Teach metaphor not grammar

At least once a semester since I started grad school (seven semesters now) I find myself embroiled in a familiar debate: to teach grammar or not to teach grammar. The majority of people outside of my field and outside the world of education broadly would laugh that this is even a question, because to most people of a course a writing teacher teaches grammar. Every time my job comes up in conversation with a non-teacher there’s inevitably a side comment made about watching their grammar around me. You can set your watch by it. In fact, to most people, grammar’s all I should teach. This is of course wrong, my field will eagerly point out. Writing is more than grammar; good grammar does not equal good writing; traditional, decontextualized grammar instruction–in the form of grammar handbooks or sentence diagramming–is largely ineffective as a pedagogical approach to teaching writing and usage to young, learning writers. 

However, I’ve always felt that because the grammar jokes persist, that because grammar is so strongly associated with writing and teaching in a general, it simply can’t be ignored. In a sense, these people are right. I’ve thus argued every semester I get in this debate that we absolutely we need to teach grammar. It’s irresponsible to ignore something so heavily weighted and so widely rewarded in our culture. Yes, we ought to live in a society that doesn’t disproportionately reward a certain interpretation of correct grammar, but we don’t. The question, then, is not should we teach grammar but how should we teach grammar.

In recent semesters I’ve concluded one effective way to teach grammar is to teach metaphor. The first unit of my course introduces Kenneth Burke’s four “master tropes” of language–metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, the latter three each a species of the first. Now, in most composition circles, it’s currently fashionable to critique the teaching of writing at the sentence level; I might be laughed at by serious compositionists for emphasizing such dull linguistic nuances and sentence level tropes as metaphor and irony instead of spending valuable class time on having students explore their identity or something similar through their writing. I happen to believe assignments dealing with personal identity can (but not always) institutionalize identities in a way that doesn’t sit well with me, but that’s a different story. The real resistance to sentence-level writing pedagogy is that people associate it with sentence diagramming and rote grammar drills, which, many claim (and some studies support), are ineffective strategies for teaching writing.

But while sentence diagramming and decontextualized and rote grammar drills do in fact fail to teach writing, we must not confuse the method of pedagogical delivery for its content. Which is to say: the problem with attention to the sentence level is not the sentence level content itself; it’s the way we present the sentence level content. A big part of teaching writing, I’ve learned, is changing students’ perception of what writing and language is and does in the first place, an undoing of the view of language as solely grammatical, a product of the rote grammar exercises that programs us to think of language as merely a set of rules to feverishly follow. Coming at the sentence level from a different angle then–that of metaphor broadly and its various species, metonymy, synecdoche, irony–can help students re-think the content of the sentence level in productive, and, more importantly, novel ways. Language becomes less of a system of rules to anxiously follow and more of a vast toolbox for helping you describe and externalize some feeling inside you. Language becomes fun. Not to mention, teaching language as metaphorical, rather than simply “grammatical,” is a lot more intuitive to students. 

To be sure, emphasizing language as metaphorical as opposed to grammatical doesn’t remove the rules of grammar, it just transforms them. Foregrounding writing as metaphorical actually gets at grammatical concepts through a backdoor. It reframes the rules so they’re less about prohibition and more about assisting. It’s like crushing up your medicine and sprinkling it in pudding. Making students write deliberately metaphorical prose forces them to make use of more sophisticated grammatical constructions without them even realizing it. For example, early in the semester I often assign them the task of writing an extended metaphor for attending college, and by asking them to not only describe a complex event (attending college) but in a metaphorical way, they’re forced to reach for new kinds of tools in the toolbox of language to help construct their metaphor. Whether the students are conscious of it or not, these new tools contain various grammatical complexities, which then filter out into their writing more generally. After they write, then we can chat about what kind of grammatical affectations are present, how changing them might change the sentence or the metaphor as a whole, and so on.

I think we often teach grammar with the hope that, if students just memorize all the rules then they can write beautiful and grammatically complex sentences. But the rules of grammar are unintuitive, endless, and inherently restrictive (they are in fact rules.) Meanwhile, metaphors are generative. They’re not prohibitions, but sparks, suggestions. What’s more likely to enable you to write complex sentences, memorizing a bunch of rules or playing a game?

It’s not a perfect system and I’m still tweaking it, but it’s been a good move for me, and it helps resolve some of the anxieties I have about teaching grammar in Freshman Composition.

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