Update: The Rutgers Grammar Letter. What’s Going On Here?

Yesterday, I wrote about  Rebecca Walkowitz, the English Department chair at Rutgers University, sending  an email to the Rutgers community titled “Department actions in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.” In order to “contribute to the eradication of systemic inequities facing black, indigenous, and people of color,” she announced, the English Department will begin “incorporating ‘critical grammar’ into our pedagogy.” “Critical grammar” pedagogy “challenges the familiar dogma that writing instruction should limit emphasis on grammar/sentence-level issues so as to not put students from multilingual, non-standard ‘academic’ English backgrounds at a disadvantage,” her email states. “Instead, it encourages students to develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them w/ regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on ‘written’ accents.”

This, I concluded, was one more example of the solution to “systemic racism” being rammed down our metaphorical throats by the World’s Woke consisting of removing any standards that any segment of black America found the lest bit inconvenient or challenging—you know, like competing for jobs, SAT scores and having to obey lawful directives from police officers. I wasn’t the only one, though the report on this initiative came from the College Fix, a conservative site that reports on the leftist nonsense in our institutions of higher learning. There has been literally nothing about this episode in the mainstream news media. The New York Post—but that’s a Murdoch publication, so thus presumptively eeeevildid have a brief editorial note about the matter:

“….Rebecca Walkowitz, vowed to incorporate “ ‘critical grammar’ into our pedagogy,” which will challenge “the familiar dogma that writing instruction should limit emphasis on grammar/sentence-level issues,” so as not to put students with poor “academic” English backgrounds “at a disadvantage.” Another goal: “decolonizing the Writing Center.” How does lowering standards serve justice? Executive dean Peter March and spokeswoman Dory Devlin didn’t respond to request[s] for comment.”

Two esteemed Ethics Alarms readers, however, argued that I, as well as the College Fix and others, got her intent backwards. Heeere’s commenter Here’s Johnny (emphasis mine):

[I]n saying “Critical grammar pedagogy challenges the familiar dogma”, they are doing the right thing. The familiar dogma being challenged is that proper grammar is not important. That dogma came into play to cut some slack to students whose grammar was not perfect, for cultural, or native language, or other reasons. In challenging that dogma, Rutgers is saying that the phrasing of a message must be looked at critically. It may be that slang, or cultural ways of speaking are appropriate, or it may be that standard grammar is necessary. Students must know the difference and use what is right for the message and the audience.

Now I’m completely flummoxed. That would be beneficial to black students, but it is definitely not the kind of change I am seeing being advocated in academia and elsewhere “in solidarity with Blcal Lives Matter”, where demands that black students be graded more leniently than white students, for example, are being received as legitimate remedies. This is Bizarro World territory. In a sane and logical environment, Here’s Johnny’s interpretation would be a salutary measure that would benefit blacks, but not by the prevailing logic of the George Floyd Freakout. Was I, like the College Fix and others, being led by confirmation bias, and interpreting a benign and reasonable Rutgers policy as the opposite of what it was because of a bias against progressive academia?

Over at Medium, Hank Kalet (“Poet, professor & longtime newsman, who covers economic & other issues for NJ Spotlight and other publications.”) argues that Rutgers is getting a bad rap from conservatives:

The College Fix piece presents the plan as part of a process of a “decolonization,” using language common on Fox News and conservative websites, and describing it as “an effort to deemphasize traditional grammar rules.” On Fox, one former professor claimed that the changes, in particular efforts to de emphasize grammar, would hurt minority students, following through on a narrative pushed by the conservative spin machine.

The problem is that this narrative is false. It’s based on a distortion and has little to do with what the Rutgers English Department is doing, which is building on a longstanding effort to include more texts from marginalized groups, providing workshops on anti-racist teaching practices, and supporting black and brown faculty and students through mentorships and other arrangements.

