

Even though I graduated from the University of Richmond in 2011, I often reference my time at the Writing Center to colleagues and to the local New York City students that I now tutor in English and writing. In fact, the main reason why I was hired by my tutoring company in NYC was because of my work at UR!

Working at the Writing Center was a great way for me to build confidence in my own writing, develop a basis of knowledge to help all types of students, and learn how to interact with students of various backgrounds and give them constructive criticism. My work at the Writing Center benefits both my tutoring work and my work as a full-time employee at Penguin Group (USA). If you want to be in publishing it is important to have a passion to read and to write. The two go hand in hand, and I’d like to think that my ferocious reading of Nancy Drew books in middle school has made me a better writer today!

Whether it is writing persuasively in order to latch book bloggers onto a new Amy Einhorn classic, or simply writing e-mails to co-workers, being able to eloquently express yourself in writing is a skill that more and more companies are looking for in recent graduates. Being able to edit countless essays at UR (and both narrative and analytical essays at that) is an experience that will benefit me in any job I may have in the future. I had the opportunity to work with many talented writers and tutors at the Center, and I truly felt like I was continually learning how to become a better writer.

The Brick Moves To The Library

My poor English 103 students! Every time I taught the course, I had a mark of shame that one of us had to bear at some point: The Brick.

One one side, I painted “Unsupported Claim” and on the other, the slogan shown above. I last used The Brick in Fall, 2009 but in the Spring of 2013, it returns for my First-Year Seminar “Cyberspace: History, Future, and Culture.”

No errors can eclipse these two flaws. Even a missing thesis, what I prefer to call a “governing claim,” can take second place in a reader’s mind to an argument so flawed that one cannot read on. While I try to be moderately tough on grammar and usage, if the paper makes a logical flaw meriting The Brick, little else matters to me. This is also why our Writing Consultants begin their work with these top-down concerns.

You can read more about how I used of The Brick, but it worked. When a writer, including the teacher, violated one of my cardinal rules about academic writing, s/he got to keep The Brick in each class until the fatal flaw had been corrected, often in a follow-up post to the class blog. I was given The Brick once by my class, I’m proud to say, but only once that last semester. We can all make fatal errors in argument, but I made a generalization in a post online, and a student was quick to spot it. He e-mailed me, then announced my crime in the next class.

In an age of pixelated writing and 140-character “thoughts” at Twitter, the materiality of The Brick reminds us that some words are not easily retracted. That’s a comforting thought in an election year, when billions of words are spewed, and many of them deserve a brickbat or two.

Now that the Writing Center’s daily consultations are moving to our campus Library, I will move The Brick along, too. Enjoy it and never hurl it!

Out, Damned (Gravy) Spot!

gravy spot

Image courtesy of “Make your Own Bar-B-Q Sign

Imagine an orator making a speech after a formal dinner, and imagine the speaker doing so very well. In the end, however, a large segment of the audience never recalls the content because of the large gravy spot on the speaker’s tie or blouse.

The speaker lost the audience. So what are the sorts of small errors that make otherwise sympathetic readers stop reading? A general list may be nigh impossible, but I will take a stab at what most perturbs academic readers of student prose. In doing so, I won’t focus on the fatal flaws of novice writing: sweeping generalizations, sentence fragments, lack of support for claims.

  • Confused words. One does not hear the difference, in speech, between the homonyms “here” and “hear,” but in writing, such gaffs make the writer look unprofessional, if not ignorant. See our Center’s list of “Commonly Confused Words.”
  • Overstatement. One study or source does not conclusive proof make, even if it is a valid source or study. Academics expect an abundance of supporting evidence, including admissions as to where more study may be needed or the limitations of a source. One might write “the 2011 study only considered effects on male college students at private universities” as a way to present such data.
  • Names. Student writers often use both first and last names for sources. It may be appropriate to cite a full name on first reference or for clarity when, say, two Smiths have been cited. But in most cases, in-text sources need only a last-name reference. A graver (gravier?) spot is to misspell the name of a source. I once had a reader of an article stop on page one when I did this, back in grad school. He said “after that I did not trust your prose any longer.” Ouch.
  • Format errors. APA, MLA, Chicago, and similar are not systems of fiendish torture. Writers use them to get work into a format needed for a particular journal or conference proceeding. I frequently see errors with a misplaced parenthesis, italics and double quotations both used for titles of sources, and the like. A first cousin of this problem can be adding blank lines between paragraphs, odd indents, and other mechanical gaffs. When in doubt…ask the prof!

These “spots” come to mind right away. Got more? Let me know in the comments section.

New International Blog About Writing Centers

I’m really pleased to announce “Connecting Writing Centers Across Borders,” a new publication by Writing Lab Newsletter. It gives me great pleasure personally and professionally to collaborate with editors Muriel Harris and Alan Benson in working on the first postings for the blog. Some veteran colleagues such as Carl Glover have already posted their ideas.

