The Power in Grammar

Collaborative Learning, Multilingual Writers, Peer Tutoring, The Online Writing Center, Tutorial Talk and Methods, Writing Center Tutors, Writing Centers / Monday, February 18th, 2013

Leah Misemer is a PhD candidate in Literary Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison writing her dissertation on how serial comics form communities of authors and readers.  She has worked at the Writing Center since Fall of 2011 and in email instruction for two semesters.

Leah MisemerWhenever a writing center instructor and a writer sit down for a session, a negotiation of power takes place. Sometimes, the writer begins by seeing the instructor as a storehouse of information, and thus, believes the instructor is in charge of the session.  One of the important things to me as an instructor is to help the student gain confidence in his or her own writing skills, so that I become just a partner in the writing process, helping along the way.  For a long time, I struggled with how to create and maintain this partner relationship when a student asked for proofreading or grammar instruction.  This is the story of that exploration, which ends with my current approach to addressing grammatical concerns in email instruction.  I would love to hear in the comments about other instructors’ experiences with grammar instruction and the negotiation of power in tutorials where you have discussed grammar.

My concept of grammar in the writing center was formed during an exercise we did as part of training to become a writing center tutor at Washington University in St. Louis where I did my undergrad. We were told to bring in papers we had in progress and that we would be peer reviewing them.  I thought I knew what this meant.  I had been editing my peers’ drafts since high school, and I carried a red pen in a holster.  I was The Fixer, a kind of writing superhero, saving drafts from bad grammar.

There are at least two grammar superheroes on the Internet. I think that says something about the power dynamic involved in fixit grammar instruction. This Grammarman from
There are at least two grammar superheroes on the Internet. I think that says a lot about the power dynamic involved in fixit grammar instruction. This is Grammarman from

At the beginning of the peer review session, the professor told us how things would play out: we were to use pencils and we were (SHOCK!) not allowed to touch the writing in the draft.  Instead, we were to write a letter to the writer, addressing broadly what worked well and what needed improvement in the draft.  As I went through my peer’s draft, I had to suppress knee jerk reactions to fix, to invade, to overpower.  But I also learned to talk with the writer as an equal instead of an expert.  This relationship of two equals working together to improve writing skills, not just drafts, is what made me love writing center teaching and what energizes me in my role as instructor today.

This anecdote is meant to illustrate that I used to have trouble talking about grammar  because I allied it with proofreading and proofreading meant taking over a writer’s paper.  After my first round of writing center training, I wanted to have conversations about writing, not save papers.  This meant I shied away from talking about grammar, because I didn’t want to tell students to “fix” their papers.  I wanted them to be in control, and whenever I talked about grammar, I felt like I had become the expert.  I didn’t like that power dynamic.  When students came in concerned about grammar, I would explain that we don’t proofread, talk about global concerns like ideas and structure, and usually, we would spend our session talking about ideas instead of about whether or not the commas were correct.

What I didn’t realize was that my refusal to address grammar was a different kind of power play, a sneakier one: we spent the session talking about what I wanted to talk about, because I had directed the session that way.  I wasn’t exactly a superhero anymore, but I was still policing the writing session, determining “right” and “wrong” subjects to address during our conversation.  It wasn’t that I never discussed grammar; it was just that I decided when we would discuss it.

Last semester I began email instruction and learned to negotiate my relationship with writers a bit differently.  Because my advice and the student’s concerns were in writing, I was able to critically read over my sessions, and I started to realize the policing role I had taken on in terms of what we discussed during sessions.  This role was particularly evident in sessions where students said they were concerned with grammar and word choice.

This is an example of an email form filled out with a request for grammar instruction.
This is an example of our email form filled out with a request for grammar instruction.

At first, I developed a redirect response, saying that, “because our time is limited, I will first address global concerns (content and structure) before moving on to more local concerns (grammar and word choice).”  This sentence was my way out of grammar instruction.

Recently, I got a request for grammar instruction from a student whose draft I had commented on before.  She had made changes based on my previous suggestions and I decided to try teaching grammar.  I found two sentences that had grammatical issues that I saw elsewhere in the draft and highlighted them in different colors in my attachment to her.  Then I set about writing my email response, using the following method:

1) Teach the rule using non-expert language

2) Show how to revise the model sentence by following the rule

3) Ask the student to try finding other places in the draft that need grammatical revision

4) Provide a link to more information about the concept

In the end, my comment ended up looking like this:

Grammar instruction model

Using this instructional method gets around some of my issues with the power dynamic involved in fixit grammar.  First, even though I position myself as an authority in terms of grammar knowledge, that authority is shared by the webpage found at the link.  Second, I only “fix” one or two sentences in the draft and I fix them in the email comments, not in the draft itself, thereby avoiding invading the student’s writing.  Third, I leave the rest of the revision up to the student.  Her writing remains hers and she is in charge of revising it.

Discovering the possibility of teaching grammar lessons rather than proofreading has helped me become more comfortable in my partnership with the writer.  When I teach rather than edit, I am no longer a superhero or a policeman, but a fellow writer, showing the way.

9 Replies to “The Power in Grammar”

  1. Thanks for this post, Leah! The techniques you’ve outlined here are wonderful, concrete strategies for teaching grammar in a way that avoids problematic power structures and uses our limited time effectively. The question I’m left with is related to the fact that, as you point out, there are at least two grammar “superheroes” online. Many people–not just students, but people I meet in all areas of my life–think of grammar as a mysterious and unattainable body of knowledge. A lot of people think they’re “bad” at grammar and that this is something to be ashamed of, but they don’t feel empowered to change their relationship to grammar. I would love to think more about how we view, not only the power dynamics within the session, but the broader cultural power of grammar as an idea.

