October 29, 2007
Journal Entry on Mina Shaughnessy’s “Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing” (The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook 94-99)
I approach Shaughnessy’s “Diving In” from a couple of angles. On one hand, I can tell that I am not her primary audience, since I am not a “traditionally-prepared” English teacher (95), one who gradually has to decide to give up her old style of teaching. Most of my training comes from years working in a writing center, occasionally reading writing center theory, but mostly simply working one on one with students writers, most of whom were writing “below college level.” So I learned quickly that in order to help them I had to figure out why, not just when, students were making “mistakes.”
But, on the other hand, it’s interesting that the more I thought about Shaughnessy’s four stages of a writing teacher’s development, the more I realized that I might have gone through the last three stages. I don’t think I was ever in the “guarding the tower” stage. Of course, one reason was that I was the tutor not the instructor, so I didn’t have the burden of assigning grades. But I also remember assuming early on that these basic writers lacked only educational opportunities, not intelligence. (I think I worked with only one student – out of thousands — who I thought might lack the intelligence to do college level work.) I think I might have gone through the “converting the natives” stage, though, in which I figured that I just had to expose students to what I knew (show them the right page in the handbook, give them a few examples, that kind of thing) and they would catch on. I didn’t get focused on “rules and formulas” (96) in the way Shaughnessy describes, though. I think I spent the first two or three years in the writing center in the “sounding the depths” stage. I spent a lot of time asking other consultants how they worked with students, asking students how their classes were going and what they thought was helping them, and I reflected more on my own way of working with students.
Shaughnessy’s example of the third person singular “s” inflection being a deceptively simple rule is probably what really made me realize I had travelled a few of her categories, though. She is so right that these kinds of rules, if one is not familiar with them by long exposure, are quite complicated and almost beg to be ignored. But I remember thinking that once I had explained a grammatical rule to an ESL student – the rules that were consistent enough to be explained, to be condensed into a handout – I should expect that student to follow the rule in future. I knew from my own difficulties writing anything in French (without taking two hours per paragraph) that it’s exceedingly difficult to become fluent in a second language. But it still took me a couple years to learn, from daily experience, that it was not lack of effort or lack of knowing the rules that kept ESL and Gen 1.5 writers from making these same mistakes. It just takes time — repetition and time.
Of course, I did finally make it to the “diving in” stage. With all those hours of consultations with students, it was inevitable that I would start to see behind and underneath their “errors,” their difficulties. And that’s when the writing center work became more fun, more satisfying. It even seemed that simply explaining to a student something like, “I think this is what you’re doing: x, y, and z. And I think you’re doing it because x, y, and z” sometimes helped the writer a lot.
Finally, I wanted to add that in this article Shaughnessy’s discussion of the difference between spoken and writing English and how students’ experience with one does not prepare them for tasks in the other strikes me as brilliant. It reminded me of Arabic, a language which (from the little I know about it) is significantly different in its written and spoken forms, much more so than English’s written and spoken forms. They simply wouldn’t have any academic written Arabic that sounded AT ALL like conversation. I don’t know specifics as to what those differences look like, but Arabic-speaking children grow up always knowing about them. So perhaps that early knowledge would help them when they begin to try to write formal written Arabic.
In any case, Shaughnessy makes some great points about how basic writers, and many other students, are simply not used to answering questions like “be more specific” or “what’s your point?” They have just not had to do think about those things before. And they’re probably not sure why a point and specifics matters, since they have communicated clearly – verbally – for years without thinking about them. Again, so much of learning to write goes back to what one is exposed to, what one has experienced, what educational opportunities one gets. Not intelligence.