Voices in Error: Counting against Competence

Guest blogger Emily Michael contributes this post. Emily is an adjunct writing instructor at the University of North Florida. Read more about Emily at her blog.

Voices in Error: Counting against Competence

Before I begin teaching in any classroom, I must tailor the environment to my specific needs. I secure my guide dog to the sturdy teacher’s desk, turn off three of the four lightswitches, and run my hand along the chalk tray to find the eraser and black dry- erase markers. I shuffle the blue and green markers to the end of the tray where I won’t confuse them with the colors I prefer. I move the desk chair from behind the bulky computer table and place it near the short, unadorned desk – careful not to disturb my dog, who lies underneath with a toy.

After the first course meeting, the novelty of my daily accommodations diminishes. Students welcome the dimmed lighting and rarely forget to submit assignments in large print. Only two features of the routine elicit regular comments – the guide dog and the whiteboard. From their seats, students fill the last minutes before class with variations on this theme:

“Your dog is so cute. I wish we could pet him.”

“I just love your dog – I’ve told my friends about him!”

Those who approach my desk repeat these sentiments, usually adding, “Your dog is sniffing me; he probably smells my cats.”

The second topic receives a disproportionate amount of conversation.

“Ms. Michael, the board is covered in writing.”

“Yeah, it looks like a bunch of equations.”

Here, I insert some grumbling about professors who don’t erase their work, and my students laugh. They ask if I want help erasing the mess, and I refuse: “Just direct me and I’ll erase it.”

This request generates unparalleled class participation as students call out, “Left, no your left! A little further down, okay stop! Back and forth right there, now over right. The last bit is high up, almost at the top of the board. You got it. All clean.” Because the board is so often covered in half-erased material, I’ve learned to ask if I have a clean surface before uncapping my black marker. Students answer readily – occasionally imitating a GPS: “In two inches, erase left.”

In my first months of teaching, I would have called this collaboration generous: I assumed that my students would read a request for help as a sign of my incompetence. I expected my students to measure my authority by everyday difficulties – reading pencil or blue pen, seeing raised hands, performing a quick head-count, recognizing faces. Now, entering my seventh semester as a part-time writing instructor, I recognize that these seeming glitches have become part of my classroom management, minor features of a holistic learning experience.

As an adjunct instructor at a state university, I design my courses within a programatic range of expectations. My department chooses textbooks, grading schemes, and assessment procedures; I fine-tune the day-to-day schedule and assignment prompts. While I don’t mind teaching a course where themes, texts, and learning outcomes are already determined, I am less willing to engage with certain assessment practices. As an academic subordinate, I can assert little control over the assessment methods my department chooses, but as a disability advocate, I experience a conflict when I am asked to monitor and medicalize the writings of my students.

My department uses a series of aculturalist rubrics for assessing student work, and these rubrics, like any pervasive grading scheme, color the perspectives of their most frequent handlers: students, faculty, and peer tutors. The most formulaic rubric addresses mechanics through error-counting: professors calculate a student’s score based on the number of errors per page. Although the rubric localizes grammatical correctness, the impartial counting catalyses a perspective of diagnosis and repair, a sense of “correcting and perfecting.”

It is this idealistic vision of students’ writing that bothers me. Each day, I offer my students a visible interaction with disability – guide dog, dark glasses, large print, braille labels. In my classroom, disability is not a taboo subject, and I welcome students’ respectful inquiries outside of class. When I grade their work, I must adopt the counting rubric and the curing pen; my comments and calculations must rehabilitate the broken writing in front of me. Grading within this pre-assigned framework, I feel awkward, ashamed, robotic – as if my normalizing efforts on the page discredit my individualistic teaching in the classroom.

The error-counting rubric dehumanizes my students, taking stock of their nonstandard grammar and stripping them of rhetorical power. In a course that prioritizes the understanding of rhetorical situations, this rubric denies the force that enables rhetoric itself: context. If a student repeats the same typo seven times throughout the essay, (the unfortunate occurrence of “common spice” instead of “comma splice” or the phonetic interpretation of Seeing Eye Dog as “see and eye dog”), the rubric counts each iteration as a new error. Rather than noticing a pattern that indicates some personal feature of a student’s work, the rubric searches for arbitrary, non-hierarchical flaws. Defects compiled without context – this is indeed a bleak vision of our students’ abilities. No wonder some colleagues stand by their cynicism: “ A punitive approach to grammar is the only way to make students care about their work.”

Again, my activist voice pipes up, sounding small and naive in my own head: I want to know what drives a professor to teach such careless, error-strewing wretches. If this is the vision we have of our students, why do we remain at our posts? I find it frightening to believe that my colleagues choose these practices to treat, to perfect, to normalize with so little regard for the unique voices already in place in their classrooms.

While my students look to me for guidance, I cannot perform such standardizing practices without reflection; my red pen stalls over the fourth missing apostrophe, the third dangling modifier. Foremost among my favorite errors is the word used “incorrectly” – usually a Latinate word deployed in a sense I don’t recognize. Before I search the OED, I want to know what language(s) the writer speaks, what books she reads. As cognitive scientists unravel the brain’s complex grammar processing, a nonsensical sentence functions like a work of art – daring me to examine how I create meaning.

Error-counting leaves no room for these inquiries. Each misplaced comma is an intolerable deviation. Textual bodies must be repaired before we can admit their human creators into our class of “professional communicators.” With rigorous defect-spotting, students learn to repudiate their own difference, coding the presence of grammatical errors as “being a bad writer.”

I do not rail against the teaching of grammar or the value of proofreading. But even our most timeless standards are situated among a chorus of cultural biases. I find hostility in a system that condemns difference for its own sake. As part of a larger conversation, students must be allowed to respond to our counting.

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