"To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives. Because there certainly is meaning to life."
-John Coltrane on Uplifting Others

Monday, September 30, 2013

Week 5: Code Switching and the Freshman English Classroom

  During class, we had a lengthy discussion on grammar errors in the freshman writing course. Specifically, we talked about the degree of punishment necessary for comma splices and vague pronoun referents. I really like what Kerry wrote on this topic, and will be using her thoughts as a spring board.
  Particularly, I think her comparison of freshman writers with ESL students. The mistakes students make in "academic writing" is similar to students learning a new language. Kerry insists that as instructors, we should help the students learn from these mistakes, as we would someone learning a foreign language.
  I proposed in class the incorporation of code switching exercises in the classroom. Code switching is a sociolinguist term that means that people switch linguistic codes depending upon their audience. Most examples involve students who speak several different languages or interact with groups across socioeconomic backgrounds. However, I submit that code switching occurs in a much wider demographic. For example, here is a brief comparison in my life: I spoke differently when I worked the line at Outback Steakhouse than I speak now in front of my classroom. I speak differently in this blog than I do when conversing with my son.
  Code switching, to me, is not necessarily as dependent upon ESL or economic status, as the intended audience. That is why grammar is irksome to students; it involves learning new codes. When I was in public school, I had grammar principles drilled during English. I had to diagram sentences (FULL NERD DISCLOSURE: I still get excited about sentence diagrams. I love deconstructing sentences, and seeing how the individual parts work.). Now a days, I am not sure how much grammar instructions students receive before entering college freshman writing. Perhaps someone viewing this post can shed some light on this.
  One of the biggest struggles I have had thus far as a composition instructor has been helping students identify an article's audience, and because I've tied audience to codes, I created an exercise that I hope helped students. Before class, I wrote several intended audiences onto index cards. I had the students split into small groups, and passed out the audience. The students then had to summarize an article's contents, keeping in mind their audiences. The original learning outcome was to identify rhetorical choice, and how audience affects the contents' presentation.
  However, a subsequent outcome goes back to code switching. One group whose audience was "frat boys" found themselves trying to incorporate a certain type of phrasing. They wanted to refer to their audience using "bro" or "dude." I told them to shy away from stereotypes. Perhaps in teaching for academic writing, I should encourage students to resist the urge to write "academically," to use complex sentence structures or convoluted words. Maybe I should stress clarity of thought over pre-conceived notions of "higher" writing. Maybe in teaching freshman writing, I should help students ease into academic codes, and in this way, help them avoid grammatical errors.
  What do you think? Share some horror stories of bad grammar, or is code switching a viable solution in the freshman writing curriculum?

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