The grammar distortion, unfortunately, is the one that is doing the most damage. It stems from a single paragraph — one part of a three-part initiative that will be undertaken by the graduate program. Parts one and two discuss proving workshops and focusing on graduate student life, while the third, the offending one, talks about “Incorporating ‘critical grammar’ into our pedagogy.”

“This approach challenges the familiar dogma that writing instruction should limit emphasis on grammar/sentence-level issues so as to not put students from multilingual, non-standard “academic” English backgrounds at a disadvantage. Instead, it encourages students to develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them w/ regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on “written” accents.”

This passage should be clear to anyone who takes the time to read what is written. The “familiar dogma” here is the problem. It assumes that students from multilingual backgrounds will be harmed by a focus on grammar at the expense of broader writing issues. This dogma can leave students without the strong, sentence-level foundation they need to write well. What Rutgers is proposing — and what the letter clearly says — is a shift; it is not proposing to de-emphasize grammar, but to encourage “critical awareness,” or an understanding of the history and development of English grammar, how it works, and the potential impacts of the choices made in the writing process. Rather than lowering the bar, as the critics claim, the department is raising it.

I reached out to the chair of the department, Rebecca Walkowitz, who told me via email that

“the effort will result in “more attention to grammar in the aggregate, not less. Our standards remain rigorous and high, and our goal is to help students succeed in academic writing and other writing genres.”

I will be thrilled to discover that my interpretation of the letter, and that of others, was wrong, and that Rutgers will address “systemic racism” by teaching black students that if they continue to use “Ebonics” in business and networking, they will be responsible for their own failures that follow. But is that really what’s going on?

  • What Hank Kalet keeps saying is “clear” is clear as mud. The paragraph in question is  Authentic Frontier Gibberish.  Don’t tell me “This passage should be clear to anyone who takes the time to read what is written.” Bullshit. I’ve read it ten times. I’m a lawyer. Language is my business. I still don’t know what the hell it means, and if I need a translator, the passage is incompetent and useless.
  • Rebecca Walkowitz’s email to Kalet is still ambiguous. “Push against biases based on “written” accents” implies defying those “biases.” If Rutgers regards standards that reject non-standard grammar as biases, what exactly are the “rigorous standards” that she says will  direct “more attention to grammar in the aggregate, not less.” What does “attention” mean?
  • How is a department run by someone who can’t even write a coherent email—even if it’s somehow “clear” to Hank–teach anyone how to write or speak?
  • Why didn’t Rutgers and Walkowitz respond to College Fix’s request for a comment? If the Fix was  wrong, why didn’t she correct them? Instead, she chose to answer an inquiry from a Medium blogger—a friendly one, being African American—who has less than 250 followers. Why would she do that?
  • This would be a lot easier if the mainstream media didn’t have a habit of ignoring stories it doesn’t think advances the cause, while pointing to conservative news media bias to discredit any legitimate story it doesn’t want the public to know about. That’s why I can’t be certain “what’s going on”…at Rutgers, or in the reporting of its grammar policies.

Hank Kalet ends his piece with this slap at “conservative media”:

What this episode demonstrates is how utterly bankrupt conservative media is and how inept we have become as news readers in judging the content we see online. The College Fix story was poorly sourced: It was based on a single link and included a nod to reaching out to Rutgers, though it is unclear how serious that effort was. It distorted the language in the letter itself, which then influenced many readers to engage in the same kind of misreading. And, finally, it went viral because it confirmed the biases of a specific cohort of readers — not just conservatives, but liberals and moderates who have made it their mission to knock the “woke left.”

Well, that makes me suspicious of Hank. The College Fix story wasn’t “poorly sourced.” Its conclusions were based on the exact section Kalet quoted and absurdly said was “clear.” College Fix has a good record of requesting comments and clarification from the individuals in their stories: Hank’s doubts on that score are unfair. The letter itself was distorted…filled with jargon and ambiguities with meanings that still aren’t sufficiently apparent. What, for example, is “critical grammar’?

