Before I put my response in here, I'd like to thank my classmates who recap the chapters of Haswell. My strength is definitely not summarizing/recapping, so thank you for those of you who bring that to the table. It means a lot to me. What I hope I can bring to the table, then, is weaving together tidbits from Haswell to other texts and experiences with basic writing instruction (in preparation for Comps). Tis all :)
I found Haswell’s discussion about “the sentence”, and it’s other various titles and configurations, to be quite relevant to the frustration and blocking that writers encounter. The following selection prodded the questioning: “What then do these writers want with the sentence? The students want to get the sentence down right, as if they were spelling a long word… The student sentence is stiff, like a studio piece, self-aware of fingering and the threat of mistakes” (Haswell 244).
Is this true for everyone? Maybe not, but the traces of evidence that support Haswell’s findings pop up in many places: my observation at Del Mar, my experience as a writing center consultant, Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary, and Mike Rose’s “Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block”, to name just a few. Across these many venues, I started to wonder if it is really the obsession with getting the “sentence down right” that really blocks writers, especially younger and more inexperienced writers. At Del Mar, for instance, their writing assignments were almost completely assessed on sentence-level, grammatical details. Heaven knows I wouldn’t write worth a crap, and would be frequently blocked, if I had to analyze every gerund and subject-verb agreement and every participle…. How hard is it for these students to write? Lucky for them, they only have to write one paragraph at a time. It’s definitely a “Back to the grammar basics” attitude there. Fix the broken, impoverished ones… assimilate them!
Rose speaks to this frustration in Lives as well. I imagine that all students, basic writers or not, often experience the cognitive dissonance that Rose felt when he wrote. He looks at his own writing experience and ruminates: “I was struggling to express increasingly complex ideas, and I couldn’t get the language straight” (Rose, Lives 54). It’s the same story for many students who come into the writing center. They become so fixated on getting the words/sentences out right, and getting the “language straight” that they nearly stifle themselves to a writing point-of-no-return. I think, at some point, even graduate students feel this way.
This only leads to a myriad of other questions, unfortunately. Who is responsible for making us think that we must get the sentence/language right the first time we write it down? (coughHarvardcough)Why hasn’t everyone read Ann Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” and why doesn’t everyone buy into this idea even if they’ve read it? There is something so engrained in the fabric of many Americans that grammar is the almighty goddess that Rose refers to in Lives. How to we get rid of this image? I can’t express my frustration thoroughly. On the one hand, grammar is the number one go-to for grading because it’s, in many circles, easily identifiable and there is a lot of agreement about incorrect grammar (I know this isn’t really the case, but humor me—it’s fair to say many people have this misconception). The workload is also lighter and less demanding on the teacher/grader when their objective is grading based on grammar. Did I mention how many people fail as a result? On the other hand, however, society/jobs/culture demand that students understand and know how to write within different rhetorical situations. While grammar/comprehensibility is certainly somewhat of a factor in many rhetorical situations, it isn’t the end-all, be-all, nor should it be.