When things changed

I’ve had a running joke, at Kitchen Table Math and inside my own head, that something happened in 1985.

Either we were hit by a meteor and we’re all dead but we don’t know it.

Or we were hit by a meteor and knocked into a parallel universe but we don’t know it.

Or — and apparently this one has many fans — we’re actually living inside a computer simulation and the programmer changed the rules but we don’t know it.

Anyway, preparing for tomorrow’s class on graduate research and writing, I took a look at Robert Connors’ “The Erasure of the Sentence (which Katharine writes about here) and discovered that Connors dates the moment when things changed to just two years before I do: in 1983.

In an astonishing reversal of fortune for sentence rhetorics, the triumphalism, the quarrels, and the debates of the early 1980s-now mostly forgotten-died away after 1983 or so. The articles on sentence issues fell away radically, and those that were written were more and more about applications to learning disabilities, or English as a second language, or special education. Erstwhile syntactic rhetoricians turned to other issues. The devaluation of sentence-based rhetorics is a complex phenomenon, and we need to approach it with circumspection. Let me first try to establish the reality of what I’m calling the “erasure of the sentence” in clearly numerical terms. Table 2 lists raw numbers of books and articles appearing in general-composition journals about the three sentence rhetorics discussed in this essay.

While I can’t claim that this chart, which I derived from a combination of ERIC searching and my own research, is exhaustive or even directly replicable, the numbers themselves are less important than the trends they show. And these numerical trends strongly match our intuitive sense of what has been going on. We see, starting with Christensen’s first articles in the early 1960s, a strong interest in sentence-writing that was mostly taken up with generative rhetoric and imitation during the early period of the New Rhetoric, say, 1963-1975. After 1976, the interest in Christensen begins to peter out as sentence-combining gathers momentum; a truly extraordinary burst of activity occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But after 1984, general articles on sentence-combining died out, and more and more of the essays published had to do with use of sentence-combining in classes in English as a second language or with behaviorally disordered or autistic students; an ERIC search shows only three essays published on general-composition sentence-combining after 1986. The few general articles that were published after 1986 came more and more to be critical, but even the criticisms died away. After the mid- 1980s, the sentence rhetorics of the 1960s and 1970s were gone, at least from books and journals.3 Shirley Rose’s 1983 article on the history of sentence-combining, which probably felt when she wrote it like a historical background to a vital part of the field, now looks more like the ave atque vale of the field to sentence-combining.

Table 2: Books and composition journal articles about sentence rhetorics, 1960-1998

Christensen Imitation Sentence-combining
1960-1965 4 1 1
1966-1970 13 2 2
1971-1975 12 5 3
1976-1980 6 4 31
1981-1985 2 3 23
1986-1990 2 5 3
1991-1998 1 2 2

Teacher’s lament

I’m going to be working with a graduate level research class next week, and in the process of trying to track down papers on the relationship between writing and thinking, I’ve just come across a fabulous passage, quoted in Exploring Literacies Theory, Research and Practice by Helen de Silva Joyce and Susan Feez:

Bringing up the question of learning to read and write reminds us of the comment by the primary-school teacher who remarked, ‘It’s lucky we’re not responsible for teaching them to talk. If we were they’d never learn that either’. Nevertheless, a surprising number of people do become literate, mostly through being taught.
(Halliday 2009/1978: 178)

Halliday and Hasan are two of my favorites; our writing curriculum is strongly influenced by their work (which I have yet to read in full, I should add).

I don’t post this passage to malign teachers, by the way. Not remotely.

Being good at teaching isn’t enough. To teach well, teachers need a field-tested curriculum.

But instead of providing a proven curriculum, schools expect teachers to Google lessons and posters on Pinterest, or buy them from Teachers Pay Teachers.

I personally have spent what feels like years of my life Googling lessons, handouts, and worksheets, and in the end what I have is a massive heap of digital stuff (some of it fantastically helpful, to be sure) that doesn’t cohere and isn’t a curriculum.

Teaching freshman writing via conlanging (part 2)

Speaking of conlangers, here is Stanley Fish on his approach to teaching freshman composition:

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students. The language you create cannot be English or a slightly coded version of English, but it must be capable of indicating the distinctions — between tense, number, manner, mood, agency and the like — that English enables us to make.

You can imagine the reaction of students who think that ”syntax” is something cigarette smokers pay, guess that ”lexicon” is the name of a rebel tribe inhabiting a galaxy far away, and haven’t the slightest idea of what words like ”tense,” ”manner” and ”mood” mean. They think I’m crazy. Yet 14 weeks later — and this happens every time — each group has produced a language of incredible sophistication and precision.

How is this near miracle accomplished? The short answer is that over the semester the students come to understand a single proposition: A sentence is a structure of logical relationships.

Devoid of Content | New York Times | May 31, 2005

And see:
Conlangers are a thing (part 1)