Our focus, at the blog and a new column in WLN, will be international collaboration. The need is there, as writing-center initiatives are cropping up globally, often taking shape in culturally appropriate ways for their home nations. My own first post focuses on how technology from a center builds ethos and influence on campus.

One shoe cannot fit every foot, and as I learned in 2013 at the Conference for The European Association for the Teaching of Academic Writing, best practices vary widely and the US model of peer-tutor work is far from universal.

Using the new blog and column, we directors, tutors, writing consultants, peer mentors, and those doing similar work plan to share resources, stories from our centers, and advice to help our writers and each other.

Google Sites: Page-Level Permissions

Google What?

I do not often read Google’s blog about their documents features, but recently I was looking for an answer to a few questions about Google Sites, the tool that I now use for all of my course syllabi. Unlike traditional web-site builders, Google Sites is collaborative; this is common for wikis, web-site software long popular in K-12 education but rarer in higher education.

In doing my reading at Google’s blog, I found a game-changer for writing teachers. Sites has quickly become my favorite tool for a few reasons:

  • It’s free
  • It offers a navigational sidebar that I like from PBworks‘ wiki
  • It lacks obtrusive advertisements
  • It has the ease of use that Wikispaces offers, but appears even more familiar to MS-Office users.

To my knowledge, however, none of Google’s smaller competitors, and certainly nothing from the desktop-centric Microsoft empire, offer a creator the ability to grant permissions, by page, to those sharing a site. Google explains the reasons for this feature here.

Course-Management Software vs. Sites

For years, I’ve refused to use BlackBoard because it has made guest access so hard. In my field, writing & composition, faculty routinely share lesson plans and syllabi, so Blackboard never met my needs. Our Eng. 383 syllabus has become a model for many other schools’ training programs precisely because colleagues outside the class can find it with a Web search and view the content.

That said, I’m pleased that Blackboard, seeing what the competition offers for free, has given faculty a “public” option for Bb sites. But I’ve argued elsewhere that Blackboard is an overpriced “transition” technology in the age of social media and Web 2.0 shared applications.  Blackboard only recently added such technology to its product.

For now, Sites lacks the sort of testing features that Blackboard has, but I don’t use quizzes that way. It would be possible, however, to link to an online gradebook created with Google Docs. You can see the results (but not students’ grades!) in the latest iteration of my Eng. 383 syllabus, used for training Writing Consultants at the University of Richmond.

How the Collaboration Works

The process of granting permissions for a Google Site is a little tedious at first. I had to invite users to the site with “view” permissions…and they must have a Gmail account. But to my knowledge it cannot be one the University grants, either, as my site resides on the public servers at Google. Had I known this, I might have set up the site under UR’s rubric, but that change of service-providers had not occurred when I first set up my Google Site.

The nature of collaboration and the presence of multimedia in modern writing classrooms make something like Google Sites, with page permissions enabled, essential to how I teach. That said, Google still needs to add a few features:

  • The ability to archive the site locally
  • A somewhat more streamlined process for adding users.

Overall, however, this free tool is phenomenal, and I plan to recommend it to colleagues.

Image source: pre-Sites days in Eng. 103 classroom, late 1990s.

Back to…Paper in the Classroom?

Pile of Papers

I have a penchant for mixing things up in class, if only to keep writers on their toes. For many semesters, I got away from any writing on paper in favor of blogs, digital stories, and wikis.  Now, in a literature course I last taught as paperless, some old friends (and nemeses) have returned: staples, margins, page numbers.

Why have I returned to the 20th Century?

When conducting a “paper chase” with 16 Writing Consultants and 18 literature students, I found that paper enables my Consultants to write the sort of commentary they will most likely write for our professors or in our Writing Center. In time, our faculty will embrace multimedia for many projects, but even then, Writing Consultants will need to understand the rhetoric of linear as well as associative, collaborative projects.

One could do what I’m doing with file exchanges, of course, and some faculty do just that. I’m no stranger to MS Word’s track changes and embedded comments, but even as I write this post, a student has contacted me with a question: the introduction I returned to her, with my comments linked to text, does not seem to be “working.”

I’m not fond of MS Word’s dependence upon co-writers having similar versions. I’ll probably have to switch to Google Docs to finish helping her. It’s simply a simpler, and more ubiquitous, technology. Yet even that lacks the ubiquity of paper.

Paper cannot show multimedia (yet). Paper cannot have live feedback forms or allow online tagging and collaboration (yet). Despite these limitations, I’m most curious to see how a paper-based class goes for me this term. Stay tuned.

Some tasks are, however, inefficient on paper. I’d include sign-up sheets for Writing Consultants, whether done collaboratively or with a single editor, as in this example from my current lit. class. Everyone with the link can view the document from wherever they may be. I now consider Google Docs to be “paper plus,” since they preserve what is best about linear discourse but add collaborative features that are clumsy in Microsoft Office, a technology designed for print.