Ethics Alarms will gladly post a retraction of my original post, once  I see real evidence that Rutgers is planning to emphasize correct grammar in order to help black students succeed in a systemically racist world, which would indeed make sense, except in the cracked logic of George Floyd Freakout World, where I assume Rutgers dwells in splendor.

 

16 thoughts on “Update: The Rutgers Grammar Letter. What’s Going On Here?

  1. That’s definitely not how I read it. I read it that they’re going to accept different grammar rules and styles and not mark these as “errors”

  2. The original letter is gobbledygook. It means exactly what any reasonable person would think it means. This is just another example of It Isn’t What It Is.

  3. And now I’m having 2nd, 3rd, and 4th thoughts about just what the hell Walkowitz is saying.
    Take this phrase: “… develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them w/ regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on “written” accents.”
    I don’t know what biases based on written accents are, but I suspect that they are biases in favor of standard grammar, spelling and word usage. Pushing against those biases, then, is pushing against standard grammar, spelling, and usage. Thus, “awareness of the variety of choices available to them” could simply mean the ways they can tell strict grammarians to go to hell.

    • Today my dearly beloveds, I devote the following essay to Tom P. who is, in fact, a very very intelligent chimpanzee! 😉

      Johnny writes:

      Take this phrase: “… develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them w/ regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on “written” accents.” I don’t know what biases based on written accents are, but I suspect that they are biases in favor of standard grammar, spelling and word usage. Pushing against those biases, then, is pushing against standard grammar, spelling, and usage. Thus, “awareness of the variety of choices available to them” could simply mean the ways they can tell strict grammarians to go to hell.

      The point is to empower their students to recognize when language-use tendencies, or habits, or style, intrude into the written form. That is what they are calling ‘accents’. I suggest that this is a Marxian-inspired assault and just one more manifestation of it in our utterly strange present . . .

      Take for example how Indian people (the Indian subcontinent) use certain grammatical conventions. “I am thinking that perhaps today I will go to the supermarket’. ‘I am thinking’ places it in a special grammatical time frame and it is, I guess, a translation from a common usage in their own language, perhaps Hindi or Bengali.

      Have you listened to a Jamaican speak Jamaican English? Though the official language of Jamaica is English, and an English acrolect is closest to a standard prestige language, especially in a country in which creole is spoken and most common, there is a Jamaican patois or basilect that is remote from the standard, prestige usage of the dominant culture.

      [Basi- refers to what is lower and basic. Acri- refers to the height.]

      I would suggest that here again we can see the intrusion of what are essentially Marxist categories and the Marxian awareness of class differences.

      The people in the lower rungs of society do not and cannot ‘speak properly’ for a group of different reasons. Not the least being that their use of English is rudimentary and unsophisticated. The slaves brought to Jamaica may have spoken Akan or Igbo or Wolof for example. But the masters of the plantations spoke English and were mostly of a somewhat *upper* class.

      Pidgin English is a unique form and can be understood as a mesolect: a language or if you will an *accent* that stands between a patois and ‘proper English’. [Meso- = middle].

      It should not be hard to recognize the political dimension that is being interjected into language-studies. If the acrolects are those of a ruling and dominating culture, and basilects the language-usage of the conquered and the abused — those subject to a will not their own — then when those people *recover their power* they will choose to value and to elevate their own usages as-against the usages of those with determining and deciding power.

      A ‘grammar’ is far more important and fundamental than meets the eye. A given grammar is an entire rational structure that is expressed through the laws of language. Grammar is studied and its rules practiced and internalized in a way similar to that of the study of geometry. It is order and discipline. Cardinal Newman wrote a book called The Grammar of Assent. Christian apologetics of course, but the title is telling. In order to ‘agree’ you have to follow the logic of the argument. But if you do not have the grammatical base you will not be able to ‘assent’.

