Shaughnessy’s Errors & Expectations

Shaughnessy’s 1977 magnum opus on basic writers is a difficult read, but it’s one of the best books on the nitty-gritty of composition I’ve read so far. For some reason I feel a lot more compassion for my students now after reading E&E. It’s hard not to feel like I’ve been relatively merciless before now. I have been in a steady migration toward a more laissez-faire, encouraging model of teaching that assumes I am at fault and not them; E&E is a shove in the same direction.

I like the formal division between BWs, intermediate, and advanced, and I particularly like how she points out that the ‘advanced’ students have their own serious set of errors to overcome. I wish I had read chapters 6 and 7 (along with a host of other works) before I’d written that CE paper, also. It would have been a good example of a book that leaned on Christenson’s levels of generality but never really looks at the paragraph completely, only as lying in a vague territory called ‘beyond the sentence’.

Her mixing of thoughtful, authoritative ‘70esque prose (which dances to and fro around the chapter topics in a typewriter’s brand of waltz, with a good command of metaphor) and endless student examples (in nearly a 50/50 mix) is difficult to argue with. It’s rare that I read a book without disagreeing with it on some major point; Shaughnessy is an exception.

Historically speaking, I suppose this text was a revelation to many concerning some of the problems facing basic writers and how to teach them – in particular, minority students, though Shaughnessy does not dwell on this overly and instead, rightly, I think, concentrates on the universality of the errors.

Of course, I’m fond of her take on summarizing, as she states it is the most practical form students can practice, though it is buried in a later chapter.

Her take on grammar is thankfully missing a lot of the modern-day emphasis on questionable empirical data suggesting grammar at the college level is a waste of time. Some students can improve in a semester, she says, and this is measurable, though not always in numbers; and there is no magical Method that will produce this. In this sense, the book is an exhaustive manual of the problems inherent in teaching composition. I’ll read it again, and probably again and again.

I was struck how she dabbles in templates, which we’ve been encouraged at the UoM to introduce in 1010 through Graff and Birkenstein’s recent They Say I Say. At the same time, though, she confesses some misgivings about imitation being product and not process-oriented – a fear I had last semester. Now I’m less uncomfortable with the notion.

I confess myself to enjoying books that employ old-school footnotes such as hers, though she does not use many; I just bought a copy of the first volume of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall as the library’s best copy with his footnotes in their original form was bound too tightly to read. Connors was right. Gibbon can write beautiful footnotes like lesser folk such as myself write lowly articles. More on him after the few years it will take me to read the damn thing.

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