    One approach I sometimes take in my teaching is to talk about grammar on the meta level, rather than taking its importance for granted from the start. For instance, I point out the difference between grammatical principles that really affect comprehension and those that don’t significantly impede the reader’s ability to follow the writer’s points; in this way, I signal to students that it’s okay not to know all the rules right away, and that the rules ultimately serve the purpose of communicating clearly with an audience. Or I acknowledge that I, too, have trouble with certain grammatical rules; I talk about my process for improving my own writing. The question I always struggle with is how to successfully demystify grammar so that students don’t see it as something they’re “bad” at or that is “embarrassing” within their papers, while at the same time acknowledging that (regardless of whether we think this should be the case), grammar has a lot of power, and they may in fact be judged based on their mastery of these rules — for instance, by employers reading a cover letter.

    So, how do we acknowledge grammar’s power while also helping our students feel less intimidated by it?

    1. Mattie,
      These are some great questions that I think Mike addresses somewhat in his comment when he points out that grammar is meant to be mystifying. I also try to distinguish for students between what keeps me from understanding them and what just doesn’t follow an arbitrary set of rules. However, I never feel they are convinced by that approach. I’d love to hear about your strategies for distinguishing between the two.

      I also wonder how those could translate in an online setting. Usually, I provide in-draft comments on grammar that keeps me from understanding, and I identify them in the email draft with “I have attached a draft with comments and questions in places where grammar kept me from understanding what you were trying to say.” But I’m not sure that gets at what you seem to do. I’m curious what kinds of conversations you’ve had about grammar on a meta level, and particularly about sessions where this approach has been successful.

  2. After too many years in editorial work, I tend to be a proscriptive grammarian. Letting go of the proofreading instinct was difficult when I began working in my college’s writing center. Not only did I turn an editor’s eye to what I read, but I was taught composition with an editor’s eye and could not—sometimes still cannot—separate global and sentence-level concerns while writing and revising. Perfecting a sentence may be what I need to slide an entire project into place. With practice, I think I have come to instruct as you describe, Leah: focusing on the big picture, but still policing, still controlling.

    However, I have had a few drafts this semester (my first on the email instruction team) for which grammatical questions are worth addressing as global concerns—not as “proofreading” on my part. You were kind enough to share your example response, and it clicked: I’m not proofreading, but rather assessing what’s behind that knee-jerk reaction and figuring out how to teach that process (or some version of it) to the individual writer. You did a lovely job in your reply, and I am now thinking about more strategies for making this type of instruction something I can do more fluidly as part of my regular email work. I’m so glad you wrote this piece!

  3. Leah, as always, I love the clarity of your writing. Not only do you break down the process of addressing grammar issues for your students, but you also walk us through that process in a similarly systematic matter. I’m left feeling like I could walk through your advice and replicate your success in my own writing center appointments. While we all talk about letting go of the need to feel like an editing superhero, you actually walk the walk. Are there particular tutoring situations in which you still feel yourself sliding back into the superhero or police offer role or have you been able to leave those power plays behind?

  4. This beautifully limpid post, Leah, reminds me of the etymological links between “grammar” and “grimoire” and (in its magical sense) “glamour.” Your example of careful instruction reveals how much magical terminology goes into the way we talk about grammar:

    * complete sentence
    * independent clause
    * coordinating conjunction

    You could have added “compound sentence,” “subordinate clause,” and “run-on sentence,” though I’m glad you didn’t. Any one of these terms, understood imperfectly, could make it difficult for a student to follow your advice. Perhaps we should rename the Writing Center’s popular grammar workshops “Defense Against the Harsh Marks.”

    As Mattie suggests, grammar can never be fully demystified because its goal is to be mystifying. What I love here is that your response is to resist fighting against grammar—I’ve fought that fight for years—but instead to embrace it as an opportunity to transfer some of our power to our students. In Rachel’s terms from last week, your goal here is to help our students become more artful sculptors of their own language; or, to end with one last magical allusion, our job is to act the role of Mephistopheles for all the aspiring Doctors Faust who come in to the Center.

  5. Thanks for your really thoughtful post, Leah. First, from the perspective of someone with terrible grammar skills (even as a grad student in comp/rhet), I’ve always been wary of the implication that I shouldn’t have taught grammar in tutoring sessions when I was a tutor in undergrad. Often, what I did was defer to a handbook, and look up the rule with the writer by my side. More often than not, I knew something was “wrong” but couldn’t even say what it was anyway, so this process helped stabilize some of the power dynamics in the tutoring session.

    I’m glad you’ve found a good way of negotiating this in asynchronous, online tutoring!

    1. Thanks for your response, Neil. I think your consultation of the handbook is akin to my inclusion of the link: in both cases, there’s a sharing of authority and a modeling of searching for answers to grammar questions for our students. I see myself using this practice in face to face sessions most often with questions about citation style, which no one memorizes, and I think it’s important to show students that it’s okay to not know all the answers off the top of your head.

  6. This is such a timely post for me. I just met with one of my ongoing students today, a multilingual writer in a master’s program. She’d gotten some feedback from a professor suggesting she see the writing center for help with proofreading, grammar, and sentence structure. In addition to feeling a little indignant (she already does come to the writing center! I think I’ve been helpful!) it also forced me to think about the kind of help I’ve been providing. I tend to focus more on the content in her writing because her grammar is fairly solid (it doesn’t interfere with my understanding, for the most part) and because as a grad student she’s reading and writing about difficult texts. But the professor’s feedback reminded me of expectations for certain kinds of “clear” or “standard” English – and my responsibility to help students understand and meet those expectations.

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