Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Believing They Can Learn

For teachers of writing (composition) at almost every level but especially at the undergraduate level in college, the name "Mina Shaughnessy" is still one with which to conjure. Her book, Errors & Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing, which she published as Mina P. Shaughnessy in 1977 (Oxford University Press), remains a classic in the field, partly because it helped to change the way teachers look at students and at themselves and the way teachers look not just at mistakes students make in writing but at mistakes in general. (There's a Mina Shaughnessy Award now for the best book on the teaching of basic writing, as well as another Shaughnessy award for an article in the field.) In that decade, after all, people still referred to basic-writing courses in college as "Bonehead English." The name doesn't exactly denote respect for the students in the class--or, indeed, for the teacher.

Shaughnessy, who taught at the City University of New York, argued compellingly that teachers should see mistakes or errors as opportunities and that teachers need to place such errors in context. Here's an excerpt from the book. It's an excerpt that focuses on students who may be the first from their families to go to college, but the the advice is also broadly applicable:

"College both beckons and threatens them [first-generation college students], offering to teach them useful ways of thinking and talking about the world, promising even to improve the quality of their lives, but threatening at the same time to take from them their distinctive ways of interpreting the world, to assimilate them into the culture of academia without acknowledging their experience as outsiders.

At no pointis the task of representing both claims upon the student--the claims of his past and of his future--more nervously poised than at the point where he must be taught to write. Here the teacher, confronted by what at first appears to be a hopeless tangle of errors and inadequacies, must learn to see below the surface of these failures the intelligence and linguistic aptitudes of his students. And in doing so, he will himself become a critic of his profession and begin to search for wiser, more efficient ways of teaching young men and women to write.

For unless he can assume that his students are capable of learning what he has learned, and what he know teaches, the teacher is not likely to turn to himself as a possible source of his students' failures." (p. 292)

(Because Shaughnessy was writing in the late 1970s, she was accustomed to using the singular male pronoun to stand for everyone, whereas after the influence of non-sexist language, we're more used to seeing the plural [teachers; students; they] or "he or she").

In any event, I still value these passages and her book after all these years. And that last sentence in particular is a good one for teachers to remember. If teachers constantly blame students' failures only on the students, then something is probably haywire. Of course, it's just as counter-productive always to blame onself and one's teaching for things that go wrong, but it's always worth asking oneself what one might do better or differently to insure that some learning happens and to remind oneself that, yes, students are most capable of learning (in this case, to write) and that the errors are an opportunity to teach. Also, when students get the clear message that a teacher believes they can learn, they're in a better position to learn--in my opinion.
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