      What we are seeing rising around us is not only a social revolution of the lower and oppressed classes, but as well an assault on *meaning* and *value*. I do not tire of explaining to my many students here, as I write from the loft height in acrophilic pronouncements, that the ‘anti-whiteness movement’ will eventuate in the former slaves chopping you to bits in your beds . . . But in the meantime we witness the *intrusion* as it were of the lower element into the mesosphere of the ‘commons’.

      This all has to do, of course, with the Dumbing-Down which brother Steve Witherspoon talked about once. Dumbing-down is a destruction of rules of order, if you will. It is a breakdown in that order and reasonability required to have ‘understanding’ and ‘assent’. Knowledge in our Occidental cultures really derives from Greek categories, and these are Aristotelian and perhaps I can say Euclidian. Our entire system — the way we see, how we assign and appreciate values, everything! — arises out of an intellectual and also a spiritual ‘grammar’.

      If you have followed me this far you will know what comes next. The assault on ‘whiteness’ is an assault on ‘European categories’. In a sense you can see the assault as a veritable violence. A rebellion of the abused and determined masses against ‘structural authority’. But do not fail to grasp what this portends for you — you in the sense of your progeny, your glorious and beautiful children.

      The grammars of pidgin comprehension have penetrated very deeply already. We have been infused and interpenetrated by these derelict grammars.

      Yet, it cannot be said — not by any degree — that there is not a great deal of creativity and also power in pidgin forms of expression. Take for example Big Youth (who is really a very amazing character, a warm and wonderful person).

    • There is a relationship between the ‘decolonization movement’ and the assault on *European categories*. It should be clear that when a suppressed or oppressed people do come into their power that they will, rather naturally, attempt to deal with the fact of their oppression. It is a power-system that came to bear on them and which imposed its will on them. That is why I speak of being forced to ‘serve in the empire of the white man’s will’. It is a very crucial point that must be understood in order to understand, in more depth, what is going on in our present. In America certainly, but in other places as well.

      Here is a South African university classroom where an oppressed African woman gives a dissertation on why European categories of science should be abandoned and a new basis established. One of the reasons one is not allowed to argue against her assertion is because she has invested herself in it. It is less a rational argument and more a personal, sentimental argument. To oppose her is to *violate* her right to her sovereign opinion.

      A similar thing goes in this Rutgers case.

      Here is the video:

  4. I’m still laughing at Kalet for saying this passage should be clear to anyone who takes the time to read it. Hah!

      • Pretty much what I learned as a summer clerk: If you say something at a hearing, the judge might believe it’s the case. If you put it in a written pleading, you chances of prevailing are doubled. If you cite a case for what you’re saying, regardless of what the case holds, you’re pretty much home free.

  5. I have decided that
    “… develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them w/ regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on “written” accents.”
    is sufficiently ambiguous that Rutgers will be offering extended courses teaching umlauts and diaeresis.

  6. My brain hurts reading all this…remember when Al Gore made a push for simplifying the bureaucratic language in the Federal govt? Never worked, but it far past time to make the effort in academia.

  7. My greatest teacher in the art of writing was my 7th grade English teacher, Charles Thomas. He stressed that when writing or speaking, the purpose is to communicate. Effective communication occurs when the receiver understands the message. He stressed the following principles of effective communication.

    Communications should be clear, concise, and to the point. People tune out people who ramble or use imprecise words or jargon. The message, regardless of its merits, is lost. President Obama was a master at obfuscation, often taking multiple minutes to answer a simple question and then not answering it.

    While specific words have a specific meaning, try not to use $25 words when $5 words will do.

    After writing a draft, simplify, simplify, simplify. Know thyself vs. To thine known self be true.

    When writing to persuade, use ‘purr’ words, not ‘snarl’ words; a term coined by S.I. Hayakawa. Word selection is very important. Snarl words cause people to respond negatively thus diminishing their receptiveness to your message.

    The English Department chair at Rutgers University, Rebecca Walkowitz’s, I fear would not have fared well in Mr. Thomas’